Op-Ed: I Marched on Washington for the Climate—Here’s Why

Lucas Spangher, a Duke undergraduate, says that the environmental movement may need a dose of pragmatism.

Demonstrators hold signs during a rally in solidarity against the Keystone XL pipeline and for environmental action in Edmonton on February 17, 2013. (Photo: Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

Lucas Spangher is a junior at Duke University with an avid interest in green energy technology.

I marched in the anti-Keystone XL climate change rally on February 17 in Washington, D.C.

At the Washington Monument gathering, where speeches were underway, it was nearly impossible to determine a sense of scale. Due to the space’s strangeness, I estimated 4,000 people surrounding us in the shivering cold.

But a curious phenomenon occurred as the last speakers took their turn. Some group near the back simply took it upon themselves to start the march, and so a mass of people started for the road—and it didn’t seem to end. More people kept on filling in and following; by the time the foremarchers cleared the corner and the road was filled, the crowd back on the green seemed no smaller. 

And so, as our surrounding protestors swelled towards the march, we went with them. We walked down Constitution Avenue and made the first right.

The first of many impromptu dances broke out in a little pocket to our left. Chants swelled and died almost continuously. At one point a “Show-me-what dem-o-cra-cy looks-like” chant arose in the front and the back of us, with the front having a slightly faster tempo—that was a little bit confusing.

When we approached the White House, there was more confusion: Do we stop? Do we do something protest-like? Apparently not—everyone around us milled about and then followed those in front down the road that would take us back to the start. Thus, I really never saw all of the people in one place. The most I saw was at a turn in the road: The entire street in front of me was filled, and the entire street behind me was filled as well, a mass of faces and posters.

It was, simply, incredible. The notion that all these people (50,000 of them, as Sierra Club told us afterwards), had taken bus and plane to get there, that they had braved the cold weather and uncertain outcome; moreover, that there are that many people who care that much, was inspiring. Caring about the environment can seem like a lonely endeavor at times. Thankfully, that doesn’t need to always be the case.

Apart from the scale, I did witness things I didn’t exactly expect. There was the multitude of selfies I saw friends take with smartphones: pictures that presumably would be on Facebook later. There were the couple of marchers who I saw rooting through recycling bins afterwards to find some discarded poster prints that were in good shape, probably as souvenirs. And then there was that one befuddling girl I passed at an impromptu dance pocket who was explaining to her friend, “You know, a protest has to be fun. Like, it just has to be.”

But I guess it’s not that befuddling. There was undeniably a level of wealth that was necessary for most to attend this protest. Many protestors had to afford travel and lodgings. Everyone had to at least have the capacity to not work for a day.

And, more then that, the ability to care about the environment itself requires some level of privilege. It takes some level of education to understand the statistical abstraction that is climate. It requires some small distance from nitty-gritty problems of poverty that often stymies positive environmental regulation. Although it’s unfortunate, as it opens up the movement to an easy attack, environmentalists are rarely the poorest of the poor.

All of this—the combination of the obsessive social documentation, the materialism of the posters, the focus on fun, people fighting a privileged fight—seemed, at some level, just wrong. It made the rally seem like a pet issue of the middle class, something we cared about to fill our time rather then for its legitimacy. Something that we just did, you know, for fun.

But I realized that fundamentally, it was not wrong. Who the speaker is does not determine the validity of the message. There are no “right” or “wrong” environmentalists; climate change will hurt everyone.

What we need is to solidly address this problem, not to go about and enforce our own conception of what it means to care. As Kai Murros says, “The middle class is a most important instrument of the revolution.”

And as a pragmatist, I believe this is true. Environmentalists now must not lose sight of the true purpose of any social activism: to create as inclusive a platform as possible for change.

This inclusion of course applies to those who were unable to be at the rally for financial or other reasons. Any policy that is made must have a specific eye toward empowering disempowered communities; asking Obama to invest in green energy jobs as an alternative to the Keystone Pipeline should not just be a talking point, but a fundamental tenet of the environmental movement’s platform. And to some extent, I really think that it is.

So, with this, let me end my account of the historic rally.

We may have marched privileged, but we stand united. President Obama: please, say “no” to that pipeline. 

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