I’M WRITING THIS COLUMN in late July, midway through the busiest year of my life by far. I’ve already visited countries from New Zealand to Sweden to Turkey; later today I fly to India, then on to the Mideast and to Africa and São Paulo and Anchorage and wherever comes next. I’m spewing an ironic and embarrassing cloud of carbon behind me as I work with my colleagues at 350.org to organize people for the planet’s biggest day of climate action ever, set for October 24 — right around the time this magazine comes out.
Today I’m in Male, the capital city of the Maldive Islands, one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. Male is one of twelve hundred islands in an archipelago that stretches nine hundred kilometers north to south across the Indian Ocean. If you’ve ever gone to one of those yoga classes where they tell you to close your eyes and imagine that you’re on a tropical beach and the sky is blue and the sand is warm and — that’s the Maldives you’re imagining. Male, the lone city, is crowded and bustling, and it’s also in the midst of a political renaissance: a year ago, right before Halloween, the population managed to vote out of power a kleptocrat who had ruled for thirty years, replacing him with a man named Mohammed Nasheed, who had spent too many of his forty-two years as a political prisoner. Think Barack Obama with a dash of Nelson Mandela; among many other reforms, he quickly announced that the Maldives would be the first carbon-neutral nation on Earth.
But he announced something else, too: that his nation would be setting aside a portion of its tourist income each year in case it someday had to buy a new homeland and resettle its population. Because the Maldives is low to the water — most of it only a meter or two above sea level, a bad place to be in a century when scientists think that unless we act swiftly sea level may rise . . . a meter or two. And because those twelve hundred islands are ringed by coral reefs that provide them not only with food, but also with protection from waves and storms, yet the coral is dying — in many places 90 percent was killed during the last strong El Niño in these parts, when seas were warmer than they’d ever been in human history.
It is, in other words, like all places, intensely local, with its own history, and its own peculiar set of problems and possibilities. But it is also, like all places in this age, intensely global, dependent on everyone everywhere making wise decisions if it is to thrive, or even survive. So the question for us as organizers has been: how do we help people pull these two threads together? How do we help them use the particular genius of their own place to have a voice in the most important debate the globe has ever undertaken?
And the answer, here, is scuba gear. Also snorkels. On October 24, the people of the Maldives will hold the largest underwater political demonstration in history, a momentary intrusion of the noisy outside world into the quiet timelessness of the reef. I doubt the floating stingrays will mind, or the green sea turtles, or the clouds of parrotfish — they seem to look on with mild interest at everything that happens. But this will be a scene: 350 divers descending beneath the waves with signs and banners. A local photographer will snap a picture and swim to the surface and plug in his MacBook Pro and upload that image to a server. And there it will join thousands of other images piling in from all the other local places around the planet: climbers high in the Himalayas and Andes and Alps with 350 banners, and the slow food club in Barcelona serving 350 solar-cooked paellas in the town plaza, and teams of 350 bicyclists crossing corners of each continent, and 350 Nigerians planting 35,000 trees. The scale of some of the actions will be enormous: in Johannesburg and Sydney people will spell out giant 3s with their bodies, and in London and Zurich immense 5s, and in Copenhagen and Quito huge 0s — so that CNN will have to do our work for us, putting together the puzzle to show that you can’t solve this problem without crossing borders, without thinking about the planet as, well, a planet. Elsewhere they’ll be very localized: the handmowers league has promised to scythe 350s into many hayfields on that afternoon, in Vermont, and in Nova Scotia, and in Scandinavia.
The only common theme will be that strange number, 350, which — and I cannot say this enough times — is the most important number on Earth, the maximum amount of carbon scientists now tell us we can have in the atmosphere if we hope for a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Which we do hope for — because one thing I’m reminded of every day I travel is just how beautiful that planet is.
But the question is, how do you bring all that incredible diversity and creativity to bear? How do you allow the 300,000 people of the Maldives a seat at the table in the negotiations that will decide their future? How do you let poor people and nations have influence equal to that of Exxon-Mobil? The answer, as best as I can figure, is precisely this creativity I’ve been describing. Instead of another march on Washington or London, we’re collecting images from every corner of the world, that will stick in people’s minds and hearts — images that repeat a single number till it becomes a kind of mantra. And because we live in a wired world, we have a method for bringing those images together, for making that collection of photos add up to more than the sum of its parts.
On October 24, we’ll have a giant screen at the United Nations, where we’ll be flashing up those images in real time as they arrive from around the globe. In the weeks between then and December’s huge climate conference in Copenhagen, we’ll be using those images, and the human energy they represent, to push for a solution, not an agreement. To demand that physics and chemistry have a place at the table alongside economics (maybe even above economics, since its laws are easier to amend than the laws of nature). There’s no guarantee any of this is going to work — some scientists think we’ve already waited too long to get started. But the consensus is there’s still a window.
Which confers responsibility, a responsibility that some days I feel more keenly than I’d like to. Last night after my speech the first question came from an eight-year-old girl who’d been sitting in the front row with her father. “If things don’t go well at Copenhagen, how much longer will I be able to live in the Maldives?” she asked. “When will we have to move?”
The only answer I could give her (after a lifetime of burning fossil fuel) was: “I hope you’ll be able to raise your family here, and I’m doing everything I can to make it happen.” Since I seem now to be an organizer as much as a writer, I hope you’ll give the same answer. If you’re reading this magazine before October 24, I hope you’ll put it down and go to the computer and log on to 350.org and figure out how you’re going to help. But this battle will stretch on for years to come, requiring the same kind of creativity, and the same kind of solidarity, and the same kind of hope against hope. If you can muster any of that, then you’re badly needed.