03/04/2013 04:25 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

Welcome to the Revolution... I Think

There's a taboo and terrifying thing people do in the mountains called "trundling." It means pushing an often frighteningly big rock off the side of a mountain, then watching it roll down, bounce, explode, crush trees, and smoke off into the valley below. It is not sanctioned; it is dangerous to the trundler and to others; people who do it don't talk about it. But it happens. If you have ever "trundled" a big rock (and I'm not saying I have, at least not intentionally) you know that the moment it tips from massive geologic inertia to kinetic energy is both terrifying and thrilling. That is the uncomfortable point we may have reached in the climate movement. I saw this at a rally in Denver recently, which I attended with my wife and two young children.

The first characters we ran into wore black bandannas as facemasks and backpacks. And there were a lot of them. My response was a gut feeling of panic. What, exactly, did these guys think was going to happen here? They seemed ready for the Seattle world trade protests, or something gnarly out of Eastern Europe.

I had thought this protest was about stopping the Keystone XL pipeline as a way for Obama to draw a line in the sand on climate. But there were people railing against just about everything connected to the environment, including social justice, indigenous people's rights, and fracking. "What the Frack!" was one chant. There were Marxists, (whatever that means today, but one guy was carrying a book on Marx), there were some homeless guys with the agenda of not being bored. Later, at the rally, a child activist (who emceed the event) talked about suing Boulder for violating the public trust by polluting the air. Suing Boulder, one of the greenest cities in the world, seems like an odd tactic: it's like suing Jesus for not being loving enough. (Turns out, on further research, they were suing Colorado, not Boulder.) Whatever -- there were many different viewpoints, from the hobo who blessed me, to the 12-year-old radical, and many of them I did not agree with. It was both a rainbow coalition and a Babel of agendas.

Despite the facemasks, the event was civil: I never saw a cop, and I heard grumbling from some of the several hundred marchers that "when we have half a million, that's when we'll take over the street..." and "this is the only protest march that stayed on the sidewalk..." Point being, it might have even been too civil. (See here.)

Only at one point did the event tip slightly to the radical. Almost at the park where the rally was to be held, the crowd surged across a heavily trafficked four-lane road in defiance of the stoplight. In the streets the Marxists and the anarchists were exhorting people to ignore the lights. The traffic was honking now out of outrage, not support. A woman fell down and several people hauled her back up. "Now," I thought, not particularly happily, "maybe something is happening." I held my children well back on the curb and waited for the light.

I have become skeptical of the idea of working within the system for change, because I think the system itself is corrupted -- by money in politics, by crackpot governance (the filibuster, gerrymandering) and by apathy. But when things start to get even a little bit crazy, the system starts looking pretty damn good. That's why I was on the sidewalk, an unintentional gesture in support of the status quo. I had an urge to envelop my kids in my arms.

And yet, waiting awkwardly at a stoplight in the middle of a revolution, we were no better off. My children would be no safer in a world warmed by 4 degrees C than out on the most dangerous streets. This corner was a place of false refuge. On my wife's urging, we surged into the road, with the crowd, in defiance of the light.

Barry Lopez calls the uncomfortable balance point between fear and accomplishment "the cusp on which human life finds its richest expression." Perhaps only at these scary points in our lives, or in history -- when neither forward nor backwards nor stasis is ideal -- does the object you have been pushing on begin to move.

Cross posted from