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As We Face Environmental Trauma and Do-Nothing Politicians, Our Last Hope Is Fighting Back

Now that there is no real chance of political action in the next year or two, a real opportunity exists to build a powerful, angry movement, in the USA and around the world.

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In certain ways, in fact, it clears the air. For years, the effort to build a movement to do something about climate change in the United States has been hampered by the presence of these weak bills. It was hard to rally people to a banner when that banner hung so limply. Now that there is no real chance of tough action in the next year or two, a real opportunity exists to build a powerful, angry movement, in the United States and around the world—a movement capable of pushing for real change on a scale that matters. That’s what organizations like 350.org are trying to do, exploring strategies that range from planet-scale art projects to concerted civil disobedience.

At the same time, since we’re not going to forestall some really disastrous climate change, the need to make communities more resilient continues apace. And sometimes these two thrusts can be combined. On October 10, 2010, 350.org coordinated 7,400 different actions in 188 countries into a Global Work Party. In far-flung places, people put up solar panels, dug community gardens, laid out bike paths—all the kinds of things that will help make those places more likely to endure in a warmer world. But they also used the occasion to send a strong political message to their leaders. At day’s end, they put down the shovels, picked up cellphones, and left the same message: “We’re getting to work, what about you?”

These are the two strands we must simultaneously undertake. We’ve got to harden our communities so they can withstand the couple of degrees of global warming that are now inescapable. (And, as the summer of 2010 showed, that’s no easy task.) At the same time, we’ve got to cooperate internationally to force legislative change that will hold those increases below the four or five degrees that would make a difficult century an impossible one. Much will depend on how effective that movement-building turns out to be.

In the end, the BP spill that dominated the headlines for much of the summer of 2010 turned out to be the less important sign of environmental crisis, and not only because its effect was smaller than, say, the Pakistani flooding. It’s because the BP spill was an  accident. It was a one-off crisis: The proper response was to ban deepwater drilling till we know how to do it, to make sure all wells are as safe as possible, and to compensate fully everyone damaged by BP’s greed. In that sense, it fit in with our legacy idea of what constitutes pollution: something going wrong.

But the greatest danger we face, climate change, is no accident. It’s what happens when everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. It’s not a function of bad technology, it’s a function of a bad business model: of the fact that Exxon Mobil and BP and Peabody Coal are allowed to use the atmosphere, free of charge, as an open sewer for the inevitable waste from their products. They’ll fight to the end to defend that business model, for it produces greater profits than any industry has ever known. We won’t match them dollar for dollar: To fight back, we need a different currency, our bodies and our spirit and our creativity. That’s what a movement looks like; let’s hope we can rally one in time to make a difference.

Excerpted from Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, published in paperback in March by St. Martin’s Griffin.  Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Bill McKibben.  Excerpted by permission of Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

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