Ready for Yet Another Volcano Story?

Frankly, mine isn’t very exciting. I didn’t leap aboard a ferry, rack up an epic cab fare or hitchhike my way across a continent. Rather than join thousands of others in their mad, inventive efforts to beat the ash cloud by racing to Spain, I found my home by staying put and waiting for help to arrive, just like they teach you in Boy Scouts. Or, in my case, like I learned watching movies where people talked about learning this kind of thing in Boy Scouts.

Believe me, I was tempted, but when you’re traveling with your very pregnant (32 weeks) wife, you tend to do less risk taking. Instead, you turn yourself over to the hospitality of strangers and ponder the benefits of dual citizenship your looming child may well enjoy.

Facebook to the Rescue

Unable to help us get home, I decided to do the next best thing and try to help others through social networking. Rather than dirty my hands (how working class!) with actual physical exertion, I pecked at my keyboard and in minutes launched a Facebook group called “When Volcanoes Erupt: A Survival Guide for Stranded Travelers”. Within hours, the group was helping to connect 1000+ people with rides and lodging. Just as importantly, it acted as a relief valve, offering a place to publicly vent frustrations. I like to think it saved a few marriages, including my own.

Within three days of crafting the Facebook group, I gave 15 radio, print and television interviews, including three with CNN, BBC News, the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and USA Today. With the combined media coverage, and the CNN video clips of my wife Andrea and I running repeatedly, I reached millions of viewers, listeners and readers. I achieved, rather spectacularly, my goal of helping people with an online social network. All without…really doing anything.

The Undeserving (and Embarrassed) Media Whore

Does this success make me a social networking guru? Hell no. That would suggest I’m an early adopter of technological trends. Quite the opposite. I don’t own an iPhone. Or an Android. I play records and shoot Polaroids. I liked Tron, hated Avatar. And I can’t tell the visual difference between VHS and Blu-Ray. In fact, it’s laughable and sad that anyone paid attention to my effort. Haven’t we been Tweeting and ‘booking our global crises for two years now?

I’m actually shocked that something bigger, faster, better, more effective didn’t come along. Facebook pages and some clever hashtags, that’s all the geeks can bring? And it’s still newsworthy? Where was the GPS-aided text messaging network, the ‘global override’ of phone carriers that would have delivered precision aid to that great majority of travelers who didn’t have 24/7 internet access? I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but this sounds feasible, right?

Through my simple Facebook efforts, I aimed to assist a largely bourgeoisie community-–those who can afford the luxury of traveling by jet plane. Despite the real inconveniences suffered, the vast majority of stranded travelers suffered from no more than “champagne worries” an expression my wife likes to use to describe the mostly illusory troubles that afflict the relatively affluent. And for offering this help, I was, to some degree, celebrated. This was, I admit, a little embarrassing. Some of the very same sources who lampooned Colin Beavan’s important efforts as ‘No Impact Man’ gave me a positive review. Shite. I feel not only like a whore, but dirty and little.

Looking the Gift Horse Square in the Mouth

I’m not only not astride my media mount, I’m checking its gums for signs of bleeding and its hooves for deep cracking. While it galloped over directly to the easy sugar of “When Volcanoes Erupt,” the old girl tugs at the reigns whenever I try to point her in the direction of the absolutely vital issues addressed by my employer, the Post Carbon Institute. During each of my interviews, I tried to insert the obvious parallels between the effects of an ash cloud-induced aviation blackout and those caused by a diminishing supply of fossil fuels. I got a few soft nibbles, but no bites. My diagnosis? A steady diet of bullshit seems to have given the old girl tender gums.

But maybe that isn’t a fair assessment. There’s a lot to be said for the idea that it’s the media’s job to cater to the public appetite. And the public doesn’t want to hear about stuff that happens like, you know, tomorrow. Or, worse, something happening tomorrow somewhere far away. Which is why my job working with the Post Carbon Institute can seem futile. The Institute’s 29 Fellows tend to look at complex, interrelated global crises that, while currently unfolding, won’t manifest dramatically for years to come. At which point, of course, we’ll all be well and truly screwed.

Their efforts, as well as those of, Four Years Go, Greenpeace and many other wonderful organizations, simply don’t garner the kind of attention that translates into political pressure, despite counting among their supporters tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions worldwide. Rather than blame the media, maybe we should blame ourselves for not doing a better of connecting the dots, of tying the looming crises to everyday lives.

Death to the Polar Bear! Long Live the Polar Bear!

If I see another environmental organization use a picture of a polar bear to promote their work, I’m going to do something crazy like…curse softly under my breath. Sure the polar bears are being driven to extinction. And that’s ferociously sad. And it pulls a few greenbacks from the pockets of dedicated supporters. But what the polar bear pictures don’t do is mobilize a large audience. When 64% of Americans don’t even know where polar bears live, using them to engage the masses is simply bad strategy. Let’s instead highlight the evidence of decline happening on the local level.

Here’s a challenge for you: Grab a digital camera and take a walk through your own neighborhood. Snap a close up of every piece of littered trash, graffiti and urban decay you find. Add some text, print and staple them to the phone and power poles on your block, shove them into mailboxes. In short order, everyone in your whole neighborhood will be talking about the pictured problems. Whether or not anything gets done depends on what you do next, but in getting the conversation started you created an opportunity for behavior change.

I believe it is very possible to get the vast majority of any population to demand aggressive environmental legislation, but we have to stop presenting the problems as continents away and expecting leadership from government bodies that have and will continue to place profit over people. Looking to polar bears, elephants or donkeys for salvation is a fool’s errand. 

The Obvious Conclusion aka Dunbarton’s Paradox

Given a few days perspective, I’ve come to realize that the whole episode clearly defined the benefits and limitations of online social networking. These should have been obvious to me, but Number one: Online networking has awesome power to connect people all over the world with similar interests and concerns. Duh.

Number two: The actual power of these connections is very, very weak until it is manifested in the real world. Double duh. And this is why “When Volcanoes Erupt” worked magnificently—initial online communications manifested into people sharing their homes, offering rides and sharing resources with strangers to cross continents. OUT with online petitions. IN with using Facebook to gather demonstrative crowds in front of lawmakers’ private residences. 🙂

Governments are noticing this power, too. Which may explain why the U.S. government decided earlier this month to archive every citizen Twitter feed since 2006 under the thin of “aiding future anthropological research”.  More like keeping a watchful eye on the unruly mob. Watch us all you want, Big Brother, but it would serve you better to keep your attention focused on the thermostat and ground water levels.