The Common Good
July 2009

The Price of Victory

by Bill McKibben | July 2009

Winning can be nearly as hard as losing. Everything changed for the American environmental movement with Barack Obama’s victory.

Winning can be nearly as hard as losing. Everything changed for the American environmental movement with Barack Obama’s victory. We went overnight from a president who had done nothing but block action on global warming for eight years to a president committed to strong action. And in truth it wasn’t just eight years—since Bill Clinton and the elder Bush talked better games, but had done nothing either, it was as if a switch had been flipped after 20 years. Within days Detroit was on notice to produce high-mileage cars, and the government itself was filling its fleet with hybrids; we had heroes such as Steven Chu running the Department of Energy and Van Jones working as green jobs czar in the White House; there was even talk that Jimmy Carter’s old solar panels, or some modern version, would soon be lighting the Obama bedroom.

It was head-spinning. But it also meant that suddenly environmentalists would have the opportunity, and hence the duty, to make legislation in the real world. After 20 years of railing against the forces of fossil fuel with no real hope of reining them in, there was now actually a chance to do something about it. But that means: Compromise. Compromise is the price of victory—you have to give up the chance to get all you’ve dreamed of for the possibility of getting some of what you need. That’s difficult, because the dreams have kept you going, and there’s something cruel about seeing them reduced at the moment of triumph.

Compromise, on the one hand, can be hard—we’ve all waited for the chance to do something serious about global warming, and any legislation that can clear Congress will be less serious than it should be. Compromise can also be treacherously easy—the bar is so low after the Bush years that any progress at all can be confused for a resounding victory. Compromise can split apart movements—and build big new coalitions.

And we’ve got to figure it out, on the fly. How much bending can we live with? If coal state senators want to wait until 2020 to start making real cuts—is that too high a price? If investment bankers want to make big bucks selling each other carbon credits, can we live with the unsettling greed that represents? If the price of a million solar panels turns out to be a dozen nuclear power plants, is that too high?

Everyone will choose differently, and hopefully everyone will resist the impulse to vilify those on the same general side who make the political calculation a little differently. Somewhere between purity and pure conciliation lies the right posture, and the truth is that none of us know for sure where.

But environmentalists do have one thing that makes their lives easier (and maybe harder) than others. Nature provides some bottom lines that simply can’t be compromised away. The most important of these, we now know, is 350, as in parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Above that level—and we’re already above it—the earth doesn’t work right. According to the latest studies, that’s why the Arctic is melting and Australia’s on fire. That’s why we’ve formed, and are heading for a huge global day of action on October 24. Because all of us, around the world, can agree at least on this bright line and demand that our leaders take us there.

Since I’m a Methodist, I think often of Wesley’s great credo: In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity.

And in the atmosphere, less carbon. Now.

Bill McKibben, scholar in residence for environmental studies at Middlebury College in Vermont and the author of The End of Nature, is co-founder of

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