February 25th, 2013
In 1979 I attended a No Nukes rally in D.C. that was 170,000 people. A couple days later the NYC rally was over 200,000. That’s your “baseline” for mass rallies. Climate is supposed to be the biggest threat ever, but the rallies are an order of magnitude smaller (and “An Inconvenient Truth” never produced any significant rallies). Here’s four hypotheses to account for the difference.
“EVERYBODY NEEDS SOME POWER I’M TOLD”. I was among the 170,000 on the Captial Mall in D.C. singing along with with John Hall in 1979. Why aren’t the climate crowds as big?
THE DAYS OF GENUINE MASS RALLIES FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
On a crazy Friday night at Harvard in the spring of 1979 my girlfriend at the time said we should hop in my car and drive all night to D.C. to take part in the gigantic rally in response to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Being young and impulsive we did, and by the next afternoon we were in the thick of the 170,000 people on the National Mall listening to Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and countless other ageless activists, and even singing along with John Hall as he performed his anti-nuke anthem, “Power.”
I guess that’s the sort of memory that still burns in my mind when I look at today’s limpid, sold out, fractious, climate movement. What happened? Why were the mass rallies so massive back then, but today are so minimal (while the budgets of the NGO’s are so massive)?
I felt and expressed this after the Gulf oil spill in 2010, and even went up to Santa Barbara to interview some of the people who were around in 1969 when the Santa Barbara oil spill produced a huge public backlash against the oil companies. There was nothing of the sort for the BP spill.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Why do mass rallies still matter? Because despite the internet, we are still a television-oriented society. Television shapes our perception of the real world, and “perception is reality.” Images of online petitions of 100,000 people offer no authority and are easily faked. Images of 100,000 live bodies assembled for a rally says EVERYTHING.
So here’s four hypotheses to account for today’s minimalist climate rallies compared to the days of No Nukes.
HYPOTHESIS #1: THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TWEETED (GLADWELL)
Malcolm Gladwell maybe jumped the gun a little bit in 2010 with his New Yorker article, “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” which, similar to just about all of his stuff was pretty flippin’ brilliant. The following spring, the arab nations used social media as a central element for their upheavals, suggesting their revolution actually was tweeted. Then it’s not clear, particularly with Egypt, how solid the revolution was in the end. Who knows. But there’s no denying more Americans are sitting in front of their computers these days thinking they are changing the world with their keyboards (um … like maybe me?) instead of getting out in the streets. Most of them would probably argue their actions on a keyboard are just as effective as turning up in person for rallies. Gladwell wouldn’t agree. I wouldn’t either. Seeing is still believing in this country. No social media excuses are valid.
HYPOTHESIS #2: SOON, SALIENT, CERTAIN (INGRAM)
Andy Revkin, in 2006 in one of the best essays of his career titled, “Yelling “Fire” on a Crowded Planet,” cited Helen Ingram of U.C. Irvine who said that problems which receive attention tend to be, “Soon, Salient, and Certain” (btw, I attended his Zocalo event last week here in L.A. which was great and he mentioned this element). Revkin talks about how pushing for a sense of urgency for a threat which isn’t “soon” could actually be counter-productive as people burn out. Which is interesting because in November, 2008, Al Gore was quoted in the NY Times talking about the failure of the climate movement saying, “There is not anything anywhere close to an appropriate sense of urgency.” Meaning he and others paid no heed to this element of “soon” with regard to the threat.
In contrast, the nuclear power danger became enormously SALIENT in the United States on March 28, 1979 with the Three Mile Island accident, which never killed anyone but was terrifying enough to launch the mass protests. There are some environmental pundits who believe global warming/carbon emissions will never be a powerful enough force in the U.S. to launch mass demonstrations until we get a summer heat wave producing huge numbers of death as happened in France in 2003 producing over 14,000 heat-related deaths.
HYPOTHESIS #3: EVIL, ALLITERATION, ALONE (THE SIMPSONS)
Look at what the No Nukes rallies had in narrative terms. The writers of “The Simpsons” knew this and put it to use with the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant owned by Montgomery Burns.
EVIL – They had a singular source of very visible evil — the nuclear power plants. One of the key principles in storytelling is that, “your story is only as good as your villain is evil.” The nuclear industry is an awesome and perfect villain, filled with mystery tracking all the way back to the atomic bomb era.
ALLITERATION – slogans matter. Just listen to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s speech last year to the National Academy of Sciences. He talked about all the artificial things that make statements feel more true. The clarity of text is one. Repetition is another. And rhyming and alliteration is yet another. “No Nukes” has a powerful ring to it. What does the climate movement have that’s comparable and equally unifying??? Maybe “350″? Um … not so much. 350 what’s? When you search “global warming slogan” you get a page with these “slogans”, which kinda says volumes about the horrendously bad communications skills of the movement:
- “Earth-please do think about me!”
- “Global warming, a Global warning”
- “Alone we can make a difference , but together we can change the world and protect our mother earth from global warming”
- “We’re burning our children’s inheritance”
- “Global Warming – A topic that’s heating up”
ALONE – It was indeed a different time for society in 1979, on the eve of cable television, but still just 3 or 4 channels in most homes. Today’s world of a go-zillion channels of everything is more factitious than ever, but Obama has proven that leadership still works if you have a voice that is trusted and liked.
HYPOTHESIS #4: A TOP-HEAVY MOVEMENT
Just look at the budgets of today’s environmental NGO’s. I guess it’s something nobody likes to talk about. And yes, I know, you need all the lawyers, scientists and economists to fight big business. But it ain’t the same impassioned movement as the old days. It was more grassroots back then, less DC-based NGO’s. The pyramid has become inverted. Less grassroots today, more big NGO’s with big budgets (without naming any names, the biggest one had income of over $1 billion in 2011 — wow).
So that’s what’s changed. Which I suppose is inevitable. But the picture is clear. The environmental movement got richer, smarter and more bureaucratic, but the rallies today are smaller than back then. I think that’s kinda sad.