By Nicholas Jahr
As the freshly shellacked president cuts deals with a triumphant Republican Party, the annual Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship was awarded to two uncompromising activists: environmentalist Bill McKibben and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards.
Awarded annually for the last decade by the Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation, this is the first time the prize has been given to two recipients.
“The times dictated that we’ve got to fight back,” says Gladys Rosenstein, who runs the Puffin Foundation with her husband Perry. Their choices of who to support this year were dictated by the causes under attack: the fight for women’s rights and against global warming. When it comes to the latter, Gladys notes, “they seem to think it’s a farce.”
McKibben was one of the first writers to realize that this was no farce, and to sound the alarm. His book “The End of Nature,” originally serialized in the New Yorker, was the first book on the subject for a general audience.
“I think I always assumed that it was going to be someone else’s job to do the organizing,” McKibben says. “A few years ago I was in Bangladesh when they were having their first big outbreak of dengue fever. Mosquitoes dig this warm, wet world we’re building. And I got sick. Watching people die around me, in a country that has done nothing at all to contribute to this crisis, and yet is already paying an immense price … that just made me think that you should be doing more than writing and speaking about this.”
So McKibben, working alongside a handful of college students, formed 350.org. That’s 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; above that level, according to NASA’s James Hansen, “the more likely that we will see disastrous and irreversible climate impacts.” We’re currently at 388.
“We’re not going to stop global warming at this point,” McKibben says. “We’ve already raised the temperature a degree.” Nor does McKibben think that measures like the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill, which died in the Senate this year, are up to the task. “What happens in 2050 may be less important at this point than what happens in 2020. We’ve got to make really sharp, quick reductions. Cap-and-trade was an attempt by the Beltway environmental groups—and an understandable one—to do what they could without a movement behind them. To try and make a series of compromises and back room deals with industry. That’s why the bill was so warped and tepid by the time it finally emerged. So the trouble was that it wasn’t a very good bill and they still couldn’t win. Even come close. What it demonstrates is the need for a movement.”
350.org has set out to build that movement through events like its Global Work Party, bringing people together in 7,400 communities in 188 countries to work on small-scale projects to improve the environment and then lobby their representatives. “We did that not because you can solve climate change one bike path at a time,” McKibben says. “You can’t.” What you can do is try to resurrect the sort of communities we lived in before cars and fossil fuels drove us to ever farther apart, and maybe build a movement in the process.
“The ability to link those things together in a new way is one of the few wild cards working in our favor,” McKibben says. “One of the things that’s important about the Internet is that it’s incredibly cheap to use. So we’ve had no money. And yet one of the first things we did at 350.org was take what money we had, about $8,000, and make a really good animated video. The thing has been seen millions and millions of times on YouTube and been a very good organizing tool. The website that we built works in more than a dozen languages, which is pretty rare. It took all the money we had to make it. Exxon-Mobil can spend 70 or 80 million dollars building their website without blinking an eye, but it won’t be any better than ours.”
In contrast to McKibben, Richards started out as a labor organizer, eventually becoming Planned Parenthood’s president in February 2006. “The work I do at Planned Parenthood is directly connected to the work I did right out of college, organizing garment workers,” Richards says. “The same women I was organizing then are the women we see at Planned Parenthood health centers.”
The waiting rooms of those clinics are probably more familiar than most Americans would care to admit. And yet in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, historian Nancy L. Cohen declared that it was time to abandon the rhetoric of “pro-choice,” arguing that voters/people inevitably identify with “life” over “choice.”
“Women and young people think of these issues in terms of their health,” Richards says. “Most people don’t get up thinking every morning about choice, but they do get up thinking about do they have access to the health care they need or their kids need or their family needs. This is an issue of access to health care. That’s our mission, and it’s been pretty sobering to see how much work is left to do.”
To that end, Obama’s health care reform was, in Richards’ evaluation, “an imperfect bill.” Even as it expands women’s overall access to health care, it still threatens to severely limit coverage for abortion, and the Department of Health and Human Services will soon decide whether insurers will be required to cover birth control. Planned Parenthood has seized on this as an opportunity to engage with young people throughout the country “who understand what it means to pay $50 a month for your birth control,” Richards says. “We’ve made sure they [HHS] know there’s enormous support at the grassroots level for this kind of policy.”
Planned Parenthood’s political activism isn’t limited to lobbying. In Colorado, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund mailed information on the state’s Senate race to 156,000 independent women voters. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet ultimately defeated challenger Ken Buck by a mere 15,000 votes.
Richards argues that it was the ballot initiative declaring a fertilized egg a full-fledged person that really drove women to the polls. “We beat it 3 to 1 in a state that was evenly divided in partisan terms,” Richards says. Planned Parenthood took advantage of similar gender gaps in Senate races in Oregon and Washington, where Democrats also narrowly held a seat.
The right is paying attention: Indiana Rep. Mike Pence has reintroduced his Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act, intended to strip Planned Parenthood of all federal funding.
“The interesting thing,” Richards observes, “is that if Congressman Pence or any of his cohorts really wanted to reduce abortion in this country, they’d be volunteering at a Planned Parenthood health center. We do more to prevent abortions and unintended pregnancies than any other organization in America.”
This is the sort of creative citizenship that Perry Rosenstein wanted to reward when he and former Nation publisher Victor Navasky cooked up the idea for the Puffin Prize a decade ago. Rosenstein made his money in “nuts and screws and bolts” and wanted to put it to work supporting people who have “found a way to bring social issues to the public.” The prize is “a way to keep those people going, even in very difficult times.”
“I’ve been a volunteer in this work for the three years that we’ve done it,” says McKibben. “So it’ll help me go on a little longer.”
Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.