Organize! Unite! 

Toward Local Change and Drinking Beer

About six months ago I wrote a column in these pages urging you, dear reader, to share your conservation efforts and tips with your friends and families, and maybe me. In the intervening months I’ve had countless conversations and email exchanges with strangers and pals alike, all talking about what he/she/they/we were/are/will be doing to improve the world. For me it’s been an important step toward not giving up on the seemingly insurmountable problems we face while surrounded by millions of Escalade-driving, cell-phone-chatting, nasty-crap-buying haters. If nothing else, we can raise our middle fingers together in commiserative rage as we talk about bucket-flushing our toilets with shower water, or composting, or planting trees.

Years ago, in the first flush of the “Nationalized Health Care, Ha Ha Ha” movement, I was told that if the citizens of these United States devoted as much time and energy to health care as they do to the Super Bowl (preparing, watching, recuperating), every American would be insured. I’m not going to defend that particular figure, but I’ve always gotten a perverse pleasure from the underlying idea; that we spend gobs of time, energy and dough on things that amuse us, while complaining about, but not addressing, our biggest problems.

I was reminded of this once again last week, when I rewatched Frank Capra’s film Meet John Doe, a 1941 flick that posits small-scale cooperation and action as the solution to the near-universal poverty and suffering of the Great Depression. A plain-spoken “John Doe” urges folks to get to know one another, to reach out to neighbors, and within days John Doe Clubs have sprung up across the nation, creating jobs, sharing food, pooling knowledge and resources. Never mind that the FBI considered Capra’s work to be Communist propaganda — or that he’s popularly seen as the creator of Pollyanna fairy tales — I think the idea is amazing.

I mean, we all get together, for drinks, dinner, brunch, knitting circles, coffee or cocktails. What about trying to incorporate a little problem-solving into our socializing? Or instead of another bullshit book club (I’m sorry — I love reading, but no one ever seems to finish their book-club books…) choosing an issue to tackle as a group? Four or five people meeting every week or two could do a lot of problem solving and resource sharing, helping one another make a real difference in improving day-to-day life in New York City.

Hate the air pollution in your neighborhood? Make dinner and invite your green-thumbed pals over to figure out how to get street trees planted: plan to share responsibility for their care with your group. Is your local public school run down and underfunded? Brainstorm school-supply drives, and coordinate mural-painting or garden-planting instead of talking about Grey’s Anatomy at your next brunch. Hate the idea of animals suffering and dying in city shelters? Drink some beers while you plan a neighborhood adoption fair, a fundraiser to underwrite spay/neuter services or a foster-home finding drive. I’ve found that my friends are even more fun when they’re really using their brains instead of just griping about Dick Cheney or overdevelopment, and it’s hard to feel guilty about having had too many beers when you’ve done it for the greater good. Pooling skills is a great way to get stuff done too — some have cars, some have web design skills, and others have brute strength, pots of money, or incredible connections. Follow-through should be easier too — with a group there’s always someone to keep the ball rolling, and suggest (or host) the next stage in your project.

And please, if you do end up dong anything like this, write in and tell me all about it. If your ideas are sound, or even plausible, I offer my meager talents (internet research? Speaker at your first gathering?) to help you get your project off the ground; if it’s sufficiently awesome I might even write all about you for a future column… at the very least I promise not to hassle you if you call yourselves a Conscientious Objector Club.

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