Los Angeles—Less than a week after the presidential election, a fired-up crowd of climate activists cheered Bill McKibben and the “Do the Math” roadshow at their UCLA stop. “Do the Math” is on a three-week caravan traveling by biodiesel-powered bus, with a stop in Washington, DC, to challenge the president to take quick action on the environment.
The twenty-one-city tour promises to be a model for progressives committed to aggressively pushing Obama and Congress even before Obama’s second term formally begins in January.
One hundred chanting, marching students attended the UCLA event from the Claremont Colleges, fifty miles away, to announce their campaign to seek a campus divestment from the “rogue” fossil fuel industry. Already this week Seattle’s mayor instructed his finance team to investigate how to divest city funds, and Maine’s Unity College announced its plan to divest.
350.org, the sponsoring organization for “Do the Math,” is calling on colleges, religious institutions and public pension funds to make no new investments in fossil fuels, “wind down” current investments in five years. Divestment would lead fossil fuel providers to begin to curtail lobbying activities in Washington, DC, and prepare to transition to a future as “energy companies.” The strategy is partly modeled on the global campaign of divestment from South Africa, although the analogy is incomplete. South Africans were carrying out a liberation war that could not be defeated, with powerful African-American and clergy constituencies in America. Legislators like Maxine Waters and Willie Brown carried divestment bills for seven years before being signed in California, tipping the balance against apartheid. Despite its efforts, 350 is not inclusive of black or Latino constituencies although is message is one of environmental justice. The UCLA event was overwhelmingly white on a campus where a majority of undergraduates are non-white.
How to explain 350’s scale? Just as a pointless war can spark a massive peace movement, the corporate-governmental attack on the sources of life itself causes an instinctive human response on behalf of the earth. The scale and energy of this movement goes far beyond the considerable organizational power of the well-funded and well-staffed national environmental groups. It rests on the collective legacy of many previous upsurges going back as far the millions who gathered at the first Earth Day, the vast anti-nuclear power movement and the Nuclear Freeze effort. It has something to do with the 51-year-old McKibben’s flexible, improvisational, gentle and grounded style of leadership. A longtime resident of Vermont, a graduate of Harvard and a lyrical nature writer, his personal authenticity contains echoes of Henry David Thoreau. He seems to know that he is a prophetic instrument of an emerging force much greater than himself.