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    Movements Without Leaders

    The climate fight is about all of us, not just a few personalities. 

    This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.

    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

    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

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

    A Movement for a New Planet

    We live in a
    different world from that of the civil rights movement. Save perhaps for the
    spectacle of presidential elections, there’s no way for individual human beings
    to draw the same kind of focused and sustained attention they did back then. At
    the moment, you could make the three evening newscasts and the cover of Time (not Newsweek, alas) and still not connect with most people.
    Our focus is fragmented and segmented, which may be a boon or a problem, but
    mostly it’s just a fact. Our attention is dispersed.

    When we started
    350.org five years ago, we
    dimly recognized this new planetary architecture. Instead of trying to draw
    everyone to a central place — the Mall in Washington, D.C.
    — for a protest, we staged 24 hours of rallies around the planet: 5,200
    demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN called “the most widespread of day of
    political action in the planet’s history.” And we’ve gone on to do more of the
    same — about 20,000 demonstrations in every country but North Korea.

    Part of me,
    though, continued to imagine that a real movement looked like the ones I’d
    grown up watching — or maybe some part of me wanted the glory of being a
    leader. In any event, I’ve spent the last few years in constant motion around
    the country and the Earth. I’d come to think of myself as a “leader,” and
    indeed my forthcoming book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist,
    reflects on that growing sense of identity.

    However, in
    recent months — and it’s the curse of an author that sometimes you change your
    mind after your book is in type — I’ve come to like the idea of capital L
    leaders less and less. It seems to me to miss the particular promise of this
    moment: that we could conceive of, and pursue, movements in new ways.

    environmentalists, we have a useful analogy close at hand. We’re struggling to
    replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants
    provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10
    million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers
    call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of
    benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make
    use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated
    fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.

    In the last few
    weeks, for instance, 350.org helped support a nationwide series of rallies
    called Summerheat. We
    didn’t organize them ourselves. We knew great environmental justice groups all
    over the country, and we knew we could highlight their work, while making links
    between, say, standing up to a toxic Chevron refinery in Richmond, California,
    and standing up to the challenge of climate change.

    From the shores
    of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where a tar-sands pipeline is proposed, to the Columbia
    River at Vancouver, Washington, where a big oil port is planned, from Utah’s Colorado Plateau, where
    the first U.S. tar-sands mine has been proposed,
    to the coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point on the Massachusetts coast and the fracking wells of
    rural Ohio — Summerheat demonstrated the local depth and global reach of this
    emerging fossil fuel resistance. I’ve had the pleasure of going to talk at all
    these places and more besides, but I wasn’t crucial to any of them. I was, at
    best, a pollinator, not a queen bee.

    Or consider a slightly older fight. In 2012, the Boston Globe magazine put a picture of
    me on its cover under the headline: “The Man Who Crushed the Keystone Pipeline.” I’ve
    got an all-too-healthy ego, but even I knew that it was over the top. I’d
    played a role in the fight, writing the letter that asked people to come to Washington to resist the
    pipeline, but it was effective because I’d gotten a dozen friends to sign it
    with me. And I’d been one of 1,253 people who went to jail in what was the largest civil disobedience
    action in this country in years. It was their combined witness that got the
    ball rolling. And once it was rolling, the Keystone campaign became the exact
    model for the sort of loosely-linked well-distributed power system I’ve been

    The big
    environmental groups played key roles, supplying lots of data and information,
    while keeping track of straying members of Congress. Among them were the
    Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, the League of
    Conservation Voters, and the National Wildlife Federation, none spending time
    looking for credit, all pitching in. The Sierra Club played a crucial role in
    pulling together the biggest climate rally yet, last February’s convergence on
    the Mall in Washington.

    and individuals on the ground were no less crucial: the indigenous groups in Alberta and elsewhere
    that started the fight against the pipeline which was to bring Canadian tar
    sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast graciously welcomed the rest of us, without
    complaining about how late we were. Then there were the ranchers and farmers of
    Nebraska, who
    roused a whole stadium of football fans at a Cornhuskers game to boo a pipeline commercial; the scientists who wrote
    letters, the religious leaders who conducted prayer vigils. And don’t forget
    the bloggers who helped make sense of it all for us. One upstart website even won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the struggle.

    quickly educated themselves on the subject, becoming specialists in the
    corruption of the State Department process that was to okay the building of
    that pipeline or in the chemical composition of the bitumen that would flow
    through it. CREDO (half an activist organization, half a cell phone company),
    as well as Rainforest Action Network and The Other 98%, signed up 75,000 people
    to civil disobedience if the pipeline were to get presidential approval.

    And then there
    was the Hip Hop Caucus, whose head Lennox Yearwood has roused one big crowd
    after another, and the labor unions — nurses and transit workers, for instance
    — who have had the courage to stand up to the pipeline workers’ union which
    would benefit from the small number of jobs to be created if Keystone were
    built. Then there are groups of Kids Against KXL, and even a recent
    grandparents’ march from Camp David to the
    White House. Some of the most effective resistance has come from groups like Rising
    and the Tarsands Blockade in Texas,
    which have organized
    epic tree-sitting protests to slow construction of the southern portion of the

    The Indigenous Environmental
    has been every bit as effective in demonstrating to banks the folly
    of investing in Albertan tar sands production. First Nations people and British
    Columbians have even blocked a proposed pipeline that would take those same tar
    sands to the Pacific Ocean for shipping to Asia,
    just as inspired activists have kept the particularly carbon-dirty oil out of
    the European Union.

    We don’t know
    if we’ll win the northern half of the Keystone fight or not, although President
    Obama’s recent pledge to decide whether it should be built — his is the
    ultimate decision — based on how much carbon dioxide it could put into the
    atmosphere means that he has no good-faith way of approving it. However, it’s
    already clear that this kind of full-spectrum resistance has the ability to
    take on the huge bundles of cash that are the energy industry’s sole argument.

    What the Elders Said

    This sprawling
    campaign exemplifies the only kind of movement that will ever be able to stand
    up to the power of the energy giants, the richest industry the planet has ever
    known. In fact, any movement that hopes to head off the worst future
    depredations of climate change will have to get much, much larger,
    incorporating among other obvious allies those in the human rights and social
    justice arenas.

    The cause
    couldn’t be more compelling. There’s never been a clearer threat to survival,
    or to justice, than the rapid rise in the planet’s temperature caused by and
    for the profit of a microscopic percentage of its citizens. Conversely, there
    can be no real answer to our climate woes that doesn’t address the insane
    inequalities and concentrations of power that are helping to drive us toward
    this disaster.

    That’s why it’s
    such good news when people like Naomi Klein and Desmond Tutu join the climate
    struggle. When they take part, it becomes ever clearer that what’s underway is
    not, in the end, an environmental battle at all, but an all-encompassing fight
    over power, hunger, and the future of humanity on this planet.

    Expansion by
    geography is similarly a must for this movement. Recently, in Istanbul, 350.org and its allies trained 500 young
    people from 135 countries as climate-change organizers, and each of them is now
    organizing conferences and campaigns in their home countries.

    This sort of
    planet-wide expansion suggests that the value of particular national leaders is
    going to be limited at best. That doesn’t mean, of course, that some people
    won’t have more purchase than others in such a movement. Sometimes such
    standing comes from living in the communities most immediately and directly
    affected by climate change or fossil fuel depredation. When, for instance, the
    big climate rally finally did happen on the Mall this winter, the 50,000 in
    attendance may have been most affected by the words of Crystal Lameman, a young
    member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation whose traditional territory has been
    poisoned by tar sands mining.

    Sometimes it
    comes from charisma: Van Jones may be the most articulate and engaging
    environmental advocate ever. Sometimes it comes from getting things right for a
    long time: Jim Hansen, the greatest climate scientist, gets respect even from
    those who disagree with him about, say, nuclear power. Sometimes it comes from
    organizing ability: Jane Kleeb who did such work in the hard soil of Nebraska, or Clayton Thomas-Muller who has indefatigably
    (though no one is beyond fatigue) organized native North
    America. Sometimes it comes from sacrifice: Tim DeChristopher went to jail for two years for civil disobedience, and so
    most of us are going to listen to what he might have to say.

    Sometimes it
    comes from dogged work on solutions: Wahleah Johns and Billy Parish figured out
    how to build solar farms on Navajo land and crowdfundsolarpanels 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.

    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

    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 U.S. (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

    How to Save the Earth

    (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 percent 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.

    Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder
    of the global climate campaign
    350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. His next, to be published this September, is Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.

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    Copyright 2013
    Bill McKibben

    Image by Chris Ormsby,
    licensed under Creative

    Published on Aug 21, 2013


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