McKibben’s long and winding road

By Bryan Walker 08/09/2010

“We will keep fighting’ vowed Bill McKibben at the end of his book Eaarth. Today in an article on Yale Environment 360 he gives a promising account of what that might involve. He writes from a road trip to Washington, D.C., towing a solar hot water heating panel from the roof of the Carter White House. Jimmy Carter put it there in 1979, declaring it would still be heating water in 2000. It wasn’t, because Ronald Reagan promptly took the panels down, an action symbolic, McKibben comments,’ of our decision to turn away from the idea of limits.’

The panels were salvaged by Unity College in Maine and put up on the cafeteria, where they continued to produce hot water for the next three decades. McKibben and his associates are headed for the White House with one of the Maine panels, and with a promise from the U.S. company Sungevity that it will supply all the brand-new panels the president could ever want–as long as he puts them up on his roof where everyone can see them.

They’re on the road with no word as yet from the White House about whether they’ll accept the gift and the offer.

’I can’t think of a clearer win for the president, a better reminder to the legions of young people who worked on his campaign that he is still focused on the future. He owes environmentalists more than he’s given them–by all accounts he decided not to push for the Senate legislation. He’s up against tough odds in Congress, of course, given the obstructionist GOP. But they can’t filibuster his roof.’

McKibben faces up to the bad news that the strongest ever attempt to pass climate legislation through the US Congress came up short. In the end it didn’t even come close. ’The fossil fuel industry and their allies in D.C. barely had to break a sweat shooting it down.’ So it’s unlikely there’ll be any significant action on the federal level about climate for at least the next two years, which means also that international action will be difficult while the US holds back.

’So what do we do with those two years? I think we use them to build a movement, which explains the solar panel we’re hauling south from Maine.

’…Environmentalists lost sight of just how big a movement that would need to be. Too many groups convinced themselves that they could slide some legislation through Congress, make deals with industry, get things going without a fight. It was worth a try, but it didn’t work–the fossil fuel industry, the most profitable enterprise known to man, beat us. And they will beat us again and again until there’s a real, broad-based, popular, noisy movement underway in this country, a movement that can provide a currency (bodies, passion) equal to the currency the billionaire Koch Brothers can pony up to defeat climate legislation.

’Some of that movement will go on at the local level, as we transform cities and towns and show what can be done. Some will be done on college campuses like Unity College, or Middlebury where I teach, which are showing the way forward. Some of it will be done in jails–I’d be very surprised if civil disobedience doesn’t become a bigger part of this battle in the years ahead, if only because it’s the tool we use to show our society how urgent, morally and practically, this crisis really is.

’But some of it must be done symbolically. And there’s no more symbolic piece of real estate on this continent than the White House. Let’s hope that on the 10th of October it, at least, is transformed. It’s been a long, hot summer, in the capitol as in much of the northern hemisphere. Let’s make sure that next year that heat is put to some purpose–heating the Obamas’ bathtub, and helping power up a movement.’

The 10th October mentioned is the day the movement has designated for a global work party ’to do something that will help deal with global warming in your city or community.’ It’s the day that the President of the Maldives will accept Sungevity’s offer by putting solar panels on his roof.

McKibben incidentally records meeting with Huang Ming, China’s leading solar entrepreneur. His  HiMin Solar Energy Group has put up 60 million such systems across China–he estimated that when 250 million Chinese take a shower, the hot water is coming off their roofs. In what McKibben remarks as a ’biting symbol’ Huang Ming keeps one of the Carter panels in his private museum.

I’ve quoted before the words of Eric Pooley at the end of his book The Climate War, but I can’t forbear repeating them here for their relevance to the call McKibben makes. Pooley writes of disappointed campaigners:

’…paralysis didn’t do anyone any good. There was too much to be done. So they shook off their blues and pulled out their canteens. They splashed some cold water on their faces, ran their fingers through their hair, threw back their shoulders, and marched towards the sound of the guns.’