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Power Shift 2011: the End of Business as Usual

Ten thousand young activists descended on Washington, D.C. and just as suddenly left, leaving behind a trail of protest signs, guerrilla posters on the tar sands on virtually every street corner in Chinatown, and a number of summons for court dates for direct actions. Those activists are taking with them their crash training in the grassroots organizing skills and storytelling that propelled much of the field operation of the 2008 Obama campaign, as well as new connections and a flurry of new Facebook friends. However, the lasting legacy of Power Shift 2011 will be declaration that the youth climate movement is no longer willing to play by the rules, to no longer accept business as usual.

At Power Shift 2009, everything seemed to be lined up for a clean victory. Van Jones, the keynote of the 2007 conference, was going to be the new Green Jobs czar, almost every high ranking administration official came for a rockstar welcome and made huge promises, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Chairman Ed Markey promised a climate bill. Big environmental organizations weren't exactly praised for their strategies to move climate legislation, but there was this sense that with this President, this Congress, and the momentum behind them fueled by their generation's political engagement, we were going to see real change.

Instead, while Speaker Pelosi held up her end of the bargain, they watched as they were cut out of a process dominated by backroom deals by major environmental organizations, un-transparent 'war rooms', and a hostile senate and indifferent President. The narrative of the tea party dominated the year, bankrolled by mountains of corporate cash, as the health care fight seemingly exhausted the policy making capacity of the Democratic party, but those youth activists were not called upon, brought in, or presented with a way to engage. Even the worst environmental disaster in recent history, the Gulf Oil spill, seemed to derail progress, with a feckless response by the US government.

So, they came to Power Shift, this year, pissed off and determined not to take a back seat again. Speeches by Bill McKibben, Van Jones, and Tim DeChristopher hammered home the idea that change was not going to come without radical changes to business as usual. In fact, the US Chamber of Commerce, seen by many of the face of American business, was singled out for its mask slipping and it being revealed as a front group for big polluters trying to appropriate the mom and pop image of local chambers of commerce to block climate legislation. Direct action, sit-ins, movement building, and working to get people out into the streets were prioritized over lobbying and other politer political activity.

Money pollution and the distorting effect on US politics was prioritized over carbon pollution. Bill McKibben got roars from the crowd as he stood in front of a banner reading "The US Chamber of Commerce Doesn't speak for Me", focusing on the political arm of big coal, oil, and industry as the biggest obstacle to climate action. In fact, leaders of the youth climate movement broke another taboo, when they got an invite to the White House after a week of bad press about how former youth Obama campaign staff were disappointed with the President's endorsement of dirty energy technologies. Instead of being content with an audience and equating access with influence, one youth leader interrupted President Obama after being talked to for fifteen minutes and asked for bold leadership on climate.

After $368 million dollars in foundation spending on advocacy on an insider cap-and-trade policy centric advocacy model, Power Shift 2011 started the expose the growing rift between grassroots youth and environmental justice advocates prioritizing direct action, hard-hitting corporate accountability, and targeting the impact of polluter cash in US politics and a policy centered approach dominated by insider lobbying and ephemeral, expensive warroom and commercial ad buy focused campaigns. Whatever happens over the next year, Power Shift 2011 heralded the end of business as usual.

Richard Graves
Climate activist, social entrepreneur, and online journalist Richard Graves is founder and director of Fired Up Media, a project of Earth Island Institute. He served as the blogger/online campaigner for the Global Campaign for Climate Action, the Editor for It’s Getting Hot in Here – Dispatches from the Youth Climate Movement and served as a Program Director for Americans for Informed Democracy. He is a member of the international committee of the Online News Association, as well as the Society of Professional Journalists, and contributes to numerous online news outlets. He is a recipient of the International Youth Foundation’s Global Fellowship for 2008, was a semi-finalist for Echoing Green, and received the Project Slingshot award.

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