Page 2 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Leaderless movements for a new planet
By Bill McKibben
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 US (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% 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.