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  • Writer's pictureBethany Crystal

Fighting Climate Change Through Bottom-Up Community Building

Yes, the U.S. dropped some pretty terrible news on the world today.

But coming from a country that’s literally built upon the idea of bottom-up organization, I’m confident that we still have the power to preserve our planet. Here’s why.


“Have you heard that Trump is taking the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement?”

It was 3:30 p.m. and I just sat down with my husband for an afternoon coffee. No, I hadn’t yet heard.

“There are only two other countries in the world who didn’t support the Paris Agreement,” he continued.

“Who? Us and North Korea?”

No, I later learned. Even they signed it.

By the time my last meeting of the day wrapped by 5:30 p.m., I turned to Twitter to catch up on the latest:

Here’s the order of how I processed this news:

And I smiled. Because this is what democracy looks like. (Not to mention Twitter at its finest.)


Lessons in community building

At Union Square Ventures, where I work, I spend a lot of time thinking about building communities. Most of our 67 active portfolio companies were created around networks of users, of data, or of information.

These companies have tapped into ways to engage hundreds of millions of users around the planet. Here are just a few examples of what this looks like:

  1. 13 million people have backed a Kickstarter project

  2. 30 million members have organized more than 272,000 unique Meetup groups

  3. 20 million people study from 140 million flashcard sets on Quizlet

  4. 40 million developers use Stack Overflow each month to find answers to their programming questions

  5. 175 million people listen to SoundCloud tracks each month

The impact of these networks (and the dozens more like them in our portfolio) really start to add up when you think about the aggregate effects of things like jobs added to the economy, skills acquired to do your job better, or resources needed to succeed in school.

So with 325 million people living in the United States, I’ve started to see our country less and less like a highly structured group of governmental agencies — and more and more like just another massive community.

Given the right formula to thrive, the power of bottom-up, emergent networks can take on a life of its own.

Which is why I’m particularly excited to be living in the United States at a time like now.


Being “American”

When I was younger, I used to ask: “What does it mean to be an American?”

I wondered if the word, “American” had simply become synonymous with our brand icons known around the world: McDonald’s, Coke, Ford, Apple… ideas that further entrenched us into the label of “fast food nation” or “materialistic culture.” It bugged me a little to think that a whole country could be compartmentalized into such a few broad, overly consumeristic, generalizations.

Then again, I couldn’t really pinpoint anything truly and uniquely American, either. Was it really as simple as apple pie? Hamburgers? Memorial Day cookouts? Living the elusive, American Dream? Hard to say. In the end, I settled on two personal pursuits: A passion for both marching bands and Broadway musicals.

It wasn’t until I lived in New York City that I truly detached myself from those perceived ideas of “being American” and instead distilled it down to something much more subtle — the idea of collective individualism.

A few interesting things happened since I moved to New York City:

  1. Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed in May 2011. New Yorkers instinctually congregated in the financial district that night. As did, as it turned out, many other Americans around the country.

  2. Hurricane Sandy hit the city in October 2012. Tens of thousands of people flocked in to help.

  3. Donald Trump got elected in November 2016. Strangers leaned on each other to soothe each other in the most New Yorker way possible.

In each of these big moments — moments far beyond the impact or influence of any one person — the people of this city reacted in tandem, building strength in numbers.

Our big, consumer brands don’t define what it means to be American. We’re sculpted by something much simpler: By the foot traffic on our streets.


How lucky we are to be alive right now

I know, I know. Times are crazy. But at the end of the day, we’re still incredibly lucky to be living in a country where we can enact social and political change through bottoms-up movements. Any individual has the power to make an impact.

Not many countries can claim that same luxury.

No, it’s not always easy. And no, it certainly isn’t always fast. But the good news is: We seem to be pretty darn stubborn. Once an idea plants itself in our heads — say, that climate change may cause existential threats to our families and generations to come — this trickles down through our conversations, our social interactions, and consumption of media.

So, state by state, we lean in, and we speak up about why this is important. That’s why 7 in 10 registered voters say we should be participating in the Paris Agreement.

Which in turn, is why 68 mayors representing 38 million Americans quickly followed suit.

No, we aren’t at 325 million Americans yet. But it’s literally only been hours since this top-down decree has been set. Imagine what we can do with a few more months.

In essence, we the people are doing what America does best.

And I feel pretty optimistic that with a bit more community-building and collaboration, we can still do the right thing for our planet.

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