Ron Berger —
Last November Bill McKibben, a leading environmental activist, delivered the inaugural Jonathan Schell Lecture at the New School in New York City. The lecture, which was entitled “On the Fate of the Earth,” was co-sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Gould Family Foundation; and the text of the lecture was adapted for a December 2016 issue of The Nation magazine. McKibben is the author of many books, including The End of Nature (1989), the first book on global warming written for a general audience, and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007). He is also the founder of 350.org, an international environmental group that takes its name from research that indicates that 350 parts per million (the ratio of carbon dioxide molecules to all other molecules) is the maximum “safe level” of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Currently we are around 400 ppm and counting. With the confirmation of Donald Trump’s nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, McKibben’s message becomes even more important.
Jonathan Schell (1943-2014) was the author of numerous books on the environment, nuclear proliferation, war, and nonviolent resistance, including two cited by McKibben in his lecture: The Fate of the Earth (1982) and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (2003). Schell was also the peace and disarmament correspondent for The Nation, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and a columnist for Newsday. McKibben credits Schell with helping to “push action on his greatest cause—the danger of nuclear weapons.” With the end of the Cold War this “issue began to seem a little less urgent,” but recent statements by both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin caution against any relaxation of vigilance on the “constant peril” of this threat.
McKibben suggests that most people can imagine “the specter of a few mushroom clouds obliterating all that we know.” But they have more trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that we “are destroying the earth every bit as thoroughly” by inundating our atmosphere with carbon dioxide and methane through the incessant burning of fossil fuels that are warming the planet. Indeed, “man-made greenhouse gasses trap the daily heat equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima-size explosions.” We have already “melted most of the summer sea ice in the Arctic,” leaving blue water that “absorbs the sun’s incoming rays instead of bouncing them back to space like the white ice it replaced. … Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, we’ve seen steady increases in drought in arid areas (and with it calamities like wildfire) and steady … increases in downpour and flood in wet areas.” Rising sea levels are also threatening the habitat of people who live in coastal regions, portending a massive global refugee crisis of people looking for new homelands. And the increased acidity of seawater is threatening “the base of the marine food chain.”
McKibben adds that this “is not what will happen if something goes wrong. … This is what has already happened,” and we are only “in the relatively early days of climate change,” having increased the Earth’s temperature by little more than 1 degree Celsius. If we don’t act to reverse this trend soon, we will continue on a trajectory that will raise the temperature to 3.5 Celsius (or more), and “if the feedback loops we are triggering take full hold … we will not be able to maintain a civilization anything like the one we’ve inherited.”
In the midst of this crisis, however, McKibben sees only “sporadic action at best.” We have been successful at dramatically lowering the cost of solar panels, and it’s now possible for every nation to “make the switch to renewable energy at an affordable cost in the course of a couple decades”—IF we had the political will to do so. McKibben notes that the Obama administration did more than its predecessors to mitigate climate change due to U.S. coal-fired power plants. But in advancing a policy of substituting “fracked natural gas for that coal,” with the consequent leakage of methane, the country’s “total greenhouse-gas emissions held relatively steady or perhaps even increased.” Even in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil explosion/spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration opened up more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil resources. And the State Department (under Hillary Clinton) opened an entirely new division devoted to “promoting fracking around the world.” Of course, the climate-change denying presidency of Donald Trump promises to make the current situation dramatically worse.
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In the second part of his lecture, McKibben turns his attention to the questions: How can we push “institutions that wish to go slowly, or perhaps don’t wish to act at all” to act faster with more decisive action? How can we move the debate from liberals versus conservatives or Democrats versus Republicans to human beings versus physics?
In The Unconquerable World, Jonathan Schell wrote: “Violence is the method by which the ruthless few can subdue the passive many. Nonviolence is the means by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few.” With respect to climate change, McKibben notes, “the ruthless few who lead the fossil-fuel industry have more money at their disposal” than any ruthless few in the past, and they’ve “been willing to deploy this advantage to maintain the status quo.”
Take ExxonMobil, for example, whose former CEO Rex Tillerson is now serving as Trump’s Secretary of State. McKibben points out that “Exxon has known all there is to know about climate change for decades.” Indeed, its “drilling rigs were built to accommodate the sea-level rise it knew was coming.” Yet Exxon not only didn’t warn us about the climate crisis, but it “invested huge sums of money in helping to build an architecture of deceit, denial, and disinformation” to promote a phony debate about climate change that its “leaders knew was already settled.” To this I would add that oil companies have been taking advantage of polar ice cap melting by buying up rights to explore Arctic and sub-Arctic lands that have already been exposed, or that are soon to be exposed, in order to drill for more oil.
Exxon and the oil industry more generally, as Steve Coll points out in his book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (2012), have also been willing to use violence to advance their economic interests around the world. “Those attack dogs,” in McKibben’s words, that we saw at Standing Rock in North Dakota last fall have even “more brutal counterparts” in other parts of the globe.
This leads McKibben to consider what he thinks is our main recourse to this state of affairs: nonviolent resistance. This protest tradition, which most people have learned about through their exposure to Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., has actually been the subject of “very little systematic study.” Indeed, most of what we know about its efficacy has been “by trial and error.”
McKibben cites his own experience with the Keystone XL pipeline demonstrations at the White House in 2011, which resulted “in more arrests than any such demonstration on any issue in many years.” McKibben also helped organize the People’s Climate March, the largest rally in the history of the movement, which drew some 400,000 people to New York City in 2014; simultaneous events were held in more than 160 countries around the world. Another tactic McKibben has advanced is the worldwide fossil-fuel divestment campaign that was launched in 2012, which became “the largest anticorporate campaign of this kind in history, triggering the full or partial divestment of endowments and portfolios with nearly $5 trillion in assets.”
McKibben notes that Keystone in particular represented a very rare (but possibly temporary) loss for the fossil-fuel industry, and its success spurred other resistance actions: “now every pipeline, fracking well, coal mine, liquid-natural-gas terminal, and oil train is being fought.” He credits indigenous Native-American activists with being at the forefront of these efforts, which includes the action to try to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
So what lessons has McKibben drawn from these efforts? In his article he identifies three.
Lesson 1: Unearned Suffering is a Potent Weapon. Here McKibben is referring to direct actions of civil disobedience that may result in protesters going to jail. He cautions that such actions are “just one tool in the activist tool kit, and it should be used sparingly. … But when it is necessary to underline the moral urgency of a case, the willingness to go to jail can be very powerful, precisely because it goes against the bent of normal life.”
McKibben realizes this tactic will be difficult for most activists, not only because most people have “been raised to be law-abiding” but also because going to jail entails a “willingness to suffer … indignity and discomfort.” One also needs to have plans for legal representation worked out in advance. McKibben acknowledges that this tactic may be less effective during a Trump administration than an Obama administration, but such actions “will be seen” nonetheless.
Lesson 2: Attract Large Numbers of People to the Fight. McKibben realizes that the number of people who will be willing to engage in direct actions of civil disobedience will be fewer than the number who will be willing to engage in other ways: “The point of civil disobedience is rarely that it stops some evil by itself; instead, it attracts enough people and hence attention to reach the public at large.” When the Keystone protests began, for example, few people had heard anything about the pipeline or thought about climate change in terms of confronting infrastructure projects. But the initial arrests at the White House were followed by larger numbers of people coming out to protest. Then when some 50,000 rallied around the White House gates, Keystone became front page news.
Lesson 3: The Point is to Change the Zeitgeist. McKibben argues that the “real point of civil disobedience and … [its associated] movements is less to pass specific legislation than … to change the zeitgeist.” The Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance, produced few actionable demands, but once “the 99 percent and the 1 percent were seen as categories, our politics began to shift.” The Bernie Sanders campaign, and to a lesser extent even Donald Trump’s, capitalized on that energy to build movements advocating on behalf of the economically dispossessed. Hillary Clinton, too, was forced to underplay her Wall Street ties and change her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which Obama still supported but Sanders and Trump opposed.
In this section of his lecture, McKibben takes issue with Hillary Clinton’s view about how social change takes place. He notes the time during her campaign when she was confronted by a Black Lives Matter activist. Clinton told the young woman that “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way the system operates.” McKibben thinks that Clinton had it “utterly backward,” which explains why activists of all stripes had an “intuitive sense … that Clinton wouldn’t have been a leader.” As Monica Reyes of the Dreamer movement said, “You need to change the culture before you can change laws.”
McKibben is also skeptical of Clinton’s centrist view that compromise on issues that matter most is the best way to achieve progress, because “centrist politicians delay changes in public sentiment. … That’s politics, as distinct from movement politics, which is about changing basic feelings over the great issues of the day.”
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McKibben concludes his lecture with some interesting observations about personal and political asceticism. Both Thoreau and Gandhi were ascetics, that is, they felt that personal piety was a requisite of political action. But McKibben thinks this orientation may be an obstacle to our current dilemma. By this he means that “many of the early efforts to fight climate change focused on a kind of personal piety [regarding] individual action, reducing one’s impact via light bulbs or food choices” and so forth. McKibben does not think such actions are irrelevant, but only that they seem “utterly ill-equipped for the task at hand.”
Moreover, requiring personal perfection from movement participants will deter many from becoming involved. McKibben says we cannot imagine how many times he’s been asked to “adjudicate on whether it’s permissible to burn gasoline to attend a climate rally.” This issue has also become “the pet argument of every climate denier that, unless you’re willing to live life in a dark cave, you’re a hypocrite to stand for action on climate change.” McKibben believes these types of arguments must be rejected. “We live in the world we wish to change; some hypocrisy is the price of admission to the fight.”
Lastly, McKibben implores us to realize there is a time limit on the climate crisis. “Martin Luther King would always say, quoting the great … abolitionist Theodore Parker, that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’” With climate change, however, “the arc of the physical universe is short and it bends toward heat.” And with this fight, there is “no guarantee of victory.” The only guarantee is that “we will fight,” and only then will we discover whether the tools we have at our disposal are enough “to solve the greatest dilemma of our new millennium.”