Earth News: More than News of the World

End of the Year Special edition

Here’s what I propose

I heard a story from some acquaintances about their yoga session a day or so after the U.S. election of Donald Trump. The teacher was trying to find a way to help people cope and said something along the lines of: “Now, close your eyes and imagine a calm and healing place. Now, take a deep, deep breathe. Good…. Now hold it for four years.”

Ever the optimist, I thought it would be good to end the year on a hopeful note, so here’s my best shot at that.

Maybe you’d like to read and meditate on, share and discuss one of these amazing stories every day for the next twelve days as 2016 winds down and 2017 arrives. Go on, try it: it’s almost as good as Netflix!

Then let’s start a new year of 365 days of building a more powerful climate justice movement.


Bill McKibben – whom I once described as “the somewhat uncharismatic but lovable Bill McKibben” – is an American original: an old white guy (not unlike me) from one of the whitest areas in the world who has given his life to the sacred cause of working with all like-minded souls on the planet to save what we can by being loving, creative, bold, and fearless.

This piece – originally published here in The Nation and excerpted here – seems a good way to think and feel about the global and U.S. movements for climate justice in the new era. I’m referring to the dawning era of Trumpism, of course, not that other new epoch – the Anthropocene. Oh hell, I’m referring to both, I guess.

How the Active Many Can Overcome the Ruthless Few
The Inaugural Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture

Nonviolent direct action was the 20th century’s greatest invention – and it is the key to saving the earth in the 21st century.

Bill McKibben

November 30, 2016


Illustration by Curt Merlo

I know what you want from me – what we all want – which is some small solace after the events of Election Day. My wife Sue Halpern and I have been talking nonstop for days, trying to cope with the emotions. I fear I may not be able to provide that balm, but I do offer these remarks in the spirit of resistance to that which we know is coming. We need to figure out how to keep the lights on, literally and figuratively, and all kinds of darkness at bay….

We are destroying the earth every bit as thoroughly as Jonathan imagined in the famous first chapter of The Fate of the Earth, just a little more slowly. By burning coal and oil and gas and hence injecting carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, we have materially changed its heat-trapping properties; indeed, those man-made greenhouse gases trap the daily heat equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima-size explosions. That’s enough extra heat that, in the space of a few decades, we have melted most of the summer sea ice in the Arctic – millennia old, meters thick, across a continent-size stretch of ocean that now, in summer, is blue water. (Blue water that absorbs the sun’s incoming rays instead of bouncing them back to space like the white ice it replaced, thus exacerbating the problem even further.) That’s enough heat to warm the tropical oceans to the point where Sue and I watched with our colleagues in the South Pacific as a wave of record-breaking warm water swept across the region this past spring, killing in a matter of weeks vast swaths of coral that had been there since before the beginning of the human experiment. That’s enough heat to seriously disrupt the planet’s hydrological cycles: Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, we’ve seen steady increases in drought in arid areas (and with it calamities like wildfire) and steady, even shocking, increases in downpour and flood in wet areas. It’s been enough to raise the levels of the ocean – and the extra carbon in the atmosphere has also changed the chemistry of that seawater, making it more acidic and beginning to threaten the base of the marine food chain. We are, it bears remembering, an ocean planet, and the world’s oceanographers warn that we are very rapidly turning the seven seas “hot, sour, and breathless.” To the “republic of insects and grass” that Jonathan imagined in the opening of The Fate of the Earth, we can add a new vision: a hypoxic undersea kingdom of jellyfish….

Against this crisis, we see sporadic action at best. We know that we could be making huge strides. For instance, engineers have managed to cut the cost of solar panels by 80 percent in the last decade, to the point where they are now among the cheapest methods of generating electricity. A Stanford team headed by Mark Jacobson has shown precisely how all 50 states and virtually every foreign nation could make the switch to renewable energy at an affordable cost in the course of a couple of decades. A few nations have shown that he’s correct: Denmark, for instance, now generates almost half of its power from the wind.

In most places, however, the progress has been slow and fitful at best. In the United States, the Obama administration did more than its predecessors, but far less than physics requires….

Trump, of course, has famously insisted that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese and has promised to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. His election win is more than just a speed bump in the road to the future – it’s a ditch, and quite likely a crevasse. Even as we gather tonight, international negotiators in Marrakech, stunned by our elections, are doing their best to salvage something of the Paris Agreement, signed just 11 months ago with much fanfare.

* * *

But the real contest here is not between Democrats and Republicans; it’s between human beings and physics. That’s a difficult negotiation, as physics is not prone to compromise. It also imposes a hard time limit on the bargaining; if we don’t move very, very quickly, then any progress will be pointless. And so the question for this lecture, and really the question for the geological future of the planet, becomes: How do we spur much faster and more decisive action from institutions that wish to go slowly, or perhaps don’t wish to act at all? One understands that politicians prize incremental action – but in this case, winning slowly is the same as losing. The planet is clearly outside its comfort zone; how do we get our political institutions out of theirs?…

“Nonviolence is the means by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few.” When the history of the 20th century is written, I’m hopeful that historians will conclude that the most important technology developed during those bloody hundred years wasn’t the atom bomb, or the ability to manipulate genes, or even the Internet, but instead the technology of nonviolence. (I use the word “technology” advisedly here.) We had intimations of its power long before: In a sense, the most resounding moment in Western history, Jesus’s crucifixion, is a prototype of nonviolent action, one that launched the most successful movement in history. Nineteenth-century America saw Thoreau begin to think more systematically about civil disobedience as a technique. But it really fell to the 20th century, and Gandhi, to develop it as a coherent strategy, a process greatly furthered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his associates in this country, and by adherents around the world: Otpor in Eastern Europe, various participants in the Arab Spring, Buddhist monks in Burma, Wangari Maathai’s tree-planters, and so on….

And we [in the U.S.] have by no means been the only, or even the main, actor in these efforts. For instance, indigenous activists have been at the forefront of the climate fight since its inception, here and around the world, and the current fight over the Dakota Access pipeline is no exception. They and the residents of what are often called “frontline” communities, where the effects of climate change and pollution are most intense, have punched far above their weight in these struggles; they have been the real leaders. These fights will go on. They’ll be much harder in the wake of Trump’s election, but they weren’t easy to begin with, and I confess I see little alternative – even under Obama, the chance of meaningful legislation was thin….

So, using Jonathan’s template, I’ll try to offer a few lessons from my own experience over the last decade.

* * *

Lesson one: Unearned suffering is a potent tool. Volunteering for pain is an unlikely event in a pleasure-based society, and hence it gets noticed. Nonviolent direct action is just one tool in the activist tool kit, and it should be used sparingly – like any tool, it can easily get dull, both literally and figuratively. But when it is necessary to underline the moral urgency of a case, the willingness to go to jail can be very powerful, precisely because it goes against the bent of normal life.….

Lesson two: These tactics are useful to the degree that they attract large numbers of people to the fight. Those large numbers don’t need to engage in civil disobedience; they just need to engage in the broader battle. If you think about it, numbers are the currency of movements, just as actual cash is the currency of the status quo – at least until such time as the status quo needs to employ the currency of violence. The point of civil disobedience is rarely that it stops some evil by itself; instead, it attracts enough people and hence attention to reach the public at large….

Lesson three: The real point of civil disobedience and the subsequent movements is less to pass specific legislation than it is to change the zeitgeist. The Occupy movement, for instance, is often faulted for not having produced a long list of actionable demands, but its great achievement was to make, by dint of recognition and repetition, the existing order illegitimate. Once the 99 percent and the 1 percent were seen as categories, our politics began to shift. Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser extent Donald Trump, fed on that energy. That Hillary Clinton was forced to say that she too opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal was testimony to the power of the shift in the zeitgeist around inequality…

This is not how political scientists tend to see it – or politicians, for that matter. Speaking to Black Lives Matter activists backstage in the course of the primary campaign, Hillary Clinton laid out her essential philosophy: “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.” This is, I think, utterly backward, and it explains much of the intuitive sense among activists of all stripes that Clinton wouldn’t have been a leader.

By forever straddling the middle, centrist politicians delay changes in public sentiment. The viewpoint of the establishment – an appellation that in this case includes everyone from oil companies to presidents – is always the same: We need to be “realistic”; change will come slowly if it comes at all; and so forth. In normal political debates, this is reasonable. Compromise on issues is the way we progress: You want less money in the budget for X, and I want more, and so we meet in the middle and live to fight another day. That’s politics, as distinct from movement politics, which is about changing basic feelings over the great issues of the day. And it’s particularly true in the case of climate change, where political reality, important as it is, comes in a distinct second to reality reality. Chemistry and physics, I repeat, do what they do regardless of our wishes. That’s the difference between political science and science science….

Some people are paralyzed by the piety they think is necessary for involvement. You cannot imagine the anguished and Talmudic discussions I’ve been asked to adjudicate on whether it’s permissible to burn gasoline to attend a climate rally. (In my estimation, it’s not just permissible, it’s very nearly mandatory – the best gas you will burn in the course of a year.) It has also become – and this is much more dangerous – the pet argument of every climate denier that, unless you’re willing to live life in a dark cave, you’re a hypocrite to stand for action on climate change. This attempt to short-circuit people’s desire to act must be rejected. We live in the world we wish to change; some hypocrisy is the price of admission to the fight. In this sense, and this sense only, Gandhi is an unhelpful example, and a bludgeon used to prevent good-hearted people from acting.…

I will end by saying that movement-building – the mobilization of large numbers of people, and of deep passion, through the employment of all the tools at a nonviolent activist’s disposal – will continue, though it moves onto very uncertain ground with our new political reality. This work of nonviolent resistance is never easy, and it’s becoming harder….

And yet the movement builds. I don’t know whether it builds fast enough. Unlike every other challenge we’ve faced, this one comes with a time limit. Martin Luther King would always say, quoting the great Massachusetts abolitionist Theodore Parker, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” – meaning that it may take a while, but we are going to win. By contrast, the arc of the physical universe is short and it bends toward heat. I will not venture to predict if we can, at this point, catch up with physics. Clearly, it has a lot of momentum. It’s a bad sign when your major physical features begin to disappear – that we no longer have the giant ice cap in the Arctic is disconcerting, to say the least. So there’s no guarantee of victory. But I can guarantee that we will fight, in every corner of the earth and with all the nonviolent tools at our disposal. And in so doing, we will discover if these tools are powerful enough to tackle the most disturbing crisis humans have ever faced. We will see if that new technology of the 20th century will serve to solve the greatest dilemma of our new millennium.


Photo credit: Sunflower Alliance.