Say you're an alien anthropologist studying human behavior on Earth.
Understandably, you are perplexed by the events of Oct. 10, 2010.
Dutch women partying in their old wedding dresses to celebrate re-using and recycling.
One-hundred-sixty eighth-graders in Cape Town walking the length of the beach leaving only one set of footprints to symbolize their future commitment to reducing waste.
A hilarious visual collage: "What can one person do when 6.8 billion are frying the planet?"
And then there were the “carrot mobs,” where businesses — say an ice cream shop in California — were invaded by throngs of people patronizing the enterprises for both their products and for their altruism. (Both the ice cream shop and pub owners had pledged to use the extra revenues from that day toward energy efficiency and renewable power generation for their stores, reducing their respective carbon footprints.) The communities thanked them with their purchasing power, using a "carrot," not a "stick," to foster change.
This “carrot philosophy” governed not just the carrot mobs, but roughly 7,000 other interconnected events occurring around the globe that same day. Nearly every nation on the planet was represented: 188 countries, with exceptions of North Korea, Andorra, Equatorial Guinea and San Marino. Every state in the U.S., Canada and Mexico participated. (To see a list of the best 10/10/10 events, click here.) It was an orchestrated, worldwide event to tackle climate change, but it wasn't about pointing fingers or protesting.
Instead, stuff was getting done: Trees were planted in Kansas, mangroves in the Maldives, trash was picked up in Argentina and India, 500 bikes were built in Boston to send to Uganda, and the White House that week announced it would install solar panels. (And for full disclosure, I organized a work party where I live in Oaxaca.)
So, as alien anthropologist, it was a Global Work Party, masterminded by the group 350.org. But as an honest observer, you ask, “Was it just a social media stunt, or can it catalyze change across planet Earth?”
A Diffuse Environment
Thirty years ago, few would have guessed that climate change, a cause so indirect and amorphous, its effects indirect, far off and hard to predict, could spark such widespread mobilization. After all, people with diffuse interests, no matter how great their number, struggle to unify their voice and overcome small groups of people with specific, shared and entrenched interests.
The "environment," broadly speaking, failed to have a voice until its deterioration caused direct, immediate impacts. Health was the trigger: Toxic contamination caused cancer, rivers caught on fire, oil spills devastated beaches. In the 1960s, a huge amount of legislation was passed when the connection was established between environment and health. Even endangered species, an abstract interest to most people, were given priority over economic interests in the Endangered Species Act partly thanks to the science of ecology informing us that biodiversity underlies many of our life-support systems.
The rabbit hole for the environment goes deeper. New pollutants create subtle new problems, which only become obvious later or on large scales. Fertilizers, for example, were hailed as the solution to end world hunger; they have managed to foul waterways and deplete soils. We also realized that CFCs, at first miracles for refrigeration, ended up damaging the ozone layer and thereby increasing the incidence of skin cancer. Greenhouse gases are also subtle pollutants and avoided detection as serious problems until fairly recently.
Evidence of a connection between climate change and our health grows daily, through quiet scientific research and catastrophic weather events. This year, headlines were filled with crop failures in Russia from the hottest temperatures on record, floods in Pakistan, torrential rains in Mexico and the eastern United States. However, most people don't experience the brunt of problems firsthand, and many see the connection as just conjecture by scientific models — or worse, a scientific conspiracy.
Those who do care are those personally affected and those who are aware that the well-being of society and ecology are inseparable. These groups of people are not necessarily in the same community and may share little else other than their concern on this issue. As writer Malcolm Gladwell might say, they are linked by "weak ties" around the world, and in his view weak ties are not the ties that bind.
Conquering Weak Ties with Social Media
In a recent New Yorker article, Gladwell downplayed the importance of Internet and social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc) in creating social change, since their main benefit is linking people who share weak ties.
Gladwell argues that discipline and strong ties are necessary for change and warns digital activists not to put social media on a pedestal just based on the numbers who show up for an hour or a day. It is a great networking tool for mobilizing people, but it doesn't create the structure needed for the collective strength of diffuse interests to overcome entrenched interests.
Pointing to the U.S. civil rights movement, he shows that the "high-risk activism" that catalyzed change — boycotts and powerful sit-ins — required disciplined structure and strong ties. In that case, it was African Americans and some allies connected through church groups and close friendships.
Vigorous responses to Gladwell's essay streamed through the Web. The Huffington Post was critical and mentioned the successes of the "Text Haiti" fundraiser by the U.S. Department of State that raised $25 million in eight days, and Barack Obama's election to presidency aided by youth-led social networking. Discussions on the New York Times included how weak ties are helping China's civil society and how the Internet can expose repression. Nevertheless, Gladwell's statement that the weak ties of social media fail to instigate high-risk activism survived the criticism — well, the examples above all seem pretty low-risk to me.
It’s All in the Numbers
The 350 in the 350.org refers to 350 parts per million, the amount of carbon dioxide scientists believe is a safe level in the atmosphere. Antarctic ice core records reveal that in the past 800,000 years, CO2 levels have never been as high or have changed nearly as fast as today's rate. As of September 2010, it was measured at 386 ppm and rising at about 1.9 ppm per year. Under business-as-usual scenarios, it is expected to surpass 450 ppm by 2050, raising global temperatures more than 1 degree. On the present course, the increase in temperatures by 2100 would be 2-3 degrees, which hasn't been seen on Earth since the Pliocene Epoch, when trees grew in the Arctic and sea level was 25 meters higher than today. Forecaster Mark Lynas notes that when the climate used to be 1 degree higher, Nebraska was largely a desert.
Despite its widespread appeal, the 10/10/10 Global Work Party was not about high-risk activism. People were not asked to chain themselves to trees or risk their lives. They didn’t even risk verbal brickbats. Even non-environmentalists can nod in approval at old folks in a Massachusetts retirement community working on their food garden, solar panels being installed at an educational center in Namibia, of more than three tons of acorns being gathered for reforestation in Moscow to replace oaks lost in the devastating forest fires this summer, or of roofs being painted white in Harlem to increase the albedo effect and reduce the "urban heat island" effect.
The brilliance of the Global Work Party was exactly that it was low risk and beneficial — and therefore compatible with the social media platform that it used. The appeal of these events reached enough people that behavior can change from the bottom up. The group 350.org succeeded in that role with a simple structure and strategic backbone for the event.
But what about action from the top down, that is, legislation or policy changes that raise efficiency standards? Gladwell says high-risk activism is the key to change, and as I argue, climate change is unlikely to generate that activism. But the status quo lies somewhere between where the top-down meets the bottom-up — and so even low-risk endeavors can create lasting change.
Still, Gladwell’s warning should be heeded: Strategy and discipline, not just mass numbers, are the best ingredients for meaningful results.
Environmentalism has evolved in the last 40 years: from protesters using the stick to pressure polluters, to groups using the carrot to lure businesses into improving standards. It has evolved to deal with these increasingly diffuse issues, and social media has come to the rescue to bring people together. The Global Work Party was a product of this evolution — not high risk but with tangible and good results.
After 10/10/10, it feels like we're in a new era, one in which people are taking climate issues into their own hands. May the leaders follow.