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.
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 disaster.
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.
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.
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 cause.
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.
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 opportunities.