Have we failed to slow global warming pollution in part because climate and environmental activists have been too polite and well behaved? Is it time to take to the streets, express some outrage, maybe engage in a little guerilla warfare against Big Oil and Big Coal?
That’s the message you get in a new documentary film called Just Do It: A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws, which will be released in the U.K. this summer. The film follows the adventures of several British climate activists as they cut through fences and get smacked around by cops in riot gear. The film is selling a kind of moral outrage: Big Oil and Big Coal are wrecking the planet just to turn a profit, and nobody – certainly not mild-mannered treehuggers – is doing anything to stop it. As one activist in the film says: "I want to feel like doing something, rather than nothing, and not just watching the world go to shit."
This question of how far to take the fight to stop global warming has haunted activists for years. But now that more conventional solutions, such as a global treaty to cut greenhouse-gas pollution, are dead, the issue is more pressing than ever. As the crisis grows, the temptation to turn up the volume with more dramatic and attention-grabbing protests will only increase. Climate activists often speculate about who will emerge as the Martin Luther King of the climate movement. But it may be equally relevant to ask who will emerge as the Malcolm X.
Here in the U.S., demonstrations have been tame and peaceable. A five-day protest march earlier this month to draw attention to mountaintop-removal coal mining at Blair Mountain in West Virginia, the site of a bloody labor battle in 1921, went off without confrontation. There have been sit-ins in various governors’ offices and rallies at the National Mall in Washington D.C. and banners hung on smokestacks at coal plants in a number of states and untold numbers of conferences and campus demonstrations. All these events may or may not be helping to build a broad social movement. But they certainly have not done much to stop the amount of greenhouse gases being dumped into the atmosphere.
This summer looks like more of the same. Earlier this week, organizers sent out a letter to activists to enlist support for an August rally to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada into the U.S. If you care about the fate of the earth’s climate, it’s certainly a worthy target. The pipeline will carry 900,000 barrels of carbon-intensive crude from the tar sands into the U.S. each day. In the letter by Bill McKibben, founder of advocacy organization 350.org, who is collaborating with author and farmer Wendell Berry, actor Danny Glover, and NASA climate scientist James Hansen to organize the event, McKibben makes clear that he is asking protestors "to do something hard," which is to come to Washington "in the hottest and stickiest weeks of the summer and engaging in civil disobedience that will quite possibly get you arrested."
Interestingly, organizers are asking demonstrators to ditch Birkenstocks, torn jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts for button-down, business attire. "We need to be able to get across to people who the conservatives are and who the radicals are," McKibben said. "People need to understand how radical it is to change the composition of the atmosphere." By marching in button-downs, rally organizers are clearly borrowing a page from the Mississippi Freedom Riders of the 1960s, who, by arriving in the South as well-dressed, respectable students and citizens, helped expose the moral savagery of the white power establishment.
It may be a shrewd and effective strategy, but inviting a comparison between climate activists and the Freedom Riders only underscores how tame the fight against global warming has been so far. The Freedom Riders proved the power of peaceful action, but they also showed astonishing courage and a willingness to risk their lives to change the world. Buses were firebombed. Some of them were attacked by police dogs. Others were beaten bloody, had bones broken, skulls cracked. But as Breach of Peace, Eric Etheridge's excellent book of photographic portraits of the Freedom Riders, makes clear, their suffering inspired others. As one person said at the time, “If those kids are wiling to lay all that on the line, I should be able to screw up at least a little courage in order to support the movement."
So far, the fight against global warming has been conspicuously lacking in inspiration, perhaps in part because it has been conspicuously lacking in people who are willing to lay it on the line. Maybe the movement is still young or maybe the enemy is too diffuse. Or maybe we just like the idea of living on a hotter planet.