Confessions of a reluctant climate-change marcher

He’s got the whole world in his hands — at Sunday’s People’s Climate March.   Photo by Milo Hess
He’s got the whole world in his hands — at Sunday’s People’s Climate March. Photo by Milo Hess

BY SARAH FERGUSON  |  What was the impact of Sunday’s massive People’s Climate March?

Was it, as 350.org founder and march instigator Bill McKibben claimed, “the most important day” in the history of the climate movement?

I confess when I first heard about the march, it seemed like another big protest parade to nowhere through the canyons of N.Y.C. With slick subway ads pledging to unite “hipsters and bankers” and even a glossy promo video celebrating the organizers and their mission to “make history,” the march sounded more like Live Aid for the planet — with no central demands on world leaders or threats to corporate power to give it teeth.

Having walked through the soles of my boots at marches to stop Bush’s Iraq War, I’ve experienced the limits of simply putting our bodies in the streets.

But after marching with my six-year-old, and running around to various panels and plenaries hosted by climate groups all weekend, I’ve emerged energized, if overwhelmed, by the depth and urgency of the grassroots organizing here and around the world.

While the media focused on the spectacle of 400,000-plus bodies jammed along Central Park West as far as the eye could see, it was the networking that took place between all these grassroots groups and the connections made at events leading up to the march that gave it its real power.

Scores of workshops and gatherings were held in East Village community gardens and other parts of Lower Manhattan as part of the New York City Climate Convergence — which coincided with the annual Lower East Side Harvest festival — creating a synergy of art, music and activism that I haven’t experienced here for some time.

There were people from Cochabamba, Bolivia, schooling Detroit activists on their succesful campaign to stop the privatization of public water, and Canadian tar sands activists mingling with bike advocates and African Green Belt activists on Avenue C.

“Like cramming for the apocalypse,” quipped one organizer.

You couldn’t walk into a garden without hearing about some environmental crusade.

On Saturday, instead of morning tai chi, I raced to a talk about global water crises at the new St. John’s University campus on Astor Place, where the halls and classrooms were brimming with eco and lefty groups.

I dipped into “War and the Climate Crisis,” then headed back east to Grafitti Baptist Church on E. Seventh St., where the folks from the group Sane Energy Project were unveiling a new interactive map that documents the growing web of natural gas pipelines, compressor stations and waste facilities for storing toxic frack brine from Pennsylvania that is emerging across New York State, in spite of Governor Cuomo’s moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.

“We have to understand, the moratorium is temporary, it’s not a ban,” Sane Energy founder Claire Donahue told the audience. “What this map shows is, we are in effect being fracked in New York.” 

(You can view the map at www.youareherenymap.org.)

Even places that aren’t getting drilled are being overrun by the gas industry in ways you wouldn’t expect. At a meetup of frack activists in Tompkins Square Park, I encountered Robert Nehman, a former house painter from Allamakee County, Iowa, who has spent the last 18 months crisscrossing the country to speak out about how mining for silica sand, which is used to open fissures in the rock during frack drilling, has transformed the rolling hills of northeast Iowa. 

The author’s son, Christopher, at right, in a white “Solar Power” T-shirt specially made for the march.  Photo by Sarah Ferguson
The author’s son, Christopher, at right, in a white “Solar Power” T-shirt specially made for the march. Photo by Sarah Ferguson

“In 2010, we had three sand mines within 100 miles of my house,” he said. “It’s now 140, and another 70 are proposed, each of them anywhere from 20 acres to 5000 acres apiece. It’s insane, it’s unbelievable. It’s clouding up the air. People can’t even hang their clothes out to dry anymore.”

Later, I listened to Native women tell powerful and heart-wrenching stories of resisting frack operations in tribal lands in Canada and the U.S. at a jam-packed symposium at the New School called #Frack Off.

Kandi Mossett, an activist from the Fort Berthold Reservation in the Badlands of North Dakota, showed slides of natural gas being flared off oil rigs in the Bakken Shale Play.

“Where I live, they’re fracking for oil,” Mossett explained. “The gas that’s on top of the oil is just a byproduct because the pipeline infrastructure to capture it currently does not exist.

“Every day more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared away,” Mossett continued. “Just to put it into perspective, that’s enough gas to heat half a million homes.”

It got me thinking, if the natural gas is just flared off out West, how then can it be worth tearing up our woods and streams and poisoning wells in New York, Pennsylvania and beyond?

“It’s a ponzi scheme,” Jill Wiener, a frack activist from Callicoon, N.Y., told me. “It just shows it’s more about fracking paper and capital than actual gas.”

If my weekend crash course in climate catastrophe left me with a bleak portrait of the world being plundered and colonized by “extreme energy” production, on the march I found hope.

I marched with my six-year-old, Christopher, and other community gardeners in the “We Have Solutions” bloc, intended to highlight things like renewable energy and organic farming.

At the front of the bloc, Will Allen, an organic farmer from Vermont, held up a recent study by the Rodale Institute showing that organically farmed soil can actually sequester more carbon than trees do.

“We’re seeing yield increases dramatically going up in two to three years,” Allen declared before a field of people waving vegetable signs with the slogan “Cook organic, not the planet.”

“It doesn’t take very long,” he said. “This isn’t rocket science. We can fix this. We can fix climate change!”

Close by, an ad-hoc group of contractors was towing a float featuring a five-foot-wide planet Earth that was spinning on a rotisserie motor powered by solar panels.

“I’m marching for a safe green economy,” said Erl Kimmich, an energy efficiency consultant from the Upper West Side. “New York State is ready for this. They’re already gearing up the power grid to switch to more intermittent energy coming off wind farms and solar. All the contractors I work with are busy. They want to buy more trucks and hire more people.”

Next to him, Cindy Kerr, a school administrator from the Lower East Side, marched while pushing her four-year-old in a stroller.

“I feel like we don’t have enough marches anymore,” she said. “Right now, we have this whole build to war. Where are the marches? I personally don’t think bombing ISIS or arming one faction or another in Syria is going to solve anything. We need to be in the streets.”

The awesome turnout made for a long slog. It took two hours for our section to move, and for every step forward we took, it seemed, the cops would hold us back to allow feeder marches to enter from the side streets.

By the time we got to 42nd St., many people gave up and dispersed.

Still, the excitement of the marchers was palpable.

“I’m amazed at the sheer volume of people who chose to be here today,” remarked a drag queen named Hucklefaery, who was done up in black spandex and polka dot wings to symbolize the plight of the monarch butterfly (whose annual migration failed for for the first time last year).

“If nothing else, we’re a huge economic force,” she said. “The corporations who support warming have to see this volume of people as a threat.”

I’m not so sure about that — yet. But the seeds have been planted.

“I think what we achieved by the march was people having confidence in themselves and their power to act,” remarked anti-G.M.O. campaigner Vandana Shiva. She was speaking at a press conference Monday with other scientists to promote organic n0-till farming and “regenerative” grazing as ways to actually reverse climate change by restoring the ability of soil to absorb and store excess CO2 from the atmosphere.

“There’s been so much discouragement in the environmental movement,” Shiva said. “This was about people knowing they have the power to act and to bring hope for the future.

“Now, of course, a march in itself is not going to bring about change,” she added. “What will bring change is what people do with that hope. So that is why you find us at panels like this, discussing the role of organic farming, which can be an answer for everyone. Not everyone around the world can afford a wind tower or a solar panel. But everyone has to eat.”

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