Movements without leaders: What to make of life on an overheating planet
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.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the movement is diminished. In fact, it’s never been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.
That’s not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.
A Movement for a New Planet
We live in a different world from that of the civil rights movement. Save perhaps for the spectacle of presidential elections, there’s no way for individual human beings to draw the same kind of focused and sustained attention they did back then. At the moment, you could make the three evening newscasts and the cover of Time (not Newsweek, alas) and still not connect with most people. Our focus is fragmented and segmented, which may be a boon or a problem, but mostly it’s just a fact. Our attention is dispersed.
When we started 350.org five years ago, we dimly recognized this new planetary architecture. Instead of trying to draw everyone to a central place -- the Mall in Washington, D.C. -- for a protest, we staged 24 hours of rallies around the planet: 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN called “the most widespread of day of political action in the planet’s history.” And we’ve gone on to do more of the same -- about 20,000 demonstrations in every country but North Korea.
Part of me, though, continued to imagine that a real movement looked like the ones I’d grown up watching -- or maybe some part of me wanted the glory of being a leader. In any event, I’ve spent the last few years in constant motion around the country and the Earth. I’d come to think of myself as a “leader,” and indeed my forthcoming book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, reflects on that growing sense of identity.
However, in recent months -- and it’s the curse of an author that sometimes you change your mind after your book is in type -- I’ve come to like the idea of capital L leaders less and less. It seems to me to miss the particular promise of this moment: that we could conceive of, and pursue, movements in new ways.
For environmentalists, we have a useful analogy close at hand. We’re struggling to replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.
In the last few weeks, for instance, 350.org helped support a nationwide series of rallies called Summerheat. We didn’t organize them ourselves. We knew great environmental justice groups all over the country, and we knew we could highlight their work, while making links between, say, standing up to a toxic Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, and standing up to the challenge of climate change.
From the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where a tar-sands pipeline is proposed, to the Columbia River at Vancouver, Washington, where a big oil port is planned, from Utah’s Colorado Plateau, where the first U.S. tar-sands mine has been proposed, to the coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point on the Massachusetts coast and the fracking wells of rural Ohio -- Summerheat demonstrated the local depth and global reach of this emerging fossil fuel resistance. I’ve had the pleasure of going to talk at all these places and more besides, but I wasn’t crucial to any of them. I was, at best, a pollinator, not a queen bee.
Or consider a slightly older fight. In 2012, the Boston Globe magazine put a picture of me on its cover under the headline: “The Man Who Crushed the Keystone Pipeline.” I’ve got an all-too-healthy ego, but even I knew that it was over the top. I’d played a role in the fight, writing the letter that asked people to come to Washington to resist the pipeline, but it was effective because I’d gotten a dozen friends to sign it with me. And I’d been one of 1,253 people who went to jail in what was the largest civil disobedience action in this country in years. It was their combined witness that got the ball rolling. And once it was rolling, the Keystone campaign became the exact model for the sort of loosely-linked well-distributed power system I’ve been describing.
The big environmental groups played key roles, supplying lots of data and information, while keeping track of straying members of Congress. Among them were the National Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and the National Wildlife Federation, none spending time looking for credit, all pitching in. The Sierra Club played a crucial role in pulling together the biggest climate rally yet, last February’s convergence on the Mall in Washington.
Organizations and individuals on the ground were no less crucial: the indigenous groups in Alberta and elsewhere that started the fight against the pipeline which was to bring Canadian tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast graciously welcomed the rest of us, without complaining about how late we were. Then there were the ranchers and farmers of Nebraska, who roused a whole stadium of football fans at a Cornhuskers game to boo a pipeline commercial; the scientists who wrote letters, the religious leaders who conducted prayer vigils. And don’t forget the bloggers who helped make sense of it all for us. One upstart website even won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the struggle.
Non-experts quickly educated themselves on the subject, becoming specialists in the corruption of the State Department process that was to okay the building of that pipeline or in the chemical composition of the bitumen that would flow through it. CREDO (half an activist organization, half a cell phone company), as well as Rainforest Action Network and The Other 98%, signed up 75,000 people pledged to civil disobedience if the pipeline were to get presidential approval.
And then there was the Hip Hop Caucus, whose head Lennox Yearwood has roused one big crowd after another, and the labor unions -- nurses and transit workers, for instance -- who have had the courage to stand up to the pipeline workers' union which would benefit from the small number of jobs to be created if Keystone were built. Then there are groups of Kids Against KXL, and even a recent grandparents' march from Camp David to the White House. Some of the most effective resistance has come from groups like Rising Tide and the Tarsands Blockade in Texas, which have organized epic tree-sitting protests to slow construction of the southern portion of the pipeline.
The Indigenous Environmental Network has been every bit as effective in demonstrating to banks the folly of investing in Albertan tar sands production. First Nations people and British Columbians have even blocked a proposed pipeline that would take those same tar sands to the Pacific Ocean for shipping to Asia, just as inspired activists have kept the particularly carbon-dirty oil out of the European Union.
We don’t know if we’ll win the northern half of the Keystone fight or not, although President Obama’s recent pledge to decide whether it should be built -- his is the ultimate decision -- based on how much carbon dioxide it could put into the atmosphere means that he has no good-faith way of approving it. However, it’s already clear that this kind of full-spectrum resistance has the ability to take on the huge bundles of cash that are the energy industry’s sole argument.
What the Elders Said
This sprawling campaign exemplifies the only kind of movement that will ever be able to stand up to the power of the energy giants, the richest industry the planet has ever known. In fact, any movement that hopes to head off the worst future depredations of climate change will have to get much, much larger, incorporating among other obvious allies those in the human rights and social justice arenas.
The cause couldn’t be more compelling. There’s never been a clearer threat to survival, or to justice, than the rapid rise in the planet’s temperature caused by and for the profit of a microscopic percentage of its citizens. Conversely, there can be no real answer to our climate woes that doesn’t address the insane inequalities and concentrations of power that are helping to drive us toward this disaster.
That’s why it’s such good news when people like Naomi Klein and Desmond Tutu join the climate struggle. When they take part, it becomes ever clearer that what’s underway is not, in the end, an environmental battle at all, but an all-encompassing fight over power, hunger, and the future of humanity on this planet.
Expansion by geography is similarly a must for this movement. Recently, in Istanbul, 350.org and its allies trained 500 young people from 135 countries as climate-change organizers, and each of them is now organizing conferences and campaigns in their home countries.
This sort of planet-wide expansion suggests that the value of particular national leaders is going to be limited at best. That doesn’t mean, of course, that some people won’t have more purchase than others in such a movement. Sometimes such standing comes from living in the communities most immediately and directly affected by climate change or fossil fuel depredation. When, for instance, the big climate rally finally did happen on the Mall this winter, the 50,000 in attendance may have been most affected by the words of Crystal Lameman, a young member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation whose traditional territory has been poisoned by tar sands mining.
Sometimes it comes from charisma: Van Jones may be the most articulate and engaging environmental advocate ever. Sometimes it comes from getting things right for a long time: Jim Hansen, the greatest climate scientist, gets respect even from those who disagree with him about, say, nuclear power. Sometimes it comes from organizing ability: Jane Kleeb who did such work in the hard soil of Nebraska, or Clayton Thomas-Muller who has indefatigably (though no one is beyond fatigue) organized native North America. Sometimes it comes from sacrifice: Tim DeChristopher went to jail for two years for civil disobedience, and so most of us are going to listen to what he might have to say.
Sometimes it comes from dogged work on solutions: Wahleah Johns and Billy Parish figured out how to build solar farms on Navajo land and crowdfund solar panels on community centers. Sometimes truly unlikely figures emerge: investor Jeremy Grantham, or Tom Steyer, a Forbes 400 billionaire who quit his job running a giant hedge fund, sold his fossil fuel stocks, and put his money and connections effectively to work fighting Keystone and bedeviling climate-denying politicians (even Democrats!). We have organizational leaders like Mike Brune of the Sierra Club or Frances Beinecke of NRDC, or folks like Kenny Bruno or Tzeporah Berman who have helped knit together large coalitions; religious leaders like Jim Antal, who led the drive to convince the United Church of Christ to divest from fossil fuels; regional leaders like Mike Tidwell in the Chesapeake or Cherri Foytlin in the Gulf or K.C. Golden in Puget Sound.
Yet figures like these aren’t exactly “leaders” in the way we’ve normally imagined. They are not charting the path for the movement to take. To use an analogy from the Internet age, it’s more as if they were well-regarded critics on Amazon.com review pages; or to use a more traditional image, as if they were elders, even if not in a strictly chronological sense. Elders don’t tell you what you must do, they say what they must say. A few of these elders are, like me, writers; many of them have a gift for condensing and crystallizing the complex. When Jim Hansen calls the Alberta tar sands the “biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” it resonates.
When you have that standing, you don’t end up leading a movement, but you do end up with people giving your ideas a special hearing, people who already assume that you’re not going to waste their energy on a pointless task. So when Naomi Klein and I hatched a plan for a fossil fuel divestment campaign last year, people paid serious attention, especially when Desmond Tutu lent his sonorous voice to the cause.
These elders-of-all-ages also play a sorting-out role in backing the ideas of others or downplaying those that seem less useful. There are days when I feel like the most useful work I’ve done is to spread a few good Kickstarter proposals via Twitter or write a blurb for a fine new book. Conversely, I was speaking in Washington recently to a group of grandparents who had just finished a seven-day climate march from Camp David. A young man demanded to know why I wasn’t backing sabotage of oil company equipment, which he insisted was the only way the industry could be damaged by our movement. I explained that I believed in nonviolent action, that we were doing genuine financial damage to the pipeline companies by slowing their construction schedules and inflating their carrying costs, and that in my estimation wrecking bulldozers would play into their hands.
But maybe he was right. I don’t actually know, which is why it’s a good thing that no one, myself included, is the boss of the movement. Remember those solar panels: the power to change these days is remarkably well distributed, leaving plenty of room for serendipity and revitalization. In fact, many movements had breakthroughs when they decided their elders were simply wrong. Dr. King didn’t like the idea of the Freedom Summer campaign at first, and yet it proved powerfully decisive.
The Coming of the Leaderless Movement
We may not need capital-L Leaders, but we certainly need small-l leaders by the tens of thousands. You could say that, instead of a leaderless movement, we need a leader-full one. We see such leaders regularly at 350.org. When I wrote earlier that we “staged” 5,200 rallies around the globe, I wasn’t completely accurate. It was more like throwing a potluck dinner. We set the date and the theme, but everywhere other people figured out what dishes to bring.
The thousands of images that accumulated in the Flickr account of that day’s events were astonishing. Most of the people doing the work didn’t look like environmentalists were supposed to. They were largely poor, black, brown, Asian, and young, because that’s what the world mostly is.
Often the best insights are going to come from below: from people, that is, whose life experience means they understand how power works not because they exercise it but because they are subjected to it. That’s why frontline communities in places where global warming’s devastation is already increasingly obvious often produce such powerful ideas and initiatives. We need to stop thinking of them as on the margins, since they are quite literally on the cutting edge.
We live in an age in which creative ideas can spring up just about anywhere and then, thanks to new forms of communication, spread remarkably quickly. This is in itself nothing new. In the civil rights era, for instance, largely spontaneous sit-in campaigns by southern college students in 1960 reshuffled the deck locally and nationally, spreading like wildfire in the course of days and opening up new opportunities.
More recently, in the immigration rights campaign, it was four “Dreamers” walking from Florida to Washington D.C. who helped reopen a stale, deadlocked debate. When Lieutenant Dan Choi chained himself to the White House fence, that helped usher the gay rights movement into a new phase.
But Dan Choi doesn’t have to be Dan Choi forever, and Tim DeChristopher doesn’t have to keep going to jail over government oil and gas leases. There are plenty of others who will arise in new moments, which is a good thing, since the physics of climate change means that the movement has to win some critical victories in the next few years but also last for generations. Think of each of these “leaders” as the equivalent of a pace line for a bike race: one moment someone is out front breaking the wind, only to peel away to the back of the line to rest for a while. In movement terms, when that happens you not only prevent burnout, you also get regular infusions of new ideas.
The ultimate in leaderlessness was, of course, the Occupy movement that swept the U.S. (and other areas of the world) in 2011-2012. It, in turn, took cues from the Arab Spring, which absorbed some of its tricks from the Serbian organizers at Otpor, who exported many of the features of their campaign against Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s around the planet.
Occupy was exciting, in part, because of its deep sense of democracy and democratic practice. Those of us who are used to New England town meetings recognized its Athenian flavor. But town meetings usually occur one day a year. Not that many people had the stomach for the endless discussions of the Occupy moment and, in many cases, the crowds began to dwindle even without police repression -- only to surge back when there was a clear and present task (Occupy Sandy, say, in the months after that superstorm hit the East coast).
All around the Occupy movement, smart people have been grappling with the problem of democracy in action. As the occupations wore on, its many leaders were often engaged as facilitators, trying to create a space that was both radically democratic and dramatically effective. It proved a hard balancing act, even if a remarkably necessary one.
How to Save the Earth
Communities (and a movement is a community) will probably always have some kind of hierarchy, even if it’s an informal and shifting one. But the promise of this moment is a radically flattened version of hierarchy, with far more room for people to pop up and propose, encourage, support, drift for a while, then plunge back into the flow. That kind of trajectory catches what we’ll need in a time of increased climate stress -- communities that place a premium on resiliency and adaptability, dramatically decentralized but deeply linked.
And it’s already happening. The Summerheat campaign ended in Richmond, California, where Chevron runs a refinery with casual disregard for the local residents. When a section of it exploded last year, authorities sent a text message essentially requesting that people not breathe. As a result, a coalition of local environmental justice activists has waged an increasingly spirited fight against the plant.
Like the other oil giants, Chevron shows the same casual disregard for people around the world. The company is, typically enough, suing journalists in an attempt to continue to cover up the horrors it’s responsible for in an oil patch of jungle in Ecuador. And of course, Chevron and the other big oil companies have shown a similar recklessness when it comes to our home planet. Their reserves of oil and gas are already so large that, by themselves, they could take us several percent of the way past the two-degree Celsius temperature rise that the world has pledged to prevent, which would bring on the worst depredations of global warming -- and yet they are now on the hunt in a major way for the next round of “unconventional” fossil fuels to burn.
In addition, as the 2012 election campaign was winding down, Chevron gave the largest corporate campaign donation in the post-Citizens United era. It came two weeks before the last election, and was clearly meant to insure that the House of Representatives would stay in the hands of climate deniers, and that nothing would shake the status quo.
And so our movement -- global, national, and most of all local. Released from a paddy wagon after the Richmond protest, standing in a long line of handcuffees waiting to be booked, I saw lots of elders, doubtless focused on different parts of the Chevron equation. Among them were Gopal Dayaneni, of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, who dreams of frontline communities leading in the construction of a just new world, and Bay Area native activist Pennie Opal Plant, who has spent her whole life in Richmond and dreams, I suspect, of kids who can breathe more easily in far less polluted air.
I continue to hope for local, national, and global action, and for things like a carbon tax-and-dividend scheme that would play a role in making just transitions easier. Such differing, overlapping dreams are anything but at odds. They all make up part of the same larger story, complementary and complimentary to it. These are people I trust and follow; we have visions that point in the same general direction; and we have exactly the same enemies who have no vision at all, save profiting from the suffering of the planet.
I’m sure much of this thinking is old news to people who have been building movements for years. I haven’t. I found myself, or maybe stuck myself, at the front of a movement almost by happenstance, and these thoughts reflect that experience.
What I do sense, however, is that it’s our job to rally a movement in the coming years big enough to stand up to all that money, to profits of a sort never before seen on this planet. Such a movement will need to stretch from California to Ecuador -- to, in fact, every place with a thermometer; it will need to engage not just Chevron but every other fossil fuel company; it will need to prevent pipelines from being built and encourage windmills to be built in their place; it needs to remake the world in record time.
That won’t happen thanks to a paramount leader, or even dozens of them. It can only happen with a spread-out and yet thoroughly interconnected movement, a new kind of engaged citizenry. Rooftop by rooftop, we’re aiming for a different world, one that runs on the renewable power that people produce themselves in their communities in small but significant batches. The movement that will get us to such a new world must run on that kind of power too.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. His next, to be published this September, is Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.
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