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Can We Solve It Like This? Why the We Campaign Needs Change.
Alex Steffen, 7 Apr 08

We Can Solve It is barely out of the chute, and already there's widespread clamor in the green media that its approach is, well, flawed.

One of the biggest questions is why what's known about the project's $300 million three-year budget sounds like a dream campaign plan from 1989: heavy on expensive TV ads, media consultants, and the like, and extremely short on funding for items that could push much broader grass roots outreach... that as a campaign it is, as someone said to me this weekend, "way more Hillary than Obama."

Consider what Personal Democracy Forum had to say:

I wonder how much of that $300 million has gone into this too-slick web site. ...In a truly disempowering sense, the We campaign already has it all figured out — and all we, the robotic consumer people ... have to do is click here, buy this, give them our name and email address and the names and email addresses of our nearest and dearest and the problem will be solved! Hey, ad exec. people making millions of dollars, we regular people may have some ideas of what to do, who to talk to, how to organize ourselves that hasn’t been focused grouped and put into pale colors yet!

Others are more concerned about the actual messaging of the campaign itself. Beyond DC pointed out that the combined smart growth/ green building/ clean transportation approach that is our best bet to actually solve climate change is essentially completely missing:

When we heard about your latest operation, the We Can Solve It campaign, we clicked over excitedly to read the latest news and sign up to do our part. Unfortunately, when we got there our initial excitement gave way to disappointment. You spend plenty of time talking about techno wizardry and new sources of energy, but we pored over your solutions page and find nary a mention of anything about changing our gluttonous driving-based lifestyle. You have a whole section titled Cutting fuel costs on the road, but in the entire piece the message “drive less” is nowhere to be found. Tucked way down deep below whole chapters about minor subjects like light bulbs, properly inflated tires, and residential air filters, there’s a single sentence about public transportation and a passing reference to walking to work, but that’s the extent - a single sentence and a passing reference. Nowhere on the entire We Can Solve It site is there any mention about living in a walkable, urban community. Nothing about the damage caused by sprawl. Searches on your site for “transit“, “walkable“, “downtown” and “suburban” come up completely blank.

...Our auto-oriented lifestyles are the primary reason Americans pollute so much more than our first world cousins in Europe, so a shift to urban living is probably the single best thing anyone can do for the environment. We’re not asking you to redesign your whole campaign, just to add a paragraph here and there addressing the tough-but-important issues of sprawl and urbanism. All that stuff you say about light bulbs and air filters is well and good, and the stuff you say about wind power is great, but please Al, say this also: Moving to the city is good for the environment.

To which Steve Davis over at Smart Growth America added:

With one-third of our emissions generated by transportation, where we choose to live has quite possibly the largest ramifications on our own personal emissions. So it’s discouraging that the most well-known climate advocate running the most well-funded climate advocacy campaign doesn’t see encouraging more people to live in places where they have to drive less as an obvious — and simple — solution.

To which the Stranger's Erica Barnett (COI: my SO) simply adds "for such an enormous effort, it would have been nice to see some bolder suggestions than 'turn down the thermostat.'”

Personally, while I laud Al Gore's work and think the We Campaign is needed, I think it's a shame that actual systems shift is difficult to find in the campaign, and that a lack of imagination in the content is apparently being met by a lack of innovation in the delivery. There seems to me a risk that the We Campaign could end up as a $300 million pancake.

What would I suggest they do differently?

1. Maximize bang for the buck. Tap the expertise of the people who really understand the new campaign tools. $100 million a year is real money. For half of that, they could create a networked activism campaign unlike anything ever seen. No ad campaign, no matter how good, is going to be unlike anything we've ever seen.

2. Talk big. Don't follow the same life-style activism playbook that's failed consistently for the last 30 years. Talk about the big, systems-level changes that America is going to have to embrace and why they'll make us a better nation. Sure, mention the small steps, but focus on helping people connect to something larger than themselves and more likely to inspire action.

3. Fund vision. Fund actual descriptions and depictions of life in a climate-solved world. Run film contents, art shows, architecture competitions and the like, and promote the results. Ideas matter: spend the money to showcase them to new audiences. Help us imagine what we need to build.

4. Fire up the attention philanthropy. Much amazing, inspirational work goes unnoticed. The campaign could fund an amazing, unprecedented network of filmmakers, podcasters, bloggers, animators and journalists and connect them with scrappy media relations people who know how to get noticed in both the old and new media. If that network focused on highlighting the people, from all walks of life and all parts of the nation, who are trying to solve climate change in innovative ways, the multiplier effect (both in the media and for the people working on the solutions themselves) could be massively larger than anything a TV ad can do.

5. Multiply the messengers. Gore's Climate Project is a brilliant approach to training more people to become informed and effective advocates in their own communities, but much more could be done on this score, for cheap.

6. When it comes to delivery, get weird. Yes, it's extremely difficult to find and evaluate truly innovative social change ideas, but we know we can't get far enough, fast enough without really shaking things up. We also know that agencies and media consultants tend to get the big bucks after they've had their best ideas. The campaign would be much better off spreading the money around, wasting a bunch, but hitting on some amazing high-leverage ideas than wasting it all on mediocre, old-school approaches.

7. Give it to the people. Let them do real things with it. Get out of the way.

What would you suggest?

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A similar response to Gore's campaign here:
followed by at least two concrete and useful suggestions in the links at the end of the piece. Summarized thus:

The major US universities (with vast endowments) should be persuaded -- by their own research, if nothing else -- to chip in 10% each to a fund for R&D and education that would dwarf what Gore is doing. 10% is less than half the endowment gains last year alone, for some schools, like Harvard and Yale.

And, celebrities concerned about the environment should prevail upon Condé Nast to stop taking ads for vehicles that get less than 25 mpg., in the same way they decline tobacco.

Posted by: RM Reiss on 7 Apr 08

And adding another thought:

As someone who works in advertising, I’m skeptical about traditional :30’s as a mechanism to educate and move opinion. It’s very hard to apply the mechanisms of appetite to the collective interest.

I’d suggest that, in addition to the traditional media campaign, they build an interactive campaign. Put a random polling sample of Americans in conversation with each other online, through an interface that looks like this:

Make it single issue: what should we do about climate change?

Provide weekly Q and A’s with experts.

Watch people move from this position, ans

to this position. iness.greenpolitics

Use James Fishkin’s methods for dialogue, which have been used by Channel 4, in Britain, among other places:

Pull highlights out for the broadcast campaign, and make the rest available through a web design like the USA Network portal.

It would be like an MRI image of the idealized democratic society, with roles played by normal Americans.

And would be an interesting rebuff to the growing premise in different quarters that democracy does not work.

(Google would be the natural partner with which to construct this.)

Since this would be cheaper than TV, they could use both. And the online conversation could be ongoing; a desktop reference for informed public opinion.

re: the problem with how SUV’s are sold, and the difficulties of applying that kind of persuasion to broad social issues — Google ‘Clotaire Rapaille’ or read following:

Posted by: RM Reiss on 7 Apr 08

I would suggest using the $300 million for something other than more advertising...making a real investment in something substantial would go further than more talking. I appreciate all Al Gore has done, but can't we do more than run more ads with this kind of money?

Posted by: David@The Good Human on 7 Apr 08

I'm note sure if we need more trendy green campaigning; we need the honest truth, which is that we're too many people on this planet!

Posted by: Radical Green on 8 Apr 08

You may also want to follow string of posts and comments on "we" campaign, on my blog at http://lamarguerite.

Posted by: marguerite manteau-rao on 8 Apr 08

$300 Million is an aweful lot of money but pales in comparison to the $1 Trillion likely to be spent by the US (has anyone calculated the global cost?) on the Iraq war. Now we're talking real money! In this context, the WE campaign will likely have a bigger bang for its buck.

The key for WE is to make climate change relevant to the targeted audience (which by the way is obviously not the green community). Research shows that personal relevance is key to behavioral modification.

In this sense, I think they are on the right track but need to refine the message. I would love to see an ad campaign where the impact of simpe decisions can have a profound impact on the environment. A storyline might go like this: a shopper picks up a bag of grapes at the grocery store that was grown in Chile. The ad then goes on to illustrate in graphic terms how that choice impacts the environment. An anology might be the ad that ran a few years back where the kid buying a bag of pot supports terrorist and thugs.

The key to solving global warming (and most other ills of the world) is behavioral modification, not technology. As James Kunstler points out in his excellent book "The Long Emergency", we are sleepwalking into a looming global tragedy. Only a powerful educational effort to awaken people will avert this.

Posted by: BluTown on 8 Apr 08

Agreed on the points especially #2. I think a lot of people professing change have a belief that Americans will only accept small changes to their lifestyles if any at all. They make this great sell -- there's going to be so much suffering if climate change isn't addressed quickly and strongly -- and then tell us to change our light bulbs. This doesn't resonate with people who do want to make a difference. 'We Can Solve It' is going to find creative people looking for a way to contribute and it needs to foster a collaborative environment.

Posted by: Adam on 8 Apr 08

I think some of the complaints against the campaign are misguided - the emphasis on TV ads rather than grassroots organizing is to move the debate into the mainstream by actually touching the mainstream public.

This campaign is going to touch people who are poor, who don't use the internet, who live in their isolated suburban silos, who listen to Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, and who find "grassroots organizing" too granola and out-there for them to embrace.

People don't seem to realize that Obama is where he is because he is ALSO running TV ads, in many states even more ads than Clinton was. His grassroots outreach helped raise the money that allows him to run ads that make him a mainstream contender.

Posted by: alandmark on 8 Apr 08

I wonder if $300 million could:

  • Build a hyper-efficient house as a TV show;

  • Build a prototype Hypercar as a TV show;

  • Start and publicize a "Viridian Meter" company.

I guess in general I mean: build great examples, publicize and issue invitations.

Posted by: David Foley on 8 Apr 08

Thank you Alex for pointing out that WE needs to do better that play the same corporate tune, lifestyle changes don't threaten corporate hegemony, its just another niche market to them. We need to forget about heroes, Al Gore is not going to save the planet because as you point out its all of us that will need to find community, grow our food, reconsider our transportation modes. Heroes would not be needed if we had functional communities. On the ideas about building a hyper efficient house: As an architect I think we need to get away from the focus on efficiency and focus on sustainability. Among other things I teach "natural building," which I call post-apocalypse building, which teaches how to build with what you have available just like many humans did before the industrial revolution. So I like to use the term used by natives in Ghana, "Sankofa" which means returning to the past in order to go forward. We already have sustainable houses older that a millennium that have been continuously inhabited, proof positive of their endurance, comfort and ease of maintenance. As far as the car goes I agree the motto, "My other car is a bright green city." Considering any reliance on TV at this point with all the competing crap may be a waste of time because it is in service to the corporations and not people at this time. The same goes for our government. So your suggestion that it is the grassroots that needs to be activated broadly to focus on how to use current resources in order to get sustainable before the shit hits the fan, is right on in my view.

Posted by: Howard Switzer on 9 Apr 08

My wife and I bought a house a short distance from work. Both of our employers moved to far suburban office parks. This happened to me a second time with a second employer. Tell employers to move back to urban areas.

Posted by: Tom L on 9 Apr 08

While it's exciting to see a major ($300 million) media push around greening the planet, I do agree that a grass roots action oriented approach would be more effective than traditional mass media. Most people understand the climate crisis at hand. Very few know what to do about it in their everyday lives. What are the simple, tangible steps that I can take to make a difference?

While small steps may seem insignificant at first, millions of small steps add up to a huge collective impact. What we consume, where we live, how we travel - these are decisions we each make every day. Can these everyday decisions be incrementally more informed? Does starting to think a bit greener lead to small green actions lead to larger ones?

More than big budget advertising campaigns, it will continue to take a massive grass roots effort of individuals sharing relevant, tangible, actionable ideas in order to pass a healthier planet on to our children.

Posted by: Daniel Siegel on 9 Apr 08

"Fund vision. Fund actual descriptions and depictions of life in a climate-solved world. Run film contents, art shows, architecture competitions and the like, and promote the results. Ideas matter: spend the money to showcase them to new audiences. Help us imagine what we need to build."

Hey Alex, sounds like Worldchanging 2.0 to me... In fact, how can we as a community step in and do all the things you are suggesting?

Posted by: Justin Young on 9 Apr 08

I, like others, see a short fall in the We Campaign. I respect the mission; however $300 million dollars could be used in a much more productive way. Playing off what Steve Davis from Smart Growth America said above about one-third of our emissions being generated from transportation, how about the folks at We take $200 million and put it up as a prize similar to the one announced by the X Prize Foundation with a $10 million prize purse.

“An international competition designed to inspire a new generation of viable, super fuel-efficient vehicles. The independent and technology-neutral competition is open to teams from around the world that can design, build and bring to market 100 MPGe (miles per gallon energy equivalent) vehicles that people want to buy, and that meet market needs for price, size, capability, safety and performance.”

Do we need new energy efficient vehicles? What are we going to do with all the gas vehicles? And why do we have to buy more when we should make the things we have already more efficient?

Let’s invite the world’s brightest minds to come up with a solution that would make the hundreds of millions of gas guzzlers around the world more environmentally friendly.

Some criteria:
• Device or system must be able to fit on multiple gas powered vehicles
• Must be affordable and easy to install (preferably self-installable)
• Must use parts that are easy to manufacture or already available
• Teams have 24 months to come up with a solution otherwise the money gets donated to a pre-determined charity

My guess is that if World Changing put this challenge out to the world we’d flush out the criteria and attract great minds to find a solution. After all, $200 million in 24 months is a pretty damn good incentive to do something good. Mission simple; Reward great solutions.

Any takers?

Posted by: Vipe Desai on 9 Apr 08

My suggestion: get involved in "We can solve it" and provide feedback in a constructive manner. I think World Changing should write up a proposal and take it to them. The project is just getting started! There is plenty of time to get all of the ideas above implemented - especially if their current tack shows few results in say six months. I suggest this as a first proposal for you proposers: offer that worldchanging will take on an omsbudsman position - you can hold a forum where people can express their ideas and then filter those ideas back to We Can Solve It. If done with style such a forum could make the critics feel like kings, create more consensus and possibly improve the campaign.

But let's be honest - most of us think that most of the ideas we hear suck. I do. I think most of what I read on this thread and this website sucks. I am sure most of the very opinionated people who comment would think my ideas suck. The fundamental question is not whether buying TV ads is the right way for WE Can Solve IT to spend THEIR money. The the fundamental question is - how are we going to build support for a set of strategies that all us smarty pants can agree to support? How can we have the decent dialog to actually understand each other?

Is that a statement that anyone can agree doesn't suck?

Posted by: Bill on 10 Apr 08

Some criteria:
• Device or system must be able to fit on multiple gas powered vehicles
• Must be affordable and easy to install (preferably self-installable)
• Must use parts that are easy to manufacture or already available
• Teams have 24 months to come up with a solution otherwise the money gets donated to a pre-determined charity

ok, here's my idea. make a dash-mountable version of this:,1,893798.story

a little gizmo with accelerometers inside and a USB connector. hook the thing to a computer and refine it for the target vehicle using an informative website. install. it will then help drivers improve their gas mileage by 15-30%.

Posted by: hapa on 10 Apr 08

Gore's ad campaign inspired me to create a little ad of my own at

Perhaps others would like to generate their own ads, slogans, etc and we can share them here.

Maybe someone's creative production will go viral and accomplish a lot (or even more) in addition to this (welcomed) big bucks campaign.

hugs and blessings,


Posted by: Lou Gold on 11 Apr 08

There ARE lots of good ideas out there, and Gore's campaign, while flawed, as your insightful critique shows, will help generate new thinking.

Here's another simple project gaining steam:
"The Global Roll Call Project"

It's a self-running project, has no funding and doesn't need any, bloggers contribute their names and names of their loved ones, friends and relatives. If they want to. Those who don't want to be listed may opt out by not participating. Simple. Take a peek.

Posted by: Danny Bloom on 12 Apr 08

Dear Friends,

We need to do something, both individually and collectively, that is different from the way we doing things now.

Time is short, it appears. Something calamitous could happen soon, much sooner than most people are imagining.

Recently the great man, James Lovelock, reported that he is hoping for 20 more years before "it hits the fan." By 'giving' us twenty years, I suppose he will not disturb the reigning, self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us from my not-so-great generation of elders who have set their sights on rampantly growing the global economy until its unbridled increase becomes unsustainable and produces some kind of colossal ecological wreckage, the likes of which only Ozymandias has seen....come what may for our children, coming generations and for life as we know it on Earth.

Such adamantine willfulness, unvarnished selfishness, unmitigated arrogance, and unfathomable potential for the precipitation of mass destruction are unparalleled in human history, I believe.



Posted by: stevenearlsalmony on 12 Apr 08

Alex Williams has a very good article about the new survivalism in an April 6 report at; I think he quotes Alex Steffen in the story too. Required reading for all.

Posted by: Danny Bloom on 12 Apr 08


My heart broke when I read this article because it is so true. I have been working on developing your point #4 - almost perfectly as you describe it. My project is Fired Up Media - which has partly grown out of It's Getting Hot in Here - dispatches from the Youth Climate Movement. When I think of what I could do with 0.3% of $100 blows my mind that they would go up on the air with those mediocre ads.

Richard Graves
PS. I will send this article around but I would love to talk to you about it.

Posted by: Richard Graves on 12 Apr 08

the website is incredibly "adult," as in the sense that adults know what to do and adults are rational individuals that make rational decisions. Just look at the people they have -- the presenters -- speaking on each page. I'm not saying these folks aren't for real but they seem to be putting on a show. It really does feel like these folks are telling us what to do, and that if we just listen and give them our email address, click on the links below, everything will slip into place. Along with Alex's suggestions, I want more play, more children, more youth, more fun ...but at the same time I wouldn't want a "kids" happy-meal, candy, sugary cereal website where Al turns into a Captain Crunch character. Al's movie was revolutionary and its great he trained so many people to be presenters, but we need real next steps that go beyond watching a presentation. Maybe the "We Campaign" should be both more like Obama's campaign and more like the many climate action websites and networks that already exist? ...what if Al used the money and influence to make his campaign a network to help better network the networks?

Posted by: matt waxman on 13 Apr 08

Dear Dr. L. B.,

I am imagining that your questions are rhetorical ones.

You ask,

“Why are politicians and skeptics so willing to risk their future and everyone else’s future on blindly clinging to a course of action that has a high probability of leading to a seriously crippled future? If you even suspect that global warming represents a serious risk to your survival (and we have far more than suspicion these days), why wouldn’t you do everything protect and conserve your planet?”

It would please me to hear from others; but from my humble perspective the “answers” to your questions are all-too-obvious.

First, the leaders in my generation of elders wish to live without having to accept limits to growth of seemingly endless economic globalization, of increasing per capita consumption and skyrocketing human population numbers; our desires are evidently insatiable. We choose to believe anything that is politically convenient, economically expedient and socially agreeable; our way of life is not negotiable. We dare anyone to question our values or behaviors.

We religiously promote our shared fantasies of endless economic growth and soon to be unsustainable overconsumption, overproduction oand overpopulation activities, and in so doing deny that Earth has limited resources upon which the survival of life as we know it depends.

Second, my not-so-great generation appears to be doing a disservice to everything and everyone but ourselves. We are the “what’s in it for me?” generation. We demonstrate precious little regard for the maintenance of the integrity of Earth; shallow willingness to actually protect the environment from crippling degradation; lack of serious consideration for the preservation of biodiversity, wilderness, and a good enough future for our children and coming generations; and no appreciation of the understanding that we are no more or less than human beings with “feet of clay.”

We live in a soon to be unsustainable way in our planetary home and are proud of it, thank you very much. Certainly, we will “have our cake and eat it, too.” We will fly around in thousands of private jets and live in McMansions, go to our secret clubs and distant hideouts, and risk nothing of value to us. Please do not bother us with the problems of the world. We choose not to hear, see or speak of them. We are the economic powerbrokers, their bought-and-paid-for politicians and the many minions in the mass media. We hold the much of the wealth and the power it purchases. If left to our own devices, we will continue in the exercise of our ‘rights’ to ravenously consume Earth’s limited resources; to expand economic globalization unto every corner of our natural world and, guess what, beyond; to encourage the unbridled growth of the human species so that where there are now 6+ billion people, by 2050 we will have 9+ billion members of the human community and, guess what, even more people, perhaps billions more in the distant future, if that is what we desire.

We are the reigning, self-proclaimed masters of the universe. We have no regard for human limits or Earth’s limitations, thank you very much. Please understand that we do not want anyone to present us with scientific evidence that we could be living unsustainably in an artificially designed, temporary world of our own making…… a manmade world filling up with distinctly human enterprises which appear the be approaching a point in human history when global consumption, production and propagation activities of the human species become unsustainable on the tiny planet God has blessed us to inhabit….. and not to overwhelm, I suppose.

Third, even our top rank scientists have not found adequate ways of communicating to the family of humanity what people somehow need to hear, see and understand: the reckless dissipation of Earth’s limited resources, the relentless degradation of the planet’s frangible environment, and the approaching destruction of the Earth as a fit place for human habitation by the human species, when taken together, appear to be proceeding at a breakneck pace toward the precipitation of a catastrophic ecological wreckage of some sort unless, of course, the world’s colossal, ever expanding, artificially designed, manmade global economy continues to speed headlong toward the monolithic ‘wall’ called “unsustainability” at which point the runaway economy crashes before Earth’s ecology is collapsed.



Posted by: stevenearlsalmony on 14 Apr 08

I just left Bill McKibben's "350" web site and it looks like his project is all PR and politics as well. I have nothing against any of that but my own interest is in bringing the numbers down right now by changing as much actual behavior as I can control or influence. Every day, all the time, hands on. Sending somebody a check so they can fly to Bali and negotiate for me next time --- not cutting it in the motivation department. Change people's lives and their politics will follow, believe me.

Posted by: Martha1955 on 15 Apr 08

It's great to see all the discussion going on in this post. If anybody's interested in joining a community that is working to collecting address climate change with proactive, grassroots approach, check out We're just getting started, but come join us and help make a big impact.

Posted by: Daniel on 17 Apr 08

Just a thought after all it is their World.

I thought it the millions of ECOKIDS around the world could cntribute a lot to help solve our environmental problems it they were somehow brought together as a world organization, the positive environmental results could be vrery real and awesome. ECO KIDS, same in name, different in ways, but all trying to help make their world a safer, cleaner and healthier place. Given their numbers the world's ECO KIDS working together would be well worth thinking about. World ECO KIDS support and participate in the Earth Day celebrations along with millions of other people in over 170 countries; that should say something about the possibilities (in any language). There can be no greater need or deed than saving the earth.


Schools, Groups, Clubs,Organizations
Come Join Us Become a

ECOKIDS Complete membership material for all levels.

Posted by: willim b on 20 Apr 08

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trhough at us in the next 5 years for Hybrid Plug in Electric Vehcles they will be expensive. We have been
converting gas cars to electic in Reno NV. It is a simple 15k to 17k to order the kit parts+battaries and have my team of convert the car. You can Convert a Chevy S10, Any VW modles, Porsche 914, Geo Metro,
90-96 Saturns, and More! Now you have a gas to electic conversion that any Real golf cart or backyard machanic can work on. There are thousands of conversions out there but it will take Machanics in every city to make Ev's avaiable for everyone. My grass root Company Collective Reno Electric Car Conversions needs Money to fund it's next conversions. Please contact Peter Fletcher.
Like Henry Ford! I want to build the Working Mans
Electric Vehicle! thank is coverted by Americans By American.Support EV's Built her at home Not China!
Thank you! Go Green Go Electic!

Posted by: Peter Fletcher on 24 Apr 08



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