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David kicks Goliath's ass: how we can beat big oil

Well, well, well. Who woulda thunk it? Goliath went down hard.

Goliath, in his latest incarnation as California utility leviathan Pacific Gas & Electric, took to the field armed with all the weapons 45 million dollars can buy against…a pair of tiny websites and a tall red-haired dude with a busted video camera. And got his ass handed to him.

At stake was, well, California’s—and perhaps the nation’s—renewable energy future.
Proposition 16, which PG&E framed as the “Taxpayers Right to Vote Act" sought a constitutional amendment that would “impose a new two-thirds vote approval requirement for local public electricity providers.” Of course, this was utter nonsense. Some would even say*gasp* total bullshit. It was really about keeping the public from any provider other than PG&E. Even other utility companies, in a lawsuit aimed at stopping this nonsense asserted that the initiative was an effort by PGE "to lock in its monopoly in its existing territories."
 
 And guess who fell HARD? Despite a spending advantage of 45 million to…let me do the math….carry the one….18, 24…..thirty. Yeah, the most visible opponent of PG&E over the final days spent thirty bucks. Final tally? YES 48. NO 52. Hey, PG&E executives, every time you see a tall tree standing strong, or a windmill slowly churning above the waters off the coast of Northern California, think of it as a giant middle finger salute from the people of California, whose money you spent trying to con them. And if you don’t get outside much, because you’re busy ‘sequestering’ in the belly of a coal mine or licking your wounds in the bowels of a leaking nuclear cauldron, fear not. I’m happy to send you a picture of my right hand. Just let me know what resolution and file format you prefer.
 
So what did we learn? A few things, off the top of my head:
 
Money Don’t Matter 2Night: You Can’t Buy Facebook Friends
Obscure Prince reference aside, it’s true. Tens of millions of dollars didn’t get it done. The days of outspending the opposition as a win lock may be over. Social media levels the playing field (for now). While Goliath was weighed down by solid gold boxing gloves and unable to throw a punch, its opponent got in some nasty mixed martial arts-style takedowns before administering a very public choke out. PG&E’s traditional voter outreach program counted on money to buy votes. But the opposition can reach more people, more directly, at practically zero cost. As an example, I sent out a personal plea to my 1,971 (yes, I’m a bit of a networking whore) Facebook friends to vote against Proposition 16. Along with my urgings, I included links to an independent analysis; and a good number of these friends passed this along. I can, all by my lonesome, directly touch tens or hundreds of thousands of voters. So can you. The key here is “directly”. The real political power of social media is that, for right or wrong, people feel like online friends are ‘real’ friends. We trust our online peers far more than we do ad campaigns penned by strangers. And so even though the largest NO on 16 Facebook group numbers less than 4000, it’s big enough to bloody Goliath’s nose. 
 
Nobody Likes Naked Old Men
I can hear the protesting howls of naked old women, so let me amend this to, “most people don’t like naked old men”. Why PG&E’s pasty and withered executives didn’t put a robe on is beyond me. Instead, they hoisted their ambition like a urologist at a nude beach. Awkward, I know. As the only supporter of Proposition 16, PG&E couldn’t hide behind anything at all, nor did they seem to want to. Their feeble attempt at cover was a group called the “Coalition for Green Jobs” that, uh, doesn’t exist. Memo to PG&E: When the ugly naked guy stands behind the invisible man, the whole world can still see his business.
 
Guess What? Citizens are Smart
I’m surprised as much as the next elitist progressive eco-activist. It would appear that, despite its horrific public school system and years of watching “Sex and the City,” the California citizenry can still read, write and perform simple arithmetic. Not only that, but conservative Californians can see through attempts to play off their Constitutionalist leanings and these days appear to resent big business just as much as Big Brother. [Speaking of the U.S. Constitution, can Dems and Repubs please realize this document is what most closely connects us? With Presidents Bush shredding it and President Obama refusing to mend it, can we expect anything but the incredible polarization that is tearing us apart? We need that deeply flawed piece of human creative genius to hold us together.]
 
Polar Bears + Weatherization = Polarization
Take some pics of drowning polar bears, add a dollop of talk about humanity-induced global warming and you get a guilt stew that half the population sups of gladly and the other refuses to taste. Democrats and Republicans no longer sit at the same table. Hell, they don’t even go to the same restaurants. And this really helps dent a multi-million dollar campaign. No matter what the issue, half the population, half the pundits, half the media is knee-jerk for and against it. Only a small handful  remains to be convinced. This plays in favor of guerilla campaigns who, while they can’t afford to carpet bomb, excel at micro-targeting.
 
A confession: I predicted PG&E would win this 60/40. They ran what seemed to be the perfect campaign: Lots of money. Low turnout/high conservative election. Perfectly pitched propaganda in a time of economic hardship. I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong.
 
Goliath may be down, but he’s far from out. You can be certain that PG&E and other power companies with monopolistic ambitions will retune their demon fiddles and play on in different venues all across the country. They’ll take advantage of poorly drawn battle lines, economic desperation and the friction between progressive idealists and NIMBY elites. They’ll finally master social media and erase that advantage. Meaning we’ll have to come up with new ones. Big business everywhere will closely study this campaign. Big Ag. Big Pharma. Big Coal. Most certainly Big Oil. We have to learn what we did right. They most certainly will.
 
 

(David and Goliath by Arthur Kampf, Oil on wood board, 28" X 40", 1905-1915)

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