From The Guardian
Taking down the fossil fuel industry requires taking on the institutions that finance it. Even during a pandemic, this movement is gaining steam
1970 was a simpler time. (February was a simpler time too, but for a moment let's think outside the pandemic bubble.)
Simpler because our environmental troubles could be easily seen. The air above our cities was filthy, and the water in our lakes and streams was gross. There was nothing subtle about it. In New York City, the environmental lawyer Albert Butzel described a permanently yellow horizon: "I not only saw the pollution, I wiped it off my windowsills." Or consider the testimony of a city medical examiner: "The person who spent his life in the Adirondacks has nice pink lungs. The city dweller's are black as coal." You've probably heard of Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catching fire, but here's how the former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller described the Hudson south of Albany: "One great septic tank that has been rendered nearly useless for water supply, for swimming, or to support the rich fish life that once abounded there." Everything that people say about the air and water in China and India right now was said of America's cities then.
It's no wonder that people mobilized: 20 million Americans took to the streets for the first Earth Day in 1970 10% of America's population at the time, perhaps the single greatest day of political protest in the country's history. And it worked. Worked politically because Congress quickly passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and scientifically because those laws had the desired effect. In essence, they stuck enough filters on smokestacks, car exhausts and factory effluent pipes that, before long, the air and water were unmistakably cleaner. The nascent Environmental Protection Agency commissioned a series of photos that showed just how filthy things were. Even for those of us who were alive then, it's hard to imagine that we tolerated this.
But we should believe it, because now we face even greater challenges that we're doing next to nothing about. And one reason is you can't see them.
The carbon dioxide molecule is invisible; at today's levels you can't see it or smell it, and it doesn't do anything to you. Carbon with one oxygen molecule? That's what kills you in a closed garage if you leave the car running. But two oxygen molecules? All that does is trap heat in the atmosphere. Melt ice caps. Raise seas. Change weather patterns. But slowly enough that most of the time, we don't quite see it.
And it's a more complex moment for another reason. You can filter carbon monoxide easily. It's a trace gas, a tiny percentage of what comes from a power plant. But carbon dioxide is the exact opposite. It's most of what comes pouring out when you burn coal or gas or oil.
There's no catalytic converter for CO2, which means you have to take down the fossil fuel industry.
That in turn means you have to take on not just the oil companies but also the banks, asset managers and insurance companies that invest in them (and may even own them, in the wake of the current economic crash). You have to take on, that is, the heart of global capital.
And so we are. Stop the Money Pipeline, a coalition of environmental and climate justice groups running from the small and specialized to the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, formed last fall to try to tackle the biggest money on earth.
Banks like Chase the planet's largest by market capitalization which has funneled a quarter-trillion dollars to the fossil fuel industry since the Paris agreement of 2015. Insurers like Liberty Mutual, still insuring tar sands projects even as pipeline builders endanger Native communities by trying to build the Keystone XL during a pandemic.
We can't be on the streets right now. So we'll do what we can on the boulevards of the Internet. Join us for Earth Day Live, three days of digital activism beginning 22 April. We're in a race, and we're gaining fast.
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...