Powershift 2011: 10,000 Climate Activists Gather in DC, Calls Mount for Civil Disobedience

Today marks the 4th day of Powershift, an annual event that gathers 10,000 students, community leaders, and activists in DC to foment the growing youth clean energy and climate movement. It’s touted as the biggest organizer training event in history, and that claim seems pretty accurate — these 10,000 youth aren’t in Washington to go sightseeing. Each of the attendees is involved in community organizing or campus action back home, and they’ve come to the capital to hone their skills. Whether they’re pushing to bring solar power projects to less affluent communities, leading anti-coal groups, or putting pressure on a local Chamber of Commerce to ditch the national lobby’s dirty ways, everyone at Powershift is engaged in the climate action movement in some fashion.

I was on the ground for the first three days of the event, which, in addition to training and strategy sessions, panels, and a number of direct actions, featured speeches from Al Gore, EPA chief Lisa Jackson, gay rights activist Dan Choi, the green jobs advocate Van Jones, and the leader of the 350 movement, Bill McKibben. Seeing 10,000 young, optimistic, and fired-up young folks packed into the DC convention center was inspiring — seeing as how every ounce of that energy is going to be vital if there’s to be any hope that a grassroots movement can spur American politicians into action on climate.

Tackling climate change is one of the hardest things that we humanfolk have ever had to do. And it’s going to require achieving some seriously large-scale action — the kind that’s hopefully being seeded at Powershift — if we’re going to do it in time. In fact, achieving adequate climate action is going to require accomplishing, to varying extents, three of the main tenets of our mission here at the Utopianist:

First, we’re going to need to increase sustainability. That much is obvious — we’re going to need to deploy clean energy, up the ante on energy efficiency, and improve the sustainability of our buildings, infrastructure, and cities. Second, we’re going to need to embrace technology — further research in solar, wind, geothermal, and so forth, as well as energy-saving design and information technology that improves efficiency, will all be necessary in curbing carbon and preserving a high standard of living going forward.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant to Powershift, we’re going to have to improve democracy — by mobilizing grassroots movements that ensure the people’s voice is heard and fighting to limit the influence that loaded corporations have over our political process, for starters. Right now, corporate interests have far more power than any citizen possibly could. And as income inequality trends have continued over the last couple decades, the rich have gotten much richer, and much more powerful.

Which is why a common refrain at this year’s Powershift was a call for more acts of civil disobedience, and more work in the social justice arena. Van Jones called for activists to help ensure that the poor have access to solar power. McKibben highlighted the importance of building a movement from the grassroots level to combat the vast resources held by polluting industries. And the renowned activist Tim DeChristopher, famous for his bold personal civil disobedience (he illegally bid on a huge parcel of land that would have gone to oil and gas companies), voiced the strongest and most direct call for action in his speech, which I recorded here:

DeChristopher envisions a full-on nonviolent assault on mountaintop removal mining and the coal industry, asking activists to risk hefty jail sentences to shut down mining operations until the industry changes its tune. As of right now, the vast majority of Americans disapprove of mountaintop removal mining, it’s absolutely devastating to the environment, it contributes to the acceleration of climate change, and it contaminates drinking water with toxic materials. Yet coal companies are allowed to continue the practice because it’s a little cheaper than ordinary mining. It’s as apt example of corporate power run amok as there is, and it’s exactly the kind of practice Powershift seeks to train the youth movement to tackle.

Today, make sure to watch for news from Washington — thousands of climate protesters will take to the streets to demand action from the White House.

Just how to best mobilize a movement to combat the political and corporate status quo that’s led to decades of inaction on climate in the United States is a ripe topic for debate. But there’s no doubt that it will take a multitude of approaches, from lobbying for clean power to sending activists out into the trenches to organizing efforts to shame polluting companies — and at Powershift, there was no shortage of big thinking and inspiring ideas from the generation that could make it all happen.

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Featured photo: Brian Turner courtesy of Energy Action Coalition. Gore photo: Chris Eichler courtesy of EAC

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to GOOD.is, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.