I hereby take back every mean and snarky thing I’ve ever said about Bill McKibben.
I’d already apologized at the end of last year about my potshots at him. But now? I am blown away. His and 350.org’s latest campaign, scheduled to kick off the day after the election, is exactly what the enviro movement needs:
McKibben and 350, the folks who brought us the Keystone XL pipeline protests, are now calling for a nationwide divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies’ bottom line. Beginning with student-led campaigns on college campuses, modeled on the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, they’ll pressure institutions to withdraw all investments from big oil and coal and gas. Their larger goal is to ignite a morally charged movement to strip the industry of its legitimacy.
“The fossil fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they should lose their social license — their veneer of respectability,” McKibben tells his audience. “You want to take away our planet and our future? We’re going to take away your money and your good name.”
Now that’s how it’s done.
To kickstart this organizing, they’re doing a tour around the country.
The tour builds off of McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which appeared in July and is one of the most widely read pieces in the magazine’s history. Buzz is clearly building, and not just in McKibben’s home state of Vermont. The Seattle show is sold out. The Boston show, on Nov. 15, sold out in less than 24 hours and has moved to a venue three times larger, the Orpheum Theater, with 2,700 seats. (Full disclosure: McKibben sits on Grist’s board of directors.)
Part multimedia lecture — with video appearances by 350.org allies like Naomr Klein, James Hansen, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — and part organizing rally, with a live musical performance, the Burlington event gave a taste of what’s to come. The tour will “evolve,” with different elements and onstage guests along the way — for example, Klein and filmmaker Josh Fox, of Gasland fame, will join McKibben onstage in various cities. Although it was a little rough around the edges on Saturday night, nobody seemed to mind (McKibben was playing, wisely, to his hometown crowd). The basic structure and central message of the show were well in place — and, just as important for 350′s objectives, the organizing wheels were well in motion.
Another really good sign about this campaign is that they’re already targeting outeach to the folks they need to build this movement.
As 350′s Matt Leonard, serving as “tour manager” for Do The Math, explained it to me, the tour isn’t simply about “getting butts in seats” for a lecture or concert (thus the relatively low emphasis on the musical guests in each city, most of whom are yet to be announced). It’s about getting “the right people” in those seats. “This isn’t just for publicity and outreach,” he says. “We’re putting tremendous effort into making sure students, community leaders, college trustees, and influential decision-makers are a part of this event, because they are the ones that will turn this from a talk into a hard-hitting campaign.”
McKibben sees this movement as the next logical step after the Keystone fight.
“Fighting Keystone,” he told me by email, “we learned we could stand up to the fossil fuel industry. We demonstrated some moxie.” But, he added: “We also figured out that we’re not going to win just fighting one pipeline at a time. We have to keep all those battles going, but we also have to play some offense, go at the heart of the problem.”
The Rolling Stone piece and McKibben’s Do the Math lecture leave no doubt what the heart of the problem is. Drawing on a widely circulated report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a group of U.K. financial experts and environmentalists, McKibben shows that the fossil fuel industry’s known reserves contain five times the amount of carbon needed to raise the planet’s temperature more than 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels — the point beyond which, according to international consensus, all bets for a livable climate are off….
Obviously, given the sheer amount of money at stake — many trillions of dollars — the odds of anything like that happening under current political conditions are nil. McKibben is arguing that, if there’s any hope at all of preserving a livable climate, those conditions must change decisively. And they can — but only if and when enough people understand the simple climate math and realize that the fossil fuel industry is prepared to cook humanity off the planet unless somebody stops it.
A key part of this new strategy is identifying a clear-cut enemy we can go after.
“There’s always been this slight unreality to the whole climate change thing,” he continued. “Because most people, at some level, kept thinking — and rightly so — Yeah, but no one will ever actually do this. No one will actually, knowingly, destroy the planet by climate change. But once you’ve seen those numbers, it’s clear, that’s exactly what they’re knowingly planning to do. So that changes the equation, you know?”
Campus divestment, obviously, isn’t enough by itself. The point of it is to pick a place in the ground we can stand and start fighting to win.
“I think it’s a way to a get a fight started,” McKibben said without hesitation, “and to get people in important places talking actively about the culpability of the fossil fuel industry for the trouble that we’re in. And once that talk starts, I think it does start imposing a certain kind of economic pressure. Their high stock price is entirely justified by the thought that they’re going to get all their reserves out of the ground. And I think we’ve already made an argument that it shouldn’t be a legitimate thing to be doing.”…
“It’s not a question of coming up with the right set of policies,” he said. “Nobody’s really come up with a new set of policy stuff for 20 years. We just haven’t ever tried the things that the economists all told us to try, because the fossil fuel industry got in the way. So it’s about figuring out what power is in the way.
“Look, our job as organizers, our most important job, is to take the next step — throw a big rock in the pond, see what ripples it creates, and then figure out how to surf those and how to launch the next one. We think that if we’re able to explain to people what the fossil fuel industry is doing, it will weaken their position — weaken it morally, politically, and economically. And that will make more things possible than are possible now.”
I’m not saying the campaign is perfect. They’ve definitely got some serious work to do around jobs & addressing the economic anxieties of working families. But as a place to start after we reelect Obama, this is fabulous.