Three cheers for the brave new activism

Let's hope the tactics that have rocked free-traders can also change the hearts and minds of SUV-driving, overconsuming Americans.


Bill McKibben
April 17, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

Last Monday, at 8:15 on a gorgeous spring morning, a few passersby circled the block around the World Bank inconspicuously, glancing at their wristwatches slightly more often than normal. At 8:25, a Budget rental van with a wooden box on top and the back open to show there were no explosives inside glided to a stop in front of the glass-walled bank building, blocking one lane of traffic.

Two young people sat down by the rear tires and chained themselves to the axle. On top of the truck, the wooden box opened and out popped John Passacantando, executive director of Ozone Action, Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, and Beka Economopolous, director of Ecopledge.com. They unfurled banners down the sides of the van with the slogan of the day: "No World Bank Dollars for Oil, Gas, Mining" and then began making speeches about global warming through a bullhorn. Meanwhile, the purposeful passersby converged on the truck and signs appeared just in time for the TV crews that arrived on schedule, thanks to a prearranged rendezvous.

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It was almost too easy. For a few moments the crowd forgot to chant, taken with the sheer sweet precision of it all. The A16 demonstrations in downtown Washington were under way, and the new face of civil disobedience could be seen, even more clearly than last fall in Seattle.

The Web ethos -- speed, technical savvy, an almost instinctive understanding of media -- has informed both sets of protests, and organization over the Internet will bring most of the thousands of protesters expected by week's end to Washington. The three environmental groups and the Gandalfian Ruckus Society organized the kickoff demonstrations on a tiny budget: some cell phones, a rental truck, a few banners, some bail money, all in all an outlay of several thousand dollars that has already leveraged millions in free coverage.

It worked. World Bank officials, who do indeed spend vast sums to subsidize fossil-fuel developments instead of backing small-scale renewable projects, were on the defensive from the start of the week, sputtering out the backpedaling, hedging qualifier-filled evasions we all have come to expect from politicians and corporate flacks under fire.

What a remarkable role reversal. For a couple of decades, big institutions and big corporations have been able to set the public agenda. Their sheer slickness made them nearly invulnerable, offered no traction for activists. The glossy brochure, the TV commercial with the herons nesting on the drilling platform, the op-ad in the Times -- your average vegetarian Oberlin sophomore bounced harmlessly off that plexiglass surface. But now, as everyone is finding out, she can be just as shiny, maybe more so. Her Web site certainly looks better than Chevron's. And she can be endlessly more nimble.

This week's demonstrations run on cell phones. On Monday, staffers were calling Passacantando, Washington's feistiest environmental leader, with speech suggestions while he stood on top of the van. One of the arrested Ruckus Society activists, "Sprout," talked live via cell phone from the D.C. clink to a press conference that followed the bust.

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And if the cops (who have so far been calm and professional) had decided to move in ` la Seattle with tear gas and rubber bullets, that would have worked at least as well on the evening news. In short, the activists who planned all this were every bit as adept as the folks who once made sure Ronald Reagan never posed without an American flag behind him.

Since I've spent the past dozen years trying to get anyone to take issues like global warming seriously, I'm all for this newfound savvy. Look at what's happened this year: A campaign led largely by Ozone Action has forced Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, GM and many others to quit the Global Climate Coalition, an organization which is to atmospheric science as the Tobacco Institute is to emphysema. These giants are exquisitely vulnerable to such attacks; the Net has finally allowed the truth to make an end-run around propaganda, finally allowed people to organize effectively against big lies and bigger half-truths.

Several big forestry companies have tossed in the towel on old-growth lumbering; Occidental may be wavering on its plans to drill in the tropical Colombian homeland of the U'wa people. Big bad projects will increasingly be brought to a standstill. Only a few authoritarian nations like China will be able to withstand the tsunami of criticism aimed at big new dams. The WTO is paralyzed post-Seattle; the chance for a new trade round is small, and China's hopes for entry grow slimmer each day. Nimble Lilliputians can stop titans in their tracks. I wouldn't want to be Exxon's P.R. chief.

Now, though, the new forms of dissent have an even harder task ahead of them. If we're ever going to reverse, say, global warming, it will require enormous changes on the part of individual Americans. We will need to burn much less fossil fuel, we'll need to shift habits, deflect our economy in new directions, take real risks.

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These changes will come when policy shifts, but revving people up to demand such action from their representatives will be the biggest political organizing challenge of the decade to come. Right now the political world thinks that down deep people really don't care. It's worth remembering that the last time the U.S. Senate took up the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, a treaty negotiated by more than 150 countries in 1997 that specifies cuts in greenhouse gas emissions each country must make, it voted against it 97-0.

And so national changes will require more than technical savvy. Every movement for social change in this country triumphed when it found the right emotional chords: the combination of hope, fear, boldness, patriotism, guilt, anger and love that moved people to change who they were and how they thought of themselves.

It's true that the civil rights movement managed to shut down Birmingham, Ala., even more effectively than protesters shut down Seattle, but their real victory came as Americans saw the suffering protesters were willing to undergo. In a million living rooms, people recalculated the depth of their commitment to racial equality, and thus began the real sea change in our national politics. People finally began to act on what they knew in their heart of hearts was right.

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This struggle will be even harder, because almost all of us benefit, or at least think we do, from the fossil-fuel culture we've constructed. Cheap, easy mobility. Cheap, easy everything. Look at the anger unleashed by a 50-cent increase in the price of a gallon of gas (which still leaves it costing less than a gallon of bottled water), at a time when the popularity of sports utility vehicles is driving gas consumption up, not down.

And the stakes are highest in other places. New York may have West Nile River fever, but the Nile River Delta is going to be under the ocean before too long. So those of us who campaign against global warming will need ways to reach people on the deepest levels, to make them understand the sheer blasphemous absurdity of massively altering the globe's climate in a single generation, of undertaking an experiment where the beaker is the size of our home planet.

It will be a battle of symbols: of the greenback against the green mountains, the blue sea, the white beach. A battle of the spring and summer and fall and winter of memory, against the surreal, amped-up seasons we're already creating today. It's a battle than can be won, but if that victory is to matter, it will have to happen relatively fast, before there's so much carbon in the atmosphere that the temperature will spiral.

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Three cheers, then, for the Ruckus Society and all their wonderful companions. They're fighting the bad guys to at least a draw. But if that fight is going to be won, we need an emotional creativity to match the technical genius. That's why I was glad to see my favorite Seattle banner, the work of Rainforest Action Network's Kelly Quirke, reappear on the streets of Washington this week. In words any Harry Potter fan will recognize, it read simply: "Wake Up Muggles." With any luck, it will be an interesting decade.


Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, and founder of the global climate campaign 350.org. His latest book is "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.".

MORE FROM Bill McKibben

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