Holistic local sustainability; food, water, energy, money, people

EarthTrust & DJ White

Of unsung heroes and strategies…

EarthTrust was set up by DJ White back in 1976.

You’ve probably never heard of DJ and his partner Susie. That’s because apart from being an introvert and using stand-ins as spokesperson, in his environment advocacy, he skips the “deadlock” phase of conflict and protest to where connectivity and constituencies are built. In other words, by avoiding drama and notoriety, his successes have been monumental, under the radar and therefore ironically non-fundable.

“The best way to change an issue is to anticipate it and intervene before it has a chance to become permanently deadlocked”, he says. He compares two very different campaigns, by way of illustration – Japan and Taiwan’s dolphin drive-kills.

The Japan dolphin drive kill was protested in various standard ways beginning in the 70’s and it’s still going strong in 2023, because it has become a point of national pride for Japan not to give in. And those who protest it wish to punish Japan in some way. Thus, for over 40 years, it has been an open wound around which funds are raised, movies are produced, and bile is vented, and we’re now farther from it being ever stopped than we were in 1979. That is, it’s a success in standard activist terms, because now most people know about it, and many are crusading constantly against it. Its gruesome imagery will always get it airtime. It could have provided DJ with an entire career, not accomplishing much but keeping himself funded, getting an international following, improving his status and that of affiliated groups, etc. Such a deadlock pulls emotions, money, memberships, funders, recognition, status, etc.

Having seen that dynamic – in that situation and countless others – he avoids it. Instead, his team was the first with the documentation at another large national dolphin drive-kill, in Taiwan. Rather than become more famous and go for millions of bucks to make Taiwan a pariah nation over it, EarthTrust very quickly – several weeks – halted the kill with a confusing influx of concerned veterinarians and friendly foreigners talking about how valuable these dolphins were; and instead screened the horrific footage for Taiwan’s executive yuan, inviting them to write the end of the story with them rather than going down the path of Japan and western protest groups. “We did not identify ourselves as a protest group at all, but as dolphin experts who sought to advise them. Within that 3 weeks, Taiwan permanently changed its laws to disallow such kills and we praised and celebrated them, gave awards to the townspeople, and began training their local schools about dolphins, having pulled support from the Buddhist community. When the remaining dolphins in the net from the slaughter were released, it was a festive thing with two senators from the Exec Yuan helping them out of the nets, and flag-covered boats celebrating Taiwan’s first dolphin release. The entire thing is remembered fondly locally, and no kills have occurred since 1990.”

“But the problem with that is that we had to dig deep into our personal pockets to do it”, says DJ, “At the point it emerged as an issue, there was very little time to get it done right, literally a matter of days. The issue never became famous, and nobody but the exec yuan ever saw the horrible footage because I actually keep my word about things like that; the only copies are in storage at this point. We tried to recoup some of our costs through donors, but made exactly zero because the issue was already decisively won, so why should they give to it? They didn’t have the gruesome images, just some text on a page. There was no outraged constituency, there was just a win. Funders are attracted to large gridlocked issues and confrontational tactics, and individual donors even moreso.”

I heard about DJ on Nate Hagen’s The Great Simplification Podcast episode, “Ocean Effectivism“. I had the privilege of corresponding with him after the episode aired, and dearly wanted to share the core story of his effective approach. It reminded me of my retrospective on the US Civil War and dissolving the culture wars around race. I am honored to have his permission to share his story and powerful strategies.

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This entry was posted on March 24, 2023 by .
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