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Beyond Oil: Activism and Politics

Author and climate activist Bill McKibben on the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster

Editor's note: Any hope that the Deepwater Horizon would mark a turning point in the fight for a climate bill quickly evaporated. But the spill still offers us a "teachable moment" on many critical issues. In a series of essays in our magazine and online, some of the nation's leading environmental writers and thinkers reflect on our two national disaster areas: the one in the Gulf and the other in Congress. First up: the author who was among the first to sound the warning on climate change -- and who later founded the activist group 350.org to do something about it.

On May 6, a little more than two weeks after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, the first oil washed ashore. It was found on the beaches of the Chandeleur Islands off the coast of Louisiana -- one of America’s first wildlife refuges, established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 after a decade-long struggle with the plume trade, which was killing off our seabirds. We don’t normally think of hydrocarbons as possessing a strong sense of irony, but there you go.

In fact, the BP spill and its aftermath were a slap in the face of the environmental movement in so many ways. You would have thought the most visible ecological tragedy of our time might have led our government to take real action against our worst problems. Instead, the same week that the well was finally capped the Senate punted on doing anything -- anything -- about climate change.

So, for those of us on the green side of things, there’s never been a better moment to sit back and say: Are we doing something wrong? We seem not to be as good at this as our forebears, who turned the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River into Earth Day 1 and the Clean Air Act, or even those ancient proto-greens who turned the fancy hat trade into the wildlife refuge system. Yale pollster Anthony Leiserowitz told The Washington Post that the difference between this summer and the awakenings after past disasters is as stark as “on versus off.” Why? Or, if you want to think more positively, what’s the recipe for doing better next time?

Let’s start with the president. He’s clearly a leader concerned with energy -- from the start, he has said that along with health care it’s one of his top priorities. But he hasn’t found a way yet to get the urgency of the issue across to Americans: instead of talking about climate chaos, he has stuck with green jobs. The oil spill might have provided a chance to change that focus but, sadly, he was deeply compromised. Two weeks before the BP rig blew up, Obama had lifted the long-standing moratorium on new offshore drilling along much of the nation’s coastline. “What I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil,” he said at the time. A few days later he was even more certain and even more offhand: “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.”

If you can’t have an outspoken T.R., you can still make profound change in the wake of a catalyzing event. For proof, look no further than the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon signed virtually every piece of legislation on which modern environmental law still depends. Nixon was not, by nature, a raging green. The same taping system that revealed his Watergate crimes also caught him telling a group of auto executives in the Oval Office that environmentalists wanted to “go back and live like a bunch of damned animals.” But it didn’t matter that Nixon couldn’t care less about nature, because he cared (like pretty much every politician) about politics.

And politics had shifted in the months since Santa Barbara. People hadn’t waited for a leader to act -- they had gone out and organized. The first Earth Day took place the next spring, and it’s worth recalling just how politicized and dramatic it was at its birth. At least 20 million Americans participated -- about one in ten of the population.

The ferment of that time also gave birth to many environmental organizations, NRDC among them. Over the years they have grown in size and power -- 40 years later, they have an army of expert lobbyists on Capitol Hill, but less to show for it lately than physics demands (and not only because the other side has a bigger army). Without a real show of force at the grass roots, those lobbyists can’t make the necessary headway with members of Congress, who are better at reading the political tea leaves than they are at reading the data about global warming.

So that’s the good news. Because if you want to, you can build a movement. Or at least you can try.

In the weeks after the BP disaster, you could feel people struggling for a way to express their outrage. Nascent groups formed on Facebook and soon had memberships in the hundreds of thousands. The big green groups coordinated with smaller, more activist outfits to host events like Hands Across the Sands, which staged hundreds of rallies on a June Saturday. I’ve had a front-row seat to watch this wave begin to build: 350.org, the group I helped found in 2008, coordinated 5,200 rallies in 181 countries in October of last year and is building toward a similar international day of action on 10/10/10 that will send world leaders a pointed political message: We’re getting to work, what about you?

But the success of such efforts will depend on not trying to emulate the turning points of the past. History rarely repeats itself exactly. We have a different president, we have a different world, and most of all we have a different issue. Action on climate change will demand taking on the most powerful economic force the world has ever seen, the fossil fuel industry. So, job one: stop pretending that the fight is over energy independence or oil security. We need to tell the truth. The pollution you can see, like the spill in the Gulf, is the least of our problems. What stalks our future is the invisible damage done when the structure of the CO2 molecule traps heat that would otherwise radiate out to space. It’s not when BP makes an outlandish mistake; it’s when BP and Exxon and the rest of the fossil fuel industry carry out their daily business. It’s not when things turn black; it’s when they turn hot. The worst calamity ever to befall human civilization is happening before our eyes -- in the weeks around the spill, NASA reported that we’d just come through the hottest year, and decade, ever recorded. Temperatures in Pakistan reached an unprecedented 129 degrees. We need to say it, over and over.

And then, job two: we need to build a movement that works. That grows from the power of young people and church people and peasant farmers and all the rest around the world who are already leading the fight. They can’t win it by themselves -- they need our environmental organizations to help close the deal. And those environmental organizations need that grassroots movement to make their work possible. It’s time to be mad, and to mean it. Time to ask for what the science requires, not what politics permits.

The sad truth is, an ever-hotter planet is going to give us more defining moments in the seasons ahead. Sooner or later we better seize one.

Tomorrow: David Gessner on nature and adaptation.

image of Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben is a contributing editor to OnEarth. He is the author of Eaarth, The End of Nature, Deep Economy, and numerous other books and is the founder of the environmental organizations Step It Up and 350.org. He is a scholar in residence at Mid... READ MORE >
Bill, You can't use the internet to build a movement that entails sacrifice. That space is for people who think action is clicking on a link and posting it to their Facebook page. Clicktivism is what corporations want, because it is inactive action. It is non-threatening. A virtual sacrifice. To me, a major failing of the green movement has been the fallacy that the "social network" will help spread the word. But the signal to noise ration is too low. "I do not have time to read about 350.org if my Farmville farm needs more pigs!" The first Earth Day happened before the internet. So my advice to you is to urge people to stop using the internet, but for email. Just set up a page that says "If you want to participate in yada yada yada, send us an email." Gather the people who are serious, who will go out in the streets EVERYDAY. We already have Earth Day, why do we need another organization like 350? Why not lend your support to them instead of making yet another web site for people to go to? Too much noise again. Things were much less distracting in the 70s. And your recollections of the first Earth Day seems incomplete. It was initiated by an environmentalist Senator, Gaylord Nelson, who had the idea for seven years prior. (Who in politics do you see is that brave but maybe Grayson and Kusinich?) No one starts a movement, movements start on their own; their leaders only channels of the grassroots sentiment. So just keep writing and stop worrying about organizing.
Thank you for putting that so well, we need to stop clicking and start kicking ass, action and movement are needed right now not just signing petitions and forming groups. What is that saying .............faith without works is dead, knowledge is power but only if it is applied!! As a nation we need to get off our lazy butts and get busy........put down the remote, the cell phone and step away from the gaming systems and the computer or sooner rather than later our lives will change so dramatically that we won't even have these distractions at our disposal. Peace to you and yours
See, this is the problem with the internet. "Add a comment" is like talking to an fraking newspaper. You are spread so thin you cannot even comment on what I said. How do you intend to start a "mevement" if you do not even speak to the "movers"? You are a scholar, and think that is as far as you will get unless you drop all your books and web pages.
I agree with Christian. But I'll go a step further. Bill, if you're going to keep writing instead of acting, please write about the moral imperative of terminating the industrial economy. It's making us crazy and killing us. Along the way, it's killing every aspect of the living planet on which we depend for our continued persistence on Earth. Let's bring it all down, for the sake of our children.
While the BP spill was still gushing oil, there was much public anger about how BP and the government were handling this tragedy. Since the leak has been plugged, anger and attention seems to have shifted elsewhere. Congress and the President are bought and paid for by legacy industries like those whom depend on ancient sun light. In other words, the oil and petroleum industries have seen their peak and are nearing the end of their life-cycle. It will be decades, but ultimately the world will leave behind oil and petroleum (like the world left behind whale oil) and yet for now these industries have enough power and influence to exist beyond their usefulness. After-all, the use of petroleum in our economy is hugely subsidized and would not be so vital to everything without the massive subsidies, these corporate welfare payments, these on-going, sustainable bailouts of the purveyors of ancient sunlight. Who else benefits from the US government like the petroleum and coal industries? Given that the US government has become primarily a tool for these legacy industries, it is no surprise at all to me how the government handled the BP/Haliburton/Transocean crude oil spill. There are too many federal reserve notes dedicated to re-electing politicians that will continue the work of pushing the use of ancient sun light. The odd thing: how come people get mad at BP for their accident, when so many companies are intentionally destroying this planet's environment each and every day? How come people aren't mad that our children at birth and their mothers' breast milk are polluted by toxins related to ancient sun light and other magical compents of "modern life?" How come we keep allowing these mad men to keep destroying the world that we are leaving for our kids?
when it comes to money no one thinks about nature(