Dec 8, 2013
Movements Without Leaders
Posted on Aug 19, 2013
By Bill McKibben, TomDispatch
Sometimes it comes from charisma: Van Jones may be the most articulate and engaging environmental advocate ever. Sometimes it comes from getting things right for a long time: Jim Hansen, the greatest climate scientist, gets respect even from those who disagree with him about, say, nuclear power. Sometimes it comes from organizing ability: Jane Kleeb who did such work in the hard soil of Nebraska, or Clayton Thomas-Muller who has indefatigably (though no one is beyond fatigue) organized native North America. Sometimes it comes from sacrifice: Tim DeChristopher went to jail for two years for civil disobedience, and so most of us are going to listen to what he might have to say.
Sometimes it comes from dogged work on solutions: Wahleah Johns and Billy Parish figured out how to build solar farms on Navajo land and crowdfund solar panels on community centers. Sometimes truly unlikely figures emerge: investor Jeremy Grantham, or Tom Steyer, a Forbes 400 billionaire who quit his job running a giant hedge fund, sold his fossil fuel stocks, and put his money and connections effectively to work fighting Keystone and bedeviling climate-denying politicians (even Democrats!). We have organizational leaders like Mike Brune of the Sierra Club or Frances Beinecke of NRDC, or folks like Kenny Bruno or Tzeporah Berman who have helped knit together large coalitions; religious leaders like Jim Antal, who led the drive to convince the United Church of Christ to divest from fossil fuels; regional leaders like Mike Tidwell in the Chesapeake or Cherri Foytlin in the Gulf or K.C. Golden in Puget Sound.
Yet figures like these aren’t exactly “leaders” in the way we’ve normally imagined. They are not charting the path for the movement to take. To use an analogy from the Internet age, it’s more as if they were well-regarded critics on Amazon.com review pages; or to use a more traditional image, as if they were elders, even if not in a strictly chronological sense. Elders don’t tell you what you must do, they say what they must say. A few of these elders are, like me, writers; many of them have a gift for condensing and crystallizing the complex. When Jim Hansen calls the Alberta tar sands the “biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” it resonates.
When you have that standing, you don’t end up leading a movement, but you do end up with people giving your ideas a special hearing, people who already assume that you’re not going to waste their energy on a pointless task. So when Naomi Klein and I hatched a plan for a fossil fuel divestment campaign last year, people paid serious attention, especially when Desmond Tutu lent his sonorous voice to the cause.
But maybe he was right. I don’t actually know, which is why it’s a good thing that no one, myself included, is the boss of the movement. Remember those solar panels: the power to change these days is remarkably well distributed, leaving plenty of room for serendipity and revitalization. In fact, many movements had breakthroughs when they decided their elders were simply wrong. Dr. King didn’t like the idea of the Freedom Summer campaign at first, and yet it proved powerfully decisive.
The Coming of the Leaderless Movement
We may not need capital-L Leaders, but we certainly need small-l leaders by the tens of thousands. You could say that, instead of a leaderless movement, we need a leader-full one. We see such leaders regularly at 350.org. When I wrote earlier that we “staged” 5,200 rallies around the globe, I wasn’t completely accurate. It was more like throwing a potluck dinner. We set the date and the theme, but everywhere other people figured out what dishes to bring.
The thousands of images that accumulated in the Flickr account of that day’s events were astonishing. Most of the people doing the work didn’t look like environmentalists were supposed to. They were largely poor, black, brown, Asian, and young, because that’s what the world mostly is.
Often the best insights are going to come from below: from people, that is, whose life experience means they understand how power works not because they exercise it but because they are subjected to it. That’s why frontline communities in places where global warming’s devastation is already increasingly obvious often produce such powerful ideas and initiatives. We need to stop thinking of them as on the margins, since they are quite literally on the cutting edge.
We live in an age in which creative ideas can spring up just about anywhere and then, thanks to new forms of communication, spread remarkably quickly. This is in itself nothing new. In the civil rights era, for instance, largely spontaneous sit-in campaigns by southern college students in 1960 reshuffled the deck locally and nationally, spreading like wildfire in the course of days and opening up new opportunities.
More recently, in the immigration rights campaign, it was four “Dreamers” walking from Florida to Washington D.C. who helped reopen a stale, deadlocked debate. When Lieutenant Dan Choi chained himself to the White House fence, that helped usher the gay rights movement into a new phase.
But Dan Choi doesn’t have to be Dan Choi forever, and Tim DeChristopher doesn’t have to keep going to jail over government oil and gas leases. There are plenty of others who will arise in new moments, which is a good thing, since the physics of climate change means that the movement has to win some critical victories in the next few years but also last for generations. Think of each of these “leaders” as the equivalent of a pace line for a bike race: one moment someone is out front breaking the wind, only to peel away to the back of the line to rest for a while. In movement terms, when that happens you not only prevent burnout, you also get regular infusions of new ideas.
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