Nonviolent direct action was the 20th century’s greatest invention—and it is the key to saving the earth in the 21st century.
NOVEMBER 30, 2016
I know what you want from me—what we all want—which is some small solace after the events of Election Day. My wife Sue Halpern and I have been talking nonstop for days, trying to cope with the emotions. I fear I may not be able to provide that balm, but I do offer these remarks in the spirit of resistance to that which we know is coming. We need to figure out how to keep the lights on, literally and figuratively, and all kinds of darkness at bay.
I am grateful to all those who asked me to deliver this inaugural Jonathan Schell Lecture—grateful most of all because it gave me an excuse for extended and happy recollection of one of the most generous friendships of my early adulthood. I arrived at The New Yorker at the age of 21, two weeks out of college, alone in New York City for the first time. The New Yorker was wonderfully quirky, of course, but one of its less wonderful quirks was that most people didn’t talk to each other very much, and especially to newcomers 50 years their junior. There were exceptions, of course, and the foremost exception was Jonathan. He loved to talk, and we had long colloquies nearly every day, mostly about politics.
Ideas—not abstract ideas, but ideas drawn from the world as it wound around him—fascinated him. He always wanted to dig a layer or two deeper; there was never anything superficial or trendy about his analysis. I understood better what he was up to when I came, at the age of 27, to write The End of Nature. It owes more than a small debt to The Fate of the Earth, which let me feel it was possible and permitted to write about the largest questions in the largest ways.
In the years that followed, having helped push action on his greatest cause—the danger of nuclear weapons—that issue began to seem a little less urgent. That perception, of course, is mistaken: Nuclear weapons remain a constant peril, perhaps more than ever in an increasingly multipolar world. But with the end of the Cold War and the build-down of US and Russian weapon stocks, the question compelled people less feverishly. New perils—climate change perhaps chief among them—emerged. Post-9/11, smaller-bore terrors informed our nightmares. We would have been wise, as the rise of a sinister Vladimir Putin and a sinister and clueless Donald Trump remind us, to pay much sharper attention to this existential issue, but the peace dividend turned out mostly to be a relaxing of emotional vigilance.
However, for the moment, we have not exploded nuclear weapons, notwithstanding Trump’s recent query about what good they are if we don’t use them. Our minds can compass the specter of a few mushroom clouds obliterating all that we know and love; those images have fueled a fitful but real effort to contain the problem, resulting most recently in the agreement with Iran. We have not been able to imagine that the billion tiny explosions of a billion pistons in a billion cylinders every second of every day could wreak the same damage, and hence we’ve done very little to ward off climate change.
We are destroying the earth every bit as thoroughly as Jonathan imagined in the famous first chapter of The Fate of the Earth, just a little more slowly. By burning coal and oil and gas and hence injecting carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, we have materially changed its heat-trapping properties; indeed, those man-made greenhouse gases trap the daily heat equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima-size explosions. That’s enough extra heat that, in the space of a few decades, we have melted most of the summer sea ice in the Arctic—millennia old, meters thick, across a continent-size stretch of ocean that now, in summer, is blue water. (Blue water that absorbs the sun’s incoming rays instead of bouncing them back to space like the white ice it replaced, thus exacerbating the problem even further.) That’s enough heat to warm the tropical oceans to the point where Sue and I watched with our colleagues in the South Pacific as a wave of record-breaking warm water swept across the region this past spring, killing in a matter of weeks vast swaths of coral that had been there since before the beginning of the human experiment. That’s enough heat to seriously disrupt the planet’s hydrological cycles: Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, we’ve seen steady increases in drought in arid areas (and with it calamities like wildfire) and steady, even shocking, increases in downpour and flood in wet areas. It’s been enough to raise the levels of the ocean—and the extra carbon in the atmosphere has also changed the chemistry of that seawater, making it more acidic and beginning to threaten the base of the marine food chain. We are, it bears remembering, an ocean planet, and the world’s oceanographers warn that we are very rapidly turning the seven seas “hot, sour, and breathless.” To the “republic of insects and grass” that Jonathan imagined in the opening of The Fate of the Earth, we can add a new vision: a hypoxic undersea kingdom of jellyfish.
This is not what will happen if something goes wrong, if some maniac pushes the nuclear button, if some officer turns a key in a silo. This is what has already happened, because all of us normal people have turned the keys to our cars and the thermostat dials on our walls. And we’re still in the relatively early days of climate change, having increased the planet’s temperature not much more than 1 degree Celsius. We’re on a trajectory, even after the conclusion of the Paris climate talks last year, to raise Earth’s temperature by 3.5 degrees Celsius—or more, if the feedback loops we are triggering take full hold. If we do that, then we will not be able to maintain a civilization anything like the one we’ve inherited. Our great cities will be underwater; our fields will not produce the food our bodies require; those bodies will not be able to venture outside in many places to do the work of the world. Already, the World Health Organization estimates, increased heat and humidity have cut the labor a human can perform by 10 percent, a number that will approach 30 percent by midcentury. This July and August were the hottest months in the history of human civilization measured globally; in southern Iraq, very near where scholars situate the Garden of Eden, the mercury in cities like Basra hit 129 degrees—among the highest reliably recorded temperatures in history, temperatures so high that human survival becomes difficult.
Against this crisis, we see sporadic action at best. We know that we could be making huge strides. For instance, engineers have managed to cut the cost of solar panels by 80 percent in the last decade, to the point where they are now among the cheapest methods of generating electricity. A Stanford team headed by Mark Jacobson has shown precisely how all 50 states and virtually every foreign nation could make the switch to renewable energy at an affordable cost in the course of a couple of decades. A few nations have shown that he’s correct: Denmark, for instance, now generates almost half of its power from the wind.
In most places, however, the progress has been slow and fitful at best. In the United States, the Obama administration did more than its predecessors, but far less than physics requires. By reducing our use of coal-fired power, it cut carbon-dioxide emissions by perhaps 10 percent. But because it wouldn’t buck the rest of the fossil-fuel industry, the Obama administration basically substituted fracked natural gas for that coal. This was a mistake: The leakage of methane into the atmosphere means that America’s total greenhouse-gas emissions held relatively steady or perhaps even increased. This willingness to cater to the industry is bipartisan, though in the horror of this past election that was easy to overlook. Here’s President Obama four years ago, speaking to an industry group in Oklahoma: “Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.” Hillary Clinton opened an entire new wing at the State Department charged with promoting fracking around the world. So much for the establishment, now repudiated.
Trump, of course, has famously insisted that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese and has promised to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. His election win is more than just a speed bump in the road to the future—it’s a ditch, and quite likely a crevasse. Even as we gather tonight, international negotiators in Marrakech, stunned by our elections, are doing their best to salvage something of the Paris Agreement, signed just 11 months ago with much fanfare.
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But the real contest here is not between Democrats and Republicans; it’s between human beings and physics. That’s a difficult negotiation, as physics is not prone to compromise. It also imposes a hard time limit on the bargaining; if we don’t move very, very quickly, then any progress will be pointless. And so the question for this lecture, and really the question for the geological future of the planet, becomes: How do we spur much faster and more decisive action from institutions that wish to go slowly, or perhaps don’t wish to act at all? One understands that politicians prize incremental action—but in this case, winning slowly is the same as losing. The planet is clearly outside its comfort zone; how do we get our political institutions out of theirs?
And it is here that I’d like to turn to one of Jonathan’s later books, one that got less attention than it deserved. The Unconquerable World was published in 2003. In it, Jonathan writes, in his distinctive aphoristic style: “Violence is the method by which the ruthless few can subdue the passive many. Nonviolence is a means by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few.” This brings us, I think, to the crux of our moment. Across a wide variety of topics, we see the power of the ruthless few. This is nowhere more evident than in the field of energy, where the ruthless few who lead the fossil-fuel industry have more money at their disposal than any humans in the past. They’ve been willing to deploy this advantage to maintain the status quo, even in the face of clear scientific warnings and now clear scientific proof. They are, for lack of a better word, radicals: If you continue to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere past the point where you’re melting the polar ice caps, then you are engaging in a radicalism unparalleled in human history.
And they’re not doing this unknowingly or out of confusion. Exxon has known all there is to know about climate change for four decades. Its product was carbon, and it had some of the best scientists on earth on its staff; they warned management, in clear and explicit terms, how much and how fast the earth would warm, and management believed them: That’s why, for instance, Exxon’s drilling rigs were built to accommodate the sea-level rise it knew was coming. But Exxon didn’t warn any of the rest of us. Just the opposite: It invested huge sums of money in helping to build an architecture of deceit, denial, and disinformation, which meant humankind wasted a quarter of a century in a ludicrous argument about whether global warming was “real,” a debate that Exxon’s leaders knew was already settled. The company continues to fund politicians who deny climate change and to fight any efforts to hold it accountable. At times, as Steve Coll makes clear in his remarkable book Private Empire, the oil industry has been willing to use explicit violence—those attack dogs in North Dakota have their even more brutal counterparts in distant parts of the planet. More often, the industry has been willing to use the concentrated force of its money. Our largest oil and gas barons, the Koch brothers—two of the richest men on earth, and among the largest leaseholders on Canada’s tar sands—have promised to deploy three-quarters of a billion dollars in this year’s contest. As Jane Mayer put it in a telling phrase, they’ve been able to “weaponize” their money to achieve their ends. So the “ruthless few” are using violence—power in its many forms.
But the other half of that aphorism is hopeful: “Nonviolence is the means by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few.” When the history of the 20th century is written, I’m hopeful that historians will conclude that the most important technology developed during those bloody hundred years wasn’t the atom bomb, or the ability to manipulate genes, or even the Internet, but instead the technology of nonviolence. (I use the word “technology” advisedly here.) We had intimations of its power long before: In a sense, the most resounding moment in Western history, Jesus’s crucifixion, is a prototype of nonviolent action, one that launched the most successful movement in history. Nineteenth-century America saw Thoreau begin to think more systematically about civil disobedience as a technique. But it really fell to the 20th century, and Gandhi, to develop it as a coherent strategy, a process greatly furthered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his associates in this country, and by adherents around the world: Otpor in Eastern Europe, various participants in the Arab Spring, Buddhist monks in Burma, Wangari Maathai’s tree-planters, and so on.
We have done very little systematic study of these techniques. We have no West Point or Sandhurst for the teaching of nonviolence; indeed, it’s fair to say that the governments of the world have spent far more time figuring out how to stamp out such efforts than to promote them. (And given the level of threat they represent to governments, that is perhaps appropriate.) What we know is what we’ve learned by experience, by trial and error.
In my own case over the last decade, that’s meant helping to organize several large-scale campaigns or social movements. Some have used civil disobedience in particular—I circulated the call for arrestees at the start of the Keystone XL pipeline demonstrations in 2011, and observers said the resulting two weeks of nonviolent direct action resulted in more arrests than any such demonstration on any issue in many years. Others have focused on large-scale rallies—some in this audience attended the massive climate march in New York in the autumn of 2014, organized in part by 350.org, which was apparently the largest demonstration about anything in this country in a long time. Others have been scattered: The fossil-fuel divestment campaign we launched in 2012 has been active on every continent, incorporated a wide variety of tactics, and has become the largest anticorporate campaign of its kind in history, triggering the full or partial divestment of endowments and portfolios with nearly $5 trillion in assets. These actions have helped spur many more such actions: Keystone represented a heretofore very rare big loss for Big Oil, and its success helped prompt many others to follow suit; now every pipeline, fracking well, coal mine, liquid-natural-gas terminal, and oil train is being fought. As an executive at the American Petroleum Institute said recently—and ruefully—to his industry colleagues, they now face the “Keystone-ization” of all their efforts.
And we have by no means been the only, or even the main, actor in these efforts. For instance, indigenous activists have been at the forefront of the climate fight since its inception, here and around the world, and the current fight over the Dakota Access pipeline is no exception. They and the residents of what are often called “frontline” communities, where the effects of climate change and pollution are most intense, have punched far above their weight in these struggles; they have been the real leaders. These fights will go on. They’ll be much harder in the wake of Trump’s election, but they weren’t easy to begin with, and I confess I see little alternative—even under Obama, the chance of meaningful legislation was thin. So, using Jonathan’s template, I’ll try to offer a few lessons from my own experience over the last decade.
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Lesson one: Unearned suffering is a potent tool. Volunteering for pain is an unlikely event in a pleasure-based society, and hence it gets noticed. Nonviolent direct action is just one tool in the activist tool kit, and it should be used sparingly—like any tool, it can easily get dull, both literally and figuratively. But when it is necessary to underline the moral urgency of a case, the willingness to go to jail can be very powerful, precisely because it goes against the bent of normal life.
It is also difficult for most participants. If you’ve been raised to be law-abiding, it’s hard to stay seated in front of, say, the White House when a cop tells you to move. Onlookers understand that difficulty. I remember Gus Speth being arrested at those initial Keystone demonstrations. He’d done everything possible within the system: co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, chaired the president’s Council on Environmental Quality, ran the entire UN Development Program, been a dean at Yale. But then he concluded that the systems he’d placed such faith in were not coming close to meeting the climate challenge—so, in his 70s, he joined that small initial demonstration. Because his son was a high-powered lawyer, Gus was the only one of us able to get a message out during our stay in jail. What he told the press stuck with me: “I’ve held many important positions in this town,” he said. “But none seem as important as the one I’m in today.” Indeed, his witness pulled many of the nation’s environmental groups off the sidelines; when we got out, he and I wrote a letter to the CEOs of all those powerful green groups, and in return they wrote a letter to the president saying, “There is not an inch of daylight between our position and those of the people protesting on your lawn.” Without Gus’s willingness to suffer the indignity and discomfort of jail, that wouldn’t have happened, and the subsequent history would have been different.
Because it falls so outside our normal search for comfort, security, and advancement, unearned suffering can be a powerful tool. Whether this will be useful against a crueler White House and a nastier and more empowered right wing remains to be seen, but it will be seen. I imagine that the first place it will see really widespread use is not on the environment, but in regard to immigration. If Trump is serious about his plans for mass deportation, he’ll be met with passive resistance of all kinds—or at least he should be. All of us have grown up with that Nazi-era bromide about “First they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew…” In this case, there’s no mystery: First they’re coming for the undocumented. It will be a real fight for the soul of our nation, as the people who abstractly backed the idea of a wall with Mexico are forced to look at the faces of the neighbors they intend to toss over it.
Lesson two: These tactics are useful to the degree that they attract large numbers of people to the fight. Those large numbers don’t need to engage in civil disobedience; they just need to engage in the broader battle. If you think about it, numbers are the currency of movements, just as actual cash is the currency of the status quo—at least until such time as the status quo needs to employ the currency of violence. The point of civil disobedience is rarely that it stops some evil by itself; instead, it attracts enough people and hence attention to reach the public at large.
When the Keystone demonstrations began, for instance, no one knew what the pipeline was, and it hadn’t occurred to people to think about climate change in terms of infrastructure. Instead, we thought about it in the terms preferred by politicians, i.e., by thinking about “emissions reductions” far in the future from policies like increased automobile efficiency, which are useful but obviously insufficient. In the early autumn of 2011, as we were beginning the Keystone protests, the National Journal polled its DC “energy insiders,” and 93 percent of them said TransCanada would soon have its permit for the pipeline. But those initial arrests attracted enough people to make it into a national issue. Soon, 15,000 people were surrounding the White House, and then 50,000 were rallying outside its gates, and before long it was on the front pages of newspapers. The information spread, and more importantly the analysis did too: Infrastructure became a recognized point of conflict in the climate fight, because enough people said it was. Politicians were forced to engage on a ground they would rather have avoided.
In much the same way, the divestment movement managed to go from its infancy in 2012 to the stage where, by 2015, the governor of the Bank of England was repeating its main bullet points to the world’s insurance industry in a conference at Lloyd’s of London: The fossil-fuel industry had more carbon in its reserves than we could ever hope to burn, and those reserves posed the financial risk of becoming “stranded assets.” Note that it doesn’t take a majority of people, or anywhere close, to have a significant—even decisive—impact: In an apathetic world, the active involvement of only a few percentage points of the citizenry is sufficient to make a difference. No more than 1 percent of Americans, for instance, ever participated in a civil-rights protest. But it does take a sufficient number to make an impression, whether in the climate movement or the Tea Party.
Lesson three: The real point of civil disobedience and the subsequent movements is less to pass specific legislation than it is to change the zeitgeist. The Occupy movement, for instance, is often faulted for not having produced a long list of actionable demands, but its great achievement was to make, by dint of recognition and repetition, the existing order illegitimate. Once the 99 percent and the 1 percent were seen as categories, our politics began to shift. Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser extent Donald Trump, fed on that energy. That Hillary Clinton was forced to say that she too opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal was testimony to the power of the shift in the zeitgeist around inequality. Or take LGBTQ rights: It’s worth remembering that only four years ago, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton still opposed same-sex marriage. That’s difficult to recall now, since at this point you’d think they had jointly invented the concept. But it was skillful organizing for many years that changed less the laws of the land than the zeitgeist of the culture. Yes, some of those battles were fought over particular statutes; but the battles in Hollywood, and at high-school proms, and in a dozen other such venues were as important. Once movements shift the zeitgeist, then legislative victory becomes the mopping-up phase; this one Trump won’t even attempt to turn back.
This is not how political scientists tend to see it—or politicians, for that matter. Speaking to Black Lives Matter activists backstage in the course of the primary campaign, Hillary Clinton laid out her essential philosophy: “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.” This is, I think, utterly backward, and it explains much of the intuitive sense among activists of all stripes that Clinton wouldn’t have been a leader. As Monica Reyes, one of the young immigration activists in the Dreamer movement—great organizers who did much to shift public opinion—put it: “You need to change the culture before you can change laws.” Or as that guy Abraham Lincoln once put it: “Public sentiment is everything.”
By forever straddling the middle, centrist politicians delay changes in public sentiment. The viewpoint of the establishment—an appellation that in this case includes everyone from oil companies to presidents—is always the same: We need to be “realistic”; change will come slowly if it comes at all; and so forth. In normal political debates, this is reasonable. Compromise on issues is the way we progress: You want less money in the budget for X, and I want more, and so we meet in the middle and live to fight another day. That’s politics, as distinct from movement politics, which is about changing basic feelings over the great issues of the day. And it’s particularly true in the case of climate change, where political reality, important as it is, comes in a distinct second to reality reality. Chemistry and physics, I repeat, do what they do regardless of our wishes. That’s the difference between political science and science science.
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There are many other points that Jonathan gets at in his book, but there’s one more that bears directly on the current efforts to build a movement around climate change. It comes in his discussion of Hannah Arendt and Mohandas Gandhi. Despite widespread agreement on the sources of power and the possibilities for mobilization, he finds one large difference between the two: Whereas Gandhi saw “spiritual love as the source and inspiration of nonviolent action, Arendt was among those who argued strenuously against introducing such love into the political sphere.” Hers was not an argument against spiritual love, but rather a contention that it mostly belonged in the private sphere, and that “publicity, which is necessary for politics, will coarsen and corrupt it by turning it into a public display, a show.” I will not attempt to flesh out the illuminating arguments on both sides, but I will say that I have changed my mind somewhat over the years on this question, at least as it relates to climate change.
Gandhi, like Thoreau before him, was an ascetic, and people have tended to lump their political and spiritual force together—and, in certain ways, they were very closely linked. Gandhi’s spinning wheel was a powerful symbol, and a powerful reality, in a very poor nation. He emphasized individual action alongside political mobilization, because he believed that Indians needed to awaken a sense of their own agency and strength. This was a necessary step in that movement—but perhaps a trap in our current dilemma. By this I mean that many of the early efforts to fight climate change focused on a kind of personal piety or individual action, reducing one’s impact via lightbulbs or food choices or you name it. And these are useful steps. The house that Sue and I inhabit is covered with solar panels. I turn off lights so assiduously that our daughter, in her Harry Potter days, referred to me as “the Dark Lord.” Often in my early writing, I fixed on such solutions. But in fact, given the pace with which we now know climate change is advancing, they seem not irrelevant but utterly ill-equipped for the task at hand.
Let’s imagine that truly inspired organizing might somehow get 10 percent of the population to become really engaged in this fight. That would be a monumental number: We think 10 percent of Americans participated in some fashion in the first Earth Day in 1970, and that was doubtless the high point of organizing on any topic in my lifetime. If the main contribution of this 10 percent was to reduce its own carbon footprint to zero— itself an impossible task—the total impact on America’s contribution to atmospheric carbon levels would be a 10 percent reduction. Which is helpful, but not very. But that same 10 percent—or even 2 or 3 percent—actually engaged in the work of politics might well be sufficient to produce structural change of the size that would set us on a new course: a price on carbon, a commitment to massive subsidies for renewable energy, a legislative commitment to keep carbon in the ground.
Some people are paralyzed by the piety they think is necessary for involvement. You cannot imagine the anguished and Talmudic discussions I’ve been asked to adjudicate on whether it’s permissible to burn gasoline to attend a climate rally. (In my estimation, it’s not just permissible, it’s very nearly mandatory—the best gas you will burn in the course of a year.) It has also become—and this is much more dangerous—the pet argument of every climate denier that, unless you’re willing to live life in a dark cave, you’re a hypocrite to stand for action on climate change. This attempt to short-circuit people’s desire to act must be rejected. We live in the world we wish to change; some hypocrisy is the price of admission to the fight. In this sense, and this sense only, Gandhi is an unhelpful example, and a bludgeon used to prevent good-hearted people from acting.
In fact, as we confront the blunt reality of a Trump presidency and a GOP Congress, it’s clearer than ever that asceticism is insufficient, and maybe even counterproductive. The only argument that might actually discover a receptive audience in the new Washington is one that says, “We need a rapid build-out of solar and wind power, as much for economic as environmental reasons.” If one wanted to find the mother lode of industrial jobs that Trump has promised, virtually the only possible source is the energy transformation of our society.
I will end by saying that movement-building—the mobilization of large numbers of people, and of deep passion, through the employment of all the tools at a nonviolent activist’s disposal—will continue, though it moves onto very uncertain ground with our new political reality. This work of nonviolent resistance is never easy, and it’s becoming harder. Jonathan’s optimism in The Unconquerable World notwithstanding, more and more countries are moving to prevent real opposition. China and Russia are brutally hard to operate in, and India is reconfiguring its laws to go in the same direction. Environmentalists are now routinely assassinated in Honduras, Brazil, the Philippines. Australia, where mining barons control the government, has passed draconian laws against protest; clearly Trump and his colleagues would like to do the same here, and will doubtless succeed to one extent or another. The savagery of the police response to Native Americans in North Dakota reminds us how close to a full-bore petro-state we are.
And yet the movement builds. I don’t know whether it builds fast enough. Unlike every other challenge we’ve faced, this one comes with a time limit. Martin Luther King would always say, quoting the great Massachusetts abolitionist Theodore Parker, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—meaning that it may take a while, but we are going to win. By contrast, the arc of the physical universe is short and it bends toward heat. I will not venture to predict if we can, at this point, catch up with physics. Clearly, it has a lot of momentum. It’s a bad sign when your major physical features begin to disappear—that we no longer have the giant ice cap in the Arctic is disconcerting, to say the least. So there’s no guarantee of victory. But I can guarantee that we will fight, in every corner of the earth and with all the nonviolent tools at our disposal. And in so doing, we will discover if these tools are powerful enough to tackle the most disturbing crisis humans have ever faced. We will see if that new technology of the 20th century will serve to solve the greatest dilemma of our new millennium.