At a climate action rally put on by the Connecticut branch of grassroots environmental organization 350.org, I wondered if 350 million of these would be enough to reverse global warming? The event was one of over 2000 climate activism rallies taking place across the globe to “lead to real, lasting, large-scale change,” as 350.org billed it.
A group of Yale students gathered on Old Campus with signs promoting action before marching over to the event on the New Haven Green. The Yale Political Union was hosting a barbecue at the same time, and some people mistakenly thought the environmental group was protesting the barbecue.
I walked with the group over to the Green to join others who care about climate change. Various environmental groups aiming to help us reduce our carbon footprints were ready to greet visitors at booths. There was an outdoor screening of Wall-E and a talkback with local political leaders. Many happy environmentally responsible citizens biked over wearing T-shirts with green slogans—t-shirts that happened to have required energy in their production.
I believe in 350’s mission: to reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere from 392 parts per million to 350 ppm — hence the name — in an effort to halt climate change.
I knew that most of the other people on the Green really cared about the earth and its people. They were trying very hard to make a difference, but if climate change is as urgent of a concern as many scientists believe, rallies are nowhere near big enough of an action.
People who care about the environment want to encourage others to make changes in their lives so they might change the world. The problem is that even if every attendant from the more than 2000 350.org events around the world completely neutralized their footprints — forgoing modern transportation, electricity, new possessions and processed food — the carbon emissions of our planet would still be astronomical.
People who green their lifestyles can win a strong sense of satisfaction and feel they are doing all they need to help the Earth. Unfortunately, the threats in our future are not small enough that they can be remedied by individual or even rally-based feel-good action.
If we want to cut carbon emissions, stop deforestation or prevent a looming water crisis, we can’t just all use Nalgenes and ride our bikes to work — we need to reform entire societies. The organizers of 350.org are helping us on our way to a less energy-dependent culture, but it is certain that 350 million gatherings of people who already care about the environment will not be enough to really change our current patterns of consumption.
Until a majority of people in the world believe they or those they love are endangered by climate change, we probably won’t get much closer to the necessary drastic action. If we want to reverse climate change, we’ll have to move completely away from our current consumer culture grounded in the production of goods we don’t need, stop driving cars to work and live more compactly. That could take a while.
It also might take a while for environmentally conscious people like me to realize that signing petitions to stop oil subsidies and wearing organic cotton is not enough. Rallies can certainly be used as a tool for change, but when we let ourselves believe they on their own do anything substantial in the way of climate action we’re fooling ourselves. Complacence only harms the cause.
I’d like to think that 350 million 350.org rallies can raise enough awareness to incite a culture shift. If the thousands of people at each of the thousands of 350.org events really want to change how our world approaches energy, they will keep working. The solutions for a sustainable world are not easy and can’t be left to politicians once we’ve shown them we care.
On the New Haven Green, people gathered under 350CT.org’s mission to “move Connecticut past fossil fuels toward a brighter future and a healthier planet.” They stood together to spell out “350.” As long as they know they need to stand together in their actions on days when there are no rallies and that these actions alone are not enough, maybe there is some hope for change.
Abigail Carney is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.