Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

350.org and Social Media Activism

Can Facebook, Twitter and YouTube truly subvert the old power paradigms? Perhaps, as the digital evangelists would have us believe, these digital platforms represent a new and powerful way to change the world.

The old Sixties phrase was that the revolution will not be televised. But will it be tweeted?

Or is social media just another form of entertainment – a diversion that gives us the illusion that we can be active for a cause, just by clicking a computer mouse?

When social media first emerged, many of us felt we could use online communications to move people to action, in ways we hadn't been able to do before.

International movements such as Free Tibet and the Save Darfur Coalition have garnered millions of supporters online.

Protests against the Iranian government were widely publicized on Twitter -- so much so that the US government asked Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance shutdown, because Washington wanted Iranian activists to continue using Twitter to undermine the fundamentalist government of Iran.

But more recent thinking, as summarized in a recent New Yorker magazine article by Malcolm Gladwell, suggests it's all just a bunch of cheap thrills.

Gladwell calculates, for example, that the nearly 1.3 million people who have signed up to be "members" of the Save Darfur Coalition on Facebook have donated a grand total of about 9 cents each to the cause.

Gladwell compares this paltry activism to the extreme sacrifices of the American Civil Rights movement. Using block-by block, church-by church organizing against segregation, civil rights activists built a strong, hierarchical network that changed the nation.

Contrast that with the nonhierarchical, lounge-chair “activism” of people who get an angry e-mail from MoveOn.org, fire off copies to their friends -- and think they've contributed to making this a better society.

The only thing that will really change the world, Gladwell argues, is old-fashioned organizing, whether the cause involves a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter or at a coal-fired power plant.

He may well be right. We don't really accomplish much by "liking" some political cause on Facebook.

Even though online activism has proved to be a powerful means of raising money for political organizations right and left, there's no substitute for door-to-door canvassing for votes, few tools more powerful than getting people to public rallies and polling places.

There is, however, one very powerful exception to the critique from Gladwell and other critics. And it started right here in Addison County, with the efforts of author Bill McKibben and a group of recent Middlebury College graduates who formed 350.org.

The organization's phenomenal global growth has largely been fueled by the Internet -- focusing on the fact that 350 ppm is the maximum allowable concentration of atmospheric carbon to sustain life on earth as we know it.

Last year, for example, 350.org organized more than 5,000 events all over the world to focus on the number 350 -- in McKibben's words "the most important number in the world" because it's tied so closely to our survival. (And once you focus on 350 ppm as the sustainable ceiling, it's especially frightening to know that we are already at 390 ppm and rising.)

A year later, 350.org asked supporters around the world this year to do more than just highlight a number. They wanted everybody to get to work, on projects in their communities that would help ease global warming.

It’s one thing to ask people to take a photo of a hand-lettered “350” at an exotic location. It’s quite another to ask them to pick up a shovel. Would anybody show up? Or was last year's event just another example of photo-op activism?

The world got the answer this past Sunday, October 10 – “10-10-10” -- and it was a heartening one. All over the planet, people organized work projects in virtually every country in the world. More than 7,000 of them, exceeding even last year's effort.

The results that culminated in Sunday's events can be witnessed at www.350.org.
Religious Australians organized a national “ride to worship week. In Harlem they painted over the black roof of a school with white paint to reduce the building’s energy usage.

From troubled lands like Iran and Palestine, people sent in pictures of their actions. In Bangladesh, where rising seawater threatens millions of people, they gathered on bikes and in small boats to spread the word about 350.

There were more than 2,000 events in the United States – which is especially encouraging since we generate so much of the world's district of carbon. In Cornwall, Vt., for example, they worked on an organic garden at the local elementary school.

In Afghanistan, a country being torn apart by an endless war, students organized tree plantings to green up the atmosphere.

At Middlebury College, by comparison, only a few hardworking students turned out for Sunday’s events. Those intrepid students gleaned leftover food from farmers’ fields and orchards to feed the hungry in Addison County. Then they went door-to-door registering voters.

But most of the college’s 2,300-plus students stayed away.

Think about it. Afghanistan is coming apart at the seams -- yet more students turned out there to stop climate change than at Middlebury College, the very birthplace of this global movement.

Nonetheless, in thousands of other places around the globe, people inspired by the movement that began in Middlebury were thinking really big.

Last Sunday was the inspiration for solar panel installations in Bangalore, India, the Namibian desert, the Maldives, and Las Cruces, N.M. An estimated 7,000 people marched in the streets of Istanbul. They held an event with endangered penguins on a beach in South Africa. In Isafjordur, they pledged to "keep the ice in Iceland."

So much for the idea that digital media can't be used to organize. In putting together the world's biggest-ever environmental work party, 350.org may have shown the way to a new global commitment to curbing climate change.

As the 350 organizers are fond of putting it, we’ve gotten to work – and now it's time for our political leaders to get to work, too.

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