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Bill McKibben: A Movement for a New Planet

6:55 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Earth from space

Is there hope for Planet Earth?

In his stunningly insightful book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, Jonathan Schell suggested that there were two world-changing inventions for the twentieth century, nuclear weapons and nonviolence, and described the way their histories and powers were intertwined. After all, Gandhi’s unarmed revolution against British colonialism in India succeeded just as nuclear weapons makers were claiming that ultimate weapon as the ultimate power on the planet.  Today, Schell’s former New Yorker colleague and friend Bill McKibben implies that the later twentieth and early twenty-first century may be noteworthy for two intertwined phenomena: computers and digital technology, which have decentralized power in some ways, while concentrating it in others, and the next phase in the development of nonviolent, direct-action, people-powered movements, the recent leaderless rebellions.

The 1960s now seems like a transitional age in which the new anti-authoritarianism now in ascendancy first dawned. In those years, members of cults (from Synanon and the Manson Family to the Moonies and the Symbionese Liberation Army) and others followed their leaders into madness and mayhem, even as some movements started to experiment with new forms of self-governance and to learn how to campaign without charismatic leaders.  They began trying to transform liberation, equality, and democracy into internal processes as well as goals. The problem wasn’t just the cults, but the way political campaigns of every sort would get hijacked by the usual suspects, the people who assumed they were sent to Earth to explain it all and lead the rest of us (yeah, dudes, mostly).

As it turned out, for a rebellion against conventional authority, an unconventional version of authority wasn’t what was needed, but an alternative to authoritarianism altogether. Feminists and other radical democrats in many movements, notably the great antinuclear movements of the 1970s and 1980s, pioneered new anti-authoritarian techniques, still widely used and prominent in the Occupy movement, including consensus process, facilitators, and spokescouncils. These tools distributed power more equitably and rendered leaders of the old sort superfluous.

All through my activist life, I’ve seen police looking for leaders to negotiate with or suppress.  A body with a head can be decapitated, but headless organisms charge on as long as some of us remain. And many people — Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, David Graeber of the Occupy movement, Bill McKibben in the climate-change movement, possibly even Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement — have been mistaken for leaders when they were really something else: catalysts and voices for our movements. They weren’t and aren’t leaders because we aren’t followers. We don’t obey them, but sift through and adopt their ideas, frameworks, and strategies as we see fit, while contributing ourselves. No shepherds, no sheep — which is a triumph of political evolution and a measure of how far we are from the authoritarianism of the past.

In this essay, Bill McKibben is essentially announcing that he might at last be pulling back from a grueling, exhausting, continuous tour of the world as the most charismatic, witty, and effective catalyst for what has become a global climate movement with an ever-strengthening U.S. component. That’s good news.  Because he understood more deeply than any of us how urgent and catastrophic our situation on this overheating planet of ours really is, he has pushed himself beyond human limits to address it.  If this piece of his is a sidelong announcement that we can expect more writing and less showing up in every corner of the Earth, then it’s two kinds of good news — for sustainable Bill and more of his magnificent writing. (In fact, there’s a new book about to appear that sounds kind of great.)

The work needs doing, but the duty is all of ours, not just his, even if he has already roused crowds about the issue in hundreds of places on nearly every continent, including Antarctica. His books, in case you’ve missed them, do a remarkable job of laying out how dire the problem of climate change is, but also how alluring and within our grasp the solutions to it are; both Deep Economy and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet are oddly hopeful about what we could do.

The beautiful thing about them, spelled out clearly in his latest post for TomDispatch, is that they are deeply anti-authoritarian in that the solutions they imagine involve the dispersal of power — both the literal power that runs our homes and vehicles and farms and factories, and the power that is politics (which are both consolidated in corporations like Chevron, as he highlights below). He spotlights just where what’s left of our hope resides: in a decentralized, grassroots, youth-oriented global climate movement, including the extraordinary young people doing the lion’s share of the work at 350.org.

What all this means is that the power is also yours: you are potentially a catalyst for this moment. Welcome aboard what might just be Earth, Version 2013. Rebecca Solnit

Movements Without Leaders 
What to Make of Change on an Overheating Planet 
By Bill McKibben

The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality — it’s hard to shake. If you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous animal than if you came of age during Vietnam.  I was born in 1960, and so the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L.

As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more than Dr. King.  There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s early sense is hard to dislodge: the civil rights movement had his face on it; Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage.

Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment — even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights — don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.

It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: the fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule. For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots movement because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for another, even as he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading climate science, the other side used every trick and every dollar at their disposal to bring him down. He remains a vital figure in the rest of the world (partly because there he is perceived less as a politician than as a prophet), but at home his power to shape the fight has been diminished.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the movement is diminished.  In fact, it’s never been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.

That’s not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.

A Movement for a New Planet

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Tomgram: Bill McKibben, Chamber of Carbon

9:06 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

Money Pollution
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Darkens the Skies
By Bill McKibben

In Beijing, they celebrate when they have a “blue sky day,” when, that is, the haze clears long enough so that you can actually see the sun.  Many days, you can’t even make out the next block.

Washington, by contrast, looks pretty clean: white marble monuments, broad, tree-lined avenues, the beautiful, green spread of the Mall. But its inhabitants — at least those who vote in Congress — can’t see any more clearly than the smoke-shrouded residents of Beijing.

Their view, however, is obscured by a different kind of smog.  Call it money pollution.  The torrents of cash now pouring unchecked into our political system cloud judgment and obscure science. Money pollution matters as much as or more than the other kind of dirt.  That money is the single biggest reason that, as the planet swelters through the warmest years in the history of civilization, we have yet to take any real action as a nation on global warming.

*****

And if you had to pick a single “power plant” whose stack was spewing out the most smoke? No question about it, that would be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose headquarters are conveniently located directly across the street from the White House.  On its webpage, the chamber brags that it’s the biggest lobby in Washington, “consistently leading the pack in lobbying expenditures.”

The group spent as much as $33 million trying to influence the midterm 2010 elections, and has announced that it will beat that in 2012.  That, of course, is its right, especially now that the Supreme Court, in its Citizens United ruling, opened the floodgates for corporate speech (as in “money talks”).

But the chamber does what it does with a twist.  It claims to represent “three million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions.” The organization, that is, seems to speak for a country full of barbers and florists, car dealers, restaurant owners, and insurance salesmen, not to mention the small entrepreneurs who make up local and state chambers of commerce across the country.

At least when it comes to energy and climate, though, that claim is, politely put, a fib.  The Chamber of Commerce doesn’t have to say where it gets its money, but last year a group called U.S. ChamberWatch used one of the last disclosure laws still in existence to uncover a single pertinent fact. They went to the headquarters of the chamber and asked to see its IRS 990 form. It showed that 55% of its funding came from just 16 companies, each of which gave more than a million dollars. It doesn’t have to say which companies, but by their deeds shall you know them.

The chamber has long opposed environmental standards.  In the 1980s, it fought a ban on the dumping of hazardous waste.  In the 1990s, it fought smog and soot standards.  On climate change, though, it’s gone pretty near berserk.

In 2009, for instance, one of its officials even demanded a “twenty-first century Scopes monkey trial” for global warming: “It would be the science of climate change on trial,” the chamber’s senior vice-president for environment, technology, and regulatory affairs explained.

That didn’t go over so well.  Several high-profile companies quit the chamber. Apple Computer, the very exemplar of the universe of cutting-edge technology, explained: “We would prefer that the chamber take a more progressive stance on this critical issue and play a constructive role in addressing the climate crisis.” 

Other businesses complained that they hadn’t been consulted.  Some, like Nike, quit the organization’s board. “We just weren’t clear in how decisions on climate and energy were being made,” said a Nike spokesman.

One thing was for sure: they weren’t being made by three million small businesses — because many local chambers of commerce started quitting the chamber as well. From Florida and South Carolina to Missouri and Kansas, from Colorado and Pennsylvania to New Hampshire and Washington, dozens of local chambers have announced that the U.S. Chamber doesn’t speak for them on these issues. In Largo, Florida, for instance, the head of the local chamber explained that the U.S. Chamber was composed, “for the most part, of political action committees and business lobbyists. They hold little resemblance to the local chambers of commerce that have been the cornerstone of their communities for generations.”

Faced with that kind of incipient rebellion, the chamber backtracked just a little, issuing a statement saying that they didn’t really want a global warming version of a monkey trial after all, and that climate change was an “important issue.” (The same statement went on to call for transforming the United States into the “Saudi Arabia of clean coal.”)

The happy talk in public, however, has done nothing to change the agenda the chamber pushes so powerfully in private.  The same year as that statement, for instance, the organization petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to take no action on global warming on the grounds that “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” 

Now, read that again.   No suggestion here that 16 dinosaur companies adapt their business model to a reality that now includes melting ice caps, desertification and massive flooding, ever fiercer storms and acidifying oceans.  Instead, they would prefer that every human being (and every other species) be so kind as to adapt their behavior and physiology to the needs of this tiny coterie of massive contributors. Forever.

What’s become clear is that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization formed in 1912, more than a century after the first local chamber came into being, is anything but a benign umbrella for American small businesses. Quite the opposite: it’s a hard-edged ideological shop. It was Glenn Beck, after all, who said of the chamber that “they are us,” and urged his viewers to send them money. (Beck personally contributed $10,000 of the $32 million he earned in 2009.) The chamber’s chief lobbyist even called in to offer his personal thanks. It shouldn’t have come as a great surprise: Beck’s Fox News parent, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, had given its own million-dollar donation to the chamber.

Thanks to the Supreme Court and its Citizens United decision, there’s no way to keep the chamber and others from running their shadowy election-time campaigns.  As long as monster companies are pumping money into their coffers, it’s “free speech” all the way and they’ll simply keep on with their dodgy operations.

Still, the rest of us can stand up and be counted.  We can tell the Congressional representatives taking their money that they don’t speak for us. We can urge more big companies to act like Apple and Microsoft, which publicly denounced the chamber.  (It’s good to hear Levi Strauss, General Electric, and Best Buy making similar noises.)  We need to hear from more dissenting chambers of commerce.  It cheered me to find that the CEO of the Greater New York Chamber said, “They don’t represent me,” or to discover that just a few weeks ago the Seattle chamber cut its ties.

But it’s even more important to hear from small businesspeople, the very contingent the U.S. Chamber of Commerce draws on for its credibility. Across America in the coming months, volunteers from the climate change organization I helped to found, 350.org, will be fanning out to canvass local businesses — all those bakeries and beauty salons, colleges and chiropractors, pharmacies and fitness centers that belong to local chambers of commerce.

The volunteers will be asking for signatures on a statement announcing that “the U.S. Chamber doesn’t speak for me,” and offering businesspeople the chance to post videos expressing just how differently they do think when it comes to global warming, energy, and the environment. It’s a chance to emphasize that American business should be about nimbleness, creativity, and adaptation — that it’s prepared to cope with changing circumstances, instead of using political cash to ensure that yesterday’s technologies remain on artificial life support.

It’s easy to guess how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will respond to this campaign. Last week, a series of leaks showed that their law firm had been carrying out extended negotiations with at least one “security firm” to collect intelligence on the chamber’s adversaries, including the group that uncovered the tax data showing where their money came from. Once the leak was made public, the chamber’s law firm cut off the negotiations, but not before they received “samples” of the kind of intelligence they presumably wanted — pictures of their opponents’ children, for instance, or the news that one foe attended a “Jewish church” near Washington.

For the record: I don’t like the chamber’s deceptions. I belong to the Methodist church in my hometown. Keep away from my daughter.

With my colleagues at 350.org, I’ll do what I can to help undermine the chamber’s claim to represent American business.  I don’t know if we can win this fight against money pollution, but we’re going to do what we can to clear the air.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, co-founder of 350.org, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben