The winning strategy

February 9, 2020

Turns out McKibben was right. Or at least he may have been, it is still too soon to say. For some years I have been plinking away at these keys and getting scant results. In my spare time, I design cool labs that will remove carbon from the atmosphere and ocean and, at scale, could bring back the Holocene in as little as 35 years. It is somewhat better than just pontificating, but slower.

I ran that calculation of 35 years out in a little more detail in my interview with Kosha Joubert in the GEN webinar series, Communities for the Future Online Summit, earlier this week but it was moving so fast I am not sure how many of the viewers actually got it. I was trying not to sound hopeful and failing miserably. I also had gone into that interview wanting to say something about the downside of our human tribal tropism and was immediately thrown a question about the etymological origins of ”hippy” that knocked me off that plan. I never got around to saying that hippies, like permies, or greenies, by virtue of their tribalism, risk becoming a death cult just like Republicans and Democrats. But I digress.

In McKibben’s spare time he leads a social movement based on the number 350 that used to be a climate goal, but now is sort of an arcane throwback to an earlier decade, bordering on numerology. Strategy-wise, he was less concerned with carbon dioxide removal than with ramping up street protests. Having lived through the Vietnam, antinuclear, and antiwar protest era of the past half-century, I thought that was a fool’s errand. I am here today to say I was wrong. Although, I will still question whether The End of Nature was the first book on climate change written for a mass audience — that would have been Global Warming by Stephen Schneider.

Turns out McKibben was right, albeit only by an unexpected turn of events. Protests are bringing the beast to heel, and the key battleground came not in Washington or Paris but to a lonely field in South Dakota, not very far from Wounded Knee. It was the young water keepers that killed the dinosaur.

The story of modern-day fracking centers on an old dinosaur habitat called the Permian Basin, in West Texas. Radio Ecoshock host Alex Smith asked Nick Cunningham, who publishes at, to tell him why big oil companies were simply flaring natural gas off into the air.

“When you drill for oil, gas comes up along with it,” Cunningham said, “and the Texas drillers are really after the oil…. Now they have the pipelines to move the oil to the Texas coast, which is far away, but they don’t have enough pipelines to move gas, and that causes a glut there in West Texas, and that causes prices to crash, and instead of slowing down on the oil production they are trying to drill as much as possible, in part because they are under a lot of financial pressure, so they just burn the gas into the air.

“Now, they say that they are working on the issue and it’s temporary, due to infrastructure constraints, but it’s an epidemic and an emergency in terms of the climate and local air quality. So it’s a big problem.”

Cunningham said there have been more than 200 bankruptcies in the oil and gas sector since 2015, which shows that the fracking industry is still an unproven business model. As Richard Heinberg warned in Snake Oil, back when the boom began, fracked oil and gas declines very rapidly once a well is tapped — 60 to 90% are gone within 3 years. Fracked oil gives way to fracked gas, but oil is worth money and gas is not. Steep decline rates mean you must keep drilling, which means you must raise more money. The fracking boom is built on Ponzi’d debt. Share prices are now collapsing, banks are cutting the spigot, and bankruptcies are cascading. 1.9 million new oil and gas wells will need to be drilled to replace those that are drying up. $13 trillion will need to be spent to drill all those wells but lenders are drying up. Prices for gas are too low to produce profits, and oil prices are down too because there is too much of it that can’t move out of fields in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma, so share prices are falling, lenders are not interested and companies are going bankrupt.

In Canada, oil prices have dropped to as much as $40 per barrel below prices in the United States. Why is that? Well, among other things, it is because they have no way to get it to market. They took so long to build the pipelines like Keystone XL and Transmountain because indigenous climate protests, although eventually thwarted by President Cobblepot, succeeded in slowing everything down and sending wrecking balls through crucial financial timelines.

The classic study on protest is by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict.” (International Security 33, no. 1 (2008): 7–44.) Stephan and Chenoweth found that despite being twice as successful as violent conflicts, peaceful resistance still failed 47% of the time to accomplish its goals. Looking at 323 violent and nonviolent civil resistance and social movements from 1900 to 2006, the researchers learned that although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, around 3.5% of a nation’s population actively participating in the protests is enough to ensure lasting political change. For a nation like the US, that would be 11 million people.

Scale is one prerequisite. The other stepping stones to success are presenting a clear and unambiguous request; addressing the person or institution empowered to meet that request; and putting leverage on that person or institution in an ethically unassailable way. If you can do these last three strategies with a small number of people, you may reach the needed scale for unstoppable change.

The M.L. King Center has six more precepts to consider:

  1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
  2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
  3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people.
  4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
  5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
  6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

Did the Standing Rock water protectors know when they camped in the snow that they would so increase the cost of oil production that they would bankrupt hundreds of companies? No. In the end, they were forcibly evicted and the pipeline laid under their rivers and lake and over their sacred sites.

That didn’t matter. They chose the right place at the right time and chose love not hate. Their message was conveyed to the world. Their protest is not over.

Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old leader of School Strike in Sweden and around the world, is following these same steps when she speaks truth to power. She has set the example of a courageous way of life. Her request is clear and unambiguous. In Davos, Washington, London, and Geneva she is addressing the persons and institutions empowered to meet that request and they are starting to respond. Her leverage is her charisma. The scale is building. Three point five percent is 260 million of us. Every Friday.

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Albert Bates

Albert Bates was a civil sector representative at the Copenhagen climate conference, trying to point the world back towards a stable atmosphere using soils and trees.  His book BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth has just been released and his book Plastics: From Pollution to Evolution is due out in April 2019. Past books include Climate in Crisis and The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook. Working with the Global Ecovillage Network he has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than 60 nations. A former environmental rights lawyer, paramedic, brick mason, flour miller, and horse trainer, Albert Bates received the Right Livelihood Award in 1980 as part of the steering committee of Plenty, working to preserve the cultures of indigenous peoples, and board of directors of The Farm, a pioneering intentional community in Tennessee for the past 40 years. He has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than sixty nations. A co-founder and past president of the Global Ecovillage Network, he is presently GEN’s representative to the UN climate talks. When not tinkering with fuel wringers for algae, hemp cheeses, or pyrolizing cookstoves, he teaches permaculture, ecovillage design and natural building and is a frequent guest on the ETC Podcast.

Tags: non-violence