Author, Bill McKibben, and his college friends were taking a class on climate change. They started meeting weekly after class. By August, they had decided that something had to be done to spur a larger activist movement on global warming. Over the next three weeks, they laid the groundwork for a march through the Champlain Valley of Vermont. The march drew thousands and inspired them to do more. On January 10th they launched their website, Step It Up 2007, asking others to organize rallies on April 14th to ask Congress to cut carbon emissions eighty percent by 2050. With the date only three months away their goal was to organize a hundred demonstrations for the day. But the idea spread quickly across the internet, and by the day of the event there were 1400 events planned in all fifty states.
McKibben shows that even though they had no money, no organization and no real expectations they could pull off a spectacular activist event. His book will guide and inspire you to take action in your community. The first organizing principle he puts forth is to make it credible. You don’t have to be an expert but you should be able to talk about your cause. His practical tip on making your event local is to find a local climate change expert who can discuss how global warming will affect your community. If you are facing flooding, how high will the water rise? If your facing hurricanes, how many more? If your facing drought, how much less water in the aquifer? Always ask the expert if he would be willing to be a speaker, guest writer, or media source in the future. Also, check out the business angle. Which businesses in your community provide clean energy options and are ahead of the curve on global warming? Involve your local low carbon business leaders letting them provide in-kind donations, loan equipment, provide meeting and event space. Ask them to work with politicians and lobbying efforts in Washington D.C. Of course being credible starts at home. McKibben provides seven simple actions you can take on the home front. First, replace incandescent bulbs with compact florescent bulbs. Second, get a programmable thermostat and set it at set it at two degrees colder in the winter and two degrees warmer in the summer. Third, set you water heater no higher than 120 degrees. Fourth, replace your old appliances with energy saving appliances. Fifth, purchase renewable energy from your local utility via Climate Counts Website. Sixth, Buy local, walk or use mass transit to shop. Seventh, when using your car, combine trips, keep tires properly inflated, and carpool when possible.
The second organizing principle that McKibben puts forward is to keep it snappy. McKibben advices that, “If you define an issue wisely, it can give you a distinct advantage. With Step It Up, we chose to frame the debate around the slogan: ‘Step It Up, Congress: Cut Carbon 80% by 2050.’ …Our Slogan ‘80% by 2050’ was a hard message to reframe.” The message framed the issue in a way that it was hard for politicians to do anything other than commit with a yes or no to the issue. The quick ten-week campaign did not allow much time for special interest groups to mount serious opposition. McKibben maintains that one should just, “jump in and get going…The only way to start a movement is by moving.” Don’t allow yourself to get bogged down in control issues; let anyone who shows an interest become part of the organizing team. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, tap into local organization, businesses, and leaders. Don’t spend too much time in meetings. While an organizers need to be organized, much of organizing is about convincing others to be involved. McKibben found that the motto, ‘just say yes” saved a lot of time from having to explain why you wouldn’t do something. They were asked to put educational materials on the site, even though these resources could easily found elsewhere on the internet, they decided it was easier to just put up materials and links rather than explain over and over why they were not doing it. Since Step It Up started with no money, it was essential that they keep it cheap. They held down expenses, used local resources and fund raised effectively. Keep it homemade; throw potluck instead of a formal dinner. The media will pay more attention to a genuine grassroots event than they will to over organized effort.
The third organizing principle that McKibben puts forward is to make it collaborative. Your action or campaign will be more effective if you reach out and work with those you don’t know. Think of your event as a potluck, you set the time and place and let everyone brings their best effort. His practical tip on collaboration is to assign everyone homework. Have a range of tasks they can choose from, but make sure everyone has something to do. This helps everyone feel ownership of the project and allows them to feel proud of the group effort. Be ready to offer something in return for other who work with you, like publicity. The Step It Up campaign created a list of friends and allies on their website, placing the logos and acknowledging the support of both large corporations and small groups and individuals who contributed to the effort. The fourth organizing principal is to make it meaningful. You want to connect with the soul as much as the brain. With the environment, your opposition is large corporate entities. You will never be able to compete with them in buying influence, but even without their kind of cash, if you can get onlookers to see your efforts as a moral struggle, they will connect with your cause. McKibben’s practical tip is to use the power of children, if you want a politician to sign something, have a child ask. Frame your fight in moral terms, discussing the value of caring for children, creating healthy communities, and economic opportunities. Use your issue to move them at the deepest level.
The fifth organizing principle is to make it creative and fun. Music can provide the spirit for social change. But music must be audible, and McKibben offers these practical tips, often local businesses and not for profits will loan equipment, make sure you have secured the equipment as soon as possible, if you live in a rainy place get a tent or tarp to protect it, a 100-watt system should be enough for a crowd of three hundred, make sure you know which microphone goes into which input on the board and label it, stages can be constructed out of 2 x 6 boards and plywood, set up your stage and do a sound check several hours before the event. Think of ways to involve the other senses, making it physical, creating art, even humor. When choosing a creative site, avoid fines by getting the proper permits. Once you have secured your location, meet with local business owners to let them know what you are doing. This will avoid potential problems and generate support for your event. The sixth organizing principle is to make it wired. McKibben notes that, “Step It Up has been called the first large scale ‘open source’ demonstration, a Web-based collaborative effort that allows anyone involved to add their own flavor to the project.” It would have been impossible to coordinate fourteen hundred decentralized events in just ten weeks without the digital tools that Step It Up used. They recommend mastering five basic online tools. First, email, make your message focused, avoiding long blocks of text, create a subject line that will get people to open your email, check and double check your email—nothing is more embarrassing than sending out an email and then realizing it contains an error. Second, make use of new media, create a blog, tag your entries with terms people will search for, and use bookmark services, like Digg to help people find your blog. Third, use photo and video sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube to create visuals for your message. McKibben offers the following practical tips--avoid talking heads, avoid roving cameras, choose lively locales letting the background had interest to your message, Invest in audio so poor sound wont detract from your message, brand it by lingering on easy to read shot of the event details and your organization name, create a podcast and embed it on your website and post it to music sharing websites. Fourth, avoid one click activism, where you just click to sign a petition or donate money. Fifth, encourage old fashion activism with sign-up forms, educational sheets, event flyers, posters, and stickers that can be downloaded. Use digital tools to connect, like Google public calendars, Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, publicize events with sites like Meetup and Evite. These tools make activism easier than ever.
The seventh organizing principal is to make it seductive to the media. McKibben’s states that, “Getting press coverage is worth the effort…And you can vastly increase the odds of getting coverage if you understand how reporters and editors think—what it is that makes them want to write about or film a story, and then to give it good placement in print or on broadcasts.” Reporters and editors are interested in what is new. Provide the reporter with a narrative that lets them know what is new and different about your event. Boast about your event, create a ‘David and Goliath’ scenario or a ‘strange bedfellow’ scenario, Think dramatically about your event. Create a relationship with the reporter, providing him with information without being pesky. Call the reporter and ask for a ten-minute meeting. Craft a two sentence statement to describe your event. When you meet with the reporter, introduce yourself and give your two-sentence presentation and then move in to the general plan for your event. Make sure, only one person is designated as the media contact for the group and let the media know who that person is. Starting with the alternative press and community radio stations can get you coverage that you can then forward to the mainstream media to generate interest in your event. Write letters to the editor or op-ed columns about your issue. Use the call in segments on your local radio station to raise your issue. Invite the media to cover pre-event activity and twenty-four hours before the actual event call the reporter to update him on your event. McKibben’s book, Fight Global Warming Now, is a handbook that will inspire you to take action in your own community. They show you that it doesn’t take a lot of money, or lot of experience to move people. It is something you can do.