The Groups of Five
Edmonton, Alberta. November, 2013
It is quiet now on the suburban street where we live. The children are asleep; my husband, Ben, knows that I will be late to bed; and outside, it has started snowing again. Miguel, the Chilean student who lives with us, is staying out overnight with his girlfriend.
This is my time to compose my mind, and while Chopin's nocturnes make love to my soul, to write my letters. On the other side of the city, my friend Edith is doing the same, sharing a pledge of loyalty we made thirteen years ago. There were five of us then, at the beginning of the new millennium, and there are five of us today - although Edith and I are the only ones from the original group.
The Right Honourable Marie-Anne Roulleau,
Minister for Foreign Affairs,
House of Commons,
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6
I am writing to you from Edmonton, late on a snowy November night. I hope you are well. I want to share with you my hope that Canada will express its support for the motion that is coming before the United Nations People's Assembly next month, to endorse the proposed International Treaty for the Protection of the Earth's Aboriginal People. As you know........."
I always try to make my letters personal and to avoid sounding judgmental or angry - that was part of the agreement we made when we set up our Group of Five, all those years ago. There were so many things going wrong in the world at the time - it felt as if the planet's social and ecological cohesion was unravelling. We wanted to do something that would make a difference, that would enable us to feel better about the world that we were passing on to our children. And though I'm slightly ashamed to admit it, we wanted to do so without turning our lives upside down.
It was January 6th, 2000, when we first met and established our "Group of Five."
I was twenty-five years old at the time, and we saw the group as our birthday gift to the new millennium. It wasn't a spontaneous gesture of political activism. We had thought about it extensively, researching similar initiatives. There was Amnesty International, which used personal letter-writing campaigns to great effect to free political prisoners around the world. There was an organization called 20/20 Vision, which sent its members a monthly briefing on a social or environmental issue of importance, asking them to write a personal letter to the relevant minister. And there was an organization called RESULTS, which consisted of small groups of people working to eliminate world hunger, who wrote letters, submitted opinion pieces to the papers, and arranged one-to-one meetings with their politicians. By being polite, well-researched and very focused, they achieved some remarkable results - that's where they got their name.
We decided that whatever the issue we chose to focus on, we would follow seven principles : (1) we would research our subject material thoroughly, so that we were properly informed; (2) we would choose goals and objectives that were clear and achievable; (3) we would seek win-win solutions that would bring people together, not divide them; (4) we would build personal relationships with the people we wrote to; (5) we would use the letter columns and opinion pages of the world's newspapers and the Internet to share our ideas; (6) we would enroll supporters who would write e-mails for the causes we were fighting for; and (7) we would be kind to each other and remember to have fun. Marjorie called it the Fourth Law of Sustainability : "If it's not fun, it's not sustainable."
Our first goal was also our biggest : a Global Treaty on the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. It was unthinkable that as a global society, we should be building and maintaining nuclear weapons. If they were ever used, the subsequent nuclear winter would mean the probable death of all living things, except a few algae, and organisms that could survive in the dark. How could we even contemplate having such weapons ?
We knew there was a well-organized global movement pursuing the elimination of nuclear weapons, which made it easier to adopt as a cause. We decided that our best contribution would be to persuade Canada to adopt an active leadership role, making the treaty a key objective of Canadian foreign policy, and then working with other countries to get the treaty adopted and ratified by the United Nations.
We wrote to every Member of Parliament in Ottawa, and chose thirty-five who responded, including MPs from each political party. We then went to Ottawa to meet them and adopted seven each, writing to them each on a monthly basis, giving them the latest news.
It makes it sound so easy when I say it like that. Encouraged by their response, we used our personal connections to establish a second Group of Five in Winnipeg, who adopted another thirty-five MPs, bringing the total to seventy. Using e-mail, we kept abreast of global developments and developed ties with other groups that were campaigning for a treaty, such as the World Federalists, and Physicians for Global Survival. Meanwhile, we were quietly collecting the e-mail addresses of people who supported what we were doing.
When the issue came before cabinet for discussion, we organized a mass e-mailing to every minister, and submitted opinion pieces to most of Canada's newspapers, forwarding every article which appeared to our MPs. Afterwards, when the government had agreed to adopt the treaty as a major foreign policy objective, we took the time to write to each MP, thanking them personally for their efforts. We always made a point of treating the MPs as we would a friend - never as enemies. If there was one thing that was preventing people from achieving political results in those days, it was their hostility to their own leaders. The media were always looking for politicians to attack, which encouraged a cynical attitude.
Our next step was a big one, which we did not undertake lightly. We decided to organize Groups of Five in every country in the world - ordinary people, like us, who would adopt their members of parliament, congressmen and other representatives, and and feed them information, giving them the support they needed to advance the cause of a global treaty. We knew that the world's nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, India, Pakistan, China, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Britain and France) would be the biggest obstacles, but we couldn't let that stop us. It was our children and our grandchildren we were thinking of, not the complexities of the world's regional conflicts.
We could never have established those groups without the use of the Internet. Once we started asking, describing the limited nature of the commitment that the Groups of Five involved, people started picking up our request and bouncing it to friends and e-mail lists all over the world, translating it as they went. Within three months, we had Groups in a fifth of the world's nations, including all the major powers. The rest took longer. For some of the smaller nations such as Sierra Leone and Rwanda, where people were more preoccupied with survival than global activism, we never succeeded.
We encouraged each Group of Five to establish sufficient Groups in each country to make personal contact with a fifth of the federal or national politicians - enough to create a critical mass. In India, that meant establishing thirty Groups. Working through the Indian peace movement, they quickly met their target, but the Indian and Pakistani Groups had an additional challenge : they had to persuade their governments to start talking on a regular basis, and to make a commitment that neither would be the first to use nuclear weapons. Once that was in place, and once China had agreed to a similar commitment, it was easier to discuss eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Many of us worked overtime at that time, writing letters of support to the Indian, Pakistani, and Chinese politicians. Knowing their names and having their photos beside us made a difference, since they ceased to be an incomprehensible jumble of names and became individual people, doing their best to serve their countries.
The Global Treaty to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was finally signed in 2009, nine years after we joined the campaign. By then there were 525 Groups of Five in North America, pursuing a variety of goals, some global, some local. Today, in the world as a whole, there are over 7,000 Groups; I've long since stopped keeping track. It feels as if a global brain is developing in which we are the cells, and our many connections are the synapses.
In the wake of this success, we found ourselves being invited to speak at many luncheons, conferences and service clubs. It was the simplicity of our methods that attracted people. We were not experts; we were three ordinary women and two men who happened to have taken on a rather extraordinary task, and who were making progress by taking a manageable approach. The vision was big, but we moved one step at a time, in ways that felt comfortable. The Groups of Five appealed to people because they emphasized personal relationships. You were no longer an anonymous individual in the Canadian prairie or wherever. You were writing to someone you knew, building relationships which could change the world.
Wherever we spoke, we shared our seven basic principles and told people how easy it was to form a Group. With the Treaty achieved, we encouraged new Groups to choose their own goals and embark on new campaigns. It was the politics of the personal, and it worked.
It was the Groups of Five, working alongside groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, that persuaded the world's governments to introduce a global tax on the oceans and the atmosphere (the global commons), with the proceeds being used to police the oceans against overfishing and the illegal use of driftnets, and to reduce the global emission of greenhouse gases.
Similarly, it was Groups of Five that did the legwork and persuaded the world's politicians to endorse the Global Sustainable Trade and Environment Agreement (GSTEA), placing social and environmental protection ahead of simple profit, as a precondition of trade deals between nations. This was a huge campaign that ran into a wall of opposition from the big corporations, the very ones it was designed to control. The best gave us their encouragement and support, but the worst used all sorts of dirty tricks to try to stop the treaty.
The Groups kept on writing, however, feeding examples of corporate wrongdoing to their political representatives in countries all over the world. Month by month, they built a climate of opinion that was impossible to ignore, laying the political groundwork for the Treaty's eventual success. There were many other groups campaigning for the same goal, but the Groups of Five contributed a vital part.
In the last few years, our work has been enormously assisted by the arrival of the electronic tablets and Smart Radio. The tablets have taken over as the main source of news information, and the specialized news services have enabled us to reach millions of people who listed "global activism" or "environmental news" as an interest when they signed onto their news servers.
It has been the same with Smart Radio. My Internet-based Smart Radio searches the station-schedules for programs that interest me, and packages them into a personal listening schedule that suits my listening habits. It makes old-fashioned radio seem positively archaic. Smart Radio has been attracting some very specialized listeners, which has encouraged the radio stations to trade programs around the world using the internal radio currency they have set up, the frequency. Last year, we made a one-hour documentary program about our campaign for an International Treaty for the Protection of the Earth's Aboriginal People. It took us seven months to put together, but it cost us less than $1,000, and we were able to distribute it around the world through Green Radio International, which links progressive radio stations. Like the Internet, Smart Radio is a godsend for democratic activism.
The Internet has also been helpful in establishing the new concept of "democratic transparency," which encourages governments to share not just their press releases but also their actual deliberations, on the Internet, where everyone can follow them and join in. A few months ago, during our Aboriginal Treaty campaign, we discovered that the Brazilian government had established a committee that was quietly drafting new legislation to govern Brazil's indigenous tribes, which struggle to survive in what's left of the Amazon basin. By exposing this on the Brazilian Smart Radio stations, the Brazilian Groups of Five were able to force their government to open up the process, and involve the tribes in the negotiations. The tribes may seem to live in a very simple manner, but they've got all sorts of wind-up and solar-powered radios and computers these days. Taken together, the Internet, the electronic tablets, the Smart Radio stations and transparent government are having a tremendous influence on the deepening of democracy around the world.
The last five years have been amazing. Following a campaign started ten years ago by a Group of Five in Lincolnshire, England, the entire United Nations has been re-invigorated through the establishment of the People's Assembly. It is based in a different country every ten years, starting in Costa Rica, and has 1,300 delegates who have all been elected using proportional representation, including China, on the basis of one member for every five million people. With the world's population standing at seven billion, China has 320 seats, and India has 225. The United States has 72 seats and Canada has just 6, but we make our influence felt.
It's thrilling to see this happening, as one more step towards the evolution of a proper global democracy based on the values of sustainability, justice and peace. While we and thousands like us have been slowly persisting with our visions and commitments, the planet has been quietly awakening, blossoming into a new self-confidence. And we've only just begun.
The Groups of Five do not exist as such, but both RESULTS and 20/20 Vision do. I recommend Reclaiming our Democracy by Sam Harris (Camino Books, Philadelphia, 1994), a very inspiring book about the RESULTS movement, written by its founder, which explains their methods in detail. It was my personal book of the year in 1997. Like the electronic tablets, Smart Radio does not yet exist.
20/20 Vision (USA), 1828 Jefferson Place NW, Washington DC 20036 (202) 833-2020
20/20 Vision (Canada), #103, 2609 Westview Drive, North Vancouver, B.C. V7N 4N2 (604) 983-2525.
RESULTS (USA), 440 First St NW, #450, Washington DC 20001 (202) 783-7100. www.action.org email@example.com
RESULTS (Canada) Blaise Salmon, 1320 Bond St, Victoria B.C. V8S 1C4 (250) 384-1842 www.results-resultats.ca firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author
Guy Dauncey is an author, organizer and sustainable communities consultant who specializes in developing a positive vision of an environmentally sustainable future, and translating that vision into action. He is the author of Stormy Weather : 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, July 2001), and A Sustainable Energy Plan for the US (Earth Island Journal, August 2003). He is also the publisher of EcoNews (a monthly newsletter), co-founder of the Victoria Car-Share Cooperative, and a consultant in ecovillage and green building development. He lives in Victoria, on the west coast of Canada. His website is www.earthfuture.com
First published in Earthfuture: Stories from a Sustainable World. (New Society Publishers, 1999).