ADDISON COUNTY — Every couple of minutes last Saturday afternoon, a crowd formed on the footbridge below the Otter Creek falls in Middlebury. The gathered people watched the groups of whitewater kayakers shooting the 15-foot drop over the falls and riding the current at the bottom. Then the crowd would disperse as the kayakers climbed out of the water, portaged back above the falls as another crowd gathered to watch them drop the falls again.
To passersby, the 22 kayakers might not have seemed to be acting in tandem with millions of other people worldwide. But the paddling event was part of 350.org’s global day of action, which encompassed 5,245 worldwide events taking place in 181 countries. The kayakers, who hailed from Middlebury College, Green Mountain College and UVM, were aiming to paddle over the falls 350 times.
Though they only managed a collective 205 (not a small feat in itself, as they averaged almost 10 rides per paddler), to organizer Christian Woodard the event was a success.
“It was intended as a sort of highly visible stunt and art piece.” wrote Woodard, a junior at Middlebury College, in an email.
350.org is a grassroots environmental movement that focuses on the statistic of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. Many scientists agree that this is the highest safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Currently, the number stands at 380 parts per million.
And the movement has a special place in Addison County: it is the brainchild of several Middlebury College graduates and scholar-in-residence Bill McKibben.
McKibben, who was in 350’s temporary headquarters in New York City on Saturday, was thrilled about the results of the day of action.
“It dominated news coverage around the planet for two days, was on the cover of virtually every paper in the world, and all over television,” he said. “People took an obscure scientific data point and managed to make it one of the most well-known numbers in the world, without any movie stars or rock stars or charismatic politicians.”
The day’s events were not only about raising global awareness. They were also about community collaboration. In Addison County, social justice and environmental groups from the community and from the college came together to plan local events.
One of the day’s events was Vision 2020’s one-year anniversary. On October 25, 2008, the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN) and Vermont Family Forests sponsored a meeting to envision a sustainable future for Addison County. The task was to create a set of goals for the year 2020, and their plans fell into 12 categories, including “food and farming,” “money and banking,” “transportation and communications” and “health and wellness.”
The anniversary was an opportunity to create clear, feasible goals for the county. So before the kayaking and before the numerous other events in downtown Middlebury, people met to set personal and community goals as part of Vision 2020.
Although turnout at many 350 events in the area was lower than anticipated due to the rain — the Vision 2020 meeting had between 25 and 30 participants — Corcoran was optimistic about the goals that resulted from the day.
“The quality of the ideas coming out of the people who showed up was extraordinary,” he said.
At the end of the two hours of planning, the group had more than 40 goals, which ranged from community-based to individual and from abstract to clearly-defined. Many were simple, like limiting the use of plastic and lowering the thermostat in the home. Some required more planning: carpooling and moving into town centers were among the goals, putting more money into local businesses.
There were also several larger-scale goals. One was to create a community-financed microlending institution in order to provide small loans to people in the area. One was to create a community solar photovoltaic project.
But the brainstorming process is only part of bringing Vision 2020’s goals to life. Since Saturday, Corcoran has put the community goals into a wiki site — an online encyclopedia that is editable by members of the community. The site can be accessed through ACORN’s website, www.acornvt.org.
“These ideas need to be publicized so that the larger community can connect with them,” said Corcoran. “That’s the way ideas turn into actions.”
To him, the collaboration spurred by the 350 day of action will be a good way to ensure the continuing presence of Vision 2020’s ideas in the community. Many different community organizations were represented at Saturday’s meeting, including representatives from Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) and Hospice Volunteer Services.
Immediately following the meeting was the 350 community potluck, organized by Middlebury College students. The afternoon was also filled with a collection of 350 donations to the food shelf, a drum circle, pumpkin-carving activities and 350 yoga sun salutations.
Following the day of action, said Corcoran, “there’s a phenomenal amount of energy.”
He seeks to harness that energy into a fulfillment of the Vision 2020 goals.
“It’s 11 years away, but we need to be taking steps toward it,” he said.
But according to McKibben, there is one thing that people involved in the 350 movement should do first. That is to sit down, look at the 350.org website and look at all the pictures and reports about the worldwide events from the day of action.
“Everyone needs to realize that they are part of a real movement, completely connected to people on every continent and of every race and faith, and on both sides of the great gulf between rich and poor,” he wrote Tuesday in an email. “It will give you heart for the long work ahead.”