Welcome to the Revolution … I Think

by Auden Schendler

There’s a taboo and terrifying thing people do in the mountains called “trundling.” It means pushing an often frighteningly big rock off the side of a mountain, then watching it roll down, bounce, explode, crush trees, and smoke off into the valley below. It is not sanctioned; it is dangerous to the trundler and to others; people who do it don’t talk about it. But it happens.

If you have ever “trundled” a big rock (and I’m not saying I have, at least not intentionally) you know that the moment it tips from massive geologic inertia to kinetic energy is both terrifying and thrilling.

That is the uncomfortable point we may have reached in the climate movement. I saw this at a rally in Denver last week, which I attended with my wife and two young children:

The first characters we ran into wore black bandannas as facemasks and backpacks. And there were a lot of them. My response was a gut feeling of panic. What, exactly, did these guys think was going to happen here? They seemed ready for the Seattle world trade protests, or something gnarly out of Eastern Europe.

I had thought this protest was about stopping the Keystone XL pipeline as a way for Obama to draw a line in the sand on climate. But there were people railing against just about everything connected to the environment, including social justice, indigenous people’s rights, and fracking. “What the Frack!” was one chant. There was a guy carrying a book on Marx, there were some homeless guys with the agenda of not being bored. Later, at the rally, a child activist (who emceed the event) talked about suing Boulder for violating the public trust by polluting the air.

Suing Boulder, one of the greenest cities in the world, seems like an odd tactic: it’s like suing Jesus for not being loving enough. (Turns out, on further research, they were suing Colorado, not Boulder.) Whatever—there were many different viewpoints, from the hobo who blessed me, to the 12 year old radical, and many of them I did not agree with. It was both a rainbow coalition and a Babel of agendas.

Despite the facemasks, the event was civil: I never saw a cop, and I heard grumbling from some of the several hundred marchers that “when we have half a million, that’s when we’ll take over the street…” and “this is the only protest march that stayed on the sidewalk…” Point being, it might have even been too civil. See “At climate rally, some signs of fraying in a movement’s big tent.”

Only at one point did the event tip slightly to the radical.

Almost at the park where the rally was to be held, the crowd surged across a heavily trafficked four-lane road in defiance of the stoplight. In the streets the Marxists and the anarchists were exhorting people to ignore the lights. The traffic was honking now out of outrage, not support. A woman fell down and several people hauled her back up. “Now,” I thought, not particularly happily, “maybe something is happening.” I held my children well back on the curb and waited for the light.

I have become skeptical of the idea of working within the system for change, because I think the system itself is corrupted—by money in politics, by crackpot governance (the filibuster, gerrymandering) and by apathy. But when things start to get even a little bit crazy, the system starts looking pretty damn good. That’s why I was on the sidewalk, an unintentional gesture in support of the status quo. I had an urge to envelop my kids in my arms.

And yet, waiting awkwardly at a stoplight in the middle of a revolution, we were no better off. My children would be no safer in a world warmed by 4 degrees C than out on the most dangerous streets. This corner was a place of false refuge. On my wife’s urging, we surged into the road, with the crowd, in defiance of the light.

Barry Lopez calls the uncomfortable balance point between fear and accomplishment “the cusp on which human life finds its richest expression.” Perhaps only at these scary points in our lives, or in history—when neither forward nor backwards nor stasis is ideal—does the object you have been pushing on begin to move.

— Auden Schendler is Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and author of the book Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.

19 Responses to Welcome to the Revolution … I Think

  1. David F Collins says:

    Scary in the living room at home, too, when you think about it. When “they” (mobs and demagogues) bring out the torches, tumbrels and machetes, many of the 0.1%ers will escape and many worthwhile folks will be carted off. As was Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier.

    The real villains are the facile-fuel plutocrats intent on holding and increasing their wealth and power.

  2. John McCormick says:

    Auden, thanks for sharing your experience and particularly how you reacted to the crowd surge ant the intersection. We Americans are at a very vulnerable point in our 237 years of democracy. Rising gasoline prices have finally hit the trend line as Asian and BRIC economies are consuming more oil and (regardless of fracking or whatever) they will forever climb higher.

    Global ag commodity prices have rapidly increased since 2005 and projections for 2013 harvest in some of the most important ag sectors is not encouraging. Food shortages, in the poorest countries, is now a way of life. China buying ag lands around the world is a sure sign of ag instability ahead of us.

    People may be tuned out to the larger political on goings in the US but we take notice of higher prices for essentials knowing that our earning power is diminishing.

    How we hawks relate to that insecurity is a key to our any successes in the next decade.

    Do we play on that insecurity by telling ourselves the truth about climate change and warming trends leading to absolute chaos in the lifetime of our children? It seems our children are getting that message through their own means.

    As bad as it may be, the US political system is the only collective means to take sweeping action against fossils and for non-fossils. I see individual responses to AGW as a form of penance even while I encourage all of us to do more with less.

    For me, it all hinges on the 2014 election. Lose the Senate, lose the fight. Ours to lose or to win.

    LCV should have hundreds of millions of dollars to wage primary fights in the rethug districts and states. If the big green wrote huge checks to LCV it would be money better spent than we are witnessing.

  3. Bill D. says:

    Really a fine profile of the choices we face today both as Americans and global citizens. We’ve reached the Age of Consequences where the cumulative impact of humans’ previous actions has come home to roost. There’s no longer any real security unless we start to use our intellect to find ways to live in harmony with nature. The idea that we can continue with business-as-usual not only is absurd but also extremely dangerous. Each of us needs to step off of the curb and get involved in seeking solutions.

  4. Superman1 says:

    George Heilmeier, ex-DARPA Director, asked four questions of each funding proposal: 1) What is the problem; 2) Where are we now; 3) Where do we want to go; 4) What are the roadblocks to overcome to get from here to there, and how will your proposal overcome these roadblocks. We need to ask those hard questions of each climate change proposal, and weed out the sounds-good feels-good proposals that will carry us over the cliff on the road to Nirvana.

  5. Henry says:

    In my opinion, once the Climate movement goes full ‘radical’ on a large scale we will be truly headed in the wrong direction.
    This will anger too many regular Americans (whatever that means) and the backlash will be huge! These are not the Vietnam protests of my youth, where my neighbors were losing their sons in the war.
    Yes, we need to mobilize much greater numbers, but lets not let the radicals loose just yet. It may turn out badly.

  6. David Goldstein says:

    hey Henry- I couldn’t help chuckling at the phrase, ‘let’s not let the radicals loose just yet’. Well, I suppose that any true radical worth his/her measure, will not wait for an ‘it’s okay’ signal to let loose. I hear where you are coming from though- I have this sneaking suspicion that many of us will become radicalized as the crisis nature of the situation continues to ratchet up.

  7. Brian R Smith says:

    Yes, what “regular” Americans DO you mean?
    If you mean all the people who don’t yet get the climate future of their grandchildren but who, when they do, are going to be appropriately terrified & angry with do-nothing government & its complicity with the endgame of big energy- you may well have to expand your idea of who radicals are and where the backlash will be directed.

    If you mean all the farmers in Inhoff’s Oklahoma and across the plains and Midwest who are personally experiencing the death of mono-crop agriculture and their livelihoods… or the millions of “regular” non-lefty Americans loosing their health, property, jobs, water supplies & forests…well, you see my meaning.

    Don’t be afraid of radicals; be afraid that not enough people understand the situation in time to rally around solutions that demand serious policy & serious action. Otherwise it will turn out very badly indeed.

    If you

  8. Jay Alt says:

    Listen to your woman Auden.
    Numb America waits on the Climate Curb.
    Opportunities flit, stealing our dear ones best future.
    Step out. Step up. Leave the unsafe, unseemly place.
    as recently mentioned in another thread –
    The New Abolitionists: Global warming is the great moral crisis of our time

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    He means those people (we have many such here in Australia) who care more for their possessions than their grandchildren, who see human existence as a competition and the ‘losers’ can go to Hell, who despise everybody lower down the increasingly slippery social pole, but who idolise the rich, who they, ignorantly, imagine they will join one day and who have their ideas delivered by Rightwing Thought Controllers, who preach greedy self-interest as the highest expression of human life. In Australia they were labeled ‘aspirationals’, which, in medical terms, implies the life-threatening ingestion of vomitus into the lungs, which has always seemed depressingly apt, to my mind at least.

  10. Interesting point, I hadn’t thought about, which is that LCV might be the best possible way to spend philanthropic dollars…I’ve lamented the lack of effective NGO action on climate,but getting the right people elected, LCV is indeed effective. On 2014 being the key, I agree it’s important, but how far can we kick it down the road? I thought 2012 was the make or breaker!

  11. Brooks Bridges says:

    I too appreciate Auden’s revelation of hesitancy at the curb. It’s so hard to step out of our law abiding timid roles.

    And yet it would be the rare parent who wouldn’t risk far more if their child were in a near and present danger.

    And after reading the link Jay Alt mentions, I, for the first time, truly absorbed something the enormity of what Lincoln did – enabling 100s of thousands of deaths. I doubt he knew it would be quite as bad as that – but he knew it would be terrible.

    And yet today, with the fate of the entire world at stake, heads of countries seem unwilling to risk far less.

  12. Daniel Coffey says:

    Good piece, Auden. As one who walks in steep canyons and rock slides, I would have preferred not to know about the absurd and dangerous rock rolling effort. Some ideas are too good to share, and that is one of them.

    And then again, the analogy is apt: no solutions to global warming are going to come from destruction unleashed just to see the rock roll.

    Happy skiing.

  13. Daniel Coffey says:

    As one who lived through the LA Riots and hated what happened to Rodney King, I learned the lesson that once a mob becomes a mob, its purpose becomes each person’s to define.

    The answer to global warming is transforming our energy and transportation technology to 21st Century, direct conversion means such as large-scale solar PV, wind, geothermal, all of which require smart, well educated and well meaning people to create, manufacture, deploy and maintain. We need to support a fair society in order to reap the astonishing benefits which rest within our grasp. Violence, hatred, anger, and all the rest of behaviors mobs are capable of will not get us where we must go.

  14. Caleb Crawford says:

    Nice piece. You really articulate the ambivalence I hope we all feel, and the impatience for action.

  15. Paul Klinkman says:

    There are environmental practical people and environmental idealists. The practical people see the idealists as never accomplishing anything. The idealists see the practical people as selling out.

    The author is very much a practical person. His job at Vail is to make his corporation green. Vail has a good reputation, although the author probably knows people in other corporations who can only greenwash.

    He sees idealists on the street who are protesting the destruction of the world’s species, but with a slant of protesting his Vail Corporation too because they’re rich and they cater to wealthy tourists. Ultimately, downhill skiing is a huge energy hog from the necessary snow removal to the snow machines to the lifts to the traffic, and being a green energy hog isn’t exactly productive for inhibiting climate change.

    In my opinion, somehow we need a little both of idealism and of practicality. If it comes to blows, the environmental movement needs to push the most stiff-necked people in both camps aside. They have their own partisan axes to grind and aren’t helping the overall cause.

  16. Greg says:

    Auden, what you’re missing is the short-range history of Denver. Occupy Denver was active in the Sunday protest. They have a long history of harassment by Denver Police for such violent activities as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. In fact, while it might not be the case in Vail, it is now illegal to be homeless in Denver because of the over-response to Occupy.

    So be kind. Ask questions. I’m glad that less radicalized people are getting involved in activism in Denver. But understand that not too long ago, your children would have been pepper sprayed.

    In many cases, it isn’t just about climate any more. It’s about survival as a species.

  17. John McCormick says:

    Auden, 2014 is the showdown in the US Senate with the majority of the 33 contested seats being Democrats, some of whom announced retirement.

    The mad Rovers and baggers will use all the corporate cash they can lay their hand on to widen the majority in the House and win the Senate. They are into this full bore.

    Progressives see elections and office holders as serving the public’s interest. Rethugs see it as a business plan.

  18. I work for Aspen, not Vail–we are privately held and as a result can be more radical our activism.(For example, we filed an Amicus brief on Mass. V. EPA.) We don’t see the protesters as opposing our business. Increasingly the ski industry sees fixing climate (and its own climate impacts) as essential to survival and therefore part of the business model. See this report:

  19. EDpeak says:

    ” In Australia they were labeled ‘aspirationals’, which, in medical terms, implies”

    good thing I wasn’t drinking or I’d have water all over my keyboard Mulga! That was a very good line…now if we can just get some Stand Up Comics to use this and lines like it to raise political awareness! :-)