THE BLOG
09/18/2014 08:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Thing You Can Do This Week That Counts More Than Voting

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Maybe you've heard that the biggest ever climate march is happening in New York this weekend. But maybe you don't go to marches. You don't go, even when you care about an issue, because you don't consider yourself to be an activist and you don't have activist friends. It's not part of your lifestyle. Maybe you don't go because no one has ever asked.

When I started working at Greenpeace about six years ago, I had never been to a march. Honestly, probably had no intentions of ever going to one, despite the having passionate feelings about our military being in the Middle East, climate change, marriage equality, immigration. I actually don't think I knew anyone who had ever been to a march. I was working in publishing and, for me, political action was limited to publishing books of smart lefty writers, reading Mother Jones and The Nation. In 2008, my friends and I were feeling really optimistic about Obama and what he could do for healthcare, the environment, everything.

This was, if you can imagine, before social media was really a thing. Progressives read a handful of blogs, so I thought the thing to do was to write a really great blog. Then you would convince a lot of people to do the right thing.

When I started at Greenpeace, I was still high on the wave of President Obama being elected, on the force of political action and the power of our votes. And just after I started, everyone started talking about an upcoming march to shut down a really bad coal plants in DC that was literally powering Congress. It was going to be the biggest ever action on climate, and the organizers were hoping for something like 5,000 people.

Whether or not I intended to go to that march I ended up there. It was so cold that two pairs of socks couldn't keep my toes warm, and I was with a small contingent of people blocking a gate. The police were largely ignoring us. The legendary Judy Bonds spoke. She was a coal miner's daughter who became one of the country's strongest voices on mountaintop removal. I feel grateful now that I got to see her before she died in 2011.

Mostly what I remember was everyone around me knowing the words to chants I didn't know, having what looked to me like a kind of religious experience that I wasn't experiencing. "This is what democracy looks like," is a chant that is probably familiar to anyone who has been to a march, but since I hadn't ever been to a march or heard those words, I really thought about it and looked around, and something kind of clicked.

Democracy looks like people with their toes freezing off trying to look alive for the cameras because they have made the decision to exercise their political power by publicly calling for change. Democracy maybe looks a little chaotic and maybe a little disorganized. Democracy looks like a lot of people in one place that have some of the same ideas, but maybe not all the same ideas. This is one of the ways you can register to the world what you're feeling, an action more powerful than voting, an action that's made possible because of our country's imperfect but important protection of free speech. This is how you politically engage.

Sure, I felt a little like an outsider. But I also felt embraced and accepted by the movement. Later when we were warming up and eating good food and drinking beer, I was glad I had stepped out of my comfort zone. I felt politically empowered, and it hadn't been as hard or as weird as I thought it would be.

The tens of thousands--maybe hundreds of thousands--of people who are going to show up in New York this Sunday in advance of the UN Climate summit are going to make that march in DC seem small. It's going to be gorgeous weather, and if you march with Greenpeace, we're going to be handing out snow cones to remind people why it's important to think about the Arctic when you think about climate change. So it's probably not going to be a miserable experience. You'll get some exercise with some like-minded people. Maybe a light bulb will go off for you, or maybe you'll just have a nice afternoon.

But most importantly, your voice is going to be counted. I know from talking to my friends, family, community, and strangers that we're all a little more worried about climate change than we were a year ago, and a lot more worried than we were five years ago. But the leaders gathering in New York for the summit -- the governments, the corporations deciding how much you care about the climate impact of the products they make -- they don't consider the conversations you're having with your friend at the bar or what keeps you up at night. They look at what's visible, and this march is going to be visible.

At some point the media is going to name a number of how many people showed up, and no matter what it is, that number might sound to you a little bit like not enough people showed up. So go be one of them.

It might take a little bit of bravery because it's not what you're used to doing. That's ok. Think about doing it anyway.

Marching isn't the only way to engage. Artists should make art. Musicians should make music. Scientists should work on solutions. Teachers should teach. Writers should write. All across the country, people are practicing civil disobedience and risking arrest to show their support in even more dramatic ways. And yes, we should all talk about this on social media. We should call our representatives. We should write letters and sign petitions.

But if you're feeling like what you're doing is not enough, and if you want to tell your kids some day that you were out on the streets asking for something better, go on Sunday. It's not going to be terrible. It might be fun. It's going to matter.