Given that every aspect of the climate crisis demands communication, Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter is a real problem. There's an undeniable chimp-with-a-chainsaw horrified fascination in watching him try to handle it (and, one hopes, an enduring and salutary proof of the fact that billionaires are not geniuses), but so far he has managed to turn an imperfect communications system into a dismal swamp.
This is a fighting newsletter, and especially with Twitter going berserk I'm glad it exists and that you're reading it. It's free, but if you can afford the modest subscription fee without undue hardship, it would make it easier!
I should say at the outset that I'm not leaving, yet.
Jelani Cobb offered the best account yet of why we should
To the extent that people remain active on Twitter, they preserve the fragile viability of Musk’s gambit. The illusory sense of community that still lingers on the platform is one of Musk’s most significant assets. No matter which side prevails, the true victor in any war is the person selling weapons to both sides.
But in my case it feels a little complicated by the fact that I've used the medium not just to communicate, but actively to organize. It's been a truly helpful tool in nationalizing key fights, from Keystone to the divestment battles: yes, we're all speaking to our particular choirs, but trying to help the choir sing from the same page in the hymnal is highly useful. Also, there's a part of me that bridles at being bullied off the playground. I've signed up for admission to some of the alternative playgrounds (Post.News) and watched with admiration as people pioneer new ground (the Mushroom project) but I have a bad feeling that my understanding of Mastodon may always be like my understanding of the blockchain: I nod while someone explains it, and then… Well, Twitter’s simplicity was its charm.
That said, there's no question that Musk's version of the site is on the verge of becoming entirely useless. There were always ugly currents there, but they are turning into daily tides—his notion of free speech is that anyone should say pretty much anything at all times, and so they are. When I post something now, many of the replies are weird anti-Semitic rants. (Last week someone insisted to me that "Jews invented pornography," which seems, on the archaeological evidence, the single least likely thing on earth). When one objects, as I did, scores of newly unleashed commenters pile in to insist that one should engage with the anti-Semites and explain the error of their ways. "You have lived in a protected hive mind bubble that shelters you from real people," someone called "Lizard King" explained to me today--and it's true. We've all lived in and benefited from a "hive mind bubble" that decided, post-Holocaust, that anti-Semitic declarations were to be shunned. The widespread acknowledgement that anti-Semitism was a disgusting source of unending horror was one of the few clear victories of the 20th century (of course, vaccines were another...). We shouldn't have to refight this particular battle every day for the rest of our lives, especially since the advocates of fascism are not likely to yield to facts. If Elon Musk, in his tantrum against "content moderation," wants to overturn these few slender civilizational achievements, then eventually most decent people will drift away from his orbit, and it will become a place populated mostly by unhappy weirdos. One has so much time and energy; arguing with people who want to tell you about "the Jews" (or "the Muslims" or "the Blacks" or whatever) is not, ultimately, a good use of that time and energy. You can block people all you want, but every day there's a new cadre; they're morons, but committed ones.
Which, as I've said, will cause a problem for organizers. We've come to rely on Twitter for certain things: it's an efficient way to spread important new information and to highlight important new voices; most of my Tweets for the last decade have been, in one form or another, saying "thanks" to someone for doing something useful, in the hope that others will notice. (And because I have a big list of followers they usually do). Things like this Substack rely, to some extent, on Twitter too--it's been the biggest source of new readers.
But I think this utility has come at a cost (and not just the personal one of spending way too much time scrolling). We've almost certainly relied too much on Twitter and the rest of its digital ilk. Posting, as many have pointed out, has become a substitute for other kinds of action. But more, it's given us less incentive to build out real and substantial networks. I've been reminded of this in the past year, as Third Act has sprung into life. We've patiently built up networks of flesh and blood people in physical places (Third Act Ohio debuts tomorrow!) and also in virtual space (Third Act Educators, say, are scattered across the country). They've gotten to know each other, face to face or face to Zoom. And that's turned out to be...effective.
Here's CNN describing our efforts in the critical Nevada election, for instance:
the week before the election, Third Act, a new national group targeting people over 60 to work on climate justice and protecting democracy, sent its celebrity founder, climate activist Bill McKibben to Nevada to meet with hundreds of older Nevadans. He was joined by renowned author Rebecca Solnit and Secretary of State candidate Cisco Aguilar at a “Defend Our Democracy” event in Reno.
That event inspired scores to show up the next day to walk door-to-door for pro-democracy candidates, shining a bright spotlight on Aguilar who subsequently won a close race against a staunch election-denier, Jim Marchant.
Forget the part about "celebrity founder," the key was that hundreds of people got together to do something. Organizing it was much harder than tweeting (huge shoutout to Third Act Nevada and the redoubtable Bob Fulkerson) but it will also pay much larger dividends going forward: there are new bonds, new friendships, and a new sense of our strength.
We'll always use digital tools to help in that work--this is the world we live in. But Twitter's sudden lurch into ugliness is a good reminder not to rely entirely on them. There's nothing self-driving about good organizing!
More news from the world of climate and energy:
+Fascinating new book--actually a revised and improved version of a book that's been making waves for half a decade--from Maya van Rossum, arguing that we need a green amendment to the constitution.
+From the people at Probable Futures, some of the most compelling interactive maps yet on what your neighborhood is going to look like at various temperature increments.
+Coming this month to theaters, an important documentary:
TO THE END captures the emergence of a new generation of leaders and the movement behind the most sweeping climate change legislation in U.S. history. Award-winning director Rachel Lears (Knock Down The House) follows four exceptional young women— Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, activist Varshini Prakash, climate policy writer Rhiana Gunn-Wright, and political strategist Alexandra Rojas— as they grapple with new challenges of leadership and power and work together to defend their generation’s right to a future.
+From Amy Westervelt and her invaluable colleagues at Drilled, a report on the resurgence of "old-school climate denial" and even the...coal lobby
+And from the equally invaluable Tom Athanasiou, a slightly more optimistic take than many on the Egyptian climate conference:
But after COP27’s loss and damage finance battle, something very large has shifted. Back in the old days, when it was still possible to honestly imagine that mitigation alone would be sufficient, it was also possible to argue that the redirection of private capital flows would more or less suffice. But those days are over. Today, no one honestly believes that a meaningful flow of loss and damage finance will come through private channels, and this realization spills over to the transition portfolio as a whole. The decision to create the loss and damage fund has thus queued up the real financing battle, in which international public finance takes center stage.
+Speaking of invaluable, Michael Northrop argues that the global climate banking alliance set up a year in Glasgow is failing, and calls for a smaller High Ambition group of banks to set a real pace:
Important commitments to stop investing in new fossil fuel development by the Netherlands' ING, the UK's Lloyds Banking Group and Germany's Munich Re, among others, have not received the notice they deserve. This may be because these firms themselves want to keep their sectoral relations intact.
Given that this small, but critical mass of leaders does exist, it would be a good time to note their intent, honor them for it, and use their leadership to encourage others to take similar steps. At that point, public pressure, market regulation, and a rapidly growing clean energy economy can bring most of the rest along.
+On the edge of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area in New Mexico, a plan is underway to build a field station for ecological research and more--but it will require some funds before year's end. An introduction (with some lovely views) here
Thanks for reading to the end of this fighting newsletter. It will always be free, but that's easier because some people pay the modest subscription fee to keep it going
All good points re: Twitter and for now, I'm staying on as well (so is the group I work for, NRDC). But I've never felt that Twitter had much value in really organizing climate/enviro campaigns -- always good to collectively spur on the 100 or so colleagues/allies in the heat of a fight, but, well, as you said, it was the hive, not the world, that heard us. Those old tech comms systems worked best in the fracking wars and the Williams pipeline firefight -- phone calls, emails, door knocking. Have to keep them tuned up as Elon+his scary friends demolish the twitterverse.
Glad you're hanging on, Bill. I'm running a Columbia Climate School community webinar Wednesday on Twitter and alternatives and will point to your reasons for staying (so far) and Columbia Journalism School Dean Jelani Cobb's reason for leaving. Here's how I replied on Post.news to Cobb's key point: "Like you I've been torn, but I'm staying for several reasons, one being a variant on your rationale for leaving. You wrote, "To the extent that people remain active on Twitter, they preserve the fragile viability of Musk’s gambit." I'd say, "To the extent that [constructive] people remain active on Twitter, they preserve the fragile viability of the (still unique) platform's power to build global solution communities, refine ideas and even save lives." https://www.openweb.com/share/2IEWVHOryQZ1tmVP0x3fugKh4J4 Lots more here: https://revkin.substack.com/?sort=search&search=twitter%20elon%20musk