WORLD LEADERS ARE MEETING at the U.N. this week, in the wake of Sunday’s historic People’s Climate March — which filled the streets of Manhattan with more than 400,000 people calling for action to curb climate change.
U.N. conference rooms will be filled with ponderous discussions, hard negotiations and perhaps a bit of progress toward a new global treaty to fight what Secretary of State John Kerry has called “the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”
The U.N. talks will involve difficult tradeoffs among rich post-industrial nations that have brought the world to the brink, the developing nations such as India and China that are creating record amounts of climate-destroying carbon — and poor nations that have done little to get us into this hot mess.
But there’s one little secret about the issue that brought so many people to New York last Sunday.
When it involves marching in the streets for a cause you believe in, activism can be a ton of fun.
Imagine the scene: You’re surrounded by friendly people of all races and religions, who share the belief that what you are doing in the streets will make a difference on an issue about which you care passionately.
Bands are playing and people swaying. Drummers are drumming and banners are waving. Everywhere you look is color and laughter and a buoyant determination that what you are doing will change the world for the better.
You’re not isolated in front of a TV or computer screen, or stuck in a town where it feels like you’re the only person who understands the threat.
You’re up close and very personal with a throbbing mass of smiling people. It’s a kind of dance, and indeed there are people bouncing along to groups like the jazz ensemble, marching with the group Veterans for Peace, that called itself the Leftist Marching Band.
Good-looking people in colorful outfits are everywhere. Some of them are dressed in polar bear costumes or wearing funny hats. They’re carrying clever signs:
“There’s No Planet B.”
“Save the Humans”
“Renewable is Doable.”
“We Are > Fossil Fuels. Divest Now.”
“Don’t Frack with Us.”
“Solar Spares Polar Bears.”
Sunday’s event was called the People’s Climate March. But for a couple of hours there was no marching. We stood there talking and chanting but barely moving because for 50 blocks, there were people everywhere, too many to move.
When the march finally began to shuffle forward and onto Columbus Circle, we encountered TV cameras and a giant video screen. We could see ourselves on the screen – and also images from scores of similar marches held all over the planet last Sunday, from New Delhi and London to Jakarta and Melbourne.
Among the old friends I bumped into in that massive crowd, one in particular stood out.
Surfing the crowd, moving from one cluster to another, I heard a woman’s voice shout out my name. I turned to see May Boeve.
May is a Middlebury College alum and an old friend.
But she’s not just any alum. She’s a cofounder of 350.org and today serves as its executive director. She’s one of many women who have taken prominent leadership roles to fight climate change.
May had been interviewed on CNN that morning. But when we stopped to catch up on the latest, she was just another person out on the street to feel the energy of the march.
We spent a few minutes reminiscing about other events we’d attended, including a rally again New England’s largest coal plant last summer.
The march that stood out most for us, though, was seven years ago.
It began in Ripton at the Robert Frost Wayside and came down the mountain to Middlebury. May and a few others slept in my meadow that night, the first night out on a week-long march to Burlington.
That march culminated in a Burlington rally that drew 1,000 people. At the time it was the largest-ever gathering of people calling for action on global warming.
This past Sunday, a few short years later, May and I stood amid a crowd that was 400 times larger — and was being noticed all over the world.
So when people say large demonstrations don’t make a difference, that corporations and the politicians they own will always prevail, I’ll remind that demonstrations turned the tide for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam – and that we are in the process of doing the same thing today on climate change.
Indeed, the climate change movement takes a lot of cues from the civil rights movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement.
But there’s a different tone to this exploding activism about the climate.
It has less of the somberness that marked the civil rights movement.
It’s also far less angry than the antiwar movement, which was fueled by outrage at the immorality of the war the U.S. waged throughout Southeast Asia.
What stands out about the climate movement is that, for now, it is often joyous and driven, yes, by a bit of anger but also by love of humanity and the planet.
We didn’t come to New York, all 400,000-plus of us, because we hate things.
We were there because we love the planet, and because we expect our leaders to help us save it.
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