This guide to grassroots activism was written by Elizabeth May when she was Executive Director of Sierra Club of Canada, before she became leader of the Green Party of Canada. At that time she travelled the country helping local activists organize campaigns to protect things in their communities. Worried about aerial pesticide spray on the fields outside town? Think that hydro-electric dam construction is going to hurt the local fishing economy? Concerned about cancer rates connected to the old industrial plant? How to Save the World in Your Spare Time is like a visit from a professional rabble-rouser, giving advice on attracting supporters, running meetings, reaching consensus, publicising your concerns and negotiating lasting change.
The tag-line on the back of the book shouts, “Got five minutes? You can save the world!” which gives the impression that May will offer tips for meaningful, easy ways to solve the world’s problems. She won’t. Unfortunately you can’t save the world in five minutes. But it’s still useful to hear an experienced activist run through the mundane details of organizing communities. I appreciated May’s opinions about running meetings, from nerdy knowledge of motions and majority rule to deep thoughts about building consensus.
“Let the discussion make its way around the issue. Let it double-back and find new perspective. Let everyone offer their opinions. Never force a result. Trust in letting a good decision rise to the surface. When it does, watch to see the opinions congeal around it.”
It’s the perfect description of the Miriam Toews novel Women Talking where Mennonite women with no political experience meet to discuss the danger in their community. They circle their great crisis, stray off-topic, roll their eyes, and somehow congeal around a scary path forward. May’s firm faith in patient consensus is inspiring, particularly from someone with enough power to steamroll minority opinions.
Not having a specific cause to fight, How to Save the World in Your Spare Time isn’t particularly relevant. It’s a book for people facing a goliath who could use advice from an elder: to organize a letter-writing campaign, circulate a petition, hold a press conference, or negotiate with politicians. It’s a nuts-and-bolts resource, better used as a reference than light reading. Still, there are fun anecdotes from May’s life as an activist, including her first nervous televised debate at the age of twenty-three.
The phrase “save the world in your spare time” makes it sound easy, and it’s not. But it is basic. It really is as simple as connecting with other humans. Connecting with like-minded neighbours to get your movement off the ground, connecting with journalists to spread your ideas, connecting with corporations and politicians to communicate demands. And May’s ideas will give you a leg-up, whether you’re hoping to quiet traffic on Saturday mornings, or want to fight climate change.