Beyond Oil: Activism and Politics
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.