Time for ‘Radical Environmentalism’


If you’re looking to lose a little sleep this week, check out Bill McKibben’s piece in Rolling Stone, where he outlines the “terrifying new math” of global warning. Essentially, the amount of carbon that fossil fuel companies are already set to burn is five times larger than the quantity that scientists say can be burned without causing irreparable damage. In other words, we have what Carbon Tracker Initiative calls a “carbon bubble:” a quantity of carbon in fossil fuel corporations’ existing oil and gas reserves that greatly exceeds the amount of carbon that can ever be burned without wrecking the planet. As McKibben puts it:

Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit–equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit–the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That's the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.

Meteorological metaphors may be in bad taste in a piece about global warming, but it should be noted that there’s a silver lining here: Just because something's ready to burn doesn't mean we have to burn it. McKibben concludes by calling for direct actions to stop the oil and gas extractions that will push us over our “carbon budget."

And his article, as he well knows, is coming at a time when the kind of civil disobedience he’s urging is on the rise in the environmental movement. This past weekend, an estimated 4,000 activists gathered in Washington, D.C. for a “stop the frack attack” rally and scores of protesters briefly halted operations at the Hobet strip mine in Lincoln County, West Virginia. About 20 were arrested in what amounted to the largest-ever direct action against mountaintop removal. These actions followed a string of blockades of coal barges and wastewater injection sites, as well as the first successful shutdown of a fracking site by EarthFirst! earlier this summer.

The thrust of McKibben’s article—that lifestyle changes and “going green” are too limited and too focused on individual rather than collective actions—is not a new idea. The use of tactics like tree sits and blockades to interrupt logging, road construction and suburban development grew out of a critique of large, professionalized environmental organizations working primarily through institutional channels. But the heavy criminalization of these actions—in 2005, deputy FBI director John Lewis said that what he termed “eco-terrorism” represented the greatest domestic terrorism threat in the U.S.—has meant that they have decreased in frequency during the past decade, and those undertaking them have become increasingly marginalized from the broader movement.

Two important changes, however, are paving the way for what's been nicknamed a “national uprising against extraction.” First, the public is no longer fooled by the substitution of one form of dirty, unsafe energy for another. In a recent statement on its website, the Sierra Club apologized for its decision, revealed earlier this year, to accept more than $26 million for its Beyond Coal campaign from gas drilling company Chesapeake Energy. After receiving harsh criticism for its lack of action against fracking, the group now acknowledges, “The Club's position on gas could've been tougher and should've been tougher.”

Fossil fuel lobbies have long been able to play an enormously effective game of divide and conquer, pitting the economy against the environment, or one form of environmentalism against another. They've drummed up support for “bridge fuels” such as gas to "create jobs" and slow climate change while causing massive air and water pollution in communities affected by fracking. However, thanks to the increasing consensus that, as McKibben puts it, the fossil-fuel industry as a whole is “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization," this game has become much tougher to play, as the presence of the Sierra Club and other mainstream groups at the Stop the Frack Attack rally indicate.

Second, more and more people are proving willing to incur the higher costs that come with engaging in disruptive actions, and grassroots environmental movements are building the kind of localized networks that enable part-time activists to join them.

The strip mine shutdown, organized by the group Radical Action for Mountain Peoples' Survival (R.A.M.P.S.), follows from a long tradition of mobilization against coal in the region. The Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People staged direct actions against surface mining throughout the 1970s, including an occupation of a strip mine in Knott County by 20 women in 1972. Saturday's action brought in anti-fracking activists from Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as members of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy D.C., but organizers say that more and more locals are taking part. (Future participation could be compromised, however, by the harsh police response. Bail for those arrested is reportedly set at $25,000 per person, and police allegedly beat one 20 year-old demonstrator. In an interview with Waging Nonviolence, R.A.M.P.S. organizer Mathew Louis-Rosenberg said, “This is what happens when you’re effective … They use these [scare] tactics because they can work.”)

Still on the horizon this summer is a planned blockade of the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which President Obama announced in March that he would be expediting. Sure enough, last week, TransCanada obtained the final of three permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to begin constructing a 485-mile section stretching between Cushing, Oklahoma and the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Tar Sands Blockade campaign aims to pull off a series of interruptions along the pipeline's construction route by connecting those willing to risk arrest with those whose land will be crossed by the pipeline. Led by grassroots climate justice groups like Rising Tide North Texas, the campaign is currently conducting trainings throughout the region to grow the numbers of those willing to participate.

Organizers say that a broad coalition has turned up for the trainings. “You could say this is a story of unusual bedfellows,” Ron Seifert, a spokesperon for Tar Sands Blockade, told In These Times. “We have Tea Party activists concerned about private property rights and conservative South Texas landowners, along with climate justice activists and people concerned with human rights abuses at the point of [tar sands] extraction.”

Seifert notes that this has been made possible by a shift in public perception about the stakes of climate change and the actions necessary to stop it. The arrests of nearly 2,000 pipeline protesters in front of the White House last summer, he says, “brought the accessibility of direct action to a more mainstream public. I've been surprised to see in trainings that even the more escalated tactics we've brought up haven't scared anybody away.” Several dozen people, he says, have already committed to risk arrest.

Of course, most of these actions—three-hour shut downs of mines, temporary delays in construction—are geared toward building a broader movement rather than securing an immediate victory. As McKibben acknowledges, time to do that is, ultimately, exactly what the movement may lack. Still, Seifert hopes that imposing enough interruptions on extractive industries will change the economic calculus that makes inflating the “carbon bubble” so profitable: “Every delay we create is a victory.” 

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