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Why is Environmental Icon Bill McKibben Praising Obama Despite the President’s Collusion with Big Polluters? Let’s Stop Playing Footsies

Mr. McKibben, Take Heed

by MAURA STEPHENS

“Obama is now billed as a hero by the likes of Bill [McKibben,] who tweeted yesterday that: ‘the president acted decisively and bravely – and he listened to people, not money. a good day.’ ”

So writes Michael Leonardi in a piece published in CounterPunch on January 19 in response to the “news” that Obama had temporarily halted the construction approval for the Canadian company TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline. Keystone XL is planned to send tar sands oil from northeastern Alberta, Canada, through seven U.S. states to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico coast (and thence abroad). The pipeline is an abomination.

I have to agree with Leonardi on this, Bill McKibben: That tweet from you made me gag. What can you be thinking?

Leonardi is hopping mad, not just at Obama but also at McKibben, the author, educator, and activist leader who has been a real hero in the climate movement since his classic 1989 book The End of Nature alerted us to the likely pending results of environmental degradation. He connected the dots between human contributions to changes in the chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere and consequences he foresaw: cataclysmic weather, human health epidemics — events we have witnessed as they’ve played out before our eyes in the years since.

McKibben, like NASA climatologist James Hansen, has continued to try to shake us up and wake us up to the exponentially hastening changes to our climate. McKibben’s most recent book, EaArth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010), is even more dire than his earlier writings.

In 2008 McKibben started a worldwide people’s climate initiative called 350.org. Its mission is to inspire ordinary people to act to stem carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions and try to bring the level of CO2 in the atmosphere back to a safe 350 parts per million. (It’s now almost 390, which is outrageously dangerous and “snowballs” upon itself — the more carbon in the atmosphere, the hotter the poles, the more the icecaps melt, the higher and less salty the oceans, the more the currents change, the less the temperatures can regulate, the more some areas are cooled, the more other areas are heated, the more landscapes change [desertification, marshification], the more hurricanes, floods, storms, and tropical illnesses such as malaria, and on the other hand the more wildfires, droughts, ozone, smog, asthma, bronchitis, infections . . . the more earthquakes, tsunamis, freezing spells, thunderstorms, volcanic activity, human migration, flora and fauna species die-offs, ocean acidification, reefs deaths, marine species extinction, loss of water sources, diminished food supplies, animal attacks on humans, human attacks on humans — that is, war . . . and . . . )

Oops, got carried away there. But you see, there’s a lot at stake, and much to fear, because it’s well nigh impossible, even if we did everything right starting today, that we’ll ever again see a “safe” level of CO2 on Earth — at least not the Earth we know and love (hence the “EaArth” spelling in McKibben’s book title).

And fossil fuel extraction by fracking, drilling, and mountaintop removal adds outrageous amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, hastening the events just described. Yet many corporations, politicians, regulatory agencies, and groups that ostensibly exist to keep us from such catastrophes act as if some wonder technology will come along to avert such a grim future.

But there will be no such miracle.

There’s much to do. There’s much to fight — we must especially oppose recalcitrant or reluctant political leaders who consider corporate campaign contributions and passing profits more alluring than securing the future of our country — let alone our continent, or our species.

Hence Leonardi’s bewilderment at McKibben’s mild response to Obama’s farce of denying construction permits for the Keystone XL Pipeline. (The measure was no more than a political delay tactic.)

The Pipeline’s Just a Symptom

And in any case, why, indeed, is McKibben concentrating so much effort on the pipeline, when it’s just a tiny piece of a much bigger threat, when the mind-blowing madnesses of tar sands, fracking, offshore drilling, mountaintop blasting, and nuclear reactor starts [i] continue unabated?

“The Rockefellers and Obama have found a new front man in Bill [McKibben,] it seems,” writes Leonardi. Ouch. That’s a little harsh, and not fair. But seriously, Mr. McKibben, it’s past time to take off the kid gloves.

Leonardi continues: “All 350.org will do is spread the word to its minions about this single issue [Keystone XL Pipeline] while continuing to ignore the grim reality of the Tar Sands that are already being refined all across this country, the dangers of Nuclear Power and a whole host of energy fiascos. . . .”

Leonardi has a good point.

He continues by quoting another progressive hero: “Bill Moyers recently said that ‘one of the biggest changes in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit at the seat of power, in the Oval Office and in Congress.’ ” Leonardi comments: “[T]hanks to the likes of the delusional environmentalists that [sic] continue to uphold this system, this reality will be difficult to remedy. Hopefully Bill [McKibben] won’t prove to be as naive as he seems . . .”

Obama’s slowdown of a permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline is indeed a delusion—a token for Big Enviros.

But although I agree with Leonardi that tar sands extraction is among “the most destructive extraction[s] of resources ever unleashed by man” — I’d argue quite compellingly that fracking and mountaintop removal are right up there with it — I certainly do not think Bill McKibben is a “front man” for Obama or the oil barons. I also do not think Bill McKibben is the least bit naïve.

A Little Backbone Would Be in Order Here!

But it is time, Mr. McKibben, to stop being so conciliatory and complaisant, and so (at least outwardly) patient. Please stop listening to those advisers and allies who must be telling you to act all-nice-and-friendly-like toward politicians who do not have the best interests of We the People, or of our irreplaceable Planet, at heart. They do not deserve our respect, and they certainly shouldn’t get our compliance.

Instead, speak the truth you know, and stop packaging it as a “Yes, we can [fix global climate change if we all work together]” happy-fest. All you have to do is quote from your own chilling book EaArth. 

We sure won’t beat this behemoth called climate change if only we . . . try a little harder, chain ourselves to the White House a little more regularly, conduct serious discussions with the right senators or representatives or governors or mayors or city council members — or regulatory agency heads or energy secretaries or Big NGO directors, for that matter. That is, if and when they deign to find some time on their busy calendars to meet with us (and make us feel important, respected, heard, un-marginalized, and so lucky to have their ear!).

For crying out loud, as my late mother would have said.

The U.S. governance and regulatory systems are broken — if indeed they ever worked. The experiment has failed. Let’s stop expecting it to start functioning again, as if by magic.

So what can we do?

We need to shake up and wake up the U.S. public — those who are not already completely exanimate — to their own delusion, of which Bill Moyers speaks so ruefully. We need to counteract the sickening industry lies and propaganda with which the public is bombarded daily via every imaginable medium — from TV to web to radio to highway billboards to Twitter, even to children’s coloring books. (Meanwhile, the grassroots opposition, made up more and more of people who are suffering because of fossil-fuel extraction, has its ads removed.)

We need to be in the streets in ever-greater numbers, speaking truth to power and defying corporate-state control of our lives. We need to scream from the roofs and the mountaintops, be they whole or mutilated. We need to shake up the universities and their so-far largely somnalent students and faculty. (Their administrations and boards, with few exceptions, are goners.)

This President Is Not Our Friend

No more letting Obama get away with such BS as he fed us the other day with his absurd announcement about “denying” (for the moment) the Keystone XL Pipeline construction permit.

Obama rejected the permit on a rather silly technicality. Tellingly, he refused to seize the opportunity to educate the public about climate and the need for us to stop gathering fossil fuels via processes such as fracking, tar sands extraction, and mountaintop blasting. He could have explained that we need to make hard choices on climate change, and to invest in clean energy and jobs. Instead he obfuscated, even bragging in his press release that “domestic oil and ‘natural’ gas production is up during [his] administration.”

Lest you still think he’s got a molecule of environmental sense or sensibility, follow this: Obama actually vowed that his administration “will continue to look for new ways to partner with the oil and gas industry” and perhaps “develop an oil pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico and invest in biofuels and ‘natural’ gas.”

Obama won’t do the right thing about climate change. He won’t invest our taxpayer dollars in peace-building (replacing the war economy) or renewable-energy projects. He won’t protect us from robber barons who pollute our water sources (access to which is a basic human right!) and then sell us grossly high-priced bottled water from the Ogallala and other aquifers to which they own access.

No, he won’t. Because, I fear, No, he can’t.

It’s just not in his nature — or in the character he has cultivated over an adulthood spent successfully climbing a seemingly impossible-to-climb ladder — to do right by the people or the environment.

Instead he’ll pretend, as do many members of Congress (including many Progressive Caucus members), that he actually believes the propaganda so blithely foisted upon a gullible public (via multimillion-dollar ad campaigns) and upon eager-to-believe legislators (via multimillion-dollar lobbying) that gas is a “safe, clean, domestic fuel that will secure U.S. energy independence.” Those blatant lies proliferate even as gas corporations start shipping frack-gas and tar sands oil abroad, where it will be sold to the highest (foreign) bidder.

Sadly, Obama is as cozy with the oil and gas corporations, the T. Boone Pickenses, Ted Turners, and Aubrey McClendons, as he is with his Chicago Bulls buddies.

Can there still be a non-neocon soul in the USA who doesn’t recognize that Obama is not a brave and visionary progressive leader, but a Wall Street Democrat? We can’t count on him to do the right thing on the environment, just as he’s been a disaster for civil liberties.

He’s nothing more than a slick politician who caves to powerful corporations — to the detriment of the people and environment of the United States, which he is sworn to protect.

Obama, like his predecessors, is selling us all down the river — the very polluted river.

Well, Maybe Yes We Can . . . without the Big Enviros

It’s time to ring the tocsins about the toxins we’re being force-fed!

To those who truly understand what we face, environmentally, and those who still have hearts, let’s vow: No more playing nice with Obama and his ilk. No more mollycoddling. No more collusion with the enemy.

It is time to come together to say no to corporate-state-judicial usurpation of people’s, communities’, and nature’s rights — and very lives. Time to realize that if we aren’t willing to pay a personal price now — a price that is likely to be more than a bit painful — things will become much worse as time passes. Time to put in place a viable system to make the transition less agonizing when the failed system here finally collapses. Time to fight back with not just our minds, but our possessions, our limited time, our vulnerable bodies. 

Time to call out “Shame!” on those who do us dirty. Time to yank our votes and support from corrupt politicians. Time to cancel our membership and cease donating to the Big Enviros (and Big Health NGOs) who are in bed with Big Pharma, Big Chemical, Big Oil Big Gas Big Coal Big Nuke, Big Agribusiness, and other polluting, destructive anti-human, anti-environmental industries.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is in itself, after all, but a relatively small (although it affects many provinces and states, millions of acres, and millions of people) example of a much more insidious and vast menace — a menace now being abetted by groups we should be able to rely upon as allies. It is painful to recognize that once-trusted stewards of our health and environment have succumbed to the allure of money and power and sold out their ideals, but we must face facts.

It is time to yank our donor dollars, our volunteer commitments, and our vocal support from such hypocritical institutions as the American Lung Association, which has forsaken its mission of promoting clean air and human health to accept partner-sponsorship from the gross polluting fossil-fuel peddler Encana Oil and Gas; from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund, which collude through the Climate Action Partnership and other activities with such corporate crooks as Alcoa, BP, Caterpillar, Dow Chemical, GE, GM, and Shell.

“We the People” Have the Right. Do We Have the Will?

Power corrupts. Money corrupts. The grass roots must lead the way. We must ignore the Big NGOs and work from our homes and communities with our neighbors and allies.

We live on the front lines. We the People are the “collateral damage” that would be sacrificed at the altar of greed and corruption.

But we are not willing to allow ourselves or our neighbors, or anyone, to be sacrificed like that—are we?

If we are not, it comes down to this: We have watched and sometimes tried to stop the evil as the people of Bolivia, Cambodia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, Vietnam, Zambia . . . Baltimore, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Haven . . . have been sacrificed on the altar of capitalist, free-market commerce. We will all understand first-hand, in the next decade or so, what it is like to ourselves be disregarded, disenfranchised, expendable people.

As people of relative privilege, as we are by virtue of having been born in the United States, Canada, or any other “developed” country on the planet, we will probably feel the pain a bit more than others who were born to want and degradation, because it will be a big shock to our delicate systems. But that’s what we have to look forward to — unless we mount a successful defiance and create a better way.

We are the last defense. Let’s hold on to our own ideals and not allow ourselves to be fractured (fracked), bought out, or sold out.

Finding the Strength

Let us heed the words of the brave Tim DeChristopher, the young West Virginia native who put his life on the line to save Western lands from being — forgive my choice of term but it’s the most appropriate I can think of — gang-raped by corporate-state-regulatory system collusion.

DeChristopher, a peaceful, brave, and noble young man, was sentenced last summer, in an abomination of “justice,” to two years in federal prison and a $10,000 fine for defying a fossil-fuel corporation’s right to poison people and, as he put it, “a corrupted government’s” ability “to uphold the rule of law.”

At his sentencing DeChristopher said, to Dee Vance Benson, the judge in whose hands rested his fate: “The legal pathways available to us have been structured precisely to make sure we don’t make any substantial change. . . . I am here today because I have chosen to protect the people locked out of the system over the profits of the corporations running the system. . . . I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government. I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience. . . . At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.’ ”

Benson chose not to join DeChristopher in standing up for a sane, moral, just, equitable, and sustainable society. But we can. We can stick our necks out some. We can do the right thing. We can learn new ways of being on the Earth. We can take classes in NVDA — nonviolent direct action — and prepare to protect ourselves peacefully in the face of those who would trample us, torture us, poison us, and frack us.

We can plan, with our friends and allies, to . . . well, take some time off from our usual activities. We can ready ourselves to spend some time in jail if need be. It’s not fun to be locked in a cell, but it is better than being locked in hell on earth. And no doubt, in a jail cell we’ll be in good company.

Solidarity is the only thing that will save us. Let us not be corrupted. We the People must stand together. And let’s dance and sing a little on the way, because otherwise it’s all too damn grim. I agree with Bill McKibben on that; we can’t be all gloom and doom. We need to lighten up some now and again. The revolution, after all, has a heart. And we have to remember to enjoy the things we’re fighting so hard to protect.

So while we fight to protect our beloved Earth that nurtures joy, let’s keep making art and music, comedy and theater. And while we put ourselves on the line, let’s dance. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize: a living stage on which to perform, and healthy, free audiences to enjoy the show. We are not ready for a curtain call — that should be light years away, if ever.

Maura Stephens is an independent journalist, author, playwright, theater artist, educator, and activist who writes frequently on environment and politics. She is a cofounder of Coalition to Protect New York and FrackBusters NY, which are dedicated to eradicating and criminalizing the dangerous, destructive practice of fracking.  Write to her at maura[at]maurastephens[dot]com.



[i] The USA is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity. 16 license applications to build 24 new nuclear reactors have been made since mid-2007.