On cloudy winter days, a bluish-grey mist slides over Copenhagen, blurring the edges between the harbour and the flat expanse of the city. This Danish capital is slotted like a puzzle piece on a nob of land along the Øresund Strait, which connects the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Copenhagen has been called one of the most liveable cities in the world.
Copenhagen, like Paris, Toronto, Chicago, Vancouver and other cities, has long wanted to be one of the greenest, aiming to become an “eco-metropole” by 2015. This is a place where you can fish for cod in the harbour and power your home with energy harvested from the 20 spiky windmills that form a half-crescent in the waters off shore. Where a bicycle commissioner has a staff of seven and a budget of $15 million. Where the rhetoric of the environmental movement was transformed into action.
I travelled to Copenhagen in December 2009 to cover the United Nations climate change talks, the ones that famously failed. Its failure became the story, but there was another story that wasn’t being reported. I found myself immersed in a sort of environmental tent city: thousands of activists descended on the city, hooking up through social media, to form instant communities. And this village was as fascinating as the political discussions at the Bella Center.
Save the environment and buy more stuff: a view of Hopenhagen, an exhibit in central Copenhagen sponsored by the International Advertising Association
The blogger-protesters ventured into areas others wouldn’t, like the communal enclave of Christiania, an autonomous Gothic compound in the middle of Copenhagen. They bird-dogged politicians. They protested in peaceful demonstrations through NGO-organized youth delegations during the day, and turned up to interviews with black eyes after late-night off-the-record protests. This transient city of activists formed a tighter community than any back home. They had chosen their neighbours and were united by cause, if not geography.
Yet no one was talking about it. No one was telling the stories of this de facto neighbourhood—one that dispersed at the end of the talks like the satellite waves that had transmitted home their missives. They were a certain breed of nomad: the politically active, media-savvy and highly educated activist who created a little greenhouse gas to come together in person. They were often young, always idealistic and well informed. They straddled the physical and electronic divide, living in two worlds at once: the one they made in Copenhagen and the one back home, whereever that might be. (To read more about the activist-bloggers in at the UN climate change conference, go to this piece I wrote about activist-journalists for PBS MediaShift.)
Found on the ground during one of the big protests through the streets of Copenhagen
If this kind of instant community seemed familiar, it was because I had found it months earlier on a smaller, local scale at a weekend at a Greenpeace training workshop in rural Alberta, Canada. (The camp, rented from a children’s group, overlooked a coal-fired power plant—a happy coincidence Greenpeace’s Mike Hudema told me.) A few old-timers turned up, but most participants were in their early twenties. I wondered where they would be in 10 or 20 years, if they would still be rallying, or if they, like many activists before them, would burn out or acquire families and mortgages and become too busy to protest.
The activists I met in Alberta were not really nomads. They were from nearby Edmonton or Calgary. So why write about them here? Because they represent the kind of community that is uncommonly close and yet disparate. A few months after the “climate action camp” they would follow the blog posts of activists in Copenhagen, newspaper coverage and tweets, part of the nomadic diaspora.
This community forms and reforms at protests and international climate change talks. Instead of spending their money on a trip to a Mexican resort they paid to travel to Denmark, in December, where they found likeminded people who have more in common than neighbours and even family. After a few days or a couple weeks they dispersed and their instant communities disappeared like the bluish-grey mist in Copenhagen that burns off with the brief, dim midwinter sun.