Reflecting on Copenhagen: Activism is Dead. Long Live Activism!
I’m on a plane, high in the sky above the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Paris and San Francisco. The amazing magic of flight is something that I’ll never take for granted. My children may well marvel that I was fortunate enough to be able to explore the world this way. At their expense, of course. Given how rare these jet-fueled globe-hops are going to become, it’s worth mentioning the flight despite the fact that starting any piece with, “I’m on a plane somewhere over…” is a wholly unoriginal assault on good literary form. I return home from the climate summit in Copenhagen weary, a touch depressed, and wholly rededicated to the tasks at hand.
By now, you’ve likely heard conflicting reports on what was or was not accomplished in Copenhagen these past two weeks. Whatever you’ve been told, I can tell you with conviction you need only know this: The U.N. convention on climate change in Copenhagen resulted in zero meaningful progress on global emissions reductions. Feel free to read the spin, but please, don’t get caught up in its spokes. There was no groundwork laid, no small but important steps taken. Whoever tells you different is selling something.
So how is it that I’m rededicated, when my entire trip was for naught? Two reasons. First of all, with nothing achieved, my work is perfectly defined. Thank you, Barack Obama, for flying 8,000 miles to help provide me with airtight focus. While I respect the difficulties of your position, I won’t be calling you “President” until you start acting like a leader. Which brings me to my Big Takeaway from Copenhagen: The inspiring new leadership that gathered to fill the void. People like Jason Mogus, Beka Economopoulos and Ben Margolis of TckTckTck, Avaaz’ Ricken Patel and 350.org’s May Boeve and Jamie Henn. These are just a few of the faces of the movement I had the chance to meet, watch, and learn from. Where once we had only the well intentioned but polarizing Al Gore, we now have a growing crop of activists whose ideas and charisma not only eclipse those of the former President, but are, vitally, largely free of two-party taint.
Of course, no mention of courageous leadership at COP15 can omit 350.org’s founder Bill McKibben. The man gave every ounce of his energy to the failed summit. Bill, if you’re reading this: We need your strength. Take a damn vacation, already. You can trust your capable generals.
In Copenhagen, many of us came together and met in person for the first time to unite our respective organizations into a stronger, more unified front. Our opposition has for years outmaneuvered us through well-planned collaborations (“Climate Gate” is one recent example). This damning but insightful article clearly articulates this and outlines our challenge: “No One is Going to Save You Fools”. If you haven’t read it, and have interest in the intricate machining of mass delusion, I highly recommend taking the time. Many of us have read it and owe the author a debt of gratitude. We have resolved to never again be so easily outflanked. I’m hopeful that these informal conversations over food and drinks in bars and hotel rooms in Copenhagen will mark a significant turning point. When we assess COP15 in the future, the long lines, the NGO access revocation, and even the first world’s refusal to act will be of secondary importance next to the formation of a “cabal of fools,” if you will, who finally took it upon themselves to fight with the cunning and fury required of a mission as epic as maintaining the habitability of a planet.
The Old Guard Crumbles
Remember MoveOn.org? For about six months nearly a decade ago, it really mattered. It lives on, but as a part of the machinery it once railed against. More mature organizations, like the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund, once served a truly radical purpose, but those days are years behind, their ranks and coffers swelled by members whose centrist positions, while absolutely reflective of the U.S. constituency, keep these NGOs from taking all but the most measured steps. Where they once fought with spirit and youthful passion, they now bring the might and weight of millions-strong memberships. Given that momentum equals mass times acceleration, they still pack quite a wallop, but possess very little speed. And while the George Foremans of the world are to be respected, they’re built for protracted battles, not for the type of “win-now-or-die” fight we have on our hands. Too, their dedication to self-preservation seems to outweigh a commitment to world saving. This was evidenced quite clearly by the rapidity with which they fell all over themselves to kiss Obama’s cheeks. Check out this extreme pucker job by Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. Afraid of losing funding, Carl? You either threw up in your mouth a few times writing this, or somewhere along the way you lost your soul. A notable exception to this corporate NGO betrayal is Greenpeace, which continues to scream truth to power.
Next Step: Make it Personal
As an armchair activist, one who needn’t be concerned with pragmatism or implementation, here’s what I’d do: I would make it personal. I’d prove to every last U.S. politician that a burning planet is a top priority by organizing daily gatherings outside every one of their homes; from the smallest towns to Washington, DC. I’d weld the aggressive tactics of Eugene Debs, the Wobblies and early union agitators with the enormous, activated networks built by 350, TckTckTck and Avaaz. U.S. politicians can’t be blamed for not getting behind powerful climate legislation. For all the activism to date, little of it has been focused on showing elected officials we mean business. We can do this by moving the fight to where these politicians live and not leaving their front lawns until they get the message thousands of times over, hand-delivered by their neighbors, their children’s teachers, and their grocery clerks. Confronted by local resistance and faces they recognize, they will be moved to action. Can you picture it? Can you envision groups of relentless activists camped out all across the country? I can. I know the dedication is there. We need only provide the talking points and flip the switch.
I said “armchair activist” because I don’t work for an activist organization. The work of the Fellows at Post Carbon Institute is to provide practical, replicable solutions to the intertwined challenges created by climate change, resource scarcity and irresponsible economic policy. Whenever possible, the Institute seeks to actually test its ideas within the global network of Transition Town—communities who have taken it upon themselves to effect rapid change through relocalization efforts. Our work and the work of many other NGOs provide the meat of the activist’s message. The activists make sure people are paying attention. We help formulate the plan with which to achieve a sustainable, resilient world. To get anywhere at all, we’ll need to work with one another much more closely. And we’ll need to learn a new language.
The Right Way?
In the States, the climate change community really enjoys talking to itself. We’ve honed our talking points in endless online forums, through millions of pages of blog posts and Op Eds. When we spot one another’s words in the Huff Po, we’re both thrilled and jealous (admit it!). We’re hip to the lingo, we grok one another’s content at a glance.
In fact, we’ve elevated the art of preaching to the choir to the point that the feedback loops threatens to destabilize our platform. Because we’re so concerned with receiving affirmation, we rarely ever make an effort to talk with the rest of the country. Eyes narrowed as we look down our noses at over 100 million Americans, our perspective has become fatally warped. An activated minority can move the ball down the field, but we’ll need a strong majority to get it up the mountain.
I propose that, as we gather our forces and plot our post-COP15 strategy, we reassess what we have in common with the Conservative elements of our nation. Localized food and energy production, for example, square firmly with the bedrock Republican ideal of local decision-making. We can continue to broadcast small-scale farming as something invented by NorCal hippies and Williamsburg hipsters, or we can cast our nets more widely. Folks have been farming in their yards in Nebraska for over 200 years. Believe me, they understand local production. In fact, I’m certain we stand to learn more from them than they do from us.
Rather than dive into what is an awfully big topic, let me just say that I’m keenly interested in what others have to say about how to best lift the climate message over the fence. It’s what I aim to dedicate a fair amount of my energies toward in 2010 and beyond. If you’d mind sharing your thoughts, I invite you to connect with me either by email email@example.com, or call me at 707-823-8700 x105.
COP15 was a terrible blow, but not an unexpected one. Let’s not readjust our expectations downward. Instead, let’s go against the grain and call for a moon shot. We can go with Gore’s. Or we can get to 80% below 1990 levels by 2020. Or fund G77 efforts with a robust Tobin Tax while introducing a steady-state economy in the United States. Or all of the above!
Will any of these be easy? Or course not. But they are possible. And can you think of more rewarding endeavors to lend oneself to? If anyone can give me a single good reason to not go for it, I’ll hang up my spikes (this is an open challenge—I promise to answer every reason proffered). Until then, I’m going to push harder and louder for far more than ever before. The beautiful thing is that I don’t expect to be alone or even anywhere near the front of the line.