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Lessons From Central Cell Block | The Nation

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Lessons From Central Cell Block

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I’m a wuss.

I figured that out on August 20, when a guard was leading me down the cellblock in manacles and leg irons, and I looked through the bars of one cage, and there was Dan Choi, the former Army lieutenant turned gay rights activist.

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Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, most recently The Bill McKibben Reader, an essay collection. A scholar in...

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At the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21, there’s a world to march for.

The dream of an environmental president seems to be fading away.

I knew he’d been arrested with us that morning outside the White House, protesting a climate-killing pipeline called Keystone XL, planned to run from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. But it was only now, in the DC jail’s Central Cell Block, that it really struck me what his participation meant. He’d been down this road before—arrested three times outside the White House, galvanizing the successful effort to end “don’t ask, don’t tell”—so unlike the rest of us, he had a pretty good sense of how his day would end. He did it anyway.

He did it even though climate change isn’t his issue. I didn’t come forward to do time for gay marriage, or immigration reform or any of the other things I believe in; I’m an environmentalist. So looking at Dan made me understand what solidarity looks like—how those of us on the fringe should be uniting to provide common pressure on an administration and a Congress that rarely feels enough heat to veer from the corporate status quo.

Mostly, though, I felt like a wuss—and not just because I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to come back to prison (two nights in Central Cell Block is exactly as much fun as it sounds like). I felt like a wuss because this kind of tough politics scares me. It’s hard for me to take on a president I worked to elect, hard to say the plain truth: that on environmental issues he’s been content to make small changes around the edge but unwilling to use the power of his office to make real change.

Take this pipeline, for example; it should be the easiest of calls. It will be the main outlet for oil from what is the second-largest pool of carbon on the planet, after only Saudi Arabia. But when we struck oil in Saudi Arabia we didn’t know about global warming. Now we do—enough to know that if we fully develop this field, in the words of NASA scientist James Hansen, it’s “essentially game over for the climate.” Any president who heard those words from his most renowned federal atmospheric scientist would, you think, stop the project dead. Especially a president who, on the night of his nomination, promised that during his presidency the “rise of the oceans will begin to slow, and the planet begin to heal.”

And yet the administration has done nothing of the sort. The State Department gave the project a green light in its environmental impact statement, dismissing the threat of sharp increases in carbon emissions. The usual Washington chicanery has been fully in evidence: the pipeline company hired Hillary Clinton’s former deputy campaign manager as its chief lobbyist, and Wikileaks documents showed American envoys working with the Canadian oil barons to produce “favorable media coverage.” President Obama, by all insider accounts, is likely to sign the “certificate of national interest” the project requires. Faced with a choice between the base that elected him and Big Oil, everyone assumes the president will go with Exxon.

What makes it so egregious is that the president, for once, can’t blame Congress. The House and Senate have no role in this process.

Which is why we’ve been out here in front of the White House going on two weeks, with a new wave of fifty to 100 people showing up every morning to get arrested. It’s mostly old people—I’m 50, and I was on the younger edge of people in my cellblock. We’re wearing suits and ties. We’re being as polite as can be—even to the president. Instead of saying, “We won’t vote for you if you do the wrong thing,” we’re saying, “Think how charged-up your supporters will be if you do the right thing.” That’s a good political argument, I think—one look at the 2010 elections demonstrates the problem of a demoralized base—but maybe it’s too wussy for our political moment. Maybe we need to say: you promised certain things, and you aren’t delivering. Why should we follow you any more?

There’s at least some sign the protests are making a difference. Within the normally fractious environmental movement, the leaders of every major group came together on the fifth day of the protests to issue a stronger letter to the president than I’ve ever seen them make. From the corporate-friendly Environmental Defense Fund to anti-corporate Greenpeace, one message: there’s not “an inch of daylight” between our positions on the pipeline and those of the people being arrested outside your house. Your decision will be “the biggest climate test between now and the election,” and you simply must block it. “We expect nothing less.”

The question, I suppose, will come if he allows the pipeline to proceed. Does the threat of a global-warming denier in the White House cause us to kiss and make up? I don’t know—like I said, I’m a wuss. But there’s clearly something in the air—progressive groups across a wide variety of issues are beginning to sense that they need Obama to keep his promises now, precisely so they can go to work for him with a clear heart. And we’re beginning to see that he’ll need us; in a New York Times article about the pipeline protests, Julian Zelizer, a Princeton political analyst said, “I think a year ago President Obama felt he could do things that might alienate his base and organizations important to the Democratic Party and get away with it because in the end most Democrats wouldn’t go for a Republican…. Now he might pay a price for it.”

It’s not a threat—it’s more just like reality. Physics and chemistry dictate that we can’t put more carbon into the atmosphere; political science dictates you can’t ignore your friends’ top priorities.

I don’t know how it all comes out; I don’t really know what to do. But I do know this: if my hands hadn’t been cuffed behind my back, I would have saluted Dan Choi when I went by his cell. He’s who I want to be when I grow up. 

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