In his recent global warming op-ed in the New York Times ("The Big Melt,"
August 16, 2007) , Nicholas Kristof reported on a conversation with Al Gore in
which the former Vice-President said: "I can't understand why there aren't rings
of young people blocking bulldozers, and preventing them from constructing
coal-fired power plants." His comment was a reaction to the ever- quickening
pace of polar ice meltoff, with all its catastrophic implications, and the huge
role played by coal-fired power plants in advancing our demise through global
Gore's comment was also strikingly similar to a recent quote from Dr. James
Hansen, the top climate scientist at NASA: "It seems to me that young people,
especially, should be doing whatever is necessary to block construction of dirty
(no CCS) coal-fired power plants."
What does it mean when one of the top scientific leaders ringing the alarm on
global warming, along with a top political leader, both suggest, in so many
words, nonviolent direct action (or civil disobedience) to confront the
challenge of climate change?
Clearly both men must realize the importance of nonviolent resistance in social
change efforts of this magnitude and agree, if only subconsciously, with
historian Howard Zinn's observation that "Protest beyond the law is not a
departure from democracy. It is absolutely essential to it." (Dr. Hansen, for
his part, goes on to quote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S.
Constitution at some length.)
Gore and Hansen must both know that nonviolent direct action has been a
significant catalyst in nearly every major social change movement in U.S. (and
world) history, starting in this country with the Boston Tea Party and extending
through the anti-slavery, woman's suffrage, labor rights, civil rights,
environmental and anti-war movements. Nonviolent direct action can dramatize an
injustice or danger to the general public as few other actions can. It both
provokes other people to act and speak - often people who had previously been
silent - and it opens up political space for them to do so. Nonviolent actions
are acts of courage that inspire others to follow. They are acts of leadership.
The twin quotes also reflect the extraordinary urgency of our predicament. As
Jay Gulledge, senior scientist at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, notes
in Kristof's column, "Over and over again, we're finding that models correctly
predict the patterns of change but understate their magnitude."
Or their speed. According to the May 2007 report from the National Snow and Ice
Data Center, polar ice is melting significantly faster than computer models of
climate calculate, and the Arctic Sea could be free of summer ice by 2020 - 30
years earlier than the recent prediction by the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change. Clearly, we are running out of time.
What is strikingly curious about the quotes, however, is the suggestion by both
men that "young people" need to be doing this. Clearly young people will have to
suffer the disastrous effects of global warming longer than older people. But
that does not make the responsibility any less on the older heads among us to
take any and all actions necessary to stop the planet-destroying calculus of
carbon emissions. Indeed, one would think that those who are older are more
culpable for the current condition of our planet than those who are younger, and
therefore more responsible for taking dramatic action to confront the crisis.
I would also imagine that young people (and I can only imagine, being
middle-aged myself) are, while grateful for recognition of their vital role in
the movement, probably less than enthusiastic to have this particular imperative
dumped on them and them alone.
Personally, I pray for and will gladly follow leadership from any quarter and
age group. But I expect it from those in the climate change movement who are
older, more experienced, and more influential. Especially when it comes to
nonviolent resistance. I know, for instance, that when I or younger activists
organize nonviolent direct actions, a relative few people will hear and join us,
and we are lucky to get more than a few stories outside the independent media.
If Al Gore were to actually call for and lead such an action it is likely that
thousands would join him, and the story would be splashed across the mainstream
media for all of America to see.
None of this should be read as criticism of Mr. Gore's incredible efforts on
global warming. He has arguably been the single most effective (and active)
person on the planet in raising the clarion call. But perhaps now his leadership
is requiring even more of him. After all, if you truly recognize the extreme
emergency and catastrophic danger inherent in global warming, how long can one
wait before taking the most dramatic, effective and necessary actions in
response - as opposed to wondering out loud why those younger and less
influential than yourself aren't doing so?
Of course, this is a question that everyone who understands the reality of
global warming needs to be asking themselves right now. How long can any of us
wait? As with all revolutionary changes, forging a new, sustainable society will
require us to take risks, make sacrifices, and endure suffering - all hallmarks
of nonviolence. And nonviolent blockades of coal-fired power plants, Mr. Gore
and Dr. Hansen are correct in noting, would be an excellent place to start.