Step It Up On Climate Change

Monica Evans, who co-founded and oversees the regional chapter of the Sierra Club in northwest Michigan, reminded us this week of the Step it Up rally to accelerate action on global climate change. She and her colleagues are hosting a regional event in downtown Traverse City on the afternoon of April 14, starting at 1:30 in the Chase Bank Courtyard across from Horizon Books downtown. There’s a parade and a potluck dinner afterward.

The Traverse City rally is part of a national day of action organized by environmental writer Bill McKibben, the author of the 1989 best seller on global warming, “The End of Nature,” and his students at Middlebury College in Vermont. The frame for the national action is to pressure Washington to begin aggressively cutting carbon emissions and protect America’s right to an optimistic future. The energy behind the campaign was drawn initially from Bill’s capacious mind and especially his expertise on global climate change.

But Step It Up also is a quintessential example of the power of social media. It’s grown into a national event due in large part because the communicating and organizing reach of the Internet is linking so many people together who care about the warming earth. Bill took a page out of MoveOn.org’s playbook and deployed what are now routine online information and advocacy tools — email, digital photography, video, audio, YouTube, blogs, action alerts, and archives. He stayed on message, persisently sending focused appeals to gather on American street corners. People responded. One of those corners is the place where Front Street and Park intersect in downtown Traverse City.

For those of us who live along the northern coast of Lake Michigan this is personal. Lake levels have been low for several years and are dropping again. We just ended the warmest of the 15 winters I’ve been around this place. Crystal Mountain, where my wife works as a ski instructor, closed today, 10 days ahead of schedule. During the week between Christmas and New Years Day, traditionally the busiest ski days of the year — and the most economically important — there was no snow at all. My daughter and I ran the snowless cross-country ski trails in our shorts and tee-shirts. The resort laid off over 50 employees. Jim  MacInnes, Crystal Mountain’s general manager, says the ski season starts a week later and ends a week earlier than it did in the 1980s.

When President Bush and his fellow warming skeptics argue — there are a bunch of those folks sitting on county and township boards around here — that reducing global warming gases affects the economy I’ve always wondered whose economy is he talking about? The struggling snow sports industry of the Upper Midwest? The Colorado Plateau ranchers and farmers challenged by a nearly decade-long drought? The small stores and family businesses in New Orleans drowned by Hurricane Katrina?

Bill McKibben and his colleagues are performing a public service. Step It Up is a model for the kind of home-grown, street level campaign that online tools and techniques are able to turn into a mass movement.  Frankly, it’s essential. In a world with climbing energy prices, rising land and housing costs, declining incomes, record population growth, battled hardened political intransigence, and several potential environmental calamities converging at once, expecting leaders to do more than talk is folly.

A quick tour through the presidential campaign Web sites of Barack Obama (see yesterday’s post), Hillary Clinton and John McCain makes that point clear. All talk about the global climate, and all have proposed fixes — like promoting ethanol production and “clean” coal — that have no promise other than making favored constituencies richer and global conditions worse. 

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Flip: Seizing The Message and Messenger

I can see already that one of the principal activities of Mode Shift is to make a difference in the 2008 presidential campaign, not by convincing readers to vote for a particular candidate but by helping to make the case for public priorities that deserve to be treated seriously. Resource conservation, public transportation, metropolitan patterns of develohillary-clinton-photograph-c11811455.jpgpment, global climate change, healthy food, and land conservation merit attention. And it’s our responsiblity as writers to frame the issues in a way that people understand and leaders can’t avoid. 

This month an Internet event that stirred millions of Americans and the political community provides solid evidence that things will be very different next year. The event,  a video critical of Hillary Clinton that borrowed heavily from Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl commercial introducing the Macintosh, attracted more than two million viewers in 15 days. The video provides more evidence of the eagerness of creative and politically involved  people at the grassroots to shatter conventions. The power of their ideas and their access to social media indicates that it’s not going to be possible for candidates, regardless of political party, to wave their hands at “energy” or “health care,” or “education”, or even “security” and think that’s going to be sufficient.

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The Associated Press summarized today’s events this way: “A copy of the original commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, has been remade into a satirical attack piece against presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, replacing the Big Brother figure with the Democratic senator from New York instead. It then ends with a message supporting her opponent Sen. Barack Obama and a fruity Apple-like logo that has been converted into an “O.” The woman runner in the commercial has also been modified so that she’s wearing an iPod. The creator of the so-called online video mash-up was identified Wednesday as Philip de Vellis, a strategist who worked with a digital consulting company that has ties to Obama. The Illinois senator’s campaign has denied being behind the ad.”

The more durable point is that a clever video with a powerful message broke through to reach people. It apparently was produced by one guy with a brain, a computer, an editing program, access to YouTube, and a bit of a marketing strategy. 

The same is possible for people interested in transportation, the environment, housing, energy, land, and infrastructure investments. The convergence of record population growth, declining family incomes, and rising energy, land, housing, and living costs is eroding the right of a majority of  Americans to a good and decent life. These trends threaten our national security and our economic well-being. They are the threads of a national emergency hidden in the complex tapestry of our economy, culture, and business practices. Concern about these issues turned them into top public priorities in Michigan and some 40 other states. It’s our responsibility to tease them out, display them in creative and visual ways that get to the point, and to do so with persistence and clarity of mission that can’t be ignored at the national level. 

The tools and technology of social media, particularly YouTube, provides thinking people access to the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. We have brains and creativity and passion. We also have computers, cameras, recorders, mixers, editing software, and access to mass dissemination platforms, all available at a reasonable cost. Look for much more out of the grassroots in exploring the American Mode Shift. We have the opportunity to break open the conventional packaging and make the 2008 race something special. Neither the parties nor the candidates will be able to fully control the message. You and I will have our say.      

Mode Shift News and the Net

One of the rules of journalism that I learned a long time ago is that it’s okay to be ahead, but not okay to be too far out front. Another rule  is conflict sells better than cooperation. 

Mode Shift, which describes the political, cultural, and economic context of a civic movement that is changing patterns of metropolitan development, is ahead of most other forums in covering these stories. But it’s not too far ahead, which is probably good.

The hard part is that the American Mode Shift is principally a story of collaboration to invent novel ideas that are actually yielding promising results. In other words it’s a good news story, and that violates a basic tenet of journalism in the good ‘ole USA. 

Nevertheless it’s comforting to know I’m not alone. Along with the Web site of the Michigan Land Use Institute, and Smart Growth America, there are a handful of other forums that I pay attention to that are chronicling similar ideas and their results, especially those based in the West.

One of the best is New West, based in Montana, which approaches the Mode Shift from a multi-state perspective and does a very good job corralling trends and breaking news.

Another is Tidepool, based in the Pacific Northwest and now managed by the smart people who work for writer Alan Durning at the Sightline Institute in Seattle. Tidepool’s frame is much greener than New West’s, but that fits the ecotopian empire that lies between Vancouver and northern California. 

A third forum that is starting to pay more attention to the wave of green, energy efficient development strategies is Grist Magazine, also published n Seattle. Chip Giller, Grist’s founder, is a Brown graduate and a writer and editor from suburban Boston who was exposed very early to high concept environmental ideas. His baby sitter was Bill McKibben, author of the 1989 classic “The End of Nature,” and arguably the best environmental writer of his generation. 

I played a cameo role in helping Chip launch Grist, actively contributing pieces for tiny fees that helped to generate credibility. I also participated in the three-day strategic planning session several years ago  (McKibben and John Pascantando, the director of Greenpeace USA, also attended) that helped Chip turn Grist from a tiny start-up to the power house Web publication it has become.

chip-giller.jpgBut Chip, (see pix) whose picture graced the cover of Vanty Fair’s Earth Day edition last year, hasn’t been that interested in the greening of metropolitan development strategies until lately. Last year I tried to interest him a series of pieces that described how several cities were taking steps to become greener and more prosperous, and that the strategy was being embraced by dozens more regions. Chip’s response : “Oh, you can be our good news reporter.” Ouch! It was the green equivalent of “if it don’t bleed it don’t lead.” Nevertheless I see more of the Mode Shift in Grist’s report than I’ve seen previously.

The tie is Grist’s concern with global climate change. But whatever the frame, the reporting leads to the same conclusion. Cities are becoming the new incubators of environmental and economic policies that make them greener, more prosperous, and better places to live and do business. It’s good to be ahead. Just don’t get too far out front. 

Flip: GE’s Interactive Project to Explore Quality of Place

Flip is Mode Shift’s new feature exploring the breakthrough examples of how interactive and social media connect with commerce, land use, resource conservation, and place. Take a look at General Electric’s Geoterra Ecoimagination site, which deploys interactive motion graphics and audio to explore virtual geography. True, this is an exceptional device for marketing the company’s products. But it’s also a very strong move to prove G.E.’s  sustainable bona fides, a trend noted in last spring’s Vanity Fair green issue.

Developing high-end graphics, and inviting participation and feedback, is a keen way to explore the space  where green business and smart growth values merge. Improving the economy and quality of life. Interactive media and smart growth. Cool stuff.

Net Root Attack: Another View

How important is the Internet? We learned the answer in the old farmhouse at the top of the hill in Benzonia, where the Michigan Land Use Institute was founded. There were eight of us with the organization then, doing our research and writing at old desks topped by new computers and monitors, all woven together on an internal server that also provided access to the Internet.

It was 1998 and we thought we were pretty hip. After all, for a small non-profit we’d done well. Six months before, the Institute launched the first version of its Web site. One sweaty July afternoon, though, the site went down, and with it our internal server and email. I”ll never forget the next thing that happened. One by one closed office doors opened. privatedisplay.jpgYoung staffers, eyebrows raised, joined the middle age people in the building’s central hall. No question. Work came to a standstill and wouldn’t resume until service was restored. We looked at each other, shrugged, and creeped back to our desks to see if we were back online. We weren’t, so we took the afternoon off and rolled down the hill to the beach at Crystal Lake.

I was reminded of that afternoon when NPR and other news desks took note this week of the hacker attack on several of the important server installations that keep the World Wide Web operating. The frame for the national newsies was “what if.” The frame for techies in the blogosphere was either “we told you so,” or a surprisingly flip and almost cynical “who cares.” 

“It didn’t really do anything,” said Gizmodo, one of the most popular blogs covering technology, “at least not anything that normal users noticed.”

Today I had a conversation with an old friend who edits in New York . She asked me what I thought the attack meant, and where “it all,” i.e. the Internet, was going. I’m no soothsayer, but let’s consider a few views about the Internet that are unassailable at this point. For one, if television went down for a week, does it really make much of a difference in the course of our lives over those seven days? Perhaps for advertisers, jocks, actors, newscasters, and the few million of us who can’t live without the tube. Hardly a moment to panic. Same for radio or newspapers. If they disappeared for a week, what would it really matter?  

But if the Internet went down for a week, there would be a global economic crisis. Companies would collapse. Entire economic sectors would retreat. Business and industry would come to a standstill at the precise moment that the servers failed. The Internet is so tightly meshed into human commerce that it is impossible to exist without it. What’s more, the evolution of the Internet as the dominant invention of its age started in 1994, just 13 years ago, when AOL provided the first dial-up service.

I like to compare these first years of the  Internet to the early decades of the auto industry. At one time, around 1917, 23 automobile companies in Detroit, many of them located along Woodward Avenue, assembled more than 1 million vehicles a year. Building cars in Detroit changed the world. It prompted new wealth, union organizing, and land and resource-hungry development patterns. Cars also produced a culture of ease, convenience, and physical lassitude based on cheap oil, cheap land, and massive spending on roads and highways. 

The auto age is ending. The Internet is close to surpassing the auto economy and culture, if it hasn’t already done so. The digital backbone of the Web supports a global economic, cultural, communications, trade, entertainment, and governing infrastructure that has never been more interconnected, and can’t be replaced.