Nonviolent civil disobedience has been a less effective tactic in this country in the past few decades for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is probably that our woes are more complicated than in an earlier age. If there’s an exception to this rule, it's the issue I've spent much of my life working on: climate change.
True, climate change is rooted in complex science, but at this point the mechanisms are pretty clear: Burn fossil fuel and wreck the planet. It carries a strong moral edge: The people who burn the least suffer the most. And there are a series of relatively obvious villains: oil and coal barons, who not only profit from the carbon but use their proceeds to foul the debate with endless propaganda.
Since campaigners have in many cases changed their own lives, and tried for two decades the obvious tactics, such as legislative advocacy, without result, maybe the time has come to heighten the stakes, with mass action at the most obvious sites, from coal-fired power plants to corporate headquarters and congressional offices. Indeed, brave people have already begun: More than 100 were arrested, for instance, in a recent D.C. protest about mountaintop removal coal mining.
But using this tactic effectively will require some other changes.
For one, we need to change the image of such protest. At the moment, it's too easy to caricature as a remnant of the past. The Associated Press described the mountaintop removal protests, for instance, as filled with a "hippie, counterculture vibe"; The Washington Post led with photos of bearded and dreadlocked participants. That coverage was un-fair -- some of those arrested were retired coal miners -- but it points out the problem. What we need are actions that look as much as possible like the America that needs persuading, or even like an idealized America: men and women, in their best clothes, who can’t be dismissed by anyone. Since we’re not actually going to shut down the fossil fuel system (hint -- it's too big), the purpose of such action is symbolic, and therefore the symbols matter greatly.
If it were up to me, the first ranks would all be people of a certain age: those of us born in the Eisenhower administration or before, and hence culpable for a lifetime of fuel-burning. Many would be clerics of every stripe, reminding us of the moral weight both of the issue and of our actions. The young should be there too -- but if anyone's to be arrested, they should be last. (Though I recall my friend, the great activist Granny D, as we were handcuffed at the Capitol a decade ago. "I'm 93," she told me. "I've never been arrested. I should have started long ago.")
Such a scene would remind viewers who the radicals in this story are: not environmental campaigners, but oil companies willing to keep pouring carbon into the atmosphere, even as scientists tell us that by so doing we take the planet that birthed our civilization and change it profoundly.