The first Earth Day, in 1970, was marked by the presence of some 20 million bodies in the streets, twelve thousand events, and more than thirty-five thousand speakers. I wasn’t there, but it seems that alongside all of the street-sweeping, learning and protesting, there was a whole lot of celebrating. The next few years brought reason to celebrate with creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.
In the April 15th edition of The New Yorker, Nicholas Leman points to the death of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (better known as the Climate Bill) in 2010 as a defeat to the environmental movement as unexpected as the success of Earth Day had been. Hundreds of millions of dollars were devoted to making sure the bill passed, and environmentalists felt they were playing the “big-game,” he writes, by making alliances with major corporations and looking for market solutions.
A year following the announcement that the climate bill would not pass through the Senate, a few thousand protestors encircled the White House with an inflatable black tube representing an oil pipeline. They wanted President Obama to block the Keystone XL project, and after several forced deadlines to make a decision on it, he rejected the application to start construction it.
This could be seen as a small, fleeting victory - because the battle over Keystone is far from over, and as Leman writes, “once you get past the cheering that President Obama aroused by mentioning climate change in his Inaugural Address (as he scarcely did during his re-election campaign), it becomes clear that his approach to climate change, in his second term, is to move still further in the same direction.” That direction being a conservative one, unlikely to make much change. However, as Bill McKibben writes in Rolling Stone, “the center of gravity has also shifted from big, established groups to local, distributed efforts. In the Internet age, you don't need direct mail and big headquarters; you need Twitter.” In January, he notes, the Sierra Club dropped a 120 year ban on civil disobedience, and a month later its director was led away from the White House in handcuffs.
The movement to fight fossil fuel interests and stand-up for our planet’s climate is real and growing, and as McKibben says, you need to do more than change your lightbulbs to say you are a part of it. Van Jones and Joe Romm have echoed his call to action by invoking the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:
There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
As they say, it makes sense that the fossil fuel industry works to block Congressional action and fund disinformation campaigns, but the fact that millions of people who accept the science of climate change but feel no urgency is simply bewildering.
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