Back of America entered into a shitstorm of consumer complaints last year when they instituted a five dollar a month fee for debit card users. I’m not paying for that shit, responded probably all their customers. People began complaining on all the social media sites, including a relatively new site that promised to change the world — or at least change the way we advocate for social change.
Change.org takes all the internet’s outrage on a social, political or environmental issue and focuses it into one petition advocating for change. (Where before, all that energy might be dispersed over a bunch of different sites.) Users merely have to click once to sign the petition, contributing their voice to the online mob.
The petition against Bank of America gained over 300,000 thousand digital signatures before the bank dropped the fee. When Verizon tried to institute a two dollar online bill fee, the extra charge was quashed by a popular Change.org peition.
This wasn’t earth-altering change. But these results were interpreted as an example of what Change.org and other online petition sites could accomplish. It was a start, and if this could be replicated for substantive causes in more serious areas, like environmental activism.
It’s been a year since the controversy over Bank of America. What have online petitions accomplished.
Bayer, Bees and Online Petitions
The most popular environmental petition on Change.org is called EPA: Save Our Bees and the Food We Eat! Ban Bayer’s Chemicals Now! The petition attributes the precipitous drop in the world bee population to the use of neonicotinoid chemicals found in fertilizers. Bayer, the German chemical manufacturer that first discovered and sold aspirin (as well as heroin), is one of the biggest sellers of neonicotinoids, which is why they are the subject of the petition.
The petition began about a year ago, after reports published in publications like Mother Jones linked Bayer’s chemicals to the decline in the bee population. What has happened in the year since?
Not a whole lot.
Over 160 thousand people took time out of their days to click a button, but the EPA is no closer to banning Bayer’s chemicals than they were a year ago. Meanwhile, Bayer is recuperating its tarnished image re bees by driving across the US in a “beehicle” and educating people about the decline of bees. Bayer even sponsored a scientific conference about the decline of bees. It’s brilliant PR.
Not only has the Change.org petition likely not helped this issue — it may even have hurt it. This is the common critique of online petitions and so-called slacktivism: that it assuages the conscious of people when they click a button, forestalling action, because these people have already “done” something.
Will They Save the Environment?
To answer that question: No. Online petitions are no different from an offline petition; the web merely makes it easier to get signatures.
A petition is only one step in the process to effect environmental change, one tool in the toolbox. They don’t replace other, perhaps more effective ways to help the environment. Instead of asking Crayola to implement a recycling program for its markers, why don’t you organize one for your own community. Or try to organize a boycott.