My friend Bill McKibben, founder of the climate change organization 350.org, has a 25-year history of environmental writing and activism that began with his inspiring and disturbing book, The End of Nature, in 1989. It was the first of a dozen books he has written on the environment. In books and speeches the soft-spoken McKibben electrifies audiences. But he doesn't just talk the talk. He walks the walk. Even when the walk ends in zipcuffs and a police van.
Since Ban Ki-moon runs the United Nations, he's altogether aware that we're making no progress as a planet on slowing climate change. He presided over the collapse of global-climate talks at Copenhagen in 2009, and he knows the prospects are not much better for the "next Copenhagen" in Paris in December 2015. In order to spur those talks along, he's invited the world's leaders to New York in late September for a climate summit.I can hear the groans from some quarters. Another protest march? What's the point? But neither McKibben nor any other climate activist is solely focused on protest marches, just as activists across a wide array of reform movements in the past did a lot more than shake their fists. Here's McKibben in an email:
But the "world's leaders" haven't been leaders on climate change – at least not leaders enough. Like many of us, they've attended to the easy stuff, but they haven't set the world on a fundamentally new course. Barack Obama is the perfect example: Sure, he's imposed new mileage standards for cars, but he's also opened vast swaths of territory to oil drilling and coal mining, which will take us past Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's biggest petro producer. [...]
In a rational world, no one would need to march. In a rational world, policymakers would have heeded scientists when they first sounded the alarm 25 years ago. But in this world, reason, having won the argument, has so far lost the fight. The fossil-fuel industry, by virtue of being perhaps the richest enterprise in human history, has been able to delay effective action, almost to the point where it's too late. [...]
So in this case taking to the streets is very much necessary. It's not all that's necessary – a sprawling fossil-fuel resistance works on a hundred fronts around the world, from putting up solar panels to forcing colleges to divest their oil stocks to electioneering for truly green candidates. And it's true that marching doesn't always work: At the onset of the war in Iraq, millions marched, to no immediate avail. But there are moments when it's been essential. This is how the Vietnam War was ended, and segregation too – or consider the nuclear-freeze campaign of the early 1980s, when half a million people gathered in New York's Central Park. The rally, and all the campaigning that led to it, set the mood for a planet—even, amazingly, in the Reagan era. By mid-decade, the conservative icon was proposing to Mikhail Gorbachev that they abolish nuclear weapons altogether.
Marching doesn’t solve anything by itself. But movements can shift political power—in fact, little else ever does.Tell Everyone.
We need to show just how big and unified our movement has grown, from the environmental justice advocates fighting fossil fuel pollution in our communities to the students demanding divestment on our campuses, from the scientists who have seen their warnings so far ignored to the clergy now showing real moral leadership.
If you’re wondering how to react to the devastating news that the Antarctic is melting out of control: New York. If you’re scared like I am by the pictures of the fire and drought across the West: New York. If you’re feeling like it’s time to change the trajectory of this planet: we’ll see you in New York.
If you're saying to yourself you can't afford to go to New York, or your boss won't give you leave to go or something else is holding you back, there's an alternative. Organizing local protests to occur at the same time as the one in New York. If 100 or 200 towns and cities held their own actions—say, at city hall or the state legislature—not only would that make it easy for tens of thousands of other Americans to participate, it would bring more media attention to the event and generate a residual momentum to advance other local actions in the future.