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.