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Green Activists Stepped It Up

Bill McKibben

I have a new hobby: scrolling through the action reports that groups around the country submitted after Step It Up Saturday.

From Juneau, Alaska (a rally near the retreating Mendenhall Glacier) to Key West, Fla. (scuba divers holding underwater banners in front of a coral reef), from a contra dance in Belfast, Maine, to an interfaith gathering on Waikiki Beach, people have been posting accounts and pictures of more than 1,400 demonstrations large and small around the country. It's simply lovely to read them, and to realize that each one means many people worked hard and passionately to get something going about climate change. That's what a movement is, and now there is one around global warming.

I started Saturday under bright blue skies in downtown Manhattan , where Ben Jervey and a big crew of helpers assembled a "sea of people" clad in blue to show where the new tide line will someday fall around the Battery. And I ended the day in Washington, D.C., where a big crew of people gathered to "watch the returns"-20-foot-high images of the pictures flooding in from around the country.

It was a great day-but incredibly frustrating, since I wanted to be above the waterfall in Spokane, Wash., and in the park in downtown Boise, Idaho, where a thousand people gathered, and in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., where lines of people marked the new storm-surge boundaries. I would have given anything to be up high on Whiteface Mountain in my beloved Adirondacks, or anywhere in my Green Mountain State, where dozens of rallies large and small took place. Or at the Community Christian Church in Kansas City, Mo., where 500 gathered inside to avoid a driving rain, or Gig Harbor, Wash., where a flotilla of people-powered boats spread the message, or Brunswick, Maine, where 400 rallied at Bowdoin College to hear Rep. Tom Allen. I would have loved to go to Carlsbad, Calif., and hear Ralph Keeling tell the story of how his father Charles did the groundbreaking science more than 50 years ago that helped to prove carbon was gathering in the atmosphere, or to Baldwin Beach in Maui, where people spelled out their demands with their bodies, and to Lenox, Mass., to hear the festival of rappers. What I would have given to have been at Middlebury College, where all of this began, and where students started April 14 with a midnight flashlight-powered gathering. And what fun it would have been to be in my hometown, Lexington, Mass., to watch my mother reading a speech to, among others, Rep. Edward Markey, new chair of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

A few things stick out for me:

  • The old ideas about environmentalists are in need of updating. If you're worried that it's nothing but old white people with lots of money, think again. The New York City gathering was black, brown, white, and young -- in fact, young was one of the day's motifs. Evangelicals, Jews (a "Jew-tingent" organized its own walk to join the day's big gathering outside the Capitol), senior citizens, athletes, you name it. Two years ago we were worried about the "death of environmentalism." Perhaps in part because of that scare, tons of new energy seems to be flooding in.
  • Elections count. We had national politicians joining these rallies in dozens of states -- and if you look at the list, you'll see that an awful lot of them were elected last fall for the first time. Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, Sen. Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, Rep. John Hall in New York, Rep. Baron Hill in Indiana, Rep. Jerry McNerney in California. Special props to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who spoke at at least three of the rallies (and also, by the way, is sponsor of the bill in the Senate to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050). And also to John Edwards, the first of the main presidential candidates to endorse that goal, who gave a very strong speech to a Step It Up rally in Fort Myers, Fla.
  • A spirit of collaboration marked this whole event. Big enviro groups-National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, many, many others-dropped all their organizational walls and joined together with each other and with the smallest groups around the country to help make Saturday a huge success. But just as exciting was the way many of these rallies were organized by people who'd never belonged to any group at all, who took their first steps as organizers this weekend. Many, in their action reports, said they'd keep going. And they have the key tool to help make it happen: our sense at the end of our 12 weeks of organizing is that we've only begun to explore the power of the internet (and of course the incredible power of Grist!) for this kind of open-source political protest.

By every conventional measure, the day was a raging success-all the press we could have hoped for (even a long segment on ABC News from reporters at four different rallies around the country!).

For us, though, the real measure of success was the sheer enthusiasm that comes through in one report after another from around the country. Sheer delight, even-delight at starting to take power, starting to do something about a horror that we've been watching build for many years.

Bill McKibben is spearheading the Step It Up 2007 campaign. A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, McKibben is the author of The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience on climate change, and the forthcoming Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He serves on the board of directors of Grist, from which this is reprinted.

© 2007

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