In fact I almost slept through it. I’d been out late the night before catching ghostpal. Had I not been out though, I probably would have missed the march. I’d heard of its occurrence from various reputable sources, and seen the ads on the train, part of the march’s impressive PR push. It was outside Rough Trade though, between sets, that I was actually reminded. There I met Sandra, a geology student from Austria, and our conversation quickly turned towards the changing climate and its troubling implications (I’m great at parties).
Sandra’s work— she had just returned from collecting soil samples in Austria—involved measuring climate and global temperatures millions of years ago and comparing them to today’s. She was thus very knowledgeable and forthright on the subject of climate change. This other dude, overhearing us, joined in our conversation. He was far more tepid on how much effect human action actually had on the climate, mentioning the fact that the earth naturally went through climate fluctuations every couple thousand years or so. At this point Sandra chimed in, animated in the way scientists get when talking about their field of inquiry (I need to hang out with more scientists). While yes, this was true, she said, there a lot more carbon in the atmosphere today than at the onset of the industrial revolution. We also know the effects of this, as we’ve modeled it on a smaller scale. The conversation hinged on a disheartening question: ‘what can any of us do, individually, to slow down this process?’ The project of recycling bottles seems so piddly compared to the looming prospect of losing parts of Manhattan under rising tides.
Perhaps this is the reason why people have readily bought into the backlash against the march in the days preceding it. Of course, some will be put off by the sort of lowest common denominator inclusiveness, branding, and marketing the march’s organizers engaged in, but I’d argue that when dealing with something like climate change, an issue that affects every living being on this planet, these tactics are neccessary. Worse still to some is the fact that there is money involved, a lot of it, which somehow invalidated the march’s earnestness. The main concern being that the march had become co-opted by moneyed interests.
An article by Arun Gupta titled How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign sums up these apprehensions neatly. It opens:
I’ve never been to a protest march that advertised in the New York City subway. That spent $220,000 on posters inviting Wall Street bankers to join a march to save the planet, according to one source. That claims you can change world history in an afternoon after walking the dog and eating brunch.
It continues to lambast the campaign surrounding the march for running a wide scale and well funded PR and marketing campaign. A campaign which, somewhat over-zealously, encouraged people “Think Occupy,” while not then engaging in any occupy style protests. “According to inside sources a push early on for a Seattle-style event—organizing thousands of people to nonviolently shut down the area around the United Nations—was thwarted by paid staff with the organizing groups.” The piece quoted another inside source as stating, ““It’s a branding decision not to promote the Flood Wall Street action. These are not radical organizations.”
I should mention at this point that radicals generally annoy me, almost as much as the entitled banker type. Sure the latter are wholly complicit for the current and worrying state of our affairs, but the prior also share some blame for being almost entirely ineffective in thwarting this danger. I’m quite happy that the march did not take this prescribed, radical route. Sure, we could shut down Midtown for a couple hours, but what good would that have accomplished? Fox News fodder reel of “agitators” blocking traffic, the protesters themselves feeling better for a short while. These efforts wouldn’t really make for any lasting change, and would allow most of America to dismiss the protest.
The largest lament that Gupta’s article has about the coordination of the People’s March is that it was not organized by a grassroots campaign. “The operating method of Avaaz, which was established in 2007, is to create “actions” like these that generate emails for its fundraising operation. In other words, it’s a corporation with a business model to create products (the actions), that help it increase market share (emails), and ultimately revenue.” And look, I know that when money becomes involved there’s bound to be some fuckery, but it’s naive to think that we can tackle climate change without money and organization. Let’s compare a grassroots campaign like Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party movement (a wolf in grassroots clothing). In comparison Occupy was an abject failure. It was disorganized, failed to achieve almost any of its goals (I’ll give it that it changed the discourse), and managed to scare off a lot of people whom would have otherwise agreed with their goals. The Tea Party on the other hand, has managed to elect into office a shit load of candidates, has strong armed even those whom disagree with their platform, and in this process veered the political discourse far off to the right and into the ditch where it still resides today. Again these aren’t value judgments on my part. I really wish this weren’t the case, but it’s important to look at what’s effective. To fight entrenched powers like corporations, you have to use their tactics, and that means PR, marketing and fundraising. I’d argue that Gupta’s got it backwards; the march wasn’t an instance of corporations co-opting the movement. It was activists co-opting effective marketing and corporate structure for their own ends.
This isn’t even my main argument though.
I did finally arrive at the march, about twenty minutes before it was set to begin, missing the opening speakers, but in time to catch the throngs. Which were in fact, massive. Despite some people being put off by how he march was organized, I’m willing to forgive a lot of these means because of the outcome. Over 400,000 showed up, a huge feat, and you should never underestimate the effect of that physical presence. As much as we, as Americans, like to consider ourselves individuals, we are very much influenced by what our neighbors are doing.
There were the requisite share of hippies at the event, but I think the main push of the campaign was to involve people whom wouldn’t have otherwise attended, and these groups did turn out in droves. There were students, Upper East Side yuppies (brunch crumbs still decorating their lapels), nuns, musicians, and a a lot of people who traveled long distances to attend (my mom even went, and made a sign, and she doesn’t go to anything). The crowd varied widely in race, age, and socio economic standing. Disregarding how organized or concise each person’s reason for attending was, we were all there for a similar reasons, a concern for the state of the environment, and you could not help but be energized by that fact. That daunting question that neither I nor Sandra the geologist had a response to response to was answered by the resounding roar that intermittently went up throughout the crowd. Individually, none of us had the power to affect much change, but we weren’t individuals in this. I could not help but feel hopeful, despite the drab skies, that I was not alone in my concern, and that perhaps there was hope for a smart, collective movement, not a radical idea, I hope.