Written by Shea Riester, Video Coordinator, Team Vermont
The canary in the coal mine is long dead. It’s time to wake up. The climate change future scientists have long predicted is now. UN climate scientist Christopher Field testified before congress last week: “It is critical to understand that the link between climate change and the kinds of extremes that lead to disaster is clear…the US experienced 14 billion-dollar disasters in 2011, a record that surpasses the previous maximum of 9,” he said. “In 2012, we have already experienced horrifying wildfires, a powerful windstorm that hit Washington DC, heat waves in much of the country, and a massive drought.” The last mentioned disaster, the record drought that is turning the Midwest back into a dust-bowl, begins to show us how climate change will hit the world’s poor first and hardest with rising food prices. But rest assured, no one will be immune as sea levels rise, forests burn and the world heats up.
So how are our representatives responding? With deafening silence. While the mainstream media finally seems to be covering the climate crisis with a slew of articles, Obama has said nothing to link the current drought, heat waves and wildfires with climate change. What does he need to break the silence? Yesterday, New York Times coverage of a new paper by NASA climate scientist James E. Hansen made it clear as ever: “The percentage of the earth’s land surface covered by extreme heat in the summer has soared in recent decades, from less than 1 percent in the years before 1980 to as much as 13 percent in recent years…” Does Obama need another week of out-of-control wildfires burning Oklahoma towns to the ground for it to sink in? Perhaps another fatal Chicago heat wave will do it.
If our leaders are unwilling to act, let alone even speak out on climate change, it is the moral obligation of those who know the science to take action.
Perhaps this is not news to you. Perhaps, reading that, you began to think about your own personal lifestyle activism. Maybe the last bottle you recycled, the last light you turned off, the last local blueberry or peach you ate. I recently saw a picture posted on a fellow climate rider’s facebook wall: “You control climate change. Turn down. Switch off. Recycle. Walk. Change.”
“Action” means different things to different people. I respect all forms of non-violent climate action, from the minute to the grand. However, I think the time is now–or overdue–to ask ourselves what kinds of actions we need if we want to have any effect in the 11th hour of global warming. We must ask ourselves: as absolutely necessary as consumer lifestyle changes are for all of us, are they enough? And further: is “information” organizing–most of the outreach work we’ve been doing on Climate Summer, enough right now?
Just buying local food, or greener cleaning products, or even electric cars isn’t going to save our planet. The matter of fact is, in our current system there is still only a small privileged minority who can make these changes. It’s not low-income folks’ fault that they can’t afford to buy locally, or buy a hybrid/electric, or install a solar panel. The consumers aren’t to blame. And in that purely economic sense of how most of the world lives and makes choices, we don’t control climate change. Our political and economic system that allows big oil to reap inane profits while keeping us addicted to the deadly energy that is heating our earth does. The system gives the majority of Americans no choice as to where we get our energy; that if we want to turn on our lights, or boil water, we must use the deadly energy that contributes to the slow boiling of our planet.
This leads me to my second question: is “info-activism” enough in these dire times? By “info-activism,” I mean spreading the issue around, hoping that when people get informed they will act. I know this kind of activism well; I spent most of my four years of college doing it. This is primarily what climate summer has been about. And as wonderful as Climate Summer has been, as fantastic as it has been to live my beliefs every day, engage communities on climate issues and continue to advocate for safe and renewable energy, I don’t think it’s enough. If, in the civil rights movement, activists stuck to info-activism, to talking to local people about racism and unequal laws, or promoting a local business that had integrated, it could have taken many, many more years to turn the tide of legislation towards equality, at least on paper.
And now, in the face of the biggest threat to life on earth in human history, we don’t have the luxury of time. Bill Mckibbin writes, in his recent viral article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: “To make a real difference – to keep us under a temperature increase of two degrees – you’d need to change carbon pricing in Washington, and then use that victory to leverage similar shifts around the world.” So, the truth is, if we want to save our planet, we need to start getting Washington and the oil industry’s attention in a BIG way. We’ve got to show them that we won’t stand for anything less than keeping the oil in the ground. In the deep trouble our planet is in, I’m afraid that holding info-potlucks, petition signings and spreading the word about a local solar company isn’t going to do it. Again, I believe those actions are necessary for movement building. But I fear they are not enough.
So what kind of action is “enough”? Right now, in the trouble we’re in, there is no “enough” in sight. On Sunday, July 29th, my team participated in organizing the Human Oil Spill action and march at the New England Governors conference in Burlington, VT. Over 600 people, hailing from many diverse factions of the 99%, the mass-movement to put people before profits, showed up to demand a “Tar Sands Free Northeast.” The protest was moving and inventive; after a giant march through the Burlington streets, 600 or more of us laid down on the street in front of the Hilton hotel where the Governors and Canadian premiers were staying. We wore all black, simulating what a tar sands oil spill would look like in Vermont’s back yard.
Yet, the most powerful part of that day, indeed, the most powerful part of this whole summer for me, came later. About an hour after the huge crowd disbanded, as the NE governors and Canadian premiers pulled out of the hotel in their buses to go dine and discuss our futures behind closed doors, they were stopped in their tracks: twenty or so brave souls linked arms and blocked the exit to the Hilton. While myself and my teammates could not risk arrest, we stood on the side of the exit, holding our “Tar Sands Free Northeast” banner. It took ten minutes for the police to clear the protesters out of the way; in those ten minutes, the governors and premiers were forced to pay attention. And they did. Many whipped out their cell-phone cameras, taking pictures of the crowd. Some mouthed and hand signaled us. It was a dialogue of sorts.
I don’t believe the earlier tar sands protest alone was enough. We needed this non-violent direct action to ensure that those in power knew who they were responsible to. Because we can’t buy lobbyists or take them out to dinner, our bodies and powerful non-violent presence are sometimes the only way to make our voices heard above the moneyed interests. It was ten minutes out of their day, held up in their government buses. For those ten minutes, our concerns about our collective future could not be ignored.