By Meteor Blades
I sure wish I were in Vermont this week. I could join writer/environmentalist/deep thinker Bill McKibben and whoever else shows up for a four-day walk seeking to kindle federal action against global warming.
Billed as "The Road Less Traveled, Vermonters Walking Toward a Clean Energy Future," the march will begin Thursday noon at Robert Frost's old writing cabin near Ripton, stop in cities along the way for Conversations on the Green, and end 43 miles up the road in Burlington. Knowing McKibben's work and the kind of people he attracts, I imagine those are going to be eye-opening conversations for participants and bystanders alike, a traveling teach-in, if you will. You can get a taste of this in my five-question interview with McKibben below.
Many, I know, downplay the value of a public demonstration, even public action of any kind outside the realm of lawsuits and legislation. Sooooo '60s, they say. Doesn't work anymore. If it ever really did. I couldn't disagree more. Perhaps the reason people say this comes from their being so comprehensively saturated with a megamedia caricature of the era. They don't believe most or any of what the megamedia tells them about the times they themselves live in, but they accept as gospel what's been told them regarding one of the periods of greatest social change since the Civil War.
The public intellectuals and other activists who spurred that change worked inside and outside the governing system, using whatever megaphone seemed proper at the moment to capture public attention and increase the pressure on public policy. What you mostly hear about that era today is the media-mediated version, a distorted fraction of the story. That's not my way of trying to sanctify the "protest" movements or say that we made no mistakes, no strategic blunders, or engaged in no counterproductive activism. Surely, we did more than enough of that and were paid for it with half-victories and outright defeats, some of them long-lasting. But, please, most of the focus, even most of the public events, had nothing to do grubby street demonstrations.
Rather, in every case, the change process began with bits of information transmitted among family, neighbors, classmates and work peers. These conversations led to little groups which made phone calls, worked for candidates, vigiled, lobbied, wrote, did research, and organized public events dedicated to spreading the message of change to others who would themselves spread the message. The organizing got bigger, the conversation wider, the building of political clout more coherent and powerful. Then came the changes ... or not.
That is what the Vermont march is about. Talking forcefully in public with an eye toward changing public policy. An essential catalyst. As McKibben notes in my interview with him, he's thinking the noise from the "The Road Less Traveled" - along with Al Gore's film and other actions - will spread nationwide, virally, and "assemble a crowd under the noses of the media." In the old days, this depended on word-of-mouth. It still does. But now it's word-of-mouth amplified with broadband and other accouterments of wwwLand that neither the government nor the megamedia have (so far) reined in.
It was 16 years ago that I read McKibben's The End of Nature. Together that year with the resurrection of Earth Day on its 20th anniversary, his book spurred me to - as Mister Bush would say - spend some political capital and pressure my bosses at the Los Angeles Times to underwrite a syndicated weekly package of environmental articles called Earth Matters. It lasted at the Times as long as I did, 12 years.
Enhanced with McKibben's signature eloquence, The End of Nature was the first popular book to demonstrate that one species, allegedly the smartest species ever to appear on Earth, had reached a critical threshold, a point of irrevocably changing the planet's environment, including its atmosphere. A decade and a half later, more people are paying attention, but, as McKibben points out in his invitation to join the walk:
...leadership has been sorely lacking: even as the science around global warming has grown steadily darker, the political appointees at the head of the Environmental Protection Agency have declared that in their eyes carbon dioxide is "not a pollutant." The Congress has decided that all legislation addressing this issue must pass through a committee chaired by a man, James Imhofe, who calls global warming "a hoax." And so--in this warmest year on record across the United States--we walk to ask that this logjam be broken. Our hope is that just as in the past Vermont has spurred action on other issues, so too this example will lead others across the country to increase the pressure.
Here are McKibben's answers to my five questions:
Meteor Blades: Why Vermont? Wouldn't a walk and talk along the route from Baltimore to DC have more impact?
McKibben: Well, the short answer is that Vermont is where I live, and so, where I can organize. But the great hope is precisely that if we can make some noise up here the idea will spread quickly to other spots. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there's yet to be a real large-scale protest movement that gets spread virally in the Internet age (although the Seattle WTO protests owed part of their potency to the fact that this then-little-understood medium helped organizers assemble a crowd under the noses of the media). In fact, even in the last few weeks I've had emails from around the country asking for advice.
Anyway, though I suspect our [Vermont] legislators would mostly vote the right way anyway on global warming, we want them to understand that their constituents need them to be champions on this issue.
Meteor Blades: I know you were an early adopter of hybrid car technology. And I suspect your house is heavily insulated and the refrigerator filled with locally grown food. But one attitude I've encountered time and again is that solving global warming is such a huge issue that nothing individuals can do will make a difference, so why bother? Any advice on how to break through the stubbornness?
McKibben: It's hard to break through that idea because, frankly, there's a deep mathematical logic to it. Individual action is a kind of calisthenics before the big event, which must be political. Only the kind of massive change that can be brought about through national (and, even harder, international) policy will really suffice to reduce the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. So the key is summoning political will - and the very act of coming together in a march, say, to demand that kind of action will help us to start feeling politically powerful again.
I wrote the very first general book about global warming, way back in 1989, and I've been working on it ever since. The science has grown grimmer in the past few years as we understand just how fast we're unhinging the Earth's system. There remains time to do something about global warming (not avert it, but keep it from getting any worse than it has to be), but we need very quickly to seize that moment. And I think that right now - because of Katrina, because of Gore's movie, because of our hot summer - is the best opening we've had in two decades.
Meteor Blades: If you rubbed a compact fluorescent bulb and the Eco-Genie popped out to offer you one wish - passage of a single piece of narrowly focused global warming legislation - what would you ask for?
McKibben: I think the rapid phase-in of a 40 mpg average for new cars. Because the technology is there to do it easily, because it would demonstrate to us that the change in our sacred lifestyles will be very small at first - and because it will give everyone the added benefit of saving some money on gas. Unless you drive a hybrid, you can't believe the number of people who sidle up to you at a gas station and ask some longing questions about exactly how far it goes on a tank of gas.
And after that I'd work my way down Energize America 2020's list of policies. I just wrote an overview article for Sierra magazine on our energy situation, and described that joint effort as the single most impressive package of energy policy anyone has yet concocted.
Meteor Blades: Some people, including long-time environmental critics, are saying that nuclear power can, at the very least, provide a transition that will buy us time to come up with other technologies to reduce or eliminate human-made greenhouse gases. Do you agree?
McKibben: Here's what I think: nuclear power is a potential safety threat, if something goes wrong. Coal-fired power is guaranteed destruction, filling the atmosphere with planet-heating carbon when it operates the way it's supposed to. I don't mean to minimize the danger of a reactor; I do mean to use that danger to highlight the awesome peril posed by our conventional means of generating electricity. (And there are 150 new coal plants on the books in some stage or another).
That said, nuclear power is not where I'd turn first, or second, or even third. The reason is economics - without massive government subsidy it doesn't work because it's an inherently expensive technology, rather like burning twenty-dollar bills to generate electricity. All the econometric modeling not paid for by the nuclear industry itself makes clear that if you spent a billion dollars on a nuclear plant and a billion dollars on some conservation program, you'd get three or four or five times the carbon bang for your buck. So - before nuclear power, efficient appliances, heavy-duty insulation, real attention to mass transit, and also an all-out commitment to renewables, especially wind, which are much closer to cost-competitive. And no one ever spent the night worrying that a terrorist was about to smash their wind tower, spreading dangerous wind particles in every direction.
Meteor Blades: What kind of useful advice does a small-town/rural family like yours have for us urban dwellers?
McKibben: City dwellers, depending on how they live, are already the greenest Americans. New York City, because it's the least car-dependent city in the country, is our environmental champion in many ways. I think the biggest changes are needed where the majority of Americans live - i.e., the suburbs, a landscape that only sprung up because of cheap energy, and which will take real work to transform. The kind of semi-intact small towns and local economies that Vermont and some other rural places still possess are useful models - at least, that's one of the theses of my next book.
But the real lesson, and the one I hope this march will highlight, is that the technology we need above all is the technology of community. Vermont still has town meeting government - we're reasonably good at talking with each other. It's one reason lots of experiments have come out of this state: the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, for instance, or for that matter, the Dean campaign. It's not that we're so liberal (we have a conservative governor; we've lost more people per capita in Iraq than any other state). But I think we're still pretty good at community, which is the underlying necessity for a more efficient and happier country. At root, dealing with global warming will mean sanding the edges off of some of America's hyperindividualism - and perhaps that will be just a little easier out in the country.
Most of us can't be in Vermont over the Labor Day Weekend. Right now, many are desperately ensconced in getting more Democrats into Congress and getting rid of the likes of California Representative Richard Pombo and Montana Senator Conrad Burns. But, as McKibben points out in his August 24 Op-Ed, Finally, fired up over global warming:
We've lobbied hard in state houses and city halls to get local action for change. But it's not adding up to anywhere near enough - and the reason is clear. Washington, unlike every other capital in the developed world, simply won't do anything.
It's not as if changing the party in power will automatically change the outcome, either. The Clinton administration did little to tackle climate change; most Democrats would probably be all too willing to sign onto some limp compromise like the bill introduced in 2003 by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, even though the march of science in the years since it was introduced makes clear the inadequacy of its minuscule cuts in carbon. If we lock into some weak regimen now, it may be years before Congress will take up the issue again.
In other words, once we get those new Democrats elected, we need to make them pay attention and do something - soon - about what could be the most transformative issue of our age. That will take a lot more leg work.
If you're in the neighborhood, stop by and walk with the Vermonters for a while. If you can't, click on the donation tab at their Web site and send them some sugar. Whether you can or can't do either of those, send an e-mail to your family and friends with a link to McKibben's Op-Ed or to this Diary.