Hi, Tech

Understanding the power of the Internet for progressive organizing.
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.

By now, the six people doing most of the work of national organizing for stepitup07.org have introduced themselves on the website. Will Bates, Phil Aroneanu, Jeremy Osborn, May Boeve, Jon Warnow, and Jamie Henn are all recently minted college grads (well, one of them has a thesis still to complete). You can take any two of them, add them together, and come up with a number slightly less than my 46 years.

You would think that this would make for a vast gulf in terms of skills, abilities, and talents. And indeed it does -- when it comes to technology, at least, each of them is forced to treat me like a slightly dim child who needs to be reminded several times a day how to do what needs doing.

I'm not bad at email (though I've not fully mastered the whole I'm-out-of-town-on-business automatic reply thing). But blog-posting and setting up Skype accounts and using the web for videoconferencing is, for the moment, beyond me. It's a failing I'm more and more aware of, because this entire campaign has been organized on the web. We're building the biggest grassroots environmental protest in many years, and so far we've done it almost without a single story in the conventional press.

It's been fascinating to sense the power of this tool. E-Magazines like Grist, of course, have long been in the vanguard of electronic environmentalism. For most of us, though, the new mental models that go with web organizing are only now developing.

To be honest, we hatched the idea of a widely distributed protest in part because we knew we lacked the financial and organizational muscle to stage a march on Washington. We worried about the carbon emissions, too. But we also sensed that such distributed action fit more easily with the ethos of the moment, a real internet ethos.

I'd define that ethos this way: it's easy to both put in and take out. Instead of massive centralized systems (TV networks, agribusiness, huge coal-fired power plants, and indeed marches on Washington), there's now the possibility for widespread local systems of all kinds.

The solar panels on my roof tie into the grid; when the sun shines, I'm a utility. Similarly, the April 14 demonstration in my small Vermont town will be a good thing in and of itself -- and it will tie into a vast network (nearing 750!) of such protests that we can link together electronically. In this way, we will make them more than the sum of their parts.

We're about, I think, to get some more conventional publicity for Step It Up -- newspaper and TV attention, which is already starting to show up at the local level thanks to organizers in each community, will soon be coming from national outlets as well. That will help, because there are still all sorts of people who are still not fully immersed in the web.

But it's been fascinating to see that conventional media attention is no longer the absolutely necessary oxygen of political organizing -- and that the alternative structures the web is building are suggesting a whole different way of thinking about doing politics.

I'm awfully glad Martin Luther King Jr. was at the Lincoln Memorial instead of on a webcast. And I'm also glad that the April 14 rallies will be in the real world -- in fact, it's the connection with actual physical place that will make them so powerful. But I'm glad, too, that all of us, even the 40-something geezers, are learning to make full use of these new tools.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

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