Climate rally on February 17, 2013. (Courtesy of 350.org.)
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The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality—it’s hard to shake. If you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous animal than if you came of age during Vietnam. I was born in 1960, and so the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King Jr. I had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L.
As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more than Dr. King. There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s early sense is hard to dislodge: the civil rights movement had his face on it; Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage.
Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment—even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights—don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.
It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: the fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule. For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots movement because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for another, even as he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading climate science, the other side used every trick and every dollar at their disposal to bring him down. He remains a vital figure in the rest of the world (partly because there he is perceived less as a politician than as a prophet), but at home his power to shape the fight has been diminished.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the movement is diminished. In fact, it’s never been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.
That’s not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.
A Movement for a New Planet
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.