Nick Turse
We live in a different world from that of the civil rights movement. Save perhaps for the spectacle of presidential elections, there’s no way for individual human beings to draw the same kind of focused and sustained attention they did back then. At the moment, you could make the three evening newscasts and the cover of Time (not Newsweek, alas) and still not connect with most people. Our focus is fragmented and segmented, which may be a boon or a problem, but mostly it’s just a fact. Our attention is dispersed.

We’re struggling to replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.

In the last few weeks, for instance, 350.org helped support a nationwide series of rallies called Summerheat. We didn’t organize them ourselves. We knew great environmental justice groups all over the country, and we knew we could highlight their work, while making links between, say, standing up to a toxic Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, and standing up to the challenge of climate change.

From the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where a tar-sands pipeline is proposed, to the Columbia River at Vancouver, Washington, where a big oil port is planned, from Utah’s Colorado Plateau, where the first U.S. tar-sands mine has been proposed, to the coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point on the Massachusetts coast and the fracking wells of rural Ohio — Summerheat demonstrated the local depth and global reach of this emerging fossil fuel resistance. I’ve had the pleasure of going to talk at all these places and more besides, but I wasn’t crucial to any of them. I was, at best, a pollinator, not a queen bee.

…it’s our job to rally a movement in the coming years big enough to stand up to all that money, to profits of a sort never before seen on this planet. Such a movement will need to stretch from California to Ecuador — to, in fact, every place with a thermometer; it will need to engage not just Chevron but every other fossil fuel company; it will need to prevent pipelines from being built and encourage windmills to be built in their place; it needs to remake the world in record time.

That won’t happen thanks to a paramount leader, or even dozens of them. It can only happen with a spread-out and yet thoroughly interconnected movement, a new kind of engaged citizenry. Rooftop by rooftop, we’re aiming for a different world, one that runs on the renewable power that people produce themselves in their communities in small but significant batches. The movement that will get us to such a new world must run on that kind of power too.

In 2012, the Boston Globe magazine put a picture of me on its cover under the headline: “The Man Who Crushed the Keystone Pipeline.” I’ve got an all-too-healthy ego, but even I knew that it was over the top. I’d played a role in the fight, writing the letter that asked people to come to Washington to resist the pipeline, but it was effective because I’d gotten a dozen friends to sign it with me. And I’d been one of 1,253 people who went to jail in what was the largest civil disobedience action in this country in years. It was their combined witness that got the ball rolling.

When I remember the world I grew up in, I see the parts of it that were Paradise — and I also see all the little hells. I was a kid in California when it had the best public education system in the world and universities were nearly free and the economy was not so hard on people and the rich paid a lot of taxes. The weather was predictable and we weren’t thinking about it changing any time before the next ice age.

That was, however, the same California where domestic violence was not something the law took an interest in, where gays and lesbians were openly discriminated against, where almost all elected officials were white men, where people hadn’t even learned to ask questions about exclusion and racism.

Which is to say, paradises are always partial and, when you look backward, it’s worth trying to see the whole picture. The rights gained over the past 35 years were fought for, hard, while so much of what was neglected — including public education, tuition, wages, banking regulation, corporate power, and working hours — slid into hell.

When you fight, you sometimes win; when you don’t, you always lose.
The twenty-first century class war is engulfing the natural world on which everything rests. We can see how clearly the great environmental battle of our time is about money, about who benefits from climate destruction (the very few) and who loses (everyone else for all time to come and nearly every living thing). This year, Hurricane Sandy and a crop-destroying, Mississippi-River-withering drought that had more than 60% of the nation in its grip made it clear that climate change is here and it’s now and it hurts.

We have returned to class war in conflicts around the world — including the Chicago Teacher’s Strike of 2012 and the Walmart protests in this country (which led to 1,197 actions nationwide in support of that company’s underpaid workers on Black Friday), as well as the great student uprisings in Quebec and Mexico City.

There has, of course, been a war against working people and the poor for decades, only we didn’t call it “class war” when just the rich were fighting hard. We called it corporate globalization, the race to the bottom, tax cuts and social-service cuts, privatization, neoliberalism, and a hundred other things. Now that the poor are fighting back, we can call it by its old name. Perhaps what the conservatives have forgotten is that if you return us to the grim divides and dire poverty of the nineteenth century, you might also be returning us to the revolutionary spirit of that century.

Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a reminder about what it means to fight for what matters most. Permanently freeing five million slaves and abolishing slavery forever meant renouncing a cheap power source in use for more than 200 years. Doing so was initially inconceivable and then a matter of indifference except to the slaves themselves and small groups of abolitionists. Next, it was daringly radical, then partisan, with the whole nation taking sides, the fuel for a terrible war. Finally, it was the law of the land. Today, we need to give up on, or at least radically reduce our reliance on, another set of power sources: oil, coal, and natural gas.
Paradise is overrated. We dream of the cessation of misery, but who really wants a world without difficulty? We learn through mistakes and suffering. These are the minerals that harden our bones and the milestones on the roads we travel. And we are made to travel, not to sit still.