McKibben would go to jail to oppose pipeline
MIDDLEBURY — Bill McKibben doesn’t make a habit of getting arrested, but for the right cause he won’t hesitate to do so.
Apparently, stopping the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline that would pump oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to oil refineries in Texas is one such cause.
McKibben, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, is helping to organize a two-week long demonstration of civil disobedience in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., in which he — and more than a thousand others — are committed to being arrested for the cause of reversing the trend of global climate change.
“The short-term hope is to make this pipeline a national issue,” said the longtime activist and author. “There has been lots of protest in Nebraska and Texas (along the pipeline’s proposed route), but we need to make people understand that it’s an issue for all of us.”
The pipeline, which would cost roughly $7 billion, would tap into the second largest pool of carbon on the planet. McKibben points to the recent warnings of NASA scientist James Hansen, who warns that burning the oil would mean “game over” for the fight to bring the carbon levels in the atmosphere back down to sustainable levels.
In other words, according to McKibben, the pipeline “will put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere that any physicist will tell you needs to stay in the ground.”
The potential impact of the pipeline has led roughly 2,000 people nationwide to sign up to attend the protest, including a disproportionate number from Vermont.
“(It is) nice to know that tons of Vermonters are coming down,” said McKibben. “As usual, the Green Mountain State will punch above its weight.”
Charlotte resident Arthur Hynes is among a group of Vermonters taking a bus down to participate in the protests. The urgency of the situation is what spurred him to action.
“This is a really critical time and a critical project,” said Hynes. “If (the pipeline proposal) goes through, there will be no turning back.”
The goal of the event is to make President Obama aware of the direness of the situation, as it is ultimately his decision whether to approve or squash the pipeline.
“(Obama) has to make a decision one way or another this fall, and he gets to do so without the interference of Congress,” said McKibben. “We’re not so much protesting him … as trying to show him that he has deep and solid support to take the kind of action he promised when he ran in 2008.”
Hynes has similar goals, but also knows that the demonstration will draw plenty of publicity — another important aspect of the event.
“The most important thing is that Obama nixes this pipeline,” said Hynes. “(But also), the more discussion there is, and the more awareness we can raise and pressure we can build, the better.”
The tactic of civil disobedience — breaking the law in a non-confrontational, peaceful manner — has a long history in the American protest tradition. Henry David Thoreau first wrote on the topic in his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, in which he argued for the merits of individual resistance to unjust laws and to governmental attacks on the individual’s conscience.
McKibben notes that the tactic, when employed correctly, can be an invaluable tool in protest movements.
“Civil disobedience is one way of underlining the moral urgency of these questions,” said McKibben, identifying it as “an American tradition stretching back to Thoreau.”
In what McKibben calls “an awfully nice coincidence,” the city will be unveiling a Martin Luther King Jr. monument during the middle weekend of the coming protests. The revered Civil Rights leader famously used the tactics of civil disobedience and nonviolence in the fight for African-American civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s.
McKibben’s 350.org, an organization that he founded in 2008, does not typically engage in civil disobedience, instead focusing more on organizing petitions, rallies and lobbies.
However, he is no stranger to being arrested for the cause of protecting the environment. In 2000, he participated in a smaller civilly disobedient demonstration to reform both campaign finance and environmental policies.
He recalls sitting with activist Doris Haddock, better known as Granny D, who was 90 when she walked across the U.S. to back campaign finance reform, at the moment of his arrest:
“When we were arrested, she looked up at me and said, ‘I’m 93 and I’ve never been arrested before. I should have started long ago.’”
That protest, however, was only 32-people strong. This weekend, said McKibben, will be the beginning of the largest civil disobedience action in the history of the North American climate movement.
Hynes is also no stranger to the concept. In 1971, when he was 22, he traveled from his New Hampshire home to Washington, D.C., to protest the Vietnam War. The May Day demonstrations soon became famous, as nearly a third of the roughly 40,000 protestors were arrested by city police.
Though Hynes was not among the 13,000 taken into custody — the most arrests at a single demonstration in American history — he learned a valuable lesson from the historic event: Civil disobedience can be a powerful force.
After the war ended, it was revealed that the May Day demonstration, and others like it, had had a major impact on President Richard Nixon and his staff. White House aide Jeb Magruder later said that the protest had “shaken” the Nixon administration, and been one of several factors that led to the President withdrawing American troops from Southeast Asia.
“In spite of what (the Nixon administration) said at the time, they were very concerned about (the May Day protest), and it did affect policy,” said Hynes, now in his 60s.
He hopes the environmental movement can recapture that power again in opposition to the pipeline.
“It’s a long movement to build resistance and try to get back to some sanity,” said Hynes. “And this is a crucial moment in that campaign.”
Reporter Ian Trombulak is at [email protected].