Will Bates ’99 speaks at Upper School Assembly and Green Committee Meeting
“This information isn’t easy. Once you know it, in some ways you have a responsibility to do something about it,” Will Bates, a GCDS alumnus class of 1999, told the Upper School students at an assembly on January 8. Inspired to take action after studying a course called “Climate Change and Social Movements” as a student at Middlebury College, Will is now Global Campaigns Director and co-founder of 350.org. “The idea of a social movement was the only response that seemed commensurate with what we’re facing,” explains Will. “It got us started with campus-based organizing and studying social movements from the past.”
Their efforts quickly expanded beyond campus, and momentum accelerated when Bill McKibben, a well-known author and Middlebury professor, joined their effort, having recently returned from a trip to Bangladesh where he caught Dengue fever and experienced first-hand the role of climate change in spreading disease.
Reflecting on their strategy for action, Will notes, “Plenty of people were working on climate change, but very few people were thinking about how to build a movement on it.” They began looking for ways to spark similar efforts across the whole country, and in 2007, launched a campaign called “Step It Up,” a national call to action encouraging people to organize demonstrations all across the country on April 14 of that year.
The response took Will and his fellow Step It Up volunteers by surprise. Within three months, 1,400 events had been organized in 50 states. “This was one of the first times we used web-based organizing for off-line mobilization, and it worked,” says Will. “That gave us immense hope that we could really build a movement to address [the climate crisis].”
Aware that success would require a global effort, Will and fellow Step It Up organizers headed to a UN climate meeting in Bali, Indonesia, with the goal of learning about the global discussions already taking place. While they were attending the meeting, NASA scientist James Hansen released a paper identifying 350 parts per million as the safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. At the time, the actual concentration was already at 387 parts per million. For Will and his friends, 350 represented the urgent need for action. It also had the advantage of being written in Arabic numerals, which are widely understood across many countries and languages. Deciding it was the perfect symbol for a global, unified movement, they launched 350.org.
This winter, Will’s discussions with the Upper School students and the parents attending the Green Committee meeting, reflected both aspects of 350.org’s work: inspiring awareness and facilitating action. Through an open Q&A format, Will talked with the students about the causes of the climate crisis, the ecological and societal disasters that have already resulted, and the far more devastating consequences that threaten to occur if we fail to change course. He also explained 350.org’s most recent effort for action: encouraging U.S. colleges and universities to divest endowment funds from the fossil fuel industry.
At the Green Committee meeting, Will’s introduction of this divestment campaign sparked a thoughtful debate about the pros and cons of such a strategy. As a group committed to action, the parents and teachers at the Green meeting were also interested in practical aspects of how 350.org is run—where their offices are located, how they raise funding, their approach to engaging people around the world through social media and email, how they use both online and off-line strategies. Through all his answers, Will’s passion came through. The issue may be daunting, but, for Will, there is joy in the work: “The kind of positive world that we believe we can create and the kind of positive experience that we create for ourselves just by taking on the issue is joyful.”