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Tuesday, February 19, 2013 12:23 PM
From climate science to grassroots organizing, for 350.org founder Bill McKibben, it's all about the numbers.
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
You can’t build a movement without
numbers. If anyone understands that, it’s 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben.
Standing in front of an estimated crowd
of 50,000 people gathered for the Forward on Climate rally yesterday on the
National Mall in Washington,
D.C. he said, “All I ever wanted
to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I’ve seen it.”
Billed as “the largest climate rally in U.S. history,”
the event was intended as one final push to convince President Obama that his
environmental legacy hinges on whether he rejects the Keystone XL pipeline — a
conduit to what has been called by NASA scientist James Hansen “the world’s
largest carbon bomb.” To underscore this point, 350.org has consistently made
an effort to quantify its achievements into superlatives, ready-made for
Yet, had they not put so much effort into
creating the perception of a powerful movement, they might not have ever built
one. According to political scientist Erica Chenoweth, co-author of Why
Civil Resistance Works, “There is power in numbers, and the more people
participate, the more likely the movement is to effect real change.
Interestingly, this may lead more people to participate because they want to
join a movement that will ultimately be successful.”
Patrick Reinsborough of the Center for Story-Based Strategy (formerly smartMeme),
which trains activists to use narrative as a tool, agrees. “The most important
thing to communicate is that this movement is growing, and that everyday
citizens are willing to step out of their comfort zone in order to be seen and
heard,” he said.
For more than six years, McKibben has
been at the forefront of efforts to create a broad-based movement that can
create the pressure for policies that would bring carbon emissions to a safe
upper limit. According to James Hansen, that limit, which was long ago
surpassed, is 350 parts per million — a number so important to McKibben, he
named his group after it.
While this decision has led some to
criticize 350.org for having a name that’s too ambiguous or scientific for the
average person, McKibben
has long argued, “Arabic numerals are the one thing that cross globally.”
This fact seems to be guiding his broader belief in the power of numbers as
“The hardest thing about climate change
is the sense that one is too small to make a difference,” McKibben told Waging
Nonviolence. “So we’ve helped people to understand that they’re part of
something large, maybe large enough to matter. That helps them feel engaged, I
think, and has the advantage of being the truth.” McKibben’s
feature article for Rolling Stone last summer — one of the most-read
in the magazine’s history — and his recent 21-city
sold-out speaking tour had the word “math” in the title.
Even before the debate over its name,
when 350.org was just six students and a professor at Middlebury
College in Vermont, the focus was on numbers — numbers
that set records, showed the scale of an action or quantified an achievement.
For instance, in 2006, the group
successfully pressured Middlebury to commit to carbon neutrality by 2015. Soon
after that, it organized a five-day march across Vermont to demand action on global warming.
Nearly a thousand people took part, and many newspapers called it the largest
climate change demonstration in America.
Then, in 2007, with a campaign called Step It Up, which sought to visually
depict the concept of an 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050, 350.org organized
a day of action that netted 1,400 demonstrations across all 50 states, calling
it, “the first open source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping
Since becoming 350.org a year later, the
group has had a string of even more impressive achievements. In 2009, it
organized 5,200 actions in 181 countries for “the most widespread day of
political action in the planet’s history.” The following year saw two other
landmark actions: the Global Work Party and 350 EARTH. The former generated
more than 7,000 climate solutions projects in 188 countries and has been called
the most widespread day of climate action in history. Meanwhile, 350 EARTH,
which took place a month later, managed to gather tens of thousands of people
for several of the biggest
art projects ever seen — so big they could only be seen from space.
If there was any criticism of 350.org at
this point, it was that that the organizers were having too much fun. During
those two years of dramatic actions, Congress and the United Nations failed to
pass binding climate legislation. Many activists were beginning to wonder
whether the impressive showing by 350.org was anything more than just a show.
Leading voices within the climate
movement, such as Tim DeChristopher — who famously disrupted an oil and gas
lease auction in 2008 and spent
the last two years in prison as a result — wanted to see the group leverage
the power of its growing base by engaging in civil disobedience. McKibben
eventually heeded the call and in August and September of 2011, 350.org — under
the guise of Tar Sands Action — held two weeks of sit-ins outside the White
House, calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite
some initial uncertainty about whether arrests would scare people away, the
campaign proved to be yet another historic moment for the climate movement.
Over 1,200 people were arrested and McKibben called it “the largest civil
disobedience action on any issue in 30 years.”
Since then, there has been a boom in
civil disobedience and nonviolent direct actions against the pipeline, from grassroots
activists in Texas and Oklahoma
to mainstream environmentalists like Sierra
Club executive director Michael Brune. McKibben has also recently hinted at
another mass civil disobedience, possibly this summer, telling a crowd of
students in New York City
a couple weeks ago to “keep an eye on 350.org and save up bail money.”
In order to get to this point, 350.org
has had to slowly build upon action after action, finding the right way to
frame its accomplishments for maximum effect. Other successful movements have
done the same, such as the Serbian student movement Otpor!, which started with
just 11 people and used graffiti and small, clever actions that never revealed
their numbers until they had grown enough to topple dictator Slobodan
More recently, in Egypt, says
Erica Chenoweth, “groups of activists would deliberately make their way down
small alleyways to give the impression that there were many more people
participating. It created something of an optical illusion — a small number in
a small space looks bigger than a small number in a big space.”
While the climate movement may be close
to toppling a pipeline, it’s far from toppling the dictatorship of the
fossil-fuels industry. Chenoweth has a number of her own for what major
systemic change requires. “If you buy the
5 percent rule — that if 5 percent of the population mobilizes, it’s
impossible for the government to ignore them — then in the U.S. context it
would mean mobilizing well over 15 million people in a sustained way,” she
When asked what he thought winning would
require, McKibben said, “I’ve got no idea. It will take more than any of us can
imagine.” That might be surprising coming from a man so concerned with numbers
and so good at making them compelling. But right now, the only math that seems
to matter to him is how long it has taken to get to this point. And for that
reason, he’s savoring the moment.
“I waited a quarter century since I wrote
the first book about all this stuff to see if we were going to fight,” McKibben
told yesterday’s crowd. “And today, I know we are going to fight. The most
fateful battle in human history is finally joined, and we will fight it
Image of Bill McKibben at Sunday's Forward on Climate rally in Washington, DC by Josh Lopez, 350.org.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 4:10 PM
As in 2004
and 2008, Rebecca Solnit and her blue-state henchwomen and men will probably
invade northern Nevada
on election week to swing with one of the most swinging states in the union.
She is, however, much more excited about 350.org’s
ten thousand faces of Occupy
now changing the world.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of 15 books, including two due out next year, and a regular contributor to
She lives in San Francisco, is from kindergarten to graduate school a
product of the once-robust California public educational system, and her
A Paradise Built in Hell
is the One City/One Book choice of the San Francisco Public Library this fall. She was named an Utne Visionary in 2010
As this wild year comes to an end, we return to the
season of gifts. Here’s the gift you’re not going to get soon: any conventional
version of Paradise. You know, the place where
nothing much happens and nothing is demanded of you. The gifts you’ve already
been given in 2012 include a struggle over the fate of the Earth. This is probably not exactly what you
asked for, and I wish it were otherwise -- but to do good work, to be
necessary, to have something to give: these are the true gifts. And at least
there’s still a struggle ahead of us, not just doom and despair.
Think of 2013 as the Year Zero in the
battle over climate change, one in which we are going to have to win big, or
lose bigger. This is a terrible thing to say, but not as terrible as the
reality that you can see in footage of glaciers vanishing, images of the entire surface of the Greenland Ice Shield melting this summer, maps of Europe’s future in which just being in southern
Europe when the heat hits will be catastrophic, let alone in more equatorial
For millions of years, this world has been a great gift
to nearly everything living on it, a planet whose atmosphere, temperature, air,
water, seasons, and weather were precisely calibrated to allow us -- the big
us, including forests and oceans, species large and small -- to flourish. (Or
rather, it was we who were calibrated to its generous, even bounteous, terms.)
And that gift is now being destroyed for the benefit
of a few members of a single species.
The Earth we evolved to inhabit is turning into something
more turbulent and unreliable at a pace too fast for most living things to
adapt to. This means we are losing crucial aspects of our most irreplaceable,
sublime gift, and some of us are suffering the loss now -- from sea snails
whose shells are dissolving in acidified oceans to Hurricane Sandy survivors
facing black mold and bad bureaucracy to horses starving nationwide because a devastating drought has
pushed the cost of hay so high to Bolivian farmers failing because the glaciers that watered their valleys
have largely melted.
This is not just an issue for environmentalists who love
rare species and remote places: if you care about children, health, poverty,
the economy, you really have no choice but to care about
The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a
gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope,
your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of
victories also to come. But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole
new scale as the news worsens.
Unwrapping the Victories
“Unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” Galileo famously
says in Bertold Brecht’s play about that renegade scientist, but at least, the
hero has the possibility of doing something about that unhappiness, as, for
instance, the Sierra Club has. It’s led the fight against big coal,
helping prevent 168 coal-powered plants from opening and retiring 125 dirty
coal plants. The aim of its Beyond Coal campaign is to retire all 522 such
plants in the United States,
which would be a colossal triumph.
Its victories also capture what a lot of our greenest
gifts look like: nothing. The regions that weren’t fracked, the coal plants that didn’t open, the mountaintops that weren’t
blasted by mining corporations, the children who didn’t get asthma
or mercury poisoning from coal emissions, the carbon that stayed
in the Earth and never made it into the atmosphere. The Keystone XL tar sands
pipeline bringing the dirtiest of dirty energy from Canada to the Gulf Coast might have
already opened without the activists who ringed the White House and committed themselves across the continent.
In eastern Texas,
for instance, extraordinary acts of civil disobedience have been going on
continuously since August, including three blockaders who this month crawled inside
a length of the three-foot-in-diameter pipeline and refused to leave. People
have been using their bodies, getting in the way of heavy equipment, and going
to jail in an effort to prevent the pipeline from being built. A lot of them
are the same kind of robust young people who kept the Occupy encampments going
earlier in 2012, but great-grandmothers, old men, and middle-aged
people like me have been crucial players, too.
Meanwhile in British
Columbia, where pipeline profiteers were looking into
alternate routes to transport their climate-destroying products abroad, members of the Wet’suwet’en nation evicted surveyors and politely declared war on them. In Ohio and New
York, the fight against fracking is going strong.
Across the Atlantic, France
has banned fracking, while Germany has made astounding progress toward using carbon-neutral energy
sources. If solar works there, we have no excuse. And as Ellen Cantarow wrote at TomDispatch of the anti-fracking movement in New
York State, “Caroline, a small hamlet in Tompkins County (population 3,282), is
the second town in the state to get 100% of its electricity through wind power
and one of the most recent to pass a fracking ban.”
Everywhere people are at work to build a better world in
which we -- and some of the beauty of this world -- will be guaranteed to
survive. Everywhere they are at war with the forces threatening us and the
planet. I usually avoid war metaphors, but this time it’s barely a metaphor.
Our side isn’t violent, but it is engaged in a battle, and people are putting
their bodies on the line and their lives behind the cause. The other side is
intent on maximizing its profit at the cost of nearly everything.
My father, a high-school student during the Second World
War, followed the campaigns closely with pins on a wall map to represent troops
and battles. You could map North America that way now and see, when you added
up the struggles against drilling in the Arctic, fracking, mountaintop removal, and
the various other depredations of big coal and big oil, that remarkable things
are already being done. In this war, resistance has been going on for a long
time, so overlooked by the mainstream media it might as well be as underground
as the French Resistance back then.
A lot of it is on a small scale, but if you connect the
pieces you get a big picture of the possible, the hopeful, and the powerful.
Think of each of those small acts of defending the Earth as a gift to you. And
think of your own power, a gift always latent within you that demands you give
If you’re reading this, you’re already in the
conversation. No matter who you are, or where, there is something for you to
do: educate yourself and others, write letters, organize or join local groups,
participate in blockades and demonstrations, work on divestment from oil
corporations (if you’re connected to a university), and make this issue central
to the conversations and politics of our time.
I’ve started working directly on various projects with 350.org, whose global impact and
reinvention of activist tactics I’ve long admired. Its creator Bill McKibben has evolved from a merely great writer to a
pivotal climate organizer and a gift to all of us.
The world you live in is not a given; much of what is
best in it has been built through the struggles of passionate activists over
the last centuries. They won us many freedoms and protected many beauties.
Count those gifts among your growing heap.
Drawing the Line
Here’s another gift you’ve already received: the lines in
the battle to come are being ever more clearly drawn. Clarity is a huge asset.
It helps when you know where you stand, who stands with you -- and who against
We have returned to class war in conflicts around the
world -- including the Chicago Teacher’s Strike of 2012 and the Walmart protests in this country (which led to 1,197
actions nationwide in support of that company’s underpaid workers on Black Friday), as well as the great student uprisings in Quebec and Mexico City.
There has, of course, been a war against working people
and the poor for decades, only we didn’t call it “class war” when just the rich
were fighting hard. We called it corporate globalization, the race to the
bottom, tax cuts and social-service cuts, privatization, neoliberalism, and a
hundred other things. Now that the poor are fighting back, we can call it by
its old name. Perhaps what the conservatives have forgotten is that if you
return us to the grim divides and dire poverty of the nineteenth century, you
might also be returning us to the revolutionary spirit of that century.
This time, though, it’s not only about work and money.
The twenty-first century class war is engulfing the natural world on which
everything rests. We can see how clearly the great environmental battle of our
time is about money, about who benefits from climate destruction (the very few)
and who loses (everyone else for all time to come and nearly every living
thing). This year, Hurricane Sandy and a crop-destroying, Mississippi-River-withering drought that had more than 60% of the nation in its grip made it clear that
climate change is here and it’s now and it hurts.
In 2012, many have come to see that climate change is an
economic issue, and that economics is a moral and ecological issue. Why so
little has been done about the state of the climate in the past three decades
has everything to do with who profits. Not long ago, too many Americans were on
the fence, swayed by the oil companypropaganda war about whether climate change even exists.
However, this month, according to the Associated Press, “Four out of every five
Americans said climate change will be a serious problem for the United States
if nothing is done about it.” That widespread belief suggests that potentially
broad support now exists and may be growing for a movement that makes climate
change -- the broiling of the Earth -- central, urgent, and everybody’s
Ten years ago too, many people thought the issue could be
addressed, if at all, through renunciatory personal virtue in private life:
buying Priuses, compact fluorescents, and the like. Now most people who care at
all know that the necessary changes won’t happen through consumer choice alone.
What’s required are pitched battles against the most powerful (and profitable)
entities on Earth, the oil and energy companies and the politicians who serve
them instead of us.
That clarity matters and those conflicts are already
underway but need to grow. That’s our world right now, clear as a cold winter
day, sharp as broken glass.
Putting Aside Paradise
When I remember the world I grew up in, I see the parts
of it that were Paradise -- and I also see all
the little hells. I was a kid in California
when it had the best public education system in the world and universities
were nearly free and the economy was not so hard on people and the rich paid a
lot of taxes. The weather was predictable and we weren’t thinking about it
changing any time before the next ice age.
That was, however, the same California where domestic
violence was not something the law took an interest in, where gays and lesbians
were openly discriminated against, where almost all elected officials were
white men, where people hadn’t even learned to ask questions about exclusion
Which is to say, paradises are always partial and, when
you look backward, it’s worth trying to see the whole picture. The rights
gained over the past 35 years were fought for, hard, while so much of what was
neglected -- including public education, tuition, wages, banking regulation,
corporate power, and working hours -- slid into hell.
When you fight, you sometimes win; when you don’t, you
Here’s another gift we have right now: the young. There
are quite a lot of heroes among them, including the Dreamers or Dream Act
activists standing up for immigrants; the occupiers who challenged Wall Street in its home and
elsewhere around the country, became the unofficial first responders who aided the
victims of Hurricane Sandy, and have camped out on the doorstep
of Goldman Sachs’s CEO these last few months; the young who blockaded that
tar-sands pipeline, supplied the tremendous vitality of 350.org globally, and
have just begun to organize to pressure universities to divest from fossil fuel companies on 192 campuses across
In 2012, they rose up from Egypt
and Russia to Canada and Chile. They are fighting for
themselves and their future, but for us, too. They have remarkably few
delusions about how little our world is prepared to offer most of them. They
know that the only gifts they’ll get are the ones they can wrestle free from
the powers that be.
overrated. We dream of the cessation of misery, but who really wants a world
without difficulty? We learn through mistakes and suffering. These are the
minerals that harden our bones and the milestones on the roads we travel. And
we are made to travel, not to sit still.
Take pleasure in the route. There is terrible suffering
of many kinds in many places, but solidarity consists of doing something about
it, not being miserable. In this heroic age, survival is also going to require
seeing what fragments of paradise are still around us, what still blooms,
what’s still unimaginably beautiful about rivers, oceans, and evening skies,
what exhilaration there is in witnessing the stubbornness of small children and
their discovery of a world we think we know. All these are gifts as well.
Ice Breaking Up
As you gear up for 2013, don’t forget that 2012 has been
an extraordinary year. Who ever thought we’d see Aung San Suu Kyi elected to
office in her native Burma
and free to travel after so many years of house arrest? Who expected that the
United Nations would suddenly vote to give Palestine observer state status? Who foresaw
that the silly misinterpretations of Mayan prophesy would be overtaken by the
Mayan Zapatistas, who rose once again last Friday? (Meanwhile, Canada's Native people started a dynamic movement
around indigenous rights and the environment that has led to everything from flash-mob dances in an Edmonton Mall to demonstrations in Ottawa.)
Who thought that Occupy Wall Street, roundly dismissed by
the mainstream on its one-year anniversary, would spawn two superhero projects,
Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt? (Who among the police officers clubbing and
tear-gassing the young Occupiers in 2011 thought that a year later these would
be the people with the power and the generosity to come to their aid when a
climate-fed storm wrecked their homes?) Keep it in mind: the future is not
predictable. Sometimes, the world changes suddenly and in profound ways.
Sometimes we make it do so.
Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a reminder about what it
means to fight for what matters most. Permanently freeing five million slaves
and abolishing slavery forever meant renouncing a cheap power source in use for
more than 200 years. Doing so was initially inconceivable and then a matter of
indifference except to the slaves themselves and small groups of abolitionists.
Next, it was daringly radical, then partisan, with the whole nation taking
sides, the fuel for a terrible war. Finally, it was the law of the land. Today,
we need to give up on, or at least radically reduce our reliance on, another
set of power sources: oil, coal, and natural gas.
This is, among other things, a war of the imagination:
the carbon profiteers and their politicians are hoping you don’t connect the
dots, or imagine the various futures we could make or they could destroy, or
grasp the remarkably beautiful and complex ways the natural world has worked to
our benefit and is now being sabotaged, or discover your conscience and voice,
or ever picture how different it could all be, how different it will need to
They are already at war against the wellbeing of our
Earth. Their greed has no limits, their imagination nothing but limits. Fight
back. You have the power. It’s one of your gifts.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on
Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit
Image by Nattu,
licensed under Creative
Tuesday, November 30, 2010 10:34 AM
The power of art, John Berger suggested, is that it often shows that what people have in common is more urgent than what differentiates them. The smart minds behind 350.org must have taken Berger's suggestion to heart. The organization’s first global climate art project, “350 Earth,” was a series of art installations that recently and simultaneously mounted in seventeen cities around the world between November 20 and 28 this year. By presenting a global mix of celebrations and large-scale public art works that show how climate change impacts all of us, “350 Earth” reveals just how interconnected the world is.
Timed to take place during the lead-up to the United Nations climate meetings in Cancun, Mexico, the overall goal of “350 Earth” is to show national leaders and politicians the massive public concern that exists over the climate crisis. Participant projects were located in cities in six of the seven continents (only Antarctica was excluded), and involved varying numbers of people at each site, as well as artists and designers as diverse as: Molly Dilworth, Jorge Rodriguez Gerada, Thom Yorke, Liu Bolin, Jason deCaires Taylor, Sarah Rifaat, Daniel Dancer, and Bjargey Ólafsdóttir. Calls were often made public in advance of the commencement of a project, often on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and human bodies were often the main medium for each work. Each art installation was designed to be large enough to be seen from space, and “350 Earth” organizers arranged with the satellite imagery provider company DigitalGlobe to document the projects.
Among the more evocative projects was one of the first, which took place on November 20 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and drew upwards of a thousand area residents under the auspices of the Santa Fe Art Institute. The gathered participants dressed in blue clothing and held blue placards, and they acted out a human “flash flood” in the dry Santa Fe River bed while chanting, “It's hot in here, there's too much carbon in the atmosphere!” In another noteworthy project, mounted in New York City also on November 20, a large “roof mural” depicting a flooded New York and New Jersey coastline was placed atop a city rooftop. The painting was produced in conjunction with NYC°Coolroofs, a New York City initiative encourages building owners to cool their rooftops by applying a reflective white coating that reduces energy use, cooling costs, and carbon emissions.
In many of the artworks, the number 350 made an appearance. In Mexico City, on November 22, thousands of children gathered to form the shape of a huge hurricane, with “350” depicted in the eye of the storm. In the Australia outback, on November 26, volunteers carried torches and lights to form a giant “350” at night as a warning about the risk of a spread of wildfires if global warming is not halted. 350 is a significant number for the artists, the organizers, and indeed for the Earth itself. 350.org, which was founded by U.S. author Bill McKibben to inspire the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis, takes its name from what the organization claims to be the “most important number in the world.” 350 parts per million is what climatologists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Not all projects were as immediately successful or resonant as the ones mentioned above. In Los Angeles, on November 21, thousands of people gathered at Los Angeles National Park to form a giant image of an eagle taking flight, and solar-voltaic panels made up the outlines of the bird’s wing feathers. The rendering and execution of the eagle were somewhat rudimentary and unappealing, and the project was less clear—and likely less effective—than it could have been. But overall organizers seemed pleased with the results. McKibben acknowledged that when it comes to inspiring people to change, he was confident the images photographed from space would resonate with those who see them. But McKibben also added that, based on the lack of progress made thus far toward a global deal to reduce harmful emissions he was not optimistic about how much influence the art might have on the Cancun talks. “I think it is going to be a longer process than everyone has hoped.”
Images courtesy of 350 Earth.
Thursday, October 14, 2010 4:53 PM
Environmental writer and organizer Bill McKibben is the only person who’s been chosen twice as an Utne Reader Visionary—first in 2001 for his writing on climate-change issues, and now in 2010 for his role as founder of 350.org, turning his expertise into passionate activism. I recently spoke with McKibben about how he helped build 350.org into a force to be reckoned with, what keeps him inspired, and how he retains his cool demeanor in heated debates about our warming world:
You’ve long been a strong voice on climate change and in fact were one of the first commentators to call widespread attention to the problem. What made you take on a more activist role by forming 350.org?
“I spent a long time thinking that I was doing my part by writing and speaking about this, and that since it wasn’t really my nature to go be a political organizer, someone else whose nature it was would go and build a movement. But it never happened, and it became clearer and clearer to me that that was one of the things that was really lacking—one of the reasons we were making so little progress. I’d been dealing with the most important issue we’ve ever come up against, so I figured I’d better do what I could.
“As usual, these things begin as small and manageable, and end up completely out of control. We started with a march across Vermont in the fall of 2006. That was very successful, and it grew into Step It Up in the spring of 2007, and that was very successful—we coordinated about 1,400 demonstrations on a day in April 2007, and got [Barack] Obama and [Hillary] Clinton to change their positions on climate change. And that grew into 350.org, which has been very, very large, and so far not successful, at least in slowing global warming quite yet.”
When you say 350.org is large, are you talking about the membership of the organization?
“It doesn’t really have membership, I guess, in any traditional way. In fact, we’ve set it up not to be an organization. One of the insights we’ve had from the beginning is that in the Internet age, it’s probably less necessary to have more organizations—we have a lot of good ones yesterday—and more important to have ways to let everybody work together toward a common goal.
“So we set 350 up as a campaign and tried to make it easy for absolutely everyone to play along, and that’s what’s been happening all over the world. And I think it explains why we were able to help coordinate this massive Day of Action for last October, this thing that spanned 181 countries and that CNN said was the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”
Despite high-visibility events like this, and some pretty high-profile media coverage of 350.org, why do say you haven’t been successful so far?
“Well, we didn’t actually expect that we were going to defeat on fossil fuel industry inside of a year. Movement building takes time. We need to build a movement strong enough to take on the most profitable and powerful enterprise that the human civilization has ever seen—the fossil fuel industry. That’s by its definition difficult work. I think it’s an open question whether a) we’ll succeed, and b) probably more, whether we’ll succeed in time. Because physics and chemistry put a very definite time limit on how much margin we have.”
Despite leading this campaign-style organization, you’re still appearing often as a talking head on climate change matters on the news, and you’re taken quite seriously as a climate change expert. How do you maintain that sort of credibility while also taking a very clear side in this fight?
“Well, I obviously can’t go do beat reporting on climate for a major newspaper or something—that would be wrong, you know, because I am a part of the—I long ago took a side that I really don’t want the planet to burn up. On the other hand, we’ve always put the science first and foremost. That’s why we operate something that attempts to really people around a wonky scientific data point.
“And I suppose there a certain amount of credibility that comes from having written the first book for a general audience about all this stuff, all those many years ago, and having unfortunately been proven right. I would frankly far rather have been proven wrong, and the damage to my ego would have been quite small compared to the damage to the planet that we’ve had instead.”
In a recent commentary for TomDispatch, which we republished on Utne.com, you pointed out that you’re a mild-mannered guy, slow to anger—and yet you wrote that you’ve basically lost patience with the lack of progress on global warming.
“Well, this has been a very brutal summer. The contrast between the very clear—we’re really seeing this summer what, in its early stages, this global warming looks like. That prospect is so disturbing, and we look at what’s going on in Pakistan, or Russia, or the Arctic, and it’s just especially disturbing when we contrast it with the incredible inaction in D.C., the lack of urgency at the White House, the lack of willingness even to take a vote in the U.S. Senate—to me that’s really scary. And yeah, I might have even said a bad word in that article, which is unlike me.”
I’ve noticed in your media appearances that you seldom come off as argumentative or confrontational—you always keep your cool when taking on arguments about climate change.
“It may be that for better or for worse, having worked on this for more than two decades now, basically as long as anybody on the planet except a few scientists, maybe my emotions get less tangled up in the middle of it all. When I was first wrote the end of nature, I was feeling—I was in a state of, not clinical depression, but I was very sad. And some part of me remains very much that way. But some other part has, in the way that we do after a long time, gotten a grip on it. And now I just—maybe it’s because I spend less time than I used to worrying about whether we are going to win or not. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I just know that it’s necessary for me to get up every day and do everything that I can think of to do.”
In that same commentary you laid out some prescriptions about where we can go from here. You wrote that “Step one involves actually talking about global warming.” How do we go about talking about it?
“Well, what I was contrasting it with was the tendency among some members of Congress or the administration to endlessly talk about it as if the real issue was that we needed some way to create green jobs, or energy independence. Now, these are all good things that would happen were we to take seriously the need to get off fossil fuel. But the need to get off fossil fuel stems from the fact that if we don’t, the planet is not going to work. And that’s what we’ve got to keep saying now with increasing urgency. Most people here, even in the United States, understand that there’s a problem with climate change. The polling shows like two-thirds of people sort of get it—but not too many of them get the fact that it’s happening now in a very dramatic and powerful fashion.”
How do we bring that home to those people who don’t understand that?
“Well, we do what we can. We write; we did this huge political rally last year; we’re doing a huge Global Work Party this October; in November we’re doing this global-scale kind of art project. We’re trying to figure out every way in. It may mean that we need to do more of the civil disobedience kind of stuff in the future that we did some of last year at the congressional power plant in D.C. We’ve got to figure out every way we can to communicate this urgency, and it’ll reach different people in different ways, of course, because we’re all wired kind of different.”
Environmentalists are often told that we’re not supposed to mention things like, oh, civilization as we know it may cease to exist if we don’t do something. But it seems to me that we’ve got to start talking candidly about this. How do we do that without setting off this fear response that allegedly is unhealthy for people?
“I don’t know—and so my default mechanism is just to tell the truth. You know what my books are about. The last book, Eaarth(Times Books, 2010), was no punches pulled. It’s a pretty grim first chapter, it must be said. But it’s just a recitation of the evidence about where we are, with no attempt to sort of showboat it or anything—just say it: Here’s what’s going on, right now. And it’s possible that—you can make an argument that we need to figure out some other message or framing or something—I’m not clever enough to do it. So my default mechanism is just to tell people the truth. And 350 is kind of the height of that. That’s the most important number we know about the world right now.”
Clearly, there’s plenty of discouraging news in climate change action these days. What is it that inspires you day to day, keeps you encouraged and going?
“The incredible outpouring of people all over the world. I go and look at the 25,000 pictures in the Flickr account at 350.org when I get really down about all this, and I see people all over the world, most of whom do not look the way that Americans think environmentalists do—i.e. rich white people. Most of them are black, brown, Asian, poor, young, because that’s what most of the world is, you know. That people in orphanages in Indonesia and slums in Mombasa, and in every kind of circumstance on earth, can join hands to stand up on this stuff, then I can’t find any good reason why I shouldn’t keep trying.”
I know you were tremendously disappointed by the lack of progress in Copenhagen at the climate talks, having read some of your post-conference coverage. Presumably the world is going to have to get around a table again to talk about this—how can we avoid the gridlock and inertia that bogged things down in Denmark?
“The only way we can avoid it is if we built a movement strong enough to have some real power. Look, in the end this isn’t about figuring out some magic set of words, or some perfect conference protocol. This is about power, and at the moment the fossil fuel industry, which is the most profitable business humans have ever engaged in, has enough power to easily beat back the steps that need to be taken to preserve the planet. So unless we can build a movement that has enough power to beat back the fossil fuel industry, then we’re never going to have good outcomes.”
Image by Nancie Battaglia, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008 10:05 AM
Did you scoff at the TV when Sarah Palin told ABC’s Charlie Gibson, “I'm attributing some of man's activities to potentially causing some of the changes in the climate right now”? What about when she said it didn’t really matter what caused global warming in the vice presidential debate? Well, be prepared to scoff again, because it turns out she’s hardly alone in her skepticism. A new study finds that a mere 18 percent of Americans “strongly believe that climate change is real, human-caused and harmful,” according to the Nature Conservancy.
Lee Bodner, executive director of EcoAmerica, the consulting group that did the study, told the Nature Conservancy that “political party affiliation was the largest indicator—by significant margins—on whether people see climate change as a threat, believe that it is human-caused, and even whether they've noticed the weather change or trust people who speak about global warming.” Bodner said 90 percent of Democrats believe the earth is warming, versus only 54 percent of Republicans.
Nevertheless, the candidates at the top of both party’s tickets have indicated their commitment to reengaging with the world on climate change. And the eco-activists at 350.org are seeing to it that they keep that promise. From the site, you can send both McCain and Obama an invitation to attend the UN’s climate talks in Poland this December. More than 30,000 people have already done so, but they need your help to reach their goal of 35,000 by Election Day.
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