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People’s Climate March: Morning After Musings

Corporate apologists are going to be most threatened by the moral message that religious and social justice groups brought to the airwaves.

Sometimes, one has to break from journalistic detachment to emotionally process a historic event. On Sunday, about 400,000 people showed up to the People's Climate March in New York City, more than quadruple the number predicted by march organizers. 

Last night, as I sat on the train back from New York to Washington D.C., I felt a number of emotions when I processed the events of the day. Although I met famous personalities Senator Bernie Sanders and Bill McKibben my mind dwelled on the folks I met who are still suffering after Superstorm Sandy, and those who have been fighting oil pipelines in their own backyard, and those have been arrested in nonviolent direct actions in the past few years. I met one person who was fighting a natural gas export facility that I had shilled for as a corporate pollster almost a decade ago.

Ark Makes Way Through Flood of PeoplePhoto by Light Brigading An Ark float makes its way through a flood of people at the People’s Climate March in NYC yesterday. Unlike casting doubt to undermine sound science, it’s much trickier to counter a well-crafted message based on morality, love, and justice.

The People's Climate March is probably my most significant political experience. I think it has the potential to be more significant than Earth Day, which kicked off the environmental movement nearly half a century ago. (Read my previous on-the-ground report from the march here)

As I rode the train home, I felt optimistic. Maybe it is something about trains. For me, they remind me of my time when I lived in Germany where sustainability was an unquestioned value of those of all political stripes, where everyone composted and recycled, and where some days more than 50 percent of energy comes from solar power. The turnout at People's Climate March gives me a genuine hope that we as a society could be on the verge of a paradigm shift. The march brought together 1,574 “partner organizations,” from labor unions to faith groups to various social justice communities. The crowd looked like America in a true demographic sense: it was racially, religiously, and socioeconomically diverse.

But as the train trip progressed I looked out upon rustbelt landscapes and saw what looked like a coal-fired power plant. I remembered that on train tracks like these, coal is delivered across the country around the clock (to be precise, at a rate of 2.5 million metric tons per day to fuel a carbon-intensive economy.) I also realized that as the 400,000 protestors went to bed on Sunday night after a glowingly successful march, corporate pollsters, PR mad men, and fossil fuel apologists were coming up with new ways to spin the now recharged climate movement. (I should know, corporate apologetics was once my scene.) I assure you they are most threatened by the moral message that religious and social justice groups brought to the airwaves. Unlike casting doubt to undermine sound science, it’s much trickier to counter a well-crafted message based on morality, love, and justice. 

By the time I got out of the train in D.C. and into my car, the fog of pessimism crept back into my mind. Monday morning, I'll be back at my day job, and you'll be reading this from your computer. Business as usual? 

While I drove down meandering country roads through rural Virginia, my thoughts returned to the activists who were going to take it a step further. This morning, activists “flooded Wall Street" with acts of civil disobedience. And tomorrow, they will be employing "creative nonviolent direct actions" to parallel the United Nations Climate Summit.

I would have liked to stay on in NYC for these actions, but I had to get back home to Charlottesville in time to care for my daughter. When do we reach the point in our climate crisis where the best thing I could do for my daughter would be to put more on the line? As I laid my hand on my sleeping daughter’s back upon arriving home, a thought crept into my mind. Have we reached that point already?

My personal takeaway from the People’s Climate March is this: the cliché battle between the angel of optimism and the devil of pessimism on either shoulder is a false debate, void of substance, like the kind you see on network news channels. For much of my life, behind my fits of optimism and bouts of pessimism, lurked an all-pervasive and insidious force: inaction. 

The real divisions are not between optimists and pessimists, but instead between the stoics and the epicureans. I don't imply a direct lineage from classical philosophy. Rather, I suggest that my approach to environmentalism has always been that of an epicurean: My “green” acts always expanded my enjoyment and consumptive horizons, but never really cost me that much. It's been either a consumptive act — whether buying organic vegetables, voting for a particular candidate, or participating in an act I've enjoyed. Growing my own food on a 10-acre hobby farm with a brand new tractor was fun. We epicureans environmentalists fly to exotic parts of the world, and justify our carbon footprint by buying local and organic food or having a quick conversation with a farmer, pretending we are a meaningful part of the solution. (Read my essay, Wilderness Next Door, that expands on this idea.) 

The stoics, on the other hand, impose sacrifice and pain upon themselves. This morning a group of as many as 3,000 stoic protesters followed through with the big bold claims made by 400,000 on Sunday’s march. Wearing blue t-shirts, they “flooded Wall Street.” According to author and activist Naomi Klein, they attempted to demonstrate the link between our economic system and our planetary crisis: “Wall Street is foreclosing on our collective home,” she said. Folks who participate in these direct actions are stoic heroes, in my opinion.

At Sunday’s march, I was lucky enough to bump into Leslie Cagan, a veteran organizer behind Sunday’s and many other big NYC marches. I asked her what message she’d like to give Earth Island Journal readers: “do what you can.” Whatever it is, do what you can. It made me think. Was I doing what I could? 

Since I couldn’t personally flood Wall Street, I donated what is (to me) a sizable chunk of change to a group in Virginia, DC, and Maryland that is doing good work, called Chesapeake Climate Action Network. I figure it is every bit a part of my daughter’s future as her college savings account. Across the country, there are hundreds of national and local organizations like CCAN, as well as groups committed to real investigative journalism. Do your homework, and make a donation that hurts a bit. I just picked one group in my backyard out of many possible lean, mean, grassroots machines with low expense ratios.

On one hand, donating money to groups who are directly fighting the fossil fuel industry might strike some as dodging direct involvement, like those wealthy people in the Civil War who would pay others to fight in their place. But I think financial contributions do help generate a healthy ecosystem of resistance. When we think about the vast sums of money the fossil fuel industry spends on influence peddling ($70 million in contributions to federal candidates in 2012 alone, and over $140 million in lobbying in just 2013 alone) putting our dollars up against the system is the least we can do. In fact, no amount of protest or democratic engagement can really compete with such a financial juggernaut. We have to close that money gap. 

My act is one baby step away from my epicurean tendencies, and slightly closer to stoic action that comes at a personal cost to me. If direct action groups can risk arrest by flooding Wall Street, the least we can do is flood resistance groups with resources. Think about it for a second: If 400,000 people who showed up on Sunday can each donate just $50 to a diverse array of groups fighting at all levels and all parts of the country, the movement would have another $20 million of fuel. Add that to our people power, then we have something. Millions of slightly stoic acts of donations could completely turn this ship around. Maybe that is something we can be optimistic about. 

Björn Philip Beer
Björn Philip Beer is writer, in Charlottesville, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @BjornPhilipBeer

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