I have joined many rallies* on Climate Change, including the greatest yet, the People’s Climate March in NYC in 2014. I’ve experienced them all as warm and welcoming, but also extremely passionate displays of concern. I have helped put together a number of these rallies. But over time I’ve come to question the usefulness of rallies on Climate Change as a worthwhile vehicle for engaging the public on this existential issue. The downside of making a lot of noise on divisive issues is that the silent majority tends to feel alienated from the rowdy-looking crowds, plus it encourages the media’s tendency to only frame important issues through adversity or public spectacles. Neither our economy nor our media seem capable of properly framing Climate Change so the public actually understands what’s coming at them.
Traditionally, rallies have been very effective vehicles for change. Women’s rights were greatly advanced by rallies. The abolitionist movement, LGBT rights, and many more social issues have been advanced by rallies when these issues would have otherwise languished in a moral limbo due to humanity’s tendency towards social inertia.
Certainly those folks who march with us about the urgent need to address and mitigate Climate Change understand what we are attempting. They get energized to do more. But what about those people who are watching from the sidelines? Those people watching through their media? Or, those folks we have failed to reach through the media either from our own ineptitude or mass media indifference?
If we are alienating the majority with rallies, how do you engage all of humanity in the kind of change Climate Change will require? Like it or not, there are no humans on the sidelines of Climate Change. Even the superrich will run out of money trying to save themselves. We can certainly go after the bad players, like fossil fuel industry representatives who lied to us about what they knew about their industry’s effect on our climate, and who will to continue doing business as usual regardless. We can rally against those would-be politicians, like Donald Trump, who shift their positions on Climate Change to push their own agenda.
However, at the end of the day, it is all of our collective selves who must change in order to insure that all of our collective existences—even those in our would-be future—get a chance to survive. A few cannot do it and we cannot drag along those who work against us because their accumulated damages might well bring us all down. We have come to the point in our history where we have so challenged our life support system with pollution, the loss of biodiversity, and global warming that our own sustainability continually teeters on the brink of collapse. We’ve destroyed the environment’s resiliency, its ability to absorb our mistakes. Like running a nuclear power plant, there’s no longer any room for error.
Solving this dilemma about messaging Climate Change for full effect is like recruiting absolutely everyone at a football game—both teams, all the people on the bleachers, the people running the concession stands, the plant and wildlife around the stadium and everyone and everything that would show up for the next football game. Another metaphor to capture this unparalleled crisis perhaps: It’s like talking to our own physical selves, the collection of billions of cells that make up who we are, and getting the host of these biological microorganisms, us, to make a decision. We don’t decide to go to a football game thinking our liver or some of our brain cells can stay home and watch it on TV. We are all sharing Climate Change: When Earth cooks we are all stew.
When we rally to get the public’s attention on Climate Change, eyes roll, TV‘s get shut off, attention wanders, and many get upset. When we rally, mainstream media gets bored and refuses to cover our events unless we bake in something exotic. But if we don’t rally, we encourage the absurd notion that physics has conveniently avoided this issue. Shutting up about Climate Change won’t make it go away; it will make it far worse because nobody will be ready.
Of course, we will continue to rally because it has worked many, many times before. Sometimes rallying is a way to gather people’s attention beyond the ability of the media’s ability to frame it their way. In repressive regimes, taking to the streets reaches people where they are. Social media and the Internet have allowed climate activists to become their own media—to some degree anyways—and reach a wider audience. Most likely, we rally because we don’t know what else to do to immediately grab the public’s attention. It should have been enough for the world to recognize that the vast majority of climate scientists say we need to stop putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But it isn’t working quickly enough.
For a while longer it is quite likely that the majority of humanity will continue to stand on the sidelines on Climate Change, rallies or no rallies. But increasingly all our lives will be uprooted by extreme weather events, social unrest, and public health issues that will overwhelm our health systems. Our governments, those institutions we’ve been criticizing for wasting our tax dollars, will rush in and try to save use. Those who have chosen not to engage themselves in the crisis of our age will desperately join those who have been warning them for decades to get moving. Except, as in slavery where millions of lives were squandered by inaction, billions of lives may be squandered because the chances to act in a way that would have mattered would have passed.
So, I guess until the day when temperatures start coming down precipitously, there will be rallies in the hope that they will produce different results. I know, change takes time. But time is what we ain’t got anymore.
* For the purposes of this essay I’m throwing marches, protests, demonstration, rallies, all under the rubric of ‘rallies’.