Movements Without Leaders



The climate fight is about all of us, not just a few personalities. 

This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.

The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality -- it’s hard to shake. If you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous animal than if you came of age during Vietnam. I was born in 1960, and so the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L.

As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more than Dr. King. There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s early sense is hard to dislodge: the civil rights movement had his face on it; Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage.

Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment -- even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights -- don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.

It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: the fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule. For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots movement because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for another, even as he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading climate science, the other side used every trick and every dollar at their disposal to bring him down. He remains a vital figure in the rest of the world (partly because there he is perceived less as a politician than as a prophet), but at home his power to shape the fight has been diminished.

Marta Gillette
8/23/2013 2:40:16 PM

Bill McKibben advocates for " things like a carbon tax-and-dividend scheme" which is a financial boondoggle/scam that's being promoted as the panacea to carbon emissions. It's not. But it will drastically increase costs for everybody living in urban or even exurban environments. We, the people, do not have much of a choice about driving our cars, heating our homes or using electricity. We have to utilize what industry and the state provide us in most instances. Any tariffs put upon an oil and gas company, electricity utility, etc. will only BE PASSED DOWN TO US. WHERE IS THE JUSTICE IN THAT? And another scammy financial product will have been "invented" to further line the nests of the vipers and extract "rent" from us. As far as a company buying carbon "credits" so they can pollute more... Does anybody see any cognitive dissonance in this idea? Under the Cap & Trade scheme they can buy carbon credits and mow down a pristine forest or level a mountaintop and then spend a couple of bucks planting a few trees somewhere. This is a dumb idea. We need to stop these extractive/destructive practices, not find another way to mow down all the forests and burden citizens with hidden taxes that corporations will make money buying and selling. Pull the plug on this one. Our lives, our pocketbooks and our environment depend on it.

Peggy Sapphire
8/23/2013 2:04:41 PM

Bill McKibben: you fail to mention that you support corporate-scale industrial wind turbines (IWT) on our Vermont mountaintops, and have lent whatever Leadership clout is yours to crushing the voices of environmentalists who know that corporate installations benefit corporate bottom-lines. IWT destroy ancient & pristine ecologies irretrievably in a state whose wind-generation will forever be minimal. Science (NREL, for ex.) evidences this. Rather than recognizing the folly of destroying ecologies in the name of "renewables", you have joined the politicized "environmentalists" & ignored our multiple requests to meet and converse with you on this issue. You live in our Vermont midsts, but have not seen fit to respond to our grassroots communities in VT, though you make statewide celebratory appearences in our Statehouse to promote IWT. Bill, you have not lived your mantra of "interconnected movement" building. If you are authentically committed to the purposes you acclaim here, please reach back to us. We are waiting.

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