About Impossible Missions

There are many bad situations whose solutions are considered impossible by conventional wisdom, but which may be solved with the right out-of-the-box approaches.

What are Impossible Missions?

The “impossible missions” we deal with aren’t strictly impossible. We’re not looking for a perpetual-motion machine, anti-gravity boots  or perfect enlightenment for all. Rather, there are many bad situations whose solutions are considered impossible by conventional wisdom, but which may be solved with the right out-of-the-box approaches.

That’s the sort of Impossible Mission we’re very good at. We’ve put some examples in “Case Histories” for you to check out. Of course, once you know something has been solved, it obviously seems possible, so bear in mind that ALL the examples we’ve mentioned there (and many others) were considered impossible by “the experts” at the time ET engaged with them.

What can we say? We’re the brain surgeons & rocket scientists of conservation intervention and advocacy, with something few other groups of any size will ever achieve: a track record of repeated large-scale victories when intervening in “impossible” situations, covering a range of disparate issue types and situations.

How is ET qualified do do Impossible Missions?

OK, so we’ve said we’re rocket scientists when it comes to effective activism. What does that even mean, and how much difference could there really be between ET and another good pro-environment organization?

Well, think about  the way environmental problems generally play out.

– After rumors fly for years that something somewhere is going on, there is suddenly an expose by a motivated person or organization.

– The issue moves to the next phase, in which groups try to make the wider world aware of the issue, and to present it in an effective way.

– As this happens, the people doing the environmental nastiness are alerted and push back. There are PR statements by both sides of the issue. The issue becomes polarized and antagonistic, with nationalist pride versus criticism.

– There may be calls for boycotts, threats, petitions, pressure campaigns.

– As the issue gets better known, dozens to hundreds of NGO’s join in and all raise funds from the public and from granting foundations to fix the problem. The proposed fix may be based in law, in treaty, in threats to the perpetrator’s economy.

– The perpetrator has also pushed back and made counter-threats and legal & treaty pushbacks. And we’ve just described the first 30 years of a standard environmental issue. It has burned through a ton of donor money but typically isn’t solved. It has reached a new stable state in which those opposed to the environmental nastiness are roughly holding their own against the efforts of the perpetrators.

There’s are many reasons things go this way, and many are beyond the scope of this commentary. But let’s touch on a few.

First of all, there is a pervasive belief – particularly among idealists –  that in general environmental problems are solved by the collective will of enlightened populations.  It’s a fun belief, but it just ain’t so. Attempts to achieve a critical mass of enlightenment in the general population to solve a specific problem really don’t work very well. (Hey, not that there’s anything wrong with it; after all, we’ve done award-winning educational and media campaigns and they’re great for what they are.)

So most time, effort, and money is generally thrown at PR campaigns which insert the issue into the general societal narrative as a footnote, and then they keep doing that and hoping to pass some invisible tipping point which results in a populist victory for their position. And this is pretty much the default strategy, despite the fact that it seldom works.

One of the reasons it usually plays out this way is that the skill-sets of those involved are typically pretty specialized and narrow. The sort of person who goes undercover to do an expose is seldom an expert in publicity, diplomacy, treaties or much else. The next stage of actors are good at publicity, but often not much else; and various groups may publicly disagree with one another over what the policy should even be. Soon there enough players involved that it’s not really practical to develop a tight strategy to do anything in particular, and in the meantime the subjects of the protest have pushed back, with a lot more unified front and frequently a good budget.

The way to actually change the world is to do it quickly and competently, with as few participants as possible.

(pause to be pelted with rotten tomatoes)

No, really. To get to a specific outcome in a complex adaptive system, and to leave it in a new stable state, you need to be able to work fast and in several dimensions at once. Once the issue is jarred out of stability, the opportunity to lock in a changed state has a very short shelf life. When possible, you don’t want to even start the issue rolling until you have the end game planned. Most intractable issues are intractable because they were irretrievably screwed up by well-meaning amateurs in the first week after they became public knowledge.

You really don’t want a hundred other groups piling on as allies during the brief window when critical moves can still be made, because large groups of independent entities aren’t any more efficient, shrewd or disciplined than a herd of cats.

What you need is a plan, and it needs to be designed by experienced people who are used to making real-world plans in complex situations. People used to operating in situations where if they make a mistake, people die. People versed in realpolitik, not narrative.

As you read the case histories, give some thought to how different these issues were handled by EarthTrust than what passes for normal.  We specialize in getting a problem situation into a target stable state as quickly as possible, involving as few actors as possible.  This isn’t easy, it takes intelligence, discipline, and simultaneous expertise in a number of fields. But it’s the way to change the world.

Is ET sneaky?

From time to time we have been told that it really isn’t appropriate to use any method other than enlightenment to try solving conservation and environmental isues.  That tightly-scripted plans with compartmentalized information and exact timing are by nature sneaky and machiavellian, distasteful, an affront to egalitarian principles.

But what it comes down to is, somebody really needs to do what works.  The world has a lot of pressing problems, and enlightenment is a very slow process. It’s an aspiration, not a plan.

We’ve made ourselves into Impossible Missions experts. We’d appreciate your support. And who knows, maybe you’ll bring us our next impossible mission….

PS: The “case histories” highlighted here are NOT current, they’re solved. Many of the coolest, funniest, scariest stories can’t be told yet, if ever.  It’s kinda the nature of ET’s style that we don’t always leave fingerprints, and lose bragging rights. The examples here in “case histories” are those which are already public knowledge and have cooled off enough to be used as examples with some backstory.