Joshua Frank: Bill McKibben, Step it Up!

By Joshua Frank

This weekend will see the largest gathering of environmental activists in the US since the first Earth Day held almost 37 years ago.  It may even be larger. Tens upon thousands will be assembling in all 50 states, demanding that Congress act now to reduce carbon emissions. Organizers will be asking for an 80% reduction by the middle of the century in hopes of curbing the effects of global warming. The actions, led by celebrated author Bill McKibben and his team, want our government to Step it Up! — which is what they are calling the day’s festivities.

While the organizational magnitude of McKibben’s efforts is truly astounding, one has to wonder if it all will even make a bit of difference, even in Congress takes heed. Is McKibben even calling for the right kind of measures? As McKibben writes, “Those of us who know that climate change is the greatest threat civilization now faces have science on our side; we have economists and policy specialists, courageous mayors and governors, engineers with cool new technology.”

Indeed he is right. Global Warming is happening and almost all renowned scientists are in agreement that humans have something to do with it. But I have to differ significantly with McKibben on one key point: I don’t think this “civilization” is worth saving. Especially if it continues to be industrial and militarist in nature. The United States armed forces are the single largest polluter the world has ever witnessed. And I don’t think our culture of exploitation, whether of natural resources or human bodies, is in any way “civilized”. Quite the opposite. We are a civilization of corporate and individual greed, and an 80% reduction, while a positive step forward, is hardly the answer. I wish McKibben and his cohorts had the guts to call out the 800-pound gorilla in the corner of the room that so few are willing to talk about: Capitalism.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that the Prius driving lifestyle activists will likely be showing up for Step it Up! in large numbers. But no matter how much we may like the idea of hybrid or vegetable powered vehicles, I don’t think Toyota or big oil companies are going to save this dying planet. We are facing a much larger crisis that goes beyond the well-worn facets of global warming. The thawing of the Earth is only a symptom of a much more rampant and infectious disease that has plagued virtually every corner of the globe.

Paul S. Sutter, an environmental historian at the University of Georgia, argues in his book Driven Wild that the modern day environmental movement was sparked by a fight against the automobile in the 1920s and 30s, which was only a indication of a much larger mechanized, corporate society. Henry Ford was a true industrialist. He made cars affordable to many. As a result road development ravaged America. Highways ripped through our forests and across the plains. People began to speed through the wild instead of stopping to actually experience what it had to offer. It was industrial capitalism that perpetuated this cycle — a deadly sequence of despair that we are still coping with today as China dams its rivers and Indonesia pollutes its air. They’ve simply followed our path of destruction without remorse. 

The American West faced, and is continuing to face, the same massive unfettered development. One need look no further than the car-jammed sprawl called Denver or the clear-cut cemeteries of the Pacific Northwest. Habitat is being lost at an exponential rate, yet few are talking about the true cause. Or cure. It’s not just logging companies or fisheries that are killing off salmon and grizzly bears; it’s the system that fosters such behavior.

And that’s what we need to start talking about. In fact, that’s what we need to start opposing. As Derrick Jensen, author of Endgame, has said, “What do salmon need? They need for dams to be removed. They need for industrial logging to stop. They need for industrial fishing to stop. (I’m not saying they need for fishing to stop; they need for industrial fishing to stop.) They need for industrial agriculture to stop, because of runoff. They need for global warming to stop, which means they need for the industrial economy to stop. They need for the oceans not to be murdered. And each of those is pretty straightforward.”

Imagine if Step it Up! was a call to take on the industrialization of the entire planet? A plea to oppose industrial capitalism? An appeal to halt the global economy and turn toward the local? As Jensen asks, what is our threshold before we start to fight back? When will we say, “enough is enough”? What species will have to be killed off before we shut down the system? Will it be the polar bears or the spotted owl? Songbirds or your grandmother? I think those are questions we all need to start asking.

I’ll give the last word to the great Edward Abbey, who, peering out over the monstrous Glen Canyon Dam in the Spring of 1981, had this to say to the crowd that had amassed; “The domination of nature leads to the domination of human beings. Meanwhile, what to do … Oppose the destruction of our homeland by these alien forces from Houston, Tokyo, Manhattan, Washington DC, and the Pentagon. And if opposition is not enough, we must resist. And if resistance is not enough, than subvert.  After ten years of modest environmental progress, the powers of industrialism and militarism have become alarmed. The Empire is striking back, though we must continue to strike back at the Empire by whatever means available to us. Win or lose, it is a matter of honor. Oppose, resist, subvert, delay, until the Empire itself begins to fall apart.”

-Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush and edits

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out