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Refuse Allegiance to Coal
Posted on Nov 23, 2009
By Chris Hedges
It is incumbent on all of us to find out where the nearest coal-powered plant is located—the one closest to me is in Hamilton, N.J.—and begin to organize to shut it down nonviolently. Princeton, where I live, is also home to NRG Energy, the ninth-biggest coal energy producer in the United States. A map of the nation’s coal-fired plants can be found here.
“Coal is the key commodity,” McKibben said. “The ability to cease the combustion of coal will be the thing that decides whether or not we go over the precipice meteorologically in the decades ahead.”
“It is unlikely that the environmental movement, or any other movement, will come up with as much cash as those industries,” McKibben said of the corporations he opposes. “ExxonMobil made more money last year than any company in the history of money. We better not compete in that currency. We better find something else to compete in. The only thing I can think of is bodies, creativity and passion. These are the sort of things, with all their strengths, the Exxons of the world tend to lack.”
McKibben, along with the writer and activist Wendell Berry, organized a mass act of civil disobedience conducted last March against a coal-fired power plant in Washington, D.C., near the White House. Thousands of demonstrators from around the country arrived to see that in anticipation of the protest a promise had been made to convert the plant from coal to natural gas. But there are over 600 more coal plants to close. And McKibben said that local and regional leaders need to rise up to organize against coal.
McKibben and Berry embrace civility and nonviolence. Protesters in Washington last March were enjoined to arrive “in their Sunday best.”
“If we are going to use civil disobedience we need to reclaim it from people who enjoy taunting the police and showing off,” McKibben said.
“I spent last Sunday night out on Boston Common with hundreds and hundreds of young people from across Massachusetts who were willing to very, very peacefully and unaggressively risk arrest, and in fact we were all cited [by the police] before the evening was done,” he went on. “They were sleeping in Boston Common and refusing to sleep in their dorms for the rest of the fall because [the dormitories] are powered by dirt energy. They have been lobbying for a bill in the Massachusetts Statehouse to close down all the coal-fired power plants within the next 10 years. There were students from every campus. The biggest contingent came from Clark in Worcester. The prize was whoever brought the most students got to have me sleep in their tent.”
McKibben and Berry are right. Nonviolent civil disobedience is the only tool that might work. If we mirror the violence employed by the instruments of state security we will become corrupt, as they are, and obliterate the moral high ground that attracts followers to any movement and sustains the long night of resistance. Violence is a poison that infects all those who use it, even in what can be defined as a just cause. And nothing could make ExxonMobil or the coal industry happier than to see shop windows broken, cars set afire and police lines rushed. The moment we resort to violence the corporate state wins. It will gleefully crush us like flies in the name of law and order and national security. The temptation to violence, especially given the passivity of most of us and the hypocrisy of our ruling elite, including Obama, will mount as climate change begins to create social and political unrest. But it must be resisted. This will be a long, long struggle. The coal companies will only be the start. The other corporations that have disempowered the citizenry, created a state of neo-feudalism and turned our democracy into a sham will be next.
“We are past the point where we are going to stop global warming,” McKibben said. “It is happening already, and more of it is coming no matter what we do. One of our jobs is to start figuring out how to cope with it. We need to build the kind of communities that can deal with that. The key question is scale. Communities need to be smaller. Our way of thinking about the world has to shrink. At the same time we need a global movement to continue this fight to bring carbon emissions under some kind of control. If we don’t, the kind of change we are talking about over the next decades is so big there is no way to adapt … no matter what we do, no matter how wonderfully organic your community has become. Communities still require water. People don’t quite understand what three or four or five degrees increase in the temperature of the planet will mean. One degree was enough to melt the Arctic. This was a bad sign.”
“Nothing important is going to come out of Copenhagen,” McKibben warned, “just a lot of spin. … [Obama’s] vast spin machine will be in full gear. There is no obvious route out of all this. We have started exploring mainly popular movements, and hopefully we have introduced a wild card into this game. Our plans are not even plans at this point. It is easier said than done. We shut down one coal-fired power plant and not a very big one. There are 600 left in the country. I don’t fancy myself up to the task of figuring out how to shut them all down. Hopefully some people will begin to do it.”
Chris Hedges, whose column is published on Truthdig every Monday, is a former Middle East bureau chief of The New York Times, where he shared the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism. Hedges also received the 2002 Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He is the author of nine books.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly placed Clark University in Wooster. It is in Worcester.
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