5/7/2013 3:04:03 PM
After a modified, anti-fracking Smokey
the Bear went viral, the U.S.
Forest Service threatened legal action against
the activist who created it. The case now revolves around fair use, culture
jamming, and just whose side the Forest
Service is really on.
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
Smokey the Bear thought he smelled a fire in the woods. But as he approached
the clearing and saw a giant derrick jutting out into the sky, he realized that
what his nose had picked up was the scent of hydrocarbons. It was another piece
of evidence that the increasingly widespread method of oil and gas extraction
known as fracking was poisoning the environment that he and his human friends
depend on. He decided something must be done.
At least that’s the way that artist, Occupy Wall Street veteran and
environmental activist Lopi LaRoe
sees it. But last week she received a letter threatening her with jail time and
thousands of dollars in fines for enlisting Smokey to the anti-fracking cause.
In the fall, LaRoe created an image of Smokey that altered his famous
invective “Only you can prevent forest fires” to “Only you can prevent faucet
fires” — a reference to the phenomenon of flaming taps
that occasionally occur near where fracking takes place. The adjustment seemed
to her in line with the message of conservation Smokey has come to embody.
“This is the radicalization of Smokey the Bear,” said LaRoe. “This is Smokey
waking up and saying, ‘Oh you didn’t do that to my environment.’ Smokey wants
to fight the corporations and protect the air and the water and the plants and
the animals and the people.”
Her parody went viral. She began printing T-shirts at the insistence of
friends on Facebook, but demand quickly surpassed those in her immediate circle
of contacts. Soon she was packing Smokey in FedEx envelopes and sending him off
and other far-flung terrains. There are also tote bags and patches with the
Smokey meme available at LaRoe’s website.
(The tote bags, she advertises, are “great for dumpster diving.”) LaRoe says
she’s not out to become rich and the money she charges customers goes toward
covering her costs so that she can keep spreading the message of faucet-fire
prevention far and wide.
“It spread like wildfire,” she said, grinning ear to ear.
Not everyone is amused. LaRoe received a cease-and-desist letter from the
Metis Group, which serves as legal counsel for the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s Forest Service division. The letter informs LaRoe that Smokey,
his character and his slogan are property of the U.S. government and warns that she
has until May 2 to halt the use of Smokey on her “products” and to stop
distributing electronic copies of the meme. Otherwise, she faces up to six
months in prison and a penalty as high as $150,000.
“Any time anybody uses Smokey’s image for anything other than wildfire
prevention,” said Helene Cleveland, fire prevention program manager for the
Forest Service, “it confuses the public. What we’re trying to do is keep Smokey
on message.” Cleveland
added that the 1952 Smokey
the Bear Act takes the character out of the public domain and “any change
in that would have to go through Congress.”
Two other entities besides the Forest Service claim joint rights to Smokey.
The National Association of State Foresters — a non-profit organization
consisting of directors of U.S.
forestry agencies — and the Ad Council.
Remember “This is your brain on drugs”? Or the Indian
weeping over pollution? They were the Ad Council’s handiwork. A non-profit,
it describes itself as a promoter of “public service campaigns on behalf of
non-profit organizations and government agencies” with a focus on “improving
the quality of life for children, preventive health, education, community well
being and strengthening families.” Smokey the Bear was born at the Ad Council,
on the desk of abstract
expressionist and Marx-influenced art critic Harold Rosenberg, who had a
part time job there in the mid-1940s.
Council’s board of directors is a conflagration of representatives of the
world’s wealthiest corporations, including representatives of such companies as
General Electric, which announced
plans last month to spend $110 million on a research lab devoted to the
study of fracking, and finance giants such as Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. On
Citibank advertises an “extensive array of deposit, cash management and credit
products” for oil and gas drillers, while
a JPMorgan Chase subsidiary boasts its “Oil & Gas Investment Banking
group covers the complete oil and gas value chain, which includes exploration
and production, natural gas processing and transmission, refining and
marketing, and oilfield services.”
LaRoe believes that those who claim to own Smokey “don’t care that I’m
selling a few T-shirts. They’re out to crush the meme.”
Both the Ad Council and the Metis Group declined to comment for this story.
Despite the warnings in the cease-and-desist letter she received, the May 2
deadline to shut down her site and retire her anti-fracking Smokey came and
went; LaRoe has not ceased or desisted. Instead, she enlisted the help of her
own legal counsel, who fired back with a letter to the Metis Group on Friday.
In it, attorney Evan Sarzin argues that LaRoe ‘s culture-jam
appropriation of Smokey is permissible under the fair-use exemption to
exclusive copyright ownership and chides the the Forest Service for attempting
to infringe on LaRoe’s First Amendment rights.
Sarzin also points out that this is not the first time the Forest Service
has sought to silence environmentalists for appropriating Smokey’s image. In
the early 1990s, the Forest Service demanded reparations from the Sante
Fe-based conservation group LightHawk after it used Smokey’s likeness in ads
critical of the agency’s practice of auctioning off land to timber companies.
(The Forest Service, as part of the Department of Agriculture, makes its land
available for commercial use.) Unlike LaRoe’s Smokey, LightHawk’s black bear
appeared angry and wielded a chainsaw. “Say it ain’t so, Smokey,” read the ads.
With legal funds provided by the Sierra Club, LightHawk sued
the Forest Service in 1992 for infringing on its freedom of speech. The court
eventually sided with the plaintiffs, noting that “the satirical use of Smokey
the Bear to criticize Forest Service management techniques is unlikely to cause
confusion or to dilute the value of Smokey the Bear to help prevent forest
fires. Thus the Forest Service cannot have a compelling interest in prohibiting
Sarzin also calls attention to the fact the Forest Service’s own research
points to environmental degradation caused by fracking. A 2011 study
published in the Journal of Environmental Quality by Forest Service
frack fluid to the death of 150 trees in West Virginia’s
Monongahela National Forest. Despite their findings,
the Forest Service is considering approving fracking leases in the nearby George Washington
National Forest. The
Southern Environmental Law Center, which opposes the plan, says
it represents a threat to local wildlife — including the black bear.
released last month by the the National Parks Conservation Association warns
that fracking for oil is decimating the ecosystem surrounding Theodore
Roosevelt National Park, named after the Republican president who founded the
Forest Service. “Unless we take quick action,” the report warns “air, water and
wildlife will experience permanent harm in other national parks as well.” Thus,
Sarzin writes, LaRoe’s Smokey meme “is a message that the Forest Service should
LaRoe hopes that by gaining publicity she can force the Forest Service to
take a stand against fracking. In order to continue the fight, however, she
says she needs the support of groups whose mission it is to defend civil
liberties or protect the environment to provide legal defense funds — just as
the Sierra Club did for LightHawk.
“This about more than me as an artist,” LaRoe said. “This is about
everybody’s right to freedom of speech and a healthy environment.”
Her childhood memories of Smokey, she explains, are compelling her to keep
raising faucet-fire prevention awareness despite the threat of jail time. “When
we were little kids we were taught that there is this bear out there that wants
to protect our forests. Smokey is our bear. He belongs to the people.”
Images of Smokey the Bear meme and
T-shirt by Lopi LaRoe/WePay.
4/23/2013 2:53:56 PM
The end of Keystone XL's public comment period won't stop climate activists from fighting the pipeline.
This article originally appeared at Common Dreams and is licensed under Creative Commons.
The 45-day period for public comment on the State Department's draft supplementary environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline comes to end on Monday.
As groups opposed to the project wrapped up campaigns urging their members to write, call and otherwise voice their objections to the State Department's draft, the broader climate movement is also gearing up for the possible next stage in their protracted fight against the project. And with so much believed to be at stake, the movement hopes to leverage its human energy, financial muscle, and political acuity to fight back against the full court press of the fossil fuel industry and their army of lobbyists in Washington.
Despite last month's dramatic tar sands spill in Mayflower, Arkansas—which many activists point to as visual proof of the damage tar sands is capable of—there have been no distinct signals from the White House that President Obama is leaning towards rejection of the pipeline.
As BusinessWeek reports, the anti-Keystone movement has a few deep pockets in addition to the boisterous and committed activism coming from youth-fueled groups like Tar Sands Blockade, the growing and nimble 350.org, and more traditional environmental groups like Sierra Club and NRDC.
Led by Tom Steyer, the founder of hedge fund Farallon Capital Management LLC, a group of wealthy Democratic donors are using their money and status to "draw a line" against the pipeline.
Betsy Taylor, a climate activist who worked for Obama’s election and then was arrested outside the White House protesting the pipeline, said the group of about 100 Democratic contributors and activists, including [Susie Tompkins Buell, who founded clothing maker Esprit], aims to show Obama “if he does the right thing, he is going to get so much love.”
“People are giving it everything they can,” said Taylor, who is helping to organize the donors. “This is a line-in-the-sand kind of decision.” [...]
“We’ve got to step up our game and make our case -- it’s not going to make itself,” said David desJardins, a philanthropist and former Google Inc. (GOOG) software engineer who attended the fundraiser at Steyer’s house.
One former Obama donor has shifted from insider to activist.
Guy Saperstein, a California venture capitalist and onetime president of the Sierra Club Foundation, said while he gave to Obama’s campaign in 2008, he became disillusioned. Rather than attend the fundraiser at Steyer’s house, Saperstein chose to join Keystone protesters camped out nearby.
“The indications I got back from the people who were inside suggested that he was not very persuadable, but you know politics is a funny thing,” Saperstein said. “If people are in the streets, being loud and making the case, things can change.”
Of course, money has never been the true strength of the climate justice movement. That's why a collection of groups, regardless of Obama's decision, hope to leverage the financial support they do have with continued grassroots mobilizations and a renewed commitment to resistance, civil disobedience and public actions.
Groups including CREDO Action, Bold Nebraska, The Other 98%, Hip Hop Caucus, Rainforest Action Network, 350.org and Oil Change International have launched the 'Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance,' which hopes to galvanize the movement ahead of a final White House decision.
The coalition hopes that, "If tens of thousands of people stand up as President Obama mulls his final decision, and commit to participate in civil disobedience if necessary, we can convince the White House that it will be politically unfeasible to go forward. That is, our goal is not to get arrested. Our goal is to stop the Keystone XL pipeline -- by showing enough opposition to Keystone XL that President Obama will reject it. But if he shows clear signs he that he is preparing to approve it, we will be ready."
The pledge itself reads:
It is time for us to pledge to resist. That is, we are asking you to commit - should it be necessary to stop Keystone XL -- to engage in serious, dignified, peaceful civil disobedience that could get you arrested.
Will you join us in pledging resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline, including - if necessary - pledging to participate in peaceful, dignified civil disobedience?
Acknowledging that since the State Department's release of the draft SEIS there have been two tar sands spills in the United States, including one that poured 84,000 gallons of tar sands into Arkansas backyards, the Sierra Club argues that the stakes are too high and said there "is no excuse for the White House to approve" the project Keystone XL.
"It's impossible to fight climate change while simultaneously investing in one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuels on the planet," the group said in a message.
As Climate Progress illustrates, making a comment to the State Department is the easy part:
Anyone can submit as many comments as they wish. Some created a compelling video about why Keystone is “all risk, no reward,” but not everyone has to do that. Some protest President Obama to let them know that this decision matters for the climate, but that tactic, while important, is not for everyone.
Once the public has spoken, however, the bigger questions are these: Will the Obama administration cross the clearly marked Keystone XL line? And if he does approve the project, what comes next for those pledged to resist it?
Photo: Flickr / tarsandsaction
4/8/2013 4:23:14 PM
Since the beginning of the gay rights movement, it
took Democratic leaders four decades to “evolve” on marriage equality. But the
climate movement, and the planet, don’t have the kind of time.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
A few weeks ago, Time magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will
bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the
U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.
Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and
bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers
of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for
the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the
“environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility
and advisability of building the pipeline. And there’s good reason to put
pressure on. After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous
round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for
TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.
Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took
place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide
if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement
takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The
section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this
winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac
River out of downtown DC.)
It was certainly joyful to see marriage
equality being considered by our top judicial body. In some ways, however, the
most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide
that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings.
In one weekend, Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri,
Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay
Rockefeller of West Virginia
figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the
greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had
signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate
John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too,
had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe
Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest
part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to
do about the Democrats.
Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Let’s begin by stipulating that, taken as a whole,
they’re better than the Republicans. About a year ago, in his initial campaign ad of the general election, Mitt Romney
declared that his first act in office would be to approve Keystone and that, if
necessary, he would “build it myself.” (A charming image, it must be said). Every
Republican in the Senate voted on a nonbinding resolution to approve the
pipeline -- every single one. In other words, their unity in subservience to
the fossil fuel industry is complete, and almost compelling. At the least, you
know exactly what you’re getting from them.
With the Democrats, not so much. Seventeen of their
Senate caucus -- about a third -- joined the GOP in voting to approve Keystone
XL. As the Washington
insider website Politico proclaimed in a headline the next day, “Obama’s Achilles Heel on Climate:
Which actually may have been generous to the president.
It’s not at all clear that he wants to stop the Keystone pipeline (though he
has the power to do so himself, no matter what the Senate may want), or for
that matter do anything else very difficult when it comes to climate change.
His new secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a preliminary environmental
impact statement on the pipeline so fraught with errors that it took scientists
and policy wonks about 20 minutes to shred its math.
Administration insiders keep insisting, ominously enough,
that the president doesn’t think Keystone is a very big deal. Indeed, despite
his amped-up post-election rhetoric on climate change, he continues to insist
on an “all-of-the-above” energy policy which, as renowned climate scientistJames
Hansen pointed out in his valedictory shortly before retiring from NASA last week,
simply can’t be squared with basic climate-change math.
All these men and women have excuses for their climate
conservatism. To name just two: the oil industry has endless resources and
they’re scared about reelection losses. Such excuses are perfectly realistic
and pragmatic, as far as they go: if you can’t get re-elected, you can’t do
even marginal good and you certainly can’t block right-wing craziness. But they
also hide a deep affection for oil industry money, which turns out to be an even better predictor of
voting records than party affiliation.
Anyway, aren’t all those apologias wearing thin as Arctic
sea ice melts with startling, planet-changing speed? It was bad
enough to take four decades simply to warm up to the idea of gay rights.
Innumerable lives were blighted in those in-between years, and given
long-lasting official unconcern about AIDS, innumerable lives were lost. At
least, however, inaction didn’t make the problem harder to solve: if the
Supreme Court decides gay people should be able to marry, then they’ll be able
Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human
justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain
point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will
prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit and so
the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more
fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for
their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers. What we need,
desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public
opinion and public policy.
Instead, at best they insist on fiddling around the
edges, while the planet prepares to burn. The newly formed Organizing for
Action, for instance -- an effort to turn Barack Obama’s fundraising list into
a kind of quasi-official MoveOn.org -- has taken up climate change as one of its goals. Instead of
joining with the actual movement around the Keystone pipeline or turning to
other central organizing issues, however, it evidently plans to devote more
energy to house parties to put solar panels on people’s roofs. That’s great,
but there’s no way such a “movement” will profoundly alter the trajectory of
climate math, a task that instead requires deep structural reform of exactly
the kind that makes the administration and Congressional “moderates” nervous.
Last Century’s Worry
So far, the Democrats are showing some willingness to
face the issues that matter only when it comes to coal. After a decade of
concentrated assault by activists led by the Sierra Club, the coal industry is
now badly weakened: plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants have
disappeared from anyone’s drawing board. So, post-election, the White House
finally seems willing to take on the industry at least in modest ways,
including possibly with new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could
start closing down existing coal-fired plants (though even that approach now seems delayed).
Recently, I had a long talk with an administration
insider who kept telling me that, for the next decade, we should focus all our
energies on “killing coal.” Why? Because it was politically feasible.
And indeed we should, but climate-change science makes it
clear that we need to put the same sort of thought and creative energy into
killing oil and natural gas, too. I mean, the Arctic -- from Greenland to its
seas -- essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic
is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your
left arm was missing. You’d panic.
There is, however, no panic in Washington. Instead, the administration and
Democratic moderates are reveling in new oil finds in North
Dakota and in the shale gas now flowing out of Appalachia,
even though exploiting both of these energy supplies is likely to lock us into
more decades of fossil fuel use. They’re pleased as punch that we’re getting
nearer to “energy independence.” Unfortunately, energy independence was last
century’s worry. It dates back to the crises
set off by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in the early
1970s, not long after… Stonewall.
So what to do? The narrow window of opportunity that
physics provides us makes me doubt that a third party will offer a fast enough
answer to come to terms with our changing planet. The Green Party certainly
offered the soundest platform in our last elections, and in Germany and Australia the Greens have been
decisivein nudging coalition governments towards carbon commitments.
But those are parliamentary systems. Here, so far, national third parties have
been more likely to serve as spoilers than as wedges (though it’s been an
enlightening pleasure to engage with New York’s
Working Families Party, or the Progressives in Vermont). It’s not clear to me how that will
effectively lead to changes during the few years we’ve got left to deal with
carbon. Climate science enforces a certain brute realism. It makes it harder to
follow one’s heart.
Along with some way to make a third party truly viable,
we need a genuine movement for fundamental governmental reform -- not just a
change in the Senate’s filibuster rules, but publicly funded elections, an end
to the idea that corporations are citizens, and genuine constraints on
revolving-door lobbyists. These are crucial matters, and it is wonderful to see
broad new campaigns
underway around them. It’s entirely possible that there’s no way to do what
needs doing about climate change in this country without them. But even their
most optimistic proponents talk in terms of several election cycles, when the
scientists tell usthat we have no hope of holding the rise in the
planetary temperature below two degrees unless global emissions peak by 2015.
Of course, climate-change activists can and should
continue to work to make the Democrats better. At the moment, for instance, the
350.org action fund is organizing
college students for the Massachusetts
primary later this month. One senatorial candidate, Steven Lynch, voted to
build the Keystone pipeline, and that’s not okay. Maybe electing his opponent,
Ed Markey, will send at least a small signal. In fact, this strategy got
considerably more promising in the last few days when California hedge fund
manager and big-time Democratic donor Tom Steyer announced that he was not only going to go after Lynch, but
any politician of any party who didn’t take climate change seriously. “The goal
here is not to win. The goal here is to destroy these people,” he said,
demonstrating precisely the level of rhetoric (and spending) that might
actually start to shake things up.
It will take a while, though. According to press reports,
Obama explained to the environmentalists at a fundraiser Steyer
hosted that “the politics of this are tough,” because “if your house is still
underwater,” then global warming is “probably not rising to your number one concern.”
By underwater, he meant: worth less than the mortgage. At
this rate, however, it won’t be long before presidents who use that phrase
actually mean “underwater.” Obama closed his remarks by saying something that
perfectly summed up the problem of our moment. Dealing with climate change, he
said, is “going to take people in Washington
who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks
politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve -- not two
miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it.”
That pretty much defines the Democrats: just a little bit
ahead, not as bad as Bush, doing what we can.
And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head,
I keep coming to the same conclusion: we probably need to think, most of the
time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a
movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the
trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve.” At
which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe
even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is
what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the
The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics
is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time.
He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the
same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.
A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global
warming summit he convened in Vermont’s
state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think
of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A
movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”
“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he
And so, down to work.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at
Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign
, and the author, most
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check
out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben
Image of November 2011
climate march at the White House by TarSandsAction.
Image of a 2012 Barack Obama speech by Matt Wansley. Both
are licensed under Creative
2/19/2013 12:23:03 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.
10/17/2012 11:57:10 AM
Editor's note: The following is a companion piece to "Power of Nature" from the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Utne Reader (pages 48-50). In that article, futurists Gitte Larsen, Søren Steen Olsen and Steen Svendsen of House of Futures in Denmark paint a vision of the future where we realize that everything is nature and so are we; that we are one with the earth and share a common biology and collective consciousness. The following is an equally optimistic alternate vision of the future where humanity realizes that when it puts its collective mind toward something, it's capable of developing technologies, organizations, political institutions and business models that allow for prosperity without jeopardizing the planet.
In 2112, we live in a “man-made world.” If you look at that world from a 2012 perspective, you will be surprised by the responsibility that we, as humans, exhibit towards nature—the clean cities, the fertile landscape, the light-touch clean economy and the high prosperity. You will be fascinated by the new technology and new innovations, and you may be shocked by the changes in human physiology. But you will recognize general social patterns.
Let us give you the story of how this future unfolds, where it has its historic roots and what drives the transformation. Then let us describe to you the future perception of nature. Finally let us portray what politics, business, living, art, science and technology will look like in this world.
Drivers and Background
The mindset that drives “man-made world” is responsible determination. It is informed by the realization that human activity has created a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, where we have become the most important driving force for changing Earth’s geology, climate, and ecosystems. We are responsible and we have to assume this responsibility. “man-made world” is created by vigorous political initiative and rational science-based planning. And it arguably has its roots stretching back all the way to the Club of Rome with its message of “limits to growth” due to the finiteness of fossil energy and raw materials reserves. This gave rise to an increasing awareness of nature’s boundaries to human activities. Also, it led to a process of institutionalized global political consultation, negotiation and formulation of targets. The Brundtland commission and Kyoto protocols were some early milestones in a process with plenty of twists and bumps along the way to the Anthropocene breakthrough.
In the 1970s, the oil crisis that ended the three decades of historically unprecedented economic growth worked as a powerful demonstration of the exact vulnerabilities that “limits to growth” had pointed out. This run of events was a precursor for the early decades of the 21st century when increasing temperatures, hurricanes, floods and droughts put pressure on our resources and economies thereby demonstrating the message from the scientific community about planetary boundaries. The ideas driving "man-made world" were under ways for many decades, and often quite high on the agenda of public discourse and policy. They were picked up by media, by NGOs and grassroot movements, and by segments of consumers and producers. But the wholesale radical change that marks “man-made world” required a new generation of political leaders taking over as the old generation failed to inspire and weren’t up to tackling the challenges.
It became clear that global action on a massive scale was needed in order to reverse, mitigate and/or adapt to the challenges. Consequently we saw a refocusing and a revitalization of political processes on local, national, regional, and global levels. New generations of policy entrepreneurs were taking the lead in taking responsibility.
Perception of Nature
A strong and conscious perception of nature is absolutely central in the "man-made world." We see nature as a living system and a wonderful resource. We can rely on it to provide us with much of the material basis for our existence. But nature is a finite resource. Since the industrial revolution, humans have become the single most powerful force affecting nature’s development, changing physical landscapes, climate, material metabolisms and biodiversity, both globally and locally. We are living in a geological epoch of our own making. This was a call on us to be responsible and rational in how we use the world’s resources. We learned to be knowledgeable and conscious about how our activities effect the fragile balanced of nature.
Nature requires us to keep researching and studying nature, as well as ourselves and the interplay between human societies and nature. Nature inspires us to recognize the beauty and endless opportunities and scope for innovation that it presents us with, but also to be acutely aware and mindful of the boundaries that nature sets for our utilization.
We must assume responsibility. We must acquire the means to control and manage our own power and collective behavior in order to harness nature without damaging it. We need to take on the role of responsible and conscientious custodians, stewards or managers of nature—like any landowner would his property—all in order to be able to continue to be the biggest beneficiaries of nature.
Previously it was sometimes said that we knew what needed to be done, we just didn’t know how to do it politically. It was somewhat natural to take a cynical view given the previously disappointingly inadequate political action even in the face of a long-standing public awareness of the challenges. We were irresponsibly gambling with the future of the planet. Everybody was waiting for someone else to take the lead and do something.
The emergence of a new generation of political leaders changed the dynamics. It was a generation whose outlook was shaped by the ongoing debate on sustainability and by growing impatience and frustration with the inadequacy of political response. They entered the scene with an ambitious outlook, a firm belief that change is possible, and a deep sense of responsibility towards nature and future generations.
There was a new optimism and enthusiasm for what we can accomplish. A feeling that we actually can make a better world if we put our minds to it. “So let us be masters of our own fate and take responsibility for the destiny of our planet. We can do it!”as one political leader famously put it.
Growing public realization that old methods and politics simply couldn’t deliver urged a tectonic shift in the balance between old vested interests and forward-looking interests. The new political agenda was global in its worldview and resonated with people everywhere, especially younger generations. Beginning in northwestern Europe and the EU, governments all over the world devised and implemented strategic policies using a variety of instruments. The frontrunners were countries where there was a strong awareness of the importance of a new course; a culture which was influenced by a generally high level of economic development and public welfare, and above all by education; a culture based on co-creation.
The global process that unfolded was partly negotiated, cooperative, and coordinated, and partly an uneven process of pioneers and emulators, leaders and followers. International and global institutions gained renewed relevance and were quick to pick up on this agenda assuming their designated role as facilitators of global political dialogue and will.
Democracy and revitalized primarily due to the system’s ability to respond to the challenge, but also because of a new political culture based on a dynamic development in digital and local platforms creating a new responsiveness between people and politicians.
As for strategies, one key was to get prices right. Tax systems were used in various and often innovative ways to ensure that prices reflected true ecological costs. Another key was investing massively in sustainable infrastructure: energy, smart grids, transportation systems, welfare technology, recycling and waste disposal. A third key was support for open source technological development and sustainable innovation. The overall effect was to move the economy on to a new path of development.
Once the political direction was clear, business and consumers were remarkably quick to respond. Breakthroughs in solar, wind, smart grids, waste disposal and material technologies came in rapid succession and were speedily implemented. New patterns of consumption and production emerged that were radically more friendly to the environment. A light-touch, clean and prosperous economy emerged.
What was most surprising to many in the beginning of the transition was that the structural changes to the economic system went hand in hand with economic boom. The new ecologically sustainable economic system was highly competitive.
Frontrunners were those who not only responded to new pricing signals and market demands but who truly comprehended the new policy direction and based their vision and strategy on it. They were the ones who delivered the myriad of new products, services and business models that built the light-touch economy.
The transformation that was set in motion succeeded in completely replacing the fossil fuel based economy with one that was based on energy from clean, renewable sources. It saw a materials revolution driven by the development of new eco-friendly synthetic materials, and by the super-efficient recycling markets and waste disposal systems. And not only did it succeed, but success came much faster than anyone had predicted, or even thought possible. Once set in motion the process quickly gained momentum and became self-reinforcing as political initiative, political response and technological innovation combined in a powerful drive for sustainability and renewed prosperity.
In fact, a dynamic arose in which countries, economies and businesses that embraced sustainable strategies became economic powerhouses and front-runners. To be stuck in the age of gasoline and coal was the biggest structural danger to an economy. Some large companies, notably those rich in fossil fuels, and those poor in political effectiveness, struggled to make the transition but eventually followed suit. We have learned that responsible management of our relationship with nature is not only right. It is also highly rewarding in many regards.
Living and Art
Life in the light-touch society is high-prosperity, low-impact. Intelligent systems handled the metabolic exchange with nature, and secured the safe and efficient recycling of materials and disposal of waster. Our relationship with nature was respectful and sustainable. As people lived in clean and attractive built environments, nature was not top-of-mind all the time. Many people spend a lot of their time in digitized virtual reality rather than in nature. At the same time people very much appreciated nature, and it still had a powerful appeal. It offered great experiences whether you were an adventurer seeking extreme authenticity, or whether you would rather opt for themed nature resorts where people could experience sights and landscapes, some with carefully managed stocks of wild animals. Prehistoric theme parks complete with dinosaurs and swans were particularly popular.
Remarkably, art became big business and the single most dynamic sector in the economy. This was a result of prosperity and individualism that saw art as the ultimate form of self-actualization. The ability to create and appreciate artistic expressions was the ultimate human characteristic, one that was eagerly sought after and high in demand. New technologies and knowledge of the functioning of the human brain and body have opened up a variety of new artistic fields and art forms.
But the one parameter that came to dominate the field was authenticity. That is, the experience of a significant event which takes place at a particular place and time and therefore is unique and cannot be replicated. The development and careful staging of such events constituted a large and fast growing part of the economy and employment. New artistic megahalls and art stadiums sprang up in cities around the world in fierce competition for the most prestigious and creative public spaces for art activities.
The goal was to merge intellect and intuition in new ways, constantly experimenting with new forms of human consciousness, expression of language, story-telling, sound, music, imagery, and sensory stimulation. To many this kind of endeavor was the closest thing to having a meaning of life.
Science and Technology
Science was very visible and important driver in the transition to a sustainable "man-made world," and the string of technological breakthroughs that it spurned gave it a new-found prestige in society. Big science made a decisive comeback, not least when cheap and clean nuclear fusion energy came on stream by the latter half of the 21st century. Their cool and quiet gigantic domes were an aesthetically pleasing addition to the landscape.
Science pursued further advancement in a range of fields stretching from genetics to space. Sophisticated modeling was applied to complex systems such as ecosystems, climate and weather in order to optimize our management of them and in order to facilitate advances in the dynamic field of geo-engineering. There was a new focus on anticipation and prevention instead of problem fixing and symptom treatment.
The scientific study of nature kept offering exciting opportunities to learn from something that was not human-made. The extraction and storage of genetic information from all life forms was one project that promised to enable regeneration of any extinct species that might be deemed valuable or interesting. Given advanced knowledge of managing ecosystems, this would also make it possible to create new types of ecosystems.
Artificial intelligence, robotics, genetics, merging of man and machine, were some of the developments we saw. The re-engineering of humans and the possible prospect of immaturity began to raise a host of new practical and ethical questions.
Image courtesy of dullhunk, licensed under Creative Commons
10/5/2012 4:41:23 PM
fossil-fuel enthusiasts began trumpeting the dawn of a new “golden age of oil”
that would kick-start the American economy, generate millions of new jobs, and
free this country from its dependence on imported petroleum. Ed Morse, head
commodities analyst at Citibank, was typical. In the Wall Street Journal
he crowed, “The United States has become the fastest-growing
oil and gas producer in the world, and is likely to remain so for the rest of this
decade and into the 2020s.”
Once this surge
in U.S. energy production
was linked to a predicted boom in energy from Canada’s tar sands reserves, the
results seemed obvious and uncontestable. “North America,” he announced, “is
becoming the new Middle East.” Many other
analysts have elaborated similarly on this rosy scenario, which now provides
the foundation for Mitt Romney’s plan to achieve “energy independence” by 2020.
By employing impressive new technologies -- notably deepwater drilling and
hydraulic fracturing (or hydro-fracking) -- energy companies were said to be on
the verge of unlocking vast new stores of oil in Alaska,
the Gulf of Mexico, and shale formations across the United States. “A ‘Great Revival’
oil production is taking shape -- a major break from the near 40-year trend of
falling output,” James Burkhard of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates
(CERA) told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
in January 2012.
output was also predicted elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, especially Canada and Brazil. “The outline of a new world
oil map is emerging, and it is centered not on the Middle East but on the Western Hemisphere,” Daniel Yergin, chairman of CERA, wrote in the Washington Post. “The new energy axis
runs from Alberta, Canada,
down through North Dakota and South Texas...
to huge offshore oil deposits found near Brazil.”
It turns out,
however, that the future may prove far more recalcitrant than these prophets of
an American energy cornucopia imagine. To reach their ambitious targets, energy
firms will have to overcome severe geological and environmental barriers -- and
recent developments suggest that they are going to have a tough time doing so.
while many analysts and pundits joined in the premature celebration of the new
“golden age,” few emphasized that it would rest almost entirely on the
exploitation of “unconventional” petroleum resources -- shale oil, oil shale,
Arctic oil, deep offshore oil, and tar sands (bitumen). As for conventional oil
(petroleum substances that emerge from the ground in liquid form and can be
extracted using familiar, standardized technology), no one doubts that it will
continue its historic decline in North America.
“unconventional” oil that is to liberate the U.S. and its neighbors from the
unreliable producers of the Middle East involves substances too hard or viscous
to be extracted using standard technology or embedded in forbidding locations
that require highly specialized equipment for extraction. Think of it as “tough oil.”
Shale oil, for
instance, is oil trapped in shale rock. It can only be liberated through the
application of concentrated force in a process known as hydraulic
fracturing that requires millions of gallons of chemically laced water per
“frack,” plus the subsequent disposal of vast quantities of toxic wastewater
once the fracking has been completed. Oil
shale, or kerogen, is a primitive form of petroleum that must be melted to
be useful, a process that itself consumes vast amounts of energy. Tar
sands (or “oil sands,” as the industry prefers to call them) must be gouged
from the earth using open-pit mining technology or pumped up after first being
melted in place by underground steam jets, then treated with various chemicals.
Only then can the material be transported to refineries via, for example, the
highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Similarly, deepwater and Arctic
drilling requires the deployment of specialized multimillion-dollar rigs along
with enormously costly backup safety systems under the most dangerous of
All these processes have at least one thing in common: each
pushes the envelope of what is technically possible in extracting oil (or
natural gas) from geologically and geographically forbidding environments. They
are all, that is, versions of “extreme energy.” To produce them, energy companies will
have to drill in extreme temperatures or extreme weather, or use extreme
pressures, or operate under extreme danger -- or some combination of all of
these. In each, accidents, mishaps, and setbacks are guaranteed to be more
frequent and their consequences more serious than in conventional drilling
operations. The apocalyptic poster child for these processes already played out
in 2010 with BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf
of Mexico, and this summer we saw intimations of how it will
happen again as a range of major unconventional drilling initiatives -- all
promising that “golden age” -- ran into serious trouble.
most notable example of this was Shell Oil’s costly failure to commence test
drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. After investing $4.5 billion and years of preparation, Shell was
poised to drill five test wells this summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas
northern and northwestern coasts. However, on September 17th, a series of
accidents and mishaps forced the company to announce that it would suspend operations until next summer
-- the only time when those waters are largely free of pack ice and so it is
safer to drill.
problems began early and picked up pace as the summer wore on. On September
10th, its Noble Discoverer drill ship was forced to abandon operations at the Burger Prospect, about 70 miles
offshore in the Chukchi
Sea, when floating sea
ice threatened the safety of the ship. A more serious setback occurred later in
the month when a containment dome designed to cover any leak that developed at
an undersea well malfunctioned during tests in Puget Sound in Washington State.
As Clifford Krauss noted in the New York Times, “Shell’s inability to
control its containment equipment in calm waters under predictable test
conditions suggested that the company would not be able to effectively stop a
sudden leak in treacherous Arctic waters, where powerful ice floes and gusty
winds would complicate any spill response.”
was also impeded by persistent opposition from environmentalists and native
groups. They have repeatedly brought suit to block its operations on the
grounds that Arctic drilling will threaten the survival of marine life
essential to native livelihoods and culture. Only after promising to take
immensely costly protective measures and winning the support of the Obama administration -- fearful of appearing
to block “job creation” or “energy independence” during a presidential campaign
-- did the company obtain the necessary permits to proceed. But some lawsuits
remain in play and, with this latest delay, Shell’s opponents will have added
time and ammunition.
Shell insist that the company will overcome all these hurdles and be ready to
drill next summer. But many observers view its experience as a deterrent to
future drilling in the Arctic. “As long as
Shell has not been able to show that they can get the permits and start to
drill, we’re a bit skeptical about moving forward,” said Tim Dodson of Norway’s Statoil. That company also
owns licenses for drilling in the Chukchi
Sea, but has now decided
to postpone operations until 2015 at the earliest.
unexpected impediment to the arrival of energy’s next “golden age” in North
America emerged even more unexpectedly from this summer’s record-breaking
drought, which still has 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land in its grip. The energy angle
on all this was, however, a surprise.
Any increase in
hydrocarbon output will require greater extraction of oil and gas from shale
rock, which can only be accomplished via hydro-fracking. More fracking, in
turn, means more water consumption. With the planet warming thanks to climate
change, such intensive droughts are expected to intensify in many regions, which means rising agricultural
demand for less water, including potentially in prime fracking locations like
the Bakken formation of North Dakota, the
Eagle Ford area of West Texas, and the Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania.
impact on hydro-fracking became strikingly evident when, in June and July,
wells and streams started drying up in many drought-stricken areas and drillers
suddenly found themselves competing with hard-pressed food-producers for whatever
water was available. “The amount of water needed for drilling is a double
whammy,” Chris Faulkner, the president and chief executive officer of Breitling Oil &
Gas, told Oil & Gas Journal in July. “We’re getting pushback
from farmers, and my fear is that it’s going to get worse.” In July, in fact,
the situation became so dire in Pennsylvania
that the Susquehanna River Basin Commission suspended permits for water withdrawals from the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, forcing some
drillers to suspend operations.
If this year’s
“endless summer” of unrelenting drought were just a fluke,
and we could expect abundant water in the future, the golden age scenario might
still be viable. But most climate scientists suggest that severe drought is
likely to become the “new normal” in many parts of the United States, putting the fracking
boom very much into question. “Bakken and Eagle Ford are our big keys to energy
independence,” Faulkner noted. “Without water, drilling shale gas and oil wells
is not possible. A continuing drought could cause our domestic production to
decline and derail our road to energy independence in a hurry.”
And then there
are those Canadian tar sands. Turning them into “oil” also requires vast amounts
of water, and climate-change-related shortages of that vital commodity are also
likely in Alberta, Canada, their heartland. In
addition, tar sands production releases far more greenhouse gas emissions than
conventional oil production, which has sparked its own fiercely determined
opposition in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
In the U.S.,
opposition to tar sands has until now largely focused on the construction of
XL pipeline, a $7 billion, 2,000-mile conduit that would carry diluted tar
sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast,
thousands of miles away. Parts of the Keystone system are already in place. If
completed, the pipeline is designed to carry 1.1 million barrels a day of
unrefined liquid across the United
opponents charge that the project will contribute to the acceleration
of climate change. It also exposes crucial underground water supplies in the Midwest to severe risk of contamination by the highly
corrosive tar-sands fluid (and pipeline leaks are commonplace). Citing the
closeness of its proposed route to the critical Ogallala
Aquifer, President Obama denied permission for its construction last January.
(Because it will cross an international boundary, the president gets to make
the call.) He is, however, expected to grant post-election approval to a new,
less aquifer-threatening route; Mitt Romney has vowed to give it his approval
on his first day in office.
Keystone XL were in place, the golden age of Canada’s tar sands won’t be in
sight -- not without yet more pipelines as the bitumen producers face mounting
opposition to their extreme operations. As a result of fierce resistance to
Keystone XL, led in large part by Bill McKibben, -- the public has become far more aware of
the perils of tar sands production. Resistance to it, for example, could stymie
plans to deliver tar sands oil to Portland, Maine (for transshipment by ship to refineries
elsewhere), via an existing pipeline that runs from Montreal
through Vermont and New
Hampshire to the Maine
coast. Environmentalists in New England are
already gearing up to oppose the plan.
If the U.S. proves too tough a nut to crack, Alberta has a backup plan: construction of the Northern
Gateway, a proposed pipeline through British Columbia
for the export of tar sands oil to Asia.
However, it, too, is running into trouble. Environmentalists and native
communities in that province are implacably opposed and have threatened civil disobedience to prevent its construction (with major
protests already set for October 22nd outside the Parliament
Building in Victoria).
sands oil across the Atlantic is likely to
have its own set of problems. The European Union is considering adopting rules that would label it a dirtier
form of energy, subjecting it to various penalties when imported into the European
Union. All of this is, in turn, has forced Albertan authorities to consider tough new environmental regulations that would make it more
difficult and costly to extract bitumen, potentially dampening the enthusiasm
of investors and so diminishing the future output of tar sands.
In a sense,
while the dreams of the boosters of these new forms of energy may thrill
journalists and pundits, their reality could be expressed this way: extreme
energy = extreme methods = extreme disasters = extreme opposition.
already many indications that the new “golden age” of North American oil is
unlikely to materialize as publicized, including an unusually rapid decline in oil output at existing shale oil drilling
operations in Montana.
is not a major producer, the decline there is significant because it is
occurring in part of the Bakken field, widely considered a major source of new
oil.) As for the rest of the Western Hemisphere,
there is little room for optimism there either when it comes to the “promise”
of extreme energy. Typically, for instance, a Brazilian court has ordered Chevron to cease production at its multibillion-dollar
Frade field in the Campos basin of Brazil’s
deep and dangerous Atlantic waters because of
repeated oil leaks. Doubts have meanwhile arisen over the ability of Petrobras, Brazil’s
state-controlled oil company, to develop the immensely challenging Atlantic
“pre-salt” fields on its own.
from unconventional oil operations in the U.S.
is likely to show some growth in the years ahead, there is no “golden age” on
the horizon, only various kinds of potentially disastrous scenarios. Those like
Mitt Romney who claim that the United
States can achieve energy “independence” by
2020 or any other near-term date are only fooling themselves, and perhaps some
elements of the American public. They may indeed employ such claims to gain
support for the rollback of what environmental protections exist against the
exploitation of extreme energy, but the United States will remain dependent
on Middle Eastern and African oil for the foreseeable future.
Of course, were
such a publicized golden age to come about, we would be burning vast quantities
of the dirtiest energy on the planet with truly disastrous consequences. The
truth is this: there is just one possible golden age for U.S. (or any other
kind of) energy and it would be based on a major push to produce breakthroughs
in climate-friendly renewables, especially wind, solar, geothermal, wave, and
only “golden” sight around is likely to be the sun on an ever hotter, ever
dirtier, ever more extreme planet.
Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College,
, and the author, most
The Race for What’s Left
. A movie based on one of his
earlier books, Blood and Oil, can be ordered at http://www.bloodandoilmovie.com.
Klare’s other books and articles are described at his website.
You can follow Klare’s work on Facebook.
Michael T. Klare
Image by Ray Bodden,
licensed under Creative
8/22/2012 3:52:34 PM
This post originally appeared on Solutions Online.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a
peculiar situation: although hardly anyone would deny the deep
ecological crisis facing humankind, we seem to be caught in a net of
assumptions that impede a practical solution. Having acknowledged that
we need to reduce consumption of energy and materials drastically,1,2
we still often think that adjustments within the current system of
production and consumption will accomplish this formidable task.
At the same time, it is widely recognized that the results of the
dominant approaches to solving the ecological crisis are far from
satisfying. Thus, a growing community of scientists and social
activists, sharing the basic insight that a reduction of energy and
material use implies a reduction of gross domestic product (GDP), is
gathering under the heading of sustainable degrowth.3 Degrowth obviously entails a fundamental transformation of economic structures. But what precisely are the necessary steps?
A Paradigmatic Shift: Radical Social Innovations from the Bottom Up
In contrast to the illusion that we can do more of the same—that is,
new market or state solutions to alleviate a crisis caused by market and
state solutions—it is more reasonable to start looking for a new way
around this stalemate. Such paths are being explored in solidarity
economics and the commons, both discussed below. These allow a shift in
the trajectory of our economy from endless growth to degrowth—the
voluntary reduction of energy and material use while increasing leisure
Yet how can the paradigm of a good life for all replace the growth
paradigm? What we clearly need is a great social transformation. And, in
fact, we can already find social innovations that might function as the
basic units of this transformation. They start from the bottom and
flourish in protected spaces where shared perspectives are developed,
experiments and learning take place, and links to wider power networks
are forged. Two outstanding examples are the solidarity economy in
Brazil and the global information commons.
The Solidarity Economy
The solidarity economy appeared in Brazil in the late 1990s as the
country was hit by an economic crisis caused by the liberalization of
capital markets.4,5 In the ensuing recession, many
enterprises went bankrupt and poverty increased. Unemployment rose,
while the prospects for reentering the formal economic sector shrank for
a broad portion of society.
In this deplorable situation, a small group of socially concerned
academics acted as change agents. They were engaged in a national
campaign against hunger and had teaching positions at the National
School for Public Health. This allowed them to support poor people’s
cooperatives by creating solidarity economy incubators where
cooperatives could learn to organize their workflow based on relations
of equality and reciprocal support. Cooperatives were also supported in
resolving the technical challenges they encountered. A considerable part
of the learning process in the solidarity economy took place within
incubators, in which experiences with cooperative success were assessed,
shared, and further developed.
In addition, social networking between trade unions, universities,
and cooperative associations strengthened the power links between this
niche and the wider society and state. Finally, the solidarity economy
even managed to establish a state secretariat that was instituted within
the Ministry of Labor. The state secretariat further supported the
cooperatives by starting a national mapping project to assess the state
of solidarity economics in Brazil and allow for the specific allocation
of resources and legal reforms.
In the case of the solidarity economy, we see a radical social
innovation in the making. Wage labor is replaced by self-management,
which is the solidarity economy’s core innovation—and not a small one.
Indeed, cooperative self-management is a precondition for ecologically
responsible production. There are two reasons for this: First, it is
only through self-management that production can become oriented toward
concrete needs (which are limited and can be satisfied), instead of
shareholder value and profit (which are unlimited, can never be fully
satisfied, and thus entail growing consumption of energy and materials).
Second, equal cooperation within an enterprise is a starting point for
cooperation with other stakeholders and society at large, further
reducing the competitive compulsion to grow. For instance, a recent
study found that members of cooperative enterprises are more socially
and democratically oriented than the average worker. According to the
authors of this study, this trend is not the result of selectively
employing people who are already socially oriented, but is rather the
effect of egalitarian labor relations on individual workers.6
Thus, it is no surprise that in Brazil solidarity economy units often
cooperate as networks by, for example, collectively marketing what has
been produced independently. Solidarity economy chains that directly
link different producers that depend on each other have been developed
in some cases. The most prominent example is the textile cooperative Justa Trama.7
There, monetary income that is earned at the end of the chain is shared
by all members who contributed to the production process according to
their needs and living conditions. Because a solidarity economy is not
primarily geared toward profits and often replaces monetary relations
with direct cooperation, it does not promote growth but acts as an
increasingly important safety net for people excluded from the
Within enterprises of the solidarity economy, workers share
machinery, buildings, raw materials, and products equally. Means of
production, then, are commons. One might argue that, worldwide, commons
are rare; they are, indeed, subordinated to market economics in most
cases. However, on the level of information, they are already an
important part of our daily lives. The best-known example of an
information commons might be the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Founded in 2001, Wikipedia has become not just a reliable but also the
most important source of encyclopedic information in the world. It
currently contains 21 million articles read by about 365 million users
in 285 different languages.8 Unlike traditional
encyclopedias, Wikipedia neither involves wage labor nor is organized by
the state. Instead, a global community of voluntary, self-organized
writers collectively creates Wikipedia. Its use is not restricted by the
market or the state, but is open to anyone with a computer and Internet
access. In this sense, Wikipedia is a perfect example of a radical
social innovation that overcomes the basic structures of
capitalism—markets, wage labor, and state intervention—and does not rely
on material growth.
Wikipedia is only one example of a much larger group of goods in the
information technology sphere that share a common feature: they are not
produced on the basis of wage labor or with the primary aim of deriving
profits from their sale, but on the basis of collectively organized,
voluntary work. As a result, they create products that anyone can access
for free without the constraints of the market. Most prominently, these
include software products such as Firefox, Linux, and MeeGo, which have
increasingly become serious rivals to commercial counterparts like
Microsoft Internet Explorer. Beyond software, examples of information
commons include projects such as Ronen Kadushin (ronen-kadushin.com),
with its open furniture designs; the Open Architecture Network
(openarchitecturenetwork.com); Arduino (arduino.cc), with its open
electronic hardware designs; and many more. The One Laptop per Child
Initiative (laptop.org) also uses an open design.
Intellectual property law provides the legal possibility of
protecting the information commons from commodification through
“copyleft” licenses, the most widely used of which are the GNU General
Public License for free software and diverse Creative Commons licenses
for other information commons. Products that are distributed under one
of these licenses are explicitly free for use, copying, and
distribution, sometimes under certain conditions, such as noncommercial
use and distribution. These patents therefore try to prevent what James
Boyle called “enclosing the commons of the mind.”9 The
development of copyleft licenses is just one example of the complex
learning processes that took place within the open-source movement.
The success of information commons, like Wikipedia and others,
indicates that, although money remains a necessity for survival in
modern societies, it is not necessarily money that motivates people to
create; rather, they can also be motivated by the enjoyment of creation
itself, in connection with confidence in reciprocity. When someone
decides to write or improve an article on Wikipedia, this person relies
on compensation through thousands of complementary and additional
improvements made by others at the same time. Wikipedia also shows that
there is no need for central management—rather, a useful product can
result from collectively organized work.
It is only one further step—and that step is not nearly so great as
one might imagine—to expand the principle of commons into the realm of
material technology and production, as already described in the section
about solidarity economies. Recent, open-source software products
include 3-D printers, such as RepRap (reprap.org), Fab@Home
(fabathome.org), and MakerBot (makerbot.com), which are able to produce
small plastic objects of any form, bringing the factory to the consumer.
The 3-D printer RepRap is even able to produce some of its own
components, making it a self-replicating machine. It is certainly
questionable whether each person should be provided with his or her own
small factory. Nonetheless, these are astonishing examples that show how
a completely different mode of production that bypasses wage labor and
markets is potentially within reach.
Such an economy without money would not be compelled to grow but could do what an economy in the Greek sense of oikonomia was originally meant to do: efficiently satisfy human needs for food, shelter, and cultural development.
How to Get to a Great Transformation
Diffusion of innovations starts when the dominant system comes into
crisis. A crisis is an opportunity for a better future, a truth evident
in the recent spread of solidarity economics and commons worldwide.
Another reason for the acceleration of the debate on the commons is the
late Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning work on models of organizing
resource use beyond state intervention and market economics.
Cooperation is not restricted to the local, as information commons
best illustrate. The Mondragon corporation in the Basque country, which
employs more than 85,000 members and comprises 256 companies and bodies,
of which approximately half are cooperatives, is another good example.
These companies are not coordinated by monetary relations or state
regulations but—within clear limitations—by democratic governance.10
Another example is the kibbutzim of the 1960s, which were characterized
by complex cooperation both internally and externally within the
overarching institutional network of kibbutz settlements.11
Such cooperative networks act like super-commons, linking different
systems and smaller communities through collaborative decision making
procedures. Insofar as those networks replace monetary relations with a
direct focus on concrete human needs, they are not oriented toward
profit making and thus enable degrowth. In market economies, livelihoods
are bound to wage labor, which depends on profits and growth; in
solidarity economies and the commons, production is determined by need
only and can be voluntarily reduced. Social safety could be guaranteed
by distributing products equally and by developing public
infrastructures, from communal gardening and free sports facilities run
by neighborhoods to open libraries. If production harms the environment,
reducing it will contribute to society’s overall well being, instead of
exacerbating the social crisis of the growth economy.
An economy that is able to degrow can also enter a steady state of
constant production and consumption with low-level, highly efficient
resource use. This could fulfill the very goal that the capitalist
economy increasingly fails to serve: a good life for all.
Solutions Online is the primary venue of Solutions and the core forum for discussion about how to solve the world's mounting environmental, social, and economic challenges. All content is under the Creative Commons-Share Alike license.
- Haberl, H, Fischer-Kowalski, M, Krausmann, F, Martinez-Alier, J
& Winiwarter, V. A socio-metabolic transition towards
sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation. Sustainable Development 19, 1–14 (2011).
- Gordon, RB, Bertram, M & Graedel, TE. Metal stocks and sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, 1209-1214 (2006).
- Martínez-Alier, J, Pascual, U, Vivien, F-D & Zaccai, E.
Sustainable de-growth: Mapping the context, criticisms and future
prospects of an emergent paradigm. Ecological Economics 69, 1741–1747 (2010).
- Singer, P in Universities and Rio+10: Paths for Sustainability and Interdisciplinary Challenge
(Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst & Gesamthochschule Kassel,
eds) 73-84 (Kassel University Press, Reihe Entwicklungsperspektiven,
- de Faria, MS & Cunha, GC. Self-management and solidarity economy: The challenges for worker-recovered companies in Brasil. Journal für Entwicklungspolitik 3, 22-42 (2009).
- Weber, WG, Unterrainer, C & Schmid, BE. The influence of
organizational democracy on employees’ socio-moral climate and prosocial
behavioral orientations. Journal of Organizational Behavior 30, 1127–1149 (2009).
- Justa Trama [online]. www.justatrama.com.br.
- Wikipedia [online]. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia.
- Boyle, J. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008).
- Mondragon [online]. www.mcc.es/language/en-US/ENG.aspx.
- Dar, Y. Communality, rationalization and distributive justice: Changing evaluation of work in the Israeli kibbutz. International Sociology 17, 91–111 (2002).
Image by Daniel Skorodjelow
. Licensed under Creative Commons.
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