“Dad, what did you do way back when to help solve climate change?”
“Well son, I tweeted my face off about it. I really did. I included some bit.ly links to petition sites, I updated my Facebook status almost every day and I even posted a video comment on YouTube. In short, I did everything I could to make sure you had a safe and healthy climate for your future.”
Is this really what it’s come down to? Tomorrow is Climate Action Day…but has taking direct action been reduced to 140 characters or less?
Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge proponent of the power of online social media to connect people and causes instantly and at scale. I’m such a believer in these tools, that I’ve spent the last six months leading a team to launch the Conservancy’s Planet Change microsite. Planet Change is built on the idea of giving online activists an opportunity to do something quickly online to help spread the word about the importance of addressing climate change. We built the site in this way because frankly, we knew it would work. There is little barrier of entry when it comes to participating and taking action.
Once we’ve collected these online actions, we’ll take them to Copenhagen as a demonstration that the world is committed to climate change action.
But despite my strong belief in online social media, I can’t seem to suppress this nagging feeling that when compared to previous generations, the Internet is just making us too damn lazy when it comes to social activism.
Our parents marched on Washington for civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War. We’re posting status updates and embedding widgets. Is this really effective? Of course it isn’t – not on its own.
But online social media combined with get-off-the-couch-pick-up-the-phone-and-go-outside physical activism can be exponentially more powerful than the mass protests of the 60s – especially when combined with the voracious appetite of the 24-hour news cycle.
Two cases-in-point (that don’t involve the Obama campaign, which is the ultimate case-in-point):
First, there was the battle over the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), which narrowly passed the House of Representatives in late June.
On the day of the vote, opponents of the bill leveraged online social media – in particular Twitter – to execute a coordinated attack on its passage, rallying the opposition to call their representatives’ offices expressing their displeasure with the legislation. At the same time, supporters of the bill were tweeting in large numbers in support of the bill…but forgot the crucial step of organizing off-line action.
If Twitter was your only barometer, it would be easy to think the bill enjoyed broad public support. But because the minority organized a crucial offline component, they nearly scuttled the legislation.
Second is tomorrow’s Climate Action Day. Its organizers claim it is the biggest environmental action that the world has ever seen. The event so far has 4,200 events planned in 170 countries in support of global action on climate change.
I’ll say this much: The groups involved have done a masterful job of organizing this effort online and using online social networking tools to promote the day. And the online tools are designed expressly to drive offline action — everything from posting signs in support of the day to creating mas visual protests with people forming statements in public squares.
The online tools aren’t the end — they’re a means to an end. To complete a virtuous circle, participants are encouraged to post pictures and videos of their actions online, adding another chorus to the echo chamber.
If you’ve read this far, you might now be asking, “Haven’t you just successfully argued against the merits of your own project — Planet Change?” Well, yes and no.
Our partners and supporters know the Conservancy as an organization focused on tangible lasting results on the ground and in the water. We aren’t know as an advocacy group — and frankly, we’re not well-versed in grassroots efforts.
But we do care deeply about protecting the results we have achieved. Left unchecked, climate change will make the places we have worked to protect unrecognizable. So we are compelled to address this threat — and one of the ways to address it is by building public support for action, and for global and national climate policies that support our mission. Planet Change is one of our tools in that effort.
So here’s to taking action today, whether it’s online, offline or something else.