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Why McKibben's Solar "Stunt" Does Matter

On second thought, McKibben's "Put Solar On It" road trip stunt was productive.

I'm going to push back a bit on Andrew's post from last week. Not because I'm chummy with the 350.org team, nor because I used to work at one of the stops on the road trip, nor because Bill was something of a mentor back in my early days freelancing the environmental beat—and I'll likely annoy all parties with pieces of my own criticism—but because I really do think that the Put Solar On It road trip was productive and necessary, even as it ran into that "bureaucratic" wall in Washington, D.C.

First off, there are a couple of points to address some of the criticisms in Andrew's post and comments.


The road trip crew didn't exactly show up unannounced, nor without fair warning. They had been trying to secure a meeting with the administration for a couple of months to talk about putting solar on the roof.

Also, from my understanding, the trip was mostly conceived and planned by the Unity College students. Getting McKibben to hop on board and linking up to 350.org's broader efforts—the international "Put Solar On It" campaign and the 10/10/10 Global Work Parties—was a big score for them.

Now, it's not that I thought everything about this trip/stunt/campaign/action was perfect. (What trip/stunt/campaign/action is?) Rooftop solar is still prohibitively expensive for the average family, so the "lead by example" message is tough to deliver. I personally would love to see a "Put Blow-In Insulation in It" road trip that brings attention to the lowest hanging fruit in greenhouse gas reductions: retrofitting our ridiculously inefficient national housing stock. (Surely some company or nonprofit out there can offer to donate a free energy audit.)

And there is a part of me that understands and empathizes with the administration that in this absurd political media landscape, they don't want anything to do with anything that brings up comparisons to the last one-term Democratic president. So rooftop solar is a tough sell, and Jimmy Carter himself's panel is a symbol that they can't steer attention away from fast enough. In fact, I would bet my next paycheck that that if Obama wins a second term in office, there will be solar panels on the roof by the end of 2013. Heck, they might well be installed within a year of now, if the Carter talk can be avoided and the climate and energy activists make lots of noise about this refusal.

Because, goodness, the White House turned down an offer for a free solar energy system. A free system that would be symbolically show the world that the most important piece of real estate in our country is weaning itself off of oil and coal. A free system that would serve as both a "teachable moment" upon installation, and as a longer term educational opportunity. A free system that would've reduced the building's consumption of costly (and greenhouse gas emitting) electricity. To take it to the logical extreme, accepting these panels would've saved taxpayers money. A tiny bit of money, but the message is there nonetheless. And make no mistake, this is all about message. As McKibben himself wrote in The Washington Post:

"Clearly, a solar panel on the White House roof won’t solve climate change — and we’d rather have strong presidential leadership on energy transformation. But given the political scene, this may be as good as we’ll get for the moment."

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So, yes, I believe that symbolism does really matter here. Plenty have pointed to Michelle Obama's kitchen garden and the exploding popularity of the movement throughout the country. It's not a perfect comparison: anyone can plant a garden, but not anyone can receive a free solar array donation. And, sure, her garden wasn't solely responsible for the burgeoning backyard garden movement, but it certainly did send a message to the nation's families that, hey, it's totally normal, even honorable, even patriotic, to be growing your own vegetables.

Rooftop solar should be getting the same symbolic support from the First Family.

Finally, this road trip was, to some degree, an opportunity to put the 10/10/10 Global Work Party in the spotlight and the headlines—like an advanced publicity tour for a coming attraction. And I, for one, think that this day deserves a heck of a lot more attention than it's getting, by mainstream media and so-called progressive or environmental media alike.

Consider this: On the same day that the Put Solar On It road trippers were meeting with a couple of lower level "bureaucrats," the White House had top level brass calling a pastor in Florida with a following in the double digits who had grabbed national headlines by threatening to burn a Quran.

Or consider this: There are currently 988 events planned for 10/10/10 in the United States, and there are dozens more added by local organizers weekly. That's already over 50% more events than the 642 Tax Day Tea Parties that the national press covered with breathless awe as if it were a national revolution. And you just had to show up with a sign to the Tea Parties; on 10/10/10 people across the country are actually volunteering do work. On a weekend! Where's the media's breathless anticipation for this massive nationwide action?

While I agree with Andrew that this road trip put the White House in a tight spot, showing up on their doorstep as they did, I actually think that forcing the issue publicly was smart and necessary. Nobody paying attention to climate change and energy has been near satisfied with how this administration has essentially put the issue on the back-burner, and the discontent needs to be voiced publicly. True, not everyone who "[cruises] up to the front door with an innocent, emotionally-charged request," as Andrew worries, should be given the time of day. But not every issue is as urgent and is being as dangerously ignored by our government as climate change.

If 10/10/10 is going to be all about "getting to work" on climate solutions, and if there are going to be other leaders around the world putting solar on their rooftops that day, why not put as much pressure as possible on our leader to do the same, and to do it loudly and publicly? Offering free solar panels may not be burning a Quran, but you would hope someone—in the administration and in the media—would be listening.

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