A Concerted Effort to Fight Climate Change

Bill McKibben, an AlterNet guest columnist, is spearheading the Step It Up 2007 campaign. A scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, McKibben's newest book is the forthcoming Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. His column is reprinted by permission from Grist. For more environmental news and humor sign up for Grist's free email service.

Less than two years ago, I wrote a piece for Grist noting that though scientists had tackled climate change head on, artists hadn't. As a result, I argued, we didn't yet feel the crisis as deeply as we needed to. "Though we know about it, we don't know about it. It hasn't registered in our gut; it isn't part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?"

I think I finished the piece just in time. Within six months, Katrina had roared across the Gulf of Mexico, An Inconvenient Truth had roared across the public consciousness, and suddenly the arts had begun to engage.

There were several new nonfiction accounts of climate change so powerful as to be real literature -- Betsy Kolbert's Field Notes From a Catastrophe chief among them. Photographers like Gary Braasch and Chris Jordan started documenting the results of climate change with poignant power. Prominent painters like Alexis Rockman started imagining what America would look like in a soggy future. And while I still haven't heard any operas, the rest of the musical world has risen to the challenge as well.

That last development is particularly important to us as we try to organize this Step It Up campaign for April 14. Every day, dozens of people and groups sign up to run new actions: it's clearly going to be one of the largest environmental gatherings since Earth Day 1970.

I hope it's also one of the most musical, because history would indicate that singing movements are successful movements -- that having a few anthems to share helps enormously. Singing breeds fellowship, building loose groups of like-minded people into temporary communities. It communicates passion better than most speeches or position papers. It builds courage when courage is needed.

One of my favorite records was recorded in the field during the early days of the civil-rights movement; it features the SNCC Freedom Singers in one church after another, singing "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "Oh Freedom" and the truly great "99 1/2 Won't Do," a song for any dark day. One way of saying this: It's hard to imagine the civil-rights movement without "We Shall Overcome." It would have happened, but it would have been subtly different.

When we marched across Vermont last summer, we relied mostly on old standards -- the march ended with our local favorite chanteuse Anais Mitchell belting out "This Land Is Your Land." But we need new songs too, which is why one of the nicest things that's happened in the month since we launched the website was an email from the folks at Cool Our Planet and the MUSE campaign.

They're mobilizing songwriters to produce hundreds of tunes about climate change, a profusion of rhythm and melody and lyric that should pay off for years to come. And they're supplying musicians for as many of the Step It Up rallies as they can manage. It's just the kind of enthusiasm we're finding across the country, and, truth be told, it's moving as hell.

As are many of the lyrics that people have already produced. Some sad. Mark Josephson, for instance, who is one of the movers behind the campaign, wrote a song with John Sterling called "Our Children" about a rich man haunted by bad dreams: Hey now, hey now/ You have wronged/ Your children, their children/ Our children.

Some are funny. Consider "Global Warming Blues" by Lenny Solomon:
I make so much I could buy me a continent Gonna build me a trophy house with every complement A fridge as big as Venus, a stove as big as Mars.
And some are anthemic. Here's one called "Power From Above" that we road-tested up Route 7 on the western edge of Vermont. It comes from veteran Adirondack folksinger Dan Berggren, and it's halfway to pure gospel. Here's the first verse. If it gets you humming, maybe you can teach it to a few hundred folks on April 14.
Sinners are you ready for a little redemption To receive forgiveness for what we've done? The time has come to break bad habits
It's time to turn to the wind and sun
Just a little more power from above,
Just a little more faith respect and love For this old earth our only home
It may take strength to say no to that power from below But there's salvation in the power from above.

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