The Kids are Alright

A Reflection from Powershift 2013

I was never a youth climate activist. In college I skied the many hills around my campus in Wyoming, never giving a second thought to much besides which ski run had recently been groomed. Those same woods are now hollowed out by the bark beetle, whose voracious hunger has grown right in step with a longer summer and warmer winter, fueled by climate change.

photo of people gathered, a stage and a speakerphoto by Mentatmark, on FlickrPowershift

And so I looked upon the thousands of climate activists who came from around the country to Powershift 2013 in Pittsburgh this past weekend with amazement. Say what you want about their musical choices – I don’t get Gaga and doubt I ever will – but don’t you say a word about their commitment to something larger than themselves.

I only know the history of Powershift through idle talk. I know that Energy Action Coalition’s founder, Billy Parish, now making waves at Solar Mosaic, and his cohorts organized the first Powershift in 2005 with the goal of bringing together the disparate parts of the youth climate movement to one place where they could meet and do the first thing that’s needed for organizing – talk to each other.

The Energy Action Coalition (which is an Earth Island-sponsored project) now has new leadership, as the amazing Maura Cowley works hard to help facilitate the different interests within the youth climate movement. On Powershift’s final night she addressed the crowd and said what I think everyone in the room was thinking. Organizing is messy, it’s unruly, and it ain’t easy – but it’s the youth activists there who would make or break the climate movement.

It’s clear from being at Powershift that the youth movement could easily fracture. Later, after Maura’s excellent speech, a ragtag few interrupted a program enjoyed by the many. That’s their right, and the crowd heard them out before their welcome quickly wore out. But the interruption was a symbol of the difficulties that may lay ahead.

This is the age of identity politics. It’s a blessing that there are so many different ideas, ideologies, and individuals that represent the movement; that diversity, if nurtured, will be the key to finally broadening the movement out beyond the usual suspects, a prerequisite to winning. Yet if the differences become too much, and they lead toward the sort of infighting that our opponents love to foment and exploit, then our goose is cooked – literally.

Here’s just some of the tensions that I heard about at Powershift. Disagreements over tactics (of course); what’s to be done about environmental racism and who is responsible for it; gender identity and its role in organizing; is there too much fidelity to one political party or not enough; how to best work toward a just transition for communities and workers left behind; is Obama a savior or the problem; and much, much more. Each issue has its own constituency and is fraught with its own complexity. You can drown in the complexity and contradictions of it all.

My suspicion is that there’s more that binds the youth climate together than drives it apart. After all, it’s clear now that there is one common enemy – the fossil fuel industry – and it’s going to take thousands of different strategies to bring them to heel. There’s room for the Big Greens, with their million-dollar-plus budgets, just as there’s room for the upstarts and the unaffiliated. There’s space for a popular word that I heard again and again in the conference halls – escalation – just as there’s space for the more tedious but effective strategy of suing the bastards. We’re going to need it all, and then some.

The climate movement is fortunate to have so many young leaders, right when the world needs them the most. They remind me a bit of the leaders of the start-up culture from where I live, the San Francisco Bay Area. Most of the students that I spoke with aren’t interested in the old models or, if truth be told, in the legacy groups. They want to create their own movement on their own terms, and they’re not waiting for anyone’s permission. That’s good, since their opponents aren’t asking for anyone’s permission to wreck the planet. This next year will be crucial for the movement to keep growing or grind to a halt. For the planet, let’s pray it keeps growing in size, strength, and resolve.

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