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What Comes Next?

Dispatch No. 3 from a climate-change conference: No one knows what's going to work next, but it's clear that 'more of the same' is not a very wise strategy.
 
 
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Day One
Day Two

Here's the different thing about this conference. Although participants spanned the generations, it was organized in large measure by 20 students here at Middlebury College. Some were already seasoned activists (or as seasoned as one can be at 21); more were new to the issue. But few had spent time in D.C., and none had been deeply imprinted with any one way of doing things. And so, when the gathering turned, as gatherings do, to What Do We Do Next, a fascinating array of projects and voices emerged.

For instance, one group had put together a project designed to flip Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) in favor of the McCain-Lieberman climate legislation. The group knew where he went to church and who his priest was; they had the list of his campaign contributors, and were strategizing about which ones might be willing to put a little pressure on.

Another set was working with Ben & Jerry's on marketing and packaging their newest flavor, "Fossil Fool," projected to replace (you read it here first) "One Sweet Whirled" as a way to raise awareness about global warming.

A third group was busy fine-tuning its Flat Earth Award web site, which will let people vote to give a prize to the person who best twisted the scientific consensus on climate change.

And a fourth group – just as well-scrubbed, well-organized, and polite – was busy laying the groundwork for a possible summertime siege of Ford Motor Co. headquarters in Detroit, a large-scale peaceful protest designed to highlight the fact that though it talks the talk, Ford doesn't drive it; its vehicles, in fact, have the lowest average mileage of the Big Three U.S. automakers. (In keeping with the generational dictum that if it doesn't have a web site, it doesn't exist, those interested in this trek to Motown can check out EnergyAction.net.)

The point seems to be – we're at a loss. No one knows for sure what's going to work next. The "Death of Environmentalism" survey data I wrote about yesterday makes it clear that "more of the same" is probably not a very wise strategy. And so there's a casting-about, an attempt to probe what might break us out of the box canyon into which we've wandered.

John Passacantando, the gregarious CEO of Greenpeace USA, summed it up in a rousing speech this morning: "We need to take in all the data we can, and all the strategizing and theorizing. And then you need to throw it all out, and just try stuff." (Greenpeace, by the way, has decided to soften its tactics for the moment; this year's biggest project will be a kayak exploration of the North Pole designed to show just how fast the melt there is proceeding.)

From a certain point of view, all that's disheartening – like, we have no idea where to go. But oddly, the mood around this gathering seems almost giddily hopeful. If you have no idea where to go you just might stumble down the right road. Historical parallels abounded: Billy Parish, the quietly charismatic leader of the nationwide campus movement Energy Action, was quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.: "the more I learn about all this, the more frustrated I get, and the more I want to lay my body on the line."

But it was also clear that the younger activists were not prisoners of past strategy. Many were quick to point out that their generation was not going to respond to a negative message.

For a long time, much environmentalism has appealed primarily to reason. But at least in the case of global warming, reason has proved insufficient. I can explain to you why an SUV is illogical, but you weren't buying it for logical reasons in the first place; the world is more complicated than that. What everyone gathered for this conference has in common are a nightmare about a world too hot, and a dream about a world cooler in many ways (though perhaps not quite as cold as the 20-below temperatures that greeted early arrivals this morning). How to share those dreams in a way that they'll get into other people's heads and hearts – that's the task ahead.

Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature and Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age .