Most Americans have never joined a political demonstration.
Which is too bad. Because as I was reminded while joining yet another demonstration, it can be tons of fun.
The rally this time was “Forward on Climate,” a boisterous gathering in Washington DC of 35,000 people, who called on President Obama to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The future of the pipeline is up to Obama because it would cross the Canada-U.S. border — to bring the dirtiest oil on the planet from Alberta to refineries in the southern U.S.
Why would so many people brave the chilly winds of February to gather at the Washington Monument and then march around the White House?
Because, as top NASA climate scientist James Hansen put it, if Obama approves the tar sands pipeline and Alberta’s carbon-laden oil is refined and burned, it’s “game over for the climate.”
No second chances. No continuing to treat this planet as if we had another one to go to, once we were through trashing this one. Just decades of drought, flooding, superstorms, famine and all the instability that will come with them.
Unless, that is, we finally decide it’s a bad idea to burn all that carbon. Unless we instead make massive investments in conservation and alternative energy.
But back to the fun part.
Over the years, I’ve attended too many political rallies to count. And even the supposedly grim ones were mostly exciting and uplifting events.
You’re there with friends, surrounded by thousands of others who feel as passionately as you do. There’s music and drumming and the kind of chanting in which white people too seldom engage.
Speakers make history at these events — calling in words that echo through time for an end to war, racism and environmental destruction. Laying out visions of a world in which we are at peace with each other and with the natural world.
Packed in there among the rally mass, one comes to understand that if we all work hard enough and stay dedicated long enough, we really can reach that Promised Land.
We can make huge strides toward racial equality, justice and love. We’ll honor the planet every Earth Day and pass landmark laws to clean the air and water. We’ll end the war in Southeast Asia and make it too politically costly to continue the occupation of Iraq.
“All I ever wanted to see was a movement of people to stop climate change, and now I’ve seen it,” said Ripton resident and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben in his Sunday speech. “We shouldn’t have to be here — science should have decided our course long ago. But it takes a movement to stand up to all that money.”
“Our theme has to be: when you’re in a hole, stop digging,” McKibben added. “Above all stop the Keystone Pipeline. The president can do it with a single stroke of his pen, and if he does he will become the first world leader to veto a big project because it’s bad for the climate. That would be a legacy—and a signal to the rest of the world as well that we’re serious about this fight.”
Van Jones, who once headed Obama’s green jobs programs, noted that the president promised in his inaugural and State of the Union that he would act against climate change. “I think we should take the president at his word, but make him honor his word,” Jones said. “This pipeline, if it goes through—the first thing that the pipeline runs over is the credibility of the president of the United States.”
In the crowd Sunday was a busload of Middlebury College students who had traveled to DC.
Before that long bus trip, they began the weekend by gathering Saturday morning outside a meeting of the college’s Board of Trustees.
Inside Old Chapel, seven impressively articulate students told trustees they have a moral and fiduciary obligation to divest out of all college investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies. As the students convincingly demonstrated, divestment isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s in the college’s self-interest and in accord with its admirable environmental traditions.
Said Middlebury alum and 350.com co-founder Jamie Henn, “This is the next generation of the climate movement, just as comfortable negotiating in a board room as they are marching in the streets.”
The Rev. Lennox Yearwood, head of the Hip Hop Caucus, made a statement Sunday that was as remarkable as it was true, because Yearwood is a black minister. The climate movement is even more important than the civil rights movement, Yearwood said: “While they were fighting for equality, we are fighting for existence.”
McKibben said the event was fueled by “passion, spirit, creativity and the powerful love for the future that brought you here today.” One could see and feel that in the predominantly young crowd.
For older people such as myself, the climate movement is part of a long tradition. For today’s college students, it’s about fighting for the only future they have.