Movements Without Leaders And Climate Change

Movements Without Leaders   

In recent months -- and it’s the curse of an author that sometimes you change your
mind after your book is in type -- I’ve come to like the idea of capital L leaders
less and less. It seems to me to miss the particular promise of this moment: that we
could conceive of, and pursue, movements in new ways.           

The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality -- it's hard to shake. If
you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous
animal than if you came of age during Vietnam. I was born in 1960, and so the first
great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a shadowy,
child's sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend
grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he
set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L. 

As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was
much more than Dr. King. There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar
Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of
thousands more whom history doesn't remember but who deserve great credit. And yet
one's early sense is hard to dislodge: the civil rights movement had his face on it;
Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage. 

Which is why it's a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the
movements of the moment -- even highly successful ones like the fight for gay
marriage or immigrant's rights -- don't really have easily discernible leaders. I
know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to
make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the
struggle, but there aren't particular people that the public at large identifies as
the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better. 

It's true, too, in the battle where I've spent most of my life: the fight to slow
climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a
charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule.
For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots movement
because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for another, even as
he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading climate science, the
other side used every trick and every dollar at their disposal to bring him down. He
remains a vital figure in the rest of the world (partly because there he is
perceived less as a politician than as a prophet), but at home his power to shape
the fight has been diminished. 

That doesn't mean, however, that the movement is diminished.  In fact, it's never
been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of
coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline,
convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil
fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and
fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but
the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it's starting to claim some

That's not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It's because
of it. 

A Movement for a New Planet 

We live in a different world from that of the civil rights movement. Save perhaps
for the spectacle of presidential elections, there's no way for individual human
beings to draw the same kind of focused and sustained attention they did back then.
At the moment, you could make the three evening newscasts and the cover of Time (not
Newsweek, alas) and still not connect with most people. Our focus is fragmented and
segmented, which may be a boon or a problem, but mostly it's just a fact. Our
attention is dispersed. 

When we started 350.org five years ago, we dimly recognized this new planetary
architecture. Instead of trying to draw everyone to a central place -- the Mall in
Washington, D.C. -- for a protest, we staged 24 hours of rallies around the planet:
5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN called "the most widespread of day
of political action in the planet's history." And we've gone on to do more of the
same -- about 20,000 demonstrations in every country but North Korea. 

Part of me, though, continued to imagine that a real movement looked like the ones
I'd grown up watching -- or maybe some part of me wanted the glory of being a
leader.  In any event, I've spent the last few years in constant motion around the
country and the Earth. I'd come to think of myself as a "leader," and indeed my
forthcoming book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, reflects on
that growing sense of identity. 

However, in recent months -- and it's the curse of an author that sometimes you
change your mind after your book is in type -- I've come to like the idea of capital
L leaders less and less.  It seems to me to miss the particular promise of this
moment: that we could conceive of, and pursue, movements in new ways. 

For environmentalists, we have a useful analogy close at hand. We're struggling to
replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide
our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar
arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together . The engineers call this
"distributed generation," and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It's not as prone
to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead
of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel. The same principle, it seems to me,
applies to movements. 

In the last few weeks, for instance, 350.org helped support a nationwide series of
rallies called Summerheat. We didn't organize them ourselves.  We knew great
environmental justice groups all over the country, and we knew we could highlight
their work, while making links between, say, standing up to a toxic Chevron refinery
in Richmond, California, and standing up to the challenge of climate change. 

From the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where a tar-sands pipeline is
proposed, to the Columbia River at Vancouver, Washington, where a big oil port is
planned, from Utah's Colorado Plateau, where the first U.S. tar-sands mine has been
proposed, to the coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point on the Massachusetts coast
and the fracking wells of rural Ohio -- Summerheat demonstrated the local depth and
global reach of this emerging fossil fuel resistance. I've had the pleasure of going
to talk at all these places and more besides, but I wasn't crucial to any of them. 
I was, at best, a pollinator, not a queen bee. 

Or consider a slightly older fight. In 2012, the Boston Globe magazine put a picture
of me on its cover under the headline: "The Man Who Crushed the Keystone Pipeline."
I've got an all-too-healthy ego, but even I knew that it was over the top. I'd
played a role in the fight, writing the letter that asked people to come to
Washington to resist the pipeline, but it was effective because I'd gotten a dozen
friends to sign it with me. And I'd been one of 1,253 people who went to jail in
what was the largest civil disobedience action in this country in years.  It was
their combined witness that got the ball rolling. And once it was rolling, the
Keystone campaign became the exact model for the sort of loosely-linked
well-distributed power system I've been describing. 

The big environmental groups played key roles, supplying lots of data and
information, while keeping track of straying members of Congress.  Among them were
the National Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, the League of
Conservation Voters, and the National Wildlife Federation, none spending time
looking for credit, all pitching in. The Sierra Club played a crucial role in
pulling together the biggest climate rally yet, last February's convergence on the
Mall in Washington. 

Organizations and individuals on the ground were no less crucial: the indigenous
groups in Alberta and elsewhere that started the fight against the pipeline which
was to bring Canadian tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast graciously welcomed the rest
of us, without complaining about how late we were.  Then there were the ranchers and
farmers of Nebraska, who roused a whole stadium of football fans at a Cornhuskers
game to boo a pipeline commercial; the scientists who wrote letters, the religious
leaders who conducted prayer vigils. And don't forget the bloggers who helped make
sense of it all for us.  One upstart website even won a Pulitzer Prize for its
coverage of the struggle. 

Non-experts quickly educated themselves on the subject, becoming specialists in the
corruption of the State Department process that was to okay the building of that
pipeline or in the chemical composition of the bitumen that would flow through it. 
CREDO (half an activist organization, half a cell phone company), as well as
Rainforest Action Network and The Other 98%, signed up 75,000 people pledged to
civil disobedience if the pipeline were to get presidential approval. 

And then there was the Hip Hop Caucus, whose head Lennox Yearwood has roused one big
crowd after another, and the labor unions -- nurses and transit workers, for
instance -- who have had the courage to stand up to the pipeline workers' union
which would benefit from the small number of jobs to be created if Keystone were
built. Then there are groups of Kids Against KXL, and even a recent grandparents'
march from Camp David to the White House.  Some of the most effective resistance has
come from groups like Rising Tide and the Tarsands Blockade in Texas, which have
organized epic tree-sitting protests to slow construction of the southern portion of
the pipeline. 

The Indigenous Environmental Network has been every bit as effective in
demonstrating to banks the folly of investing in Albertan tar sands production.
First Nations people and British Columbians have even blocked a proposed pipeline
that would take those same tar sands to the Pacific Ocean for shipping to Asia, just
as inspired activists have kept the particularly carbon-dirty oil out of the
European Union. 

We don't know if we'll win the northern half of the Keystone fight or not, although
President Obama's recent pledge to decide whether it should be built -- his is the
ultimate decision -- based on how much carbon dioxide it could put into the
atmosphere means that he has no good-faith way of approving it. However, it's
already clear that this kind of full-spectrum resistance has the ability to take on
the huge bundles of cash that are the energy industry's sole argument. 

What the Elders Said 

This sprawling campaign exemplifies the only kind of movement that will ever be able
to stand up to the power of the energy giants, the richest industry the planet has
ever known. In fact, any movement that hopes to head off the worst future
depredations of climate change will have to get much, much larger, incorporating
among other obvious allies those in the human rights and social justice arenas. 

The cause couldn't be more compelling.  There's never been a clearer threat to
survival, or to justice, than the rapid rise in the planet's temperature caused by
and for the profit of a microscopic percentage of its citizens. Conversely, there
can be no real answer to our climate woes that doesn't address the insane
inequalities and concentrations of power that are helping to drive us toward this

That's why it's such good news when people like Naomi Klein and Desmond Tutu join
the climate struggle.  When they take part, it becomes ever clearer that what's
underway is not, in the end, an environmental battle at all, but an all-encompassing
fight over power, hunger, and the future of humanity on this planet. 

Expansion by geography is similarly a must for this movement. Recently, in Istanbul,
350.org and its allies trained 500 young people from 135 countries as climate-change
organizers, and each of them is now organizing conferences and campaigns in their
home countries. 

This sort of planet-wide expansion suggests that the value of particular national
leaders is going to be limited at best. That doesn't mean, of course, that some
people won't have more purchase than others in such a movement. Sometimes such
standing comes from living in the communities most immediately and directly affected
by climate change or fossil fuel depredation. When, for instance, the big climate
rally finally did happen on the Mall this winter, the 50,000 in attendance may have
been most affected by the words of Crystal Lameman, a young member of the Beaver
Lake Cree Nation whose traditional territory has been poisoned by tar sands mining. 

Sometimes it comes from charisma: Van Jones may be the most articulate and engaging
environmental advocate ever . Sometimes it comes from getting things right for a
long time: Jim Hansen, the greatest climate scientist , gets respect even from those
who disagree with him about, say, nuclear power. Sometimes it comes from organizing
ability: Jane Kleeb who did such work in the hard soil of Nebraska, or Clayton
Thomas-Muller who has indefatigably (though no one is beyond fatigue) organized
native North America. Sometimes it comes from sacrifice: Tim DeChristopher went to
jail for two years for civil disobedience, and so most of us are going to listen to
what he might have to say. 

Sometimes it comes from dogged work on solutions: Wahleah Johns and Billy Parish
figured out how to build solar farms on Navajo land and crowdfund solar panels on
community centers. Sometimes truly unlikely figures emerge: i nvestor Jeremy
Grantham, or Tom Steyer, a Forbes 400 billionaire who quit his job running a giant
hedge fund, sold his fossil fuel stocks, and put his money and connections
effectively to work fighting Keystone and bedeviling climate-denying politicians
(even Democrats!). We have organizational leaders like Mike Brune of the Sierra Club
or Frances Beinecke of NRDC, or folks like Kenny Bruno or Tzeporah Berman who have
helped knit together large coalitions; religious leaders like Jim Antal, who led the
drive to convince the United Church of Christ to divest from fossil fuels; regional
leaders like Mike Tidwell in the Chesapeake or Cherri Foytlin in the Gulf or K.C.
Golden in Puget Sound. 

Yet figures like these aren't exactly "leaders" in the way we've normally imagined. 
They are not charting the path for the movement to take. To use an analogy from the
Internet age, it's more as if they were well-regarded critics on Amazon.com review
pages; or to use a more traditional image, as if they were elders, even if not in a
strictly chronological sense. Elders don't tell you what you must do, they say what
they must say. A few of these elders are, like me, writers; many of them have a gift
for condensing and crystallizing the complex. When Jim Hansen calls the Alberta tar
sands the "biggest carbon bomb on the continent," it resonates. 

When you have that standing, you don't end up leading a movement, but you do end up
with people giving your ideas a special hearing, people who already assume that
you're not going to waste their energy on a pointless task. So when Naomi Klein and
I hatched a plan for a fossil fuel divestment campaign last year, people paid
serious attention, especially when Desmond Tutu lent his sonorous voice to the

These elders-of-all-ages also play a sorting-out role in backing the ideas of others
or downplaying those that seem less useful. There are days when I feel like the most
useful work I've done is to spread a few good Kickstarter proposals via Twitter or
write a blurb for a fine new book. Conversely, I was speaking in Washington recently
to a group of grandparents who had just finished a seven-day climate march from Camp
David. A young man demanded to know why I wasn't backing sabotage of oil company
equipment, which he insisted was the only way the industry could be damaged by our
movement. I explained that I believed in nonviolent action, that we were doing
genuine financial damage to the pipeline companies by slowing their construction
schedules and inflating their carrying costs, and that in my estimation wrecking
bulldozers would play into their hands. 

But maybe he was right. I don't actually know, which is why it's a good thing that
no one, myself included, is the boss of the movement. Remember those solar panels:
the power to change these days is remarkably well distributed, leaving plenty of
room for serendipity and revitalization. In fact, many movements had breakthroughs
when they decided their elders were simply wrong. Dr. King didn't like the idea of
the Freedom Summer campaign at first, and yet it proved powerfully decisive. 

The Coming of the Leaderless Movement 

We may not need capital-L Leaders, but we certainly need small-l leaders by the tens
of thousands.  You could say that, instead of a leaderless movement, we need a
leader-full one. We see such leaders regularly at 350.org.  When I wrote earlier
that we "staged" 5,200 rallies around the globe, I wasn't completely accurate. It
was more like throwing a potluck dinner. We set the date and the theme, but
everywhere other people figured out what dishes to bring. 

The thousands of images that accumulated in the Flickr account of that day's events
were astonishing.  Most of the people doing the work didn't look like
environmentalists were supposed to. They were largely poor, black, brown, Asian, and
young, because that's what the world mostly is. 

Often the best insights are going to come from below: from people, that is, whose
life experience means they understand how power works not because they exercise it
but because they are subjected to it. That's why frontline communities in places
where global warming's devastation is already increasingly obvious often produce
such powerful ideas and initiatives.  We need to stop thinking of them as on the
margins, since they are quite literally on the cutting edge. 

We live in an age in which creative ideas can spring up just about anywhere and
then, thanks to new forms of communication, spread remarkably quickly. This is in
itself nothing new.  In the civil rights era, for instance, largely spontaneous
sit-in campaigns by southern college students in 1960 reshuffled the deck locally
and nationally, spreading like wildfire in the course of days and opening up new

More recently, in the immigration rights campaign, it was four "Dreamers" walking
from Florida to Washington D.C. who helped reopen a stale, deadlocked debate. When
Lieutenant Dan Choi chained himself to the White House fence, that helped usher the
gay rights movement into a new phase. 

But Dan Choi doesn't have to be Dan Choi forever, and Tim DeChristopher doesn't have
to keep going to jail over government oil and gas leases.  There are plenty of
others who will arise in new moments, which is a good thing, since the physics of
climate change means that the movement has to win some critical victories in the
next few years but also last for generations. Think of each of these "leaders" as
the equivalent of a pace line for a bike race: one moment someone is out front
breaking the wind, only to peel away to the back of the line to rest for a while. In
movement terms, when that happens you not only prevent burnout, you also get regular
infusions of new ideas. 

The ultimate in leaderlessness was, of course, the Occupy movement that swept the
U.S. (and other areas of the world) in 2011-2012.  It, in turn, took cues from the
Arab Spring, which absorbed some of its tricks from the Serbian organizers at Otpor,
who exported many of the features of their campaign against Slobodan Milosevic in
the 1990s around the planet. 

Occupy was exciting, in part, because of its deep sense of democracy and democratic
practice.  Those of us who are used to New England town meetings recognized its
Athenian flavor. But town meetings usually occur one day a year.  Not that many
people had the stomach for the endless discussions of the Occupy moment and, in many
cases, the crowds began to dwindle even without police repression -- only to surge
back when there was a clear and present task (Occupy Sandy, say, in the months after
that superstorm hit the East coast). 

All around the Occupy movement, smart people have been grappling with the problem of
democracy in action.  As the occupations wore on, its many leaders were often
engaged as facilitators, trying to create a space that was both radically democratic
and dramatically effective.  It proved a hard balancing act, even if a remarkably
necessary one. 

How to Save the Earth 

Communities (and a movement is a community) will probably always have some kind of
hierarchy, even if it's an informal and shifting one. But the promise of this moment
is a radically flattened version of hierarchy, with far more room for people to pop
up and propose, encourage, support, drift for a while, then plunge back into the
flow. That kind of trajectory catches what we'll need in a time of increased climate
stress -- communities that place a premium on resiliency and adaptability,
dramatically decentralized but deeply linked. 

And it's already happening. The Summerheat campaign ended in Richmond, California,
where Chevron runs a refinery with casual disregard for the local residents. When a
section of it exploded last year, authorities sent a text message essentially
requesting that people not breathe. As a result, a coalition of local environmental
justice activists has waged an increasingly spirited fight against the plant. 

Like the other oil giants, Chevron shows the same casual disregard for people around
the world.  The company is, typically enough, suing journalists in an attempt to
continue to cover up the horrors it's responsible for in an oil patch of jungle in
Ecuador. And of course, Chevron and the other big oil companies have shown a similar
recklessness when it comes to our home planet.  Their reserves of oil and gas are
already so large that, by themselves, they could take us several percent of the way
past the two-degree Celsius temperature rise that the world has pledged to prevent,
which would bring on the worst depredations of global warming -- and yet they are
now on the hunt in a major way for the next round of "unconventional" fossil fuels
to burn. 

In addition, as the 2012 election campaign was winding down, Chevron gave the
largest corporate campaign donation in the post-Citizens United era. It came two
weeks before the last election, and was clearly meant to insure that the House of
Representatives would stay in the hands of climate deniers, and that nothing would
shake the status quo. 

And so our movement -- global, national, and most of all local. Released from a
paddy wagon after the Richmond protest, standing in a long line of handcuffees
waiting to be booked, I saw lots of elders, doubtless focused on different parts of
the Chevron equation.  Among them were Gopal Dayaneni, of the Movement Generation
Justice and Ecology Project, who dreams of frontline communities leading in the
construction of a just new world, and Bay Area native activist Pennie Opal Plant,
who has spent her whole life in Richmond and dreams, I suspect, of kids who can
breathe more easily in far less polluted air. 

I continue to hope for local, national, and global action, and for things like a
carbon tax-and-dividend scheme that would play a role in making just transitions
easier. Such differing, overlapping dreams are anything but at odds.  They all make
up part of the same larger story, complementary and complimentary to it. These are
people I trust and follow; we have visions that point in the same general direction;
and we have exactly the same enemies who have no vision at all, save profiting from
the suffering of the planet. 

I'm sure much of this thinking is old news to people who have been building
movements for years. I haven't. I found myself, or maybe stuck myself, at the front
of a movement almost by happenstance, and these thoughts reflect that experience. 

What I do sense, however, is that it's our job to rally a movement in the coming
years big enough to stand up to all that money, to profits of a sort never before
seen on this planet. Such a movement will need to stretch from California to Ecuador
-- to, in fact, every place with a thermometer; it will need to engage not just
Chevron but every other fossil fuel company; it will need to prevent pipelines from
being built and encourage windmills to be built in their place; it needs to remake
the world in record time. 

That won't happen thanks to a paramount leader, or even dozens of them.  It can only
happen with a spread-out and yet thoroughly interconnected movement, a new kind of
engaged citizenry. Rooftop by rooftop, we're aiming for a different world, one that
runs on the renewable power that people produce themselves in their communities in
small but significant batches. The movement that will get us to such a new world
must run on that kind of power too. 

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of
the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. His next, to be published this
September, is Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.  

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What is the Occupy Movement?

The Occupy Movement is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.

About OccupyMN

OccupyMN.org was the first website of the Occupy Movement in the state of Minnesota. Our goal is to provide an accurate reflection of the Occupy Movement and to also provide solidarity & support to the Global Revolution.

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