The Most Widespread Global 'Happening' Ever? - Pacific Standard

The Most Widespread Global 'Happening' Ever?

Whether meaningful mass grassroots action or silly stunt, the political theater of the International Day of Climate Action made a splash.
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The prize for the largest planetwide one-day event may have a surprising new contender — clustering climate activists. As part of the 21st-century phenomenon of globally coordinated, cyberspace-orchestrated one-day events, the marketing machine of Harry Potter movie premieres pale in comparison. The titleholder to date was likely the Iraq War protests of Feb. 15, 2002, when crowds of up to 1 million people were reported in numerous cities around the world, organized through social-media platforms. Our new contender is more bizarre: The "enemy" that brought together people from 178 nations on Oct. 24 is an invisible odorless molecule, a chemistry-textbook villain that has emerged from our own vices, commonly known as CO2. The organizers, under the banner of 350.org, called it the International Day of Climate Action.

A few questions emerged in my mind: Why were people from Mongolia to Venezuela collectively deciding to battle The Molecule, a byproduct of increasing affluence and civilization? And what was I doing with a mob of students kayaking to an oil platform, who failed miserably due to the fog, but at the same time succeeded in joining this global conversation?

The Day of Climate Action had a simple call, which went rippling through Facebook groups, Twitter feeds and e-mail: "Take a photo with the number 350 on it."

This was one of the weirdest but most brilliant of concepts.

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Weird, because people were asked to rally around an abstract scientific fact, namely that 350 parts per million is considered the safe threshold for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, we are already above that. According to data from Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, the Earth's concentration is currently around 387 ppm. As it stands, climate negotiators claim that a goal of 450 ppm (whoa!) by 2050 would be an ambitious accomplishment.

To think that a number taken from an academic journal of climate scientists could elicit a worldwide passionate response, despite it being practically unattainable, is astounding. That bona fide geeks such as climate ringleader James Hansen and 350.org's founder Bill McKibben can become cult heroes is a testament to a new phase in humanity, perhaps one where science is embraced on a level akin to Michael Jackson or one where people feel interconnected and care about the well being of future generations - a collective consciousness sprouting from the waters of the Internet.

Maybe.

The concept is brilliant because anybody can take a photo or act out with three simple numbers: 3, 5, 0. Whether it's individuals, small groups or huge crowds — anything is possible. From a climber on Mt. Everest with a tiny sign to 5,000 people in the Netherlands surrounding wind turbines creating a massive 350 that could be seen from the air, truly anything is possible. Three hundred and fifty Masai children danced in Kenya and 350 trees were planted in Thailand. Church gongs and church bells were rung 350 times in Papua New Guinea and Barcelona, respectively. In a gesture of solidarity, people gathered to build a massive human "3" in Sydney, a "5" in Delhi, India, and a "0" in Quito, Ecuador.

In Santa Barbara, a mob of students went kayaking to an oil platform to hold up 350 banners, then the fog rolled in. Anything is possible.

As a demonstration of public art and creativity it was phenomenal. But as political statement, was it effective?

Before dealing with Joe Six-Pack's response, let's consider the fascinating debate that permeates everything from marine biology to sociopolitical science: What causes behavior to change? Are bottom-up or top-down influences more important? Some argue that kelp growth is driven by nutrient intake (bottom-up); others argue it is driven by predator fish concentration (top-down). Does society condemn sweatshop labor because of consumer interest (bottom-up) or government rules (top-down)? Gail Osherenko, a coastal law specialist from the Marine Science Institute, bridges both sides: "Both are evident in natural and human systems. Although [bottom-up] grassroots movements like 350 play a crucial role in shaping government action, laws are ultimately drafted by governments, which require [top-down] entrepreneurial leaders."

Even though Joe Six-Pack may react with raised eyebrows to 350 coverage on CNN (for two seconds), his personal behavior may not change. But when a critical mass of creative human expression makes it to the mass media, politicians stirring their cups of coffee may have to pay attention, ultimately affecting our friend Joe. And it just so happens that the times they are a-changin' for carbon policy — climate bills are currently in the U.S. Congress and are spotlighted at upcoming U.N. talks in Copenhagen. Cyberspace-orchestrated events are the loudest voices in the arsenal of the 6 billion common people who are increasingly networked.

So this means that climate change was the raison d'être for the largest decentralized, self-organized global "happening" to date. Why this? Why now?

Three revealing questions:

1. Are the leaders exceedingly charming? Cough, cough ... Al Gore.

2. Is the damage pressing and immediate? Well, in 2050 we can expect ...

3. Is the cause particularly poignant and obvious? CO2 and climate change are not even causally related despite strong correlations. Climate change models are some of the most complex and uncertain models around.

Not that convincing.

The answer may actually lie in a sociological theory I just invented: The issue of climate change parallels the nature of an increasingly Internet-driven world; greenhouse gases are as decentralized, diffuse and as global as our mainframe servers.

It is a cause that mirrors our newly connected identities. And since everyone could potentially be affected, everyone can understand the cause. Bangladesh and Maldives are worried about sea level; the Western U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa are worried about drought; the Caribbean and Polynesian islands are worried about storms. Just about every advocacy group, from environmental to social, can find a bone to chew. Forest conservationists in Brazil and Indonesia want reduced deforestation, labor unions in the Midwest want green-collar jobs, and the polar bear wants to continue its happy existence.

Climate change is a perfect issue for our epoch of worldwide webs.

Even the softest voices matter, collectively bringing the decibel level above the noise of advertising and pollution. Even a mob of kayakers can make a difference. Or as we discovered, even if they don't, that is still perfectly fine.

I was invited to the Kayak for Climate Justice event with prompting from Quentin Gee, the Day of Action coordinator for the University of California, Santa Barbara's Environmental Affairs Board, the largest student eco-organization on campus.

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Quentin courted me, explaining "a few dozen of us are paddling 2 miles into the open ocean, many without much kayaking experience, so we could really use your sailboat as a safety net out there."

Hmmm. I am a sailor, environmental educator and climate advocate planning a 3,000-mile sailing trip to teach at schools and explore the effects of climate change along the U.S.-Mexico coastline. This would seem like a perfect fit, but kayaking to an oil platform seemed like an activist protest. But Gee, a philosophy doctoral candidate, clarified, "We're not protesting oil platforms - they are just symbols of our addiction to fossil fuel for cars, packaging, fertilizers and plastic toys - they are a symbol of how far we still need to go.

"Hey, man, I have a car."

Convinced, I heaved anchor on the 42-foot Trimaran, the Kiri, and sailed to the student town of Isla Vista to escort the kayakers. (I had to use the diesel engine when the wind died, but no big deal, right?) Members of the group Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper were also there to support by boat. And we needed it — the moment the first paddlers plunged into the breakers, a typical California fogbank rolled in. Less than a quarter of the way there, the water reeking of oil from natural gas seeps, bubbling like an aquarium aerator, kayakers were falling behind, disoriented and seasick. The oil platform, which usually seems a stone's throw from shore, was now blanketed and invisible like the CO2 it was helping to process.

"Let's take the photo right here!" The organizers were satisfied with that decision.

Banners sporting "350" were strung out between kayakers in the perspective-less gray fog. We could have been 50 feet offshore or 20 miles and the photos were not impressive — it made no difference. These kids were pushing their comfort zones, plunging into a challenging environment, contributing to the global conversation, making their own small blip on the cyberspace radar, adding a bit of noise to the cacophony that would soon be exploding around the globe.

They failed to reach the platform and fulfill their goal, but the mission was a success: They participated and recorded it. That's what it takes to be a global citizen these days. That's what it takes to change planetary policy.

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