2013 Gandhi Peace Award Laureate
April 18, 2013
Bill McKibben is the principal co-founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, which has coordinated over 15 thousand rallies in 189 countries since 2009. He has written a dozen books about the environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, now available in more than 20 languages, which is regarded as the first book for a general audience on climate change.
Now widely recognized as the nation’s leading environmental activist, Time Magazine called him “the planet’s best green journalist” while the Boston Globe hailed him as “probably the country’s most important environmentalist.”
Bill McKibben is the first environmentalist to receive the Gandhi Peace Award, in recognition of the contributions to world peace made by committed environmental movement leaders such as Bill McKibben and by his consistently effective efforts to highlight the connection between local environmental dangers and their regional and global consequences.
In making this Award, PEP commits itself to the fusion of the now-separate movements for world peace and environmental harmony, given that that a sustainable civilization requires both, and that neither can be achieved without the other.
Susan Yolan, Vice-President, PEP
Paul L. Hodel, President, PEP
James C. van Pelt, Secretary, PEP
John Grim – Alliances for Planetary Stewardship: Introduction of Bill McKibben
Augusta Girard, Program Director, PEP
Bill McKibben accepting award.
Bill McKibben, Augusta Girard, Dan Choi, gay rights activist
Interviews and photos
Acceptance Speech Transcript:
I’ve got to say, it’s a little harder work to sit and listen to people say nice things about you for
half an hour than you might think. Those were all exceptionally nice things, Augusta and my old
friend John and James. It was wonderful to get to know more about this organization and all
that it’s done. It really is a great honor to get to help join the environment into this larger
sphere of work that you all have been engaged in. I think that in many ways it’s an appropriate
addition. Gandhi was the greatest human being of the 20th century in my estimation, but he
did not work in a vacuum.
Indeed, he was always very candid about who his intellectual forebears were. He talked a lot, of
course, about Tolstoy and the lessons he learned from them, and the lessons as he understood
them that Tolstoy had picked up from an American of the 19th century, one, Henry David
Thoreau, our proto-environmentalist and our first, in the modern age, advocate of the kind of
civil disobedience tactics that became Gandhi’s great political forte as he fought the biggest
empire in the world and fought it peacefully and beautifully and successfully. I think there’s
something quite powerful about that linkage all the way back to Thoreau.
I remember writing once some years ago that I thought that when historians looked back at the 20th century
from far into the future, from a few hundred years in the future, and this is, of course, supposing that we do
indeed win at least in sufficient fashion that there are historians to look back in a few hundred years at our time,
that the inventions, the two inventions of the 20th century that will prove to have been the most interesting and
revolutionary won’t be the ones we think of at the moment. They won’t nuclear power or the human genome or any of those things.
I think the two most interesting ideas of the 20th century were, one, an American invention,
the wilderness area. A place where human beings decide that they’re not going to be dominant,
where they’re going to excuse themselves to one degree or another. It’s a very new idea,
although it has its roots in those sacred groves and things I think that John could describe quite
well, but a powerful idea about making ourselves smaller, not bigger, about reversing in a
certain way the tide of our destiny, which seems to have always been in that direction of
aggrandizement, of enlarging ourselves.
The second invention, and very closely related, was this technology of nonviolence that Gandhi
pioneered in India, and then Dr. King developed with such power in our own country. That
technology, again, is a kind of remarkable twist on what human beings had thought up to that
time was the necessary way of solving their problems. That is to make themselves bigger so
they could beat other people at whatever it was that they were doing.
The decision instead that there was some great power in making oneself smaller and turning
the other cheek, in not trying to overpower one’s opponent, was remarkable insight and a
shrewd one. Of course, it had its antecedents, too. Gandhi traced it straight back, and correctly
I think, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the example of the Gospel. Of course, one can go back
further than that and look at the Buddha and others and understand that to put that to work in
the service of political change was a great, great insight and technology, I think.
A technology every bit as interesting, much more interesting, than the technologies of war that we
have spent such expense and such effort studying. Well, we have great academies like West Point where
we study and think about. Well, this technology is as of yet largely unexplored. We haven’t fully thought
out its ramifications yet. I think we will, and I think as time goes on it’ll be … but, but it’s exciting for
all of us to get to be a kind of part of its unfolding at least a little bit.
To understand that that motive energy that comes from the example of unearned suffering, of the
willingness to take on suffering that one doesn’t have to, that that’s a very, that’s a source of energy far
stronger than any of the great inventions of the 20th century that we think of as sources of enormous power.
Right now, it’s in the environmental movement is one of the places where we’re exploring that
technology and every day. Today, or tomorrow, I guess, my friend Tim DeChristopher gets out
of federal custody after two years (applause) of very, very, very brave, very brave … I visited
Tim in federal prison in California last winter, and it was hard to see him there, you know?
Partly because, like me, he is most fully alive out in the woods and in the mountains. He’s a
river runner and a mountain climber and all those things. To see him confined in prison was
very, very hard.
This afternoon, my friend, the great biologist and writer and environmentalist, Sandra Steingraber,
went to prison for a 15 day sentence in Upstate New York for her very brave fight against fracking across
New York. She’ll be there for the next couple of weeks, and keep her in your prayers.
It is the greatest of satisfactions to have in the room one of the people who’s experimented most successfully
with this technology in recent times in Dan, who, we would not have overcome “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and
we might not gotten anywhere near as far as we did in the sort of marriage rights movement had
it not been for his brave intervention.
His willingness to go and lock himself to the fence of the White House,
that was an absolute turning point, the moment at which sort of the
establishment groups in the gay rights movement and stuff understood that all of a sudden they
were going to have to up their game and fight a lot harder. He pushed everyone forward.
Then, he came back and got arrested with us when we were fighting the Keystone pipeline in
2011 (applause), and provided exactly the muscle of inter-movement cooperation that we
desperately need as we go forward, because these fights are very much the same. The fight for
gay rights, the fight for immigration reform, the fights all over the world are very much the
same. It is a great pleasure to have him here (applause).
I’m not as eloquent as John or James before, but I do want to just talk for a minute about
exactly where we find ourselves, because it really is at one of these moments, one of these few
moments, maybe only the second moment really in human history, when we face a test of such
enormous dimension that to fail it would be terminal.
The first of these tests, one that so far, thanks to people like the people in this room, we’ve kind
of … well, at least we’ve been passing, more or less. The first of them came with the new 20th
century technology of nuclear weapons, and the understanding that all of a sudden it was
within our power to change everything all at once. The vision for me is always of Oppenheimer
standing there at the first explosion at Alamogordo , looking up at this fireball and quoting from
the Gita and saying, “We are become as gods, destroyers of worlds.” That had never been a
possibility for human beings before, and all of a sudden it was.
So far (knocks twice), we have been able to head off that great trauma. So far, after Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, we haven’t done it again, which is a good sign, a sign of humans’ ability to
understand the danger they’re in and then to do something about it. I think one reason we
were able to do something about it was that it was easy for us to picture in our minds the
effects of those huge explosions. They made viscera l sense to us.
It was harder to imagine that the explosion of billions of pistons and billions of cylinders very
hour of every day around this planet could have the same scale of effect but, in fact, that’s what
turns out to be happening. That’s what climate change is. So far, we’ve put enough carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere, burned enough coal, gas and oil to raise the temperature of the
Earth one degree, which does not actually sound like that much. I mean, if the temperature
changes one degree between the time we walked in and the time we walk out, none of us will
be able to tell the difference.
It turns out that the Earth can tell the difference. It means that we’re trapping about three-
quarters of a watt of extra solar energy per square meter of the Earth’s surface. Again,
that doesn’t sound like much. It’s less than one of those small white Christmas tree lights per square
meter of the Earth’s surface, but there turn out to be a lot of square meters of the Earth’s
surface, and aggregated together, it turns into an enormous quantity of energy on the scale of
several hundred thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs, that much energy.
We have a sense now of how much energy that adds up to because we can see its effects around us.
A few days ago, I got new cryostat data from the satellites that circle above the North Pole. What they
told us was, we only have about 20% of the summer sea ice left in the Arctic that we did 40 years ago.
Eighty percent of its gone. We just smashed through every record for Arctic ice melt last summer.
We broke the old record by about August 16 with a month to go. By the time we were done, I mean, just
… you know all that. We really had broken one of the biggest physical features on Earth, and
the other one’s close behind.
We’re near the ocean here, the beautiful Atlantic. This Connecticut shore is a particularly beautiful place.
My wife went to school here. She grew up in Norwalk, so I know it second-hand at least a little bit, this part
of the world, and it’s very beautiful, but the water out there is very different from when she was growing up.
It’s 30% more acidic, because the chemistry of seawater changes as it absorbs carbon from the
atmosphere. This had not even occurred to us 25 years ago when I wrote The End of Nature.
The oceans are our metaphor for vastness. We did not think we could actually do much to
them, certainly not change their pH, but we have.
For those of us on land, the thing we notice first, I think, is changes in hydrology, in the way
that water moves around the planet. If you want one fact to understand our century,
it’s that warm air holds more water vapor than cold. As a result, the atmosphere
is 5% wetter than it was. That’s a lot. That’s a staggering change in a basic physical parameter.
It loads the dice for drought and flood, and we are seeing both in astonishing quantities every day someplace around the world.
We’ve seen epic droughts in Africa. We’ve seen last summer’s remarkable drought across the
richest farmland in the world. We’ve also seen rain storms of completely unprecedented
proportion place after place after place. This afternoon, apparently, it was Chicago’s turn. They
had rain more than they’d ever measured at this time of the year in the whole history of the
place, causing enormous quick flooding.
A week before that, it was Buenos Aires. They had what they described as a tsunami of rainfall,
a completely unprecedented event. Fifty or 60 people died, drowned in their cars. It’s always like this
now someplace around the world, and sometimes much worse. In 2010, record rainfall along the headwaters
of the Indus River up in the mountains of Pakistan. By the time that it worked its way down across the whole
nation, 25% of Pakistan was under water. Twenty million people were out of their homes. It’s as if Hurricane Sandy
had made everybody from Baltimore to Boston have to evacuate their houses.
Of course, Hurricane Sandy was bad enough. It was certainly a reminder to us of what’s going
on. To see the greatest city in the world, to see the New York City subway system filled with the
Atlantic Ocean was to be reminded in no uncertain terms of the fragility of this arrangement
that we call civilization in the face of the change that we are now making. A change that, unless
we get to work very, very rapidly, will be very, very much worse.
We’ve raised the temperature one degree. The same scientists who told us that that would happen and predicted
its results predicted them by the way with fairly eerie specificity. You can go find lots of reports saying which subway
stations in New York City were going to flood when the first big storm came.
They were exactly right about what was going to go on.
The same scientists who told us all that now tell us with robust confidence that unless we stop
burning coal and gas and oil far more quickly than any government currently plans to, that one
degree will be four or five degrees before the youngest people in this room are old people.
There is no reason to think that our civilization can even begin to cope with change on that scale.
The agronomists, Stanford University Washington, put out a study two years ago now that said
from this point on … They didn’t even look at drought and flood. They just looked at what
happens to our main grain crops as the temperature rises, because those evolved over the last
10,000 years to be used to the climate that we’ve had. What they found was that from this
point on, each degree increase in global average temperature should cut grain yields about
10%. Watching what happened in Iowa last summer, it’s easy to see how that could happen.
Try to imagine the planet that we’re on, all that you know about it, with a temperature two or
three degrees higher and, therefore, 20 or 30% fewer calories. Just run that in your mind, and
try to figure out whether any of the things you care about, about development, about public
health, about war and peace, can possibly be sustained in that kind of world. I don’t think they
This is the biggest thing that human beings have ever done by far. The most important thing
that happened in the lifetime of everyone in this room was that we left behind the Holocene, the 10,000-year
period of benign climatic stability that underwrote the rise of human civilization. Now we’ve moved into
something else, and the only question is how far into it we’re going to move. The stakes are enormous. Enormous and very basic.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put out a study in January saying that the world
had grown hot enough and muggy enough already that the capacity of human beings to work outdoors
has already been reduced about 10% , and by mid-century on current trends would be reduced to about
30%. That’s about as basic as it gets, you know? The idea that we’re making it too hot for us to go outside
and do what human beings have always done, raise the food we need to feed ourselves, whatever it is.
The really grim stuff’s over now (laughing). We’ll move on a little bit to a slightly different order
of grimness which is about trying to answer the question of why we haven’t done anything
about this so far. It’s not for lack of warning. Science has … This was a remarkable case of
science telling us precisely what we needed to know, and the amazing amount of human brain
power put to work on this project beginning … well, beginning a long time ago.
Beginning in the 1890s when Arrhenius, the great Swedish chemist, first did the kind of back-of-
the-envelope calculations about what would happen If we continued, as he put it, to evaporate
our coal mines into the air. We knew already that the molecular structure of CO2 trapped heat.
He was able to calculate numbers that come not that far from what our supercomputers now
tell us about what the future holds.
Really, human efforts had gained power in the 1970s and 1980s as we built computing capacities
large enough to really crack the … and by 1988, James Hansen, our great, greatest scientific hero, testified
before Congress. He said , “It’s time to stop waffling and say the planet’s heating up, and that we’re the cause.”
Then, the rest of the scientific community, in the powerful dialectic that they employ, tried to
knock him down. That’s how it’s supposed to work in that community, and they did their best.
By 1995, the rest of the world’s scientific community was saying, “Okay. This is correct. This is
what’s going on. We need to get to work.”
We didn’t get to work. We didn’t get to work anywhere, especially in the United States. We’ve had a 25 year
bipartisan effort in Washington to accomplish nothing, and it’s been entirely successful (laughing) (applause).
One needs to ask why that is. We could come up with a long list of reasons but, frankly, the biggest one,
the most important one, is that the richest industry on Earth has been able to completely block change of any significant kind.
The fossil fuel industry has all the money, almost literally. Exxon made more money last year than any company
in the history of money. They are the 1% of the 1%. Of course, it only takes a little bit of that money to
corrupt political systems enough to make sure that change doesn’t happen. Keeping change from happening
is a relatively easy thing to do. At least compared with trying to make change happen. They’ve been up to the task, so far.
They’ve been able to defend the greatest special privilege that there ever was and the source of
their great wealth, which is that they’re the one industry that gets to throw out their waste for
free. They’re allowed to pour carbon into the atmosphere without cost. Every economist that I
know of in this country 25 years ago started sayingthis is an externality, to use their language,
that we must force them to internalize. They have to pay the price of carbon. Otherwise, it will
forever be an unfair competition with the kind of energy sources that don’t pour carbon into
The fossil fuel industry’s been sufficiently skilled to keep that from happening. There was an
interesting exposé today, a very good one, about what’s been going on in California, where
Chevron, the oil company, who gave the largest campaign donation in the post-Citizens United
world, where Chevron’s been battling to undermine California’s environmental regulations with
There was just a fascinating quote in it from a vice president of Chevron who had since quit. He
said, “If you’re an oil company, what you want is for nothing ever to change.” That’s absolutely
right. You want it because you’re an absolutely stripped down and incredibly simple machine
with only one goal in mind, which is to make more money.
The CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, gave an interview on Charlie Rose two or three weeks ago.
Charlie Rose tossed him a real softball question. He said, “Tell me what your philosophy is,” and
I think he expected he would say something about helping improve the world. Looked him
straight in the eye and said, “My philosophy is to make money.” That’s exactly right. High marks
for honesty (laughing). The way that they make money is that they burn stuff … they dig stuff
up for us to burn.
I did a piece last summer for Rolling Stone that went strangely viral (applause). It became a … It
was in the issue with Justin Bieber on the cover (laughing), for those of you that keep your back
issues, okay? The funny part was that the editor called up the next day and said, “Your piece
has 10 times as many “likes” on Facebook as Justin Bieber’s.” (Laughing) (Applause) Very impressive.
The point of the piece, the burden of the piece, was that there was new data assembled by a
bunch of financial analysts that demonstrated quite compellingly that the fossil fuel industry
now had five times as much coal and oil and gas in their reserves as even the most conservative
governments or scientists on Earth think it’s safe to burn. Five times what is necessary to take
us past the two-degree threshold that’s already an alarmingly high target for temperature
In other words, these are … it’s a rogue industry. These are outlaw companies. Not outlaw
against the laws of the state, because they get to write those, but outlaw against the laws of
physics, and hence need to be opposed. That’s why we weren’t getting anywhere. It wasn’t
because the scientists hadn’t won the argument, and the economists hadn’t put out the policy
that we needed, and so on. It was because we were overwhelmed by the money that came
from the other side.
I had spent most of my adult life writing about these things, but it hadn’t occurred to me that
my job would be to try and figure out how to do something about it. I thought my function was
to write. At a certain point I figured out we were just losing, and that we needed to something
different. I didn’t know what, because I had read a little bit about Gandhi and stuff, but I didn’t
really know how to do any of this stuff.
I came back from that trip that John described to Bangladesh,
having watched all these people die from dengue fever. It’s completely horrible to do it in … I mean,
horrible any place, but to do it in Bangladesh. There’s 150 million people there, but when the UN tries
to measure how much carbon they’ve emitted, you can’t even get a number . It’s just a rounding error.
They don’t burn enough fossil fuel to even matter, and yet they’re paying a huge price.
We’re responsible for upwards of a third of all of the CO2 currently in the atmosphere,
the four percent of us who live in the United States.
This is our legacy, our main legacy to the world, really, at this point. I wanted to do something,
but I had no idea how to do this. Sue will remember. My first thought was, I would call a few of
my writer friends up in Vermont and said, “We’re going to go up to the Federal building in Burlington,”
which is our main city. It’s only got 50,000 people, so not that main, but it’s what we’ve got. “We’ll go up
there and we’ll sit in on the steps of the Federal building, and we’ll get arrested, and there’ll be a story in
the newspaper, and at least we will have done something.”
These guys, all these writers as clueless as I was, “Oh, that’s a good idea. Let’s do that.” (Laughing)
One of them thought to call up to the police in Burlington. “What would happen were we to pull off this intrepid stunt?”
The police said, “Nothing will happen. Stay there as long as you want.” (Laughing) We had to recalibrate, and we left.
I emailed everybody I knew, and said “We’re going to go for a walk.”
We left from Robert Frost’s old summer writing cabin up in the Green Mountains. We walked
for five days north to Burlington and slept in farm fields at night. I’m a Methodist high school
teacher sometimes. I called up the Methodist mafia on route to make sure there’d be potluck
suppers, which is kind of the Methodist sacrament, you know, would be available as we walked.
By the time we got to Burlington, there were 1,000 people marking which, for Vermont, is a …
Only a University of Vermont hockey game would draw more people (laughing) than that at one
time. In fact, we got to the outskirts of town and my great friend, and our greatest political
leader, I think, Bernie Sanders, was there to greet us. (Applause)
Bernie, an old time organizer was as happy as he could be. He was bouncing up and down. “This
is great! This is great! I haven’t seen anything like this since Vietnam. This is so great! What is
this about again?” (Laughing) He has since gone on to be just our greatest climate champion in
the whole Senate. I mean, just wonderful.
The thing that was depressing was to open a newspaper the next day and read this story that said that 1,000
people that gathered there was probably the largest demonstration about climate change that had yet taken
place in the United States. This was 2006. When I read that, I thought, “No wonder we lose. We’ve got the
superstructure of movement. We’ve got Al Gore. We’ve got the scientists. We’ve got the policy people. The only
part of the movement we forgot was the movement part. There’s nothing there. That’s what we’re going to have to build.”
That’s what we started trying to build in 350.org we started shortly after. When I say we, I mean me
and seven undergraduates at Middlebury College, seven seniors. We had no money or organization or anything.
We had this name, which we took from Jim Hansen, who told us 350 parts per million CO2 was the most
we could safely have in the atmosphere, and that we’re already sadly north of.
We took it mostly because we wanted to organize globally, and the thing we were most worried
about was how we would communicate across language barriers. Arabic numerals travel, as you
saw in that beautiful video that someone put together at the beginning. All over the world,
people figured out what these numbers meant and went to work.
When we started, there were seven undergraduates and there are seven continents, so each one took one (laughing).
The guy who took Antarctic a also had to take the Internet (laughing), and we set out. Within a year we had this first
big day of action which had 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries. (Applause) One of the things that it proved was
that having an organization made up entirely of 21 year-olds was not a handicap. It was a great advantage, because
they knew how to use these new tools that we now have that allow, suddenly, organizing on a different kind of scale and things. It was beautiful.
Over the next two or three years, we did three or four of these huge global days of action. We’ve had about 20,000 rallies.
Every country on the Earth except North Korea. Tremendous amount of climate education that’s gotten done, and was very necessary.
That’s part of it, but it’s insufficient by itself to the task at hand, so we’ve been trying hard and consciously to sort of try and deepen this work,
Our decision to go after the Keystone pipeline and do it with civil disobedience was very
conscious. This is a huge pool of carbon up in Canada that no one knew anything about. To build a pipeline –
and this was the other key part– you need a permit signed by the President of the United States.
Congress, because of a kind of an arcane law about infrastructure that crosses
the border, Congress has nothing to do with it. It’s up to the President.
We figured there was a chance, and we figured … I’d spent the winter teaching a course at Middlebury College,
where I hang out some of the time, and the course was on … Well, I don’t quite remember what it was on, but the high point
of it was that we read Taylor Branch’s amazing three-volume biography of Dr. King and America in the civil rights years,
which is such a great book and so detailed that if you’re an organizer, it’s like a handbook for organizing.
One of the things that it brought home to me, and that work like Dan’s was bringing home at the same time, was that
civil disobedience was probably a thing we’d neglected for too long in this country. When we decided to do it, it was sort
of a conscious effort to experiment, and to see if there was support in the environmental community for ramping things
up some. I was really pleased to find out that there was.
The people that we found, Capitalism being the great thing that it is, there’s somebody to do everything in this world.
We found a team of people in Washington whose expertise and career was in arranging civil disobedience (laughing),
a crew of people that have now become our great friends and colleagues. We hired them, and they were very eager
to go to work, but they kept saying, “You have to understand …”
I told them, “We’re going to do this for two weeks. We’re going to get people arrested every day at the White House.”
They said, “You have to understand. We can do it, but it’s going to be four or five people a day.” Because they had been doing
this for a long time and that’s sort of the scale that this had been going on at. I said, “No, I think we’ll get more. I think there
are more people out there who are worried about this.”
Indeed, when we got there that first day, with Dan, and there were 80 or 90
of us waiting to get arrested, which was way more than we expected and way more than the police expected. (Applause)
That’s why we got to go to jail, because the police knew that there was two weeks
of this planned, and they didn’t want it. They said , “We’re going to try to deter you.”
Instead of doing what they normally do in Washington, which is just take you to the police station and fine you $100.
That’s what we were expecting. I think everybody had $100 in their pocket. They instead took us to Central Cell Block
in DC for two days and two nights, which was just as much fun as it sounds like it would be. (Laughing) I remember at one
point, Dan, from several cells down saying, “God, they must hate you guys much worse than they hate us (laughing).”
Which was fun (laughing).
But it worked. It worked the way that civil disobedience is supposed to do. It both brought attention to
the problem and underlined the moral urgency and helped us kick off this campaign that, so far, has kept
this cursed pipeline at bay for a year and a half, and so it kept the half a billion barrels or so of this tar sands
oil in the ground.
Now, I don’t know if we’re going to win this fight. The odds have been against us
from the very beginning all the way, because there’s, by conservative estimates, $20 trillion worth of oil up
there in those tar sands if you can get it all out. There’s enough to take the atmospheric concentration of CO2
from its current 400 parts per million to 540 parts per million.
The people who own the leases on that land are people like, say, the Koch brothers, who are real good at getting their way.
We may well lose it . If we do, that’ll be bad, but it’s triggered all kinds of other organizing, including great organizing now in Canada,
especially among First Nations people who blocked (applause) the pipeline to the Pacific that they wanted to build.
It’s complicated the lives in a lot of ways of these oil companies. We intend to complicate their lives further.
We intend to do more than simply play defense, important as that is, against bad projects. We’re determined to play some offense, too.
Hence, this divestment movement that we launched, that’s now quickly spread to more than 300 college campuses.
We did it because once I’d written that piece for Rolling Stone, and we were kind of understanding the implications of that corporate power,
we looked around for the models of successfully standing up to big corporate power. There are not as many as one might want, really.
One of them, maybe the foremost, is the organizing that went on in apartheid times to try …and I’m sure there are people in this
room who were engaged in that work (applause). You know, when Nelson Mandela got out of prison, he took his foreign trip.
When he first came to the United States, he did not go first to the White House or Washington. He went first to the University of California
to say thanks to the students who had forced the divestment of $3billion worth of stock there.
He said, “Now, of course, we fought for our own liberation in South Africa, but we could not have done it without that kind
of pressure from the outside too.” His great colleague, Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in that struggle,
made a video that we showed as we did this tour around the country last fall, trying to spark the interest in this divestment movement.
The video is very poignant and beautiful.
He’s an older man, now, Desmond Tutu, but one of the great heroes of our time, and he said, “If you could see what’s happening in
Africa and throughout — the famine, the spread of disease that comes with climate change in Africa – if you could see it, you would
understand why I’m asking you to take up this same peaceful weapon again that you took up in the fight against apartheid,
because people need to be free and people also need to eat.”
It’s really good to see that starting to blossom on campus after campus, and now city government after city government.
The City of Seattle divested recently of its fossil fuel stocks, saying, “We’re spending millions of dollars building sea walls.
Why would we be investing our money in the companies that make it necessary for us to do this?”
It’s spreading quickly to religious denominations. John, you will be happy to know. UCC, the United Church of Christ,
is going to take a vote this summer on divestment. The United Church of Australia, the main Protestant denomination in
Australia, divested two days ago, which is a big deal in a country based on coal mining at the moment. A very, very powerful witness.
I think and I hope that it will continue. I think all of this needs to continue and needs to get much larger.
I did another piece for Rolling Stone last week talking about the emergence of what I’ve taken to calling
just this fossil fuel resistance here and around the world. It has no central organization and no charismatic leader,
no Dr. King . Not even a Dan Choi, but it’s wonderful to see it happen. All the things that people are doing in a
thousand local places to stand up to the coal-fired power plant that’s driving up asthma rates, to stand up to the pipeline
that’s going through their backyard, to stand up as part of 350 or whatever else. All those things kind of knit together,
and we’re going to knit them together further.
We’ll announce in the next few days what we’re going to call “Summer Heat.” This ten days in the end of July that are statistically
the hottest days of the summer, and that we’re going to try and make the politically hottest days with distributed civil disobedience
that many of these local fights around the country, making it clear to people that Keystone’s important, but there’s a lot of other things that are important too.
We’re going to do it around the world. In six weeks or so, we’ll be in Istanbul. 350 is hosting what we call “Global Power Shift,”
and there’ll be 500 young people from 165 countries. We have 5,000 applications for this thing, and we’re going to turn them
all into just teams of crack organizers that can go back where they are and spread trouble as quickly as trouble can be spread (applause).
I will just finish by saying that the time has come, at least in the environmental movement, to really take the example that comes
from Gandhi in the 20th century and so much of the work reflected by so many of the people who’ve been honored with this prize,
and put it straight to work now in our time in a battle with even higher stakes, with even higher stakes than any of the battles than
we’ve fought before, because what happens now will determine for geologic time what this planet looks like.
There were two things about those big mass arrests that we did in the summer of 2011, which
turned into being the largest civil disobedience action about anything in this country in 30 years.
Twelve hundred and fifty-three people went to jail over the course of those two weeks.
There were two things about them that interested me.
One of them — I say looking around at the demographic diversity represented here —
one of the things I said when I wrote the letter asking people to come get arrested, which is not an easy letter to write I find, but it seemed necessary.
One of the things I said was, I don’t actually think college kids should have to be the cannon fodder this time around.
If you’re 22 right now, in our economy, perhaps an arrest record’s not the thing that you absolutely most need.
One of the few unmixed blessings of growing older is, past a certain point, what the hell are they going to do to you?
(Laughing) You basically get a free pass, you know? It made me really happy to see people with hairlines like mine arriving in Washington.
Now, we did not say to people, “How old are you?” because that would be rude, but we did quite cleverly say,
“Who was president when you were born?” (Laughing) The two biggest cohorts came from the FDR and Truman administrations.
On the last day, there was a guy arrested with a sign around his neck that said, “World War II
vet. Handle with care.” He’d been born in the Warren Harding administration, which history student though I was, I confess
I’d forgotten there was a Warren Harding administration (laughing). That was really good to see. It was really heartening for the young people,
who have really been leading this fight everywhere, to see their elders acting like elders. Doing that kind of work.
Make sure you’re signed up at 350.org, because we’re going to ask you again. We’re going to give you … In fact, it’s funny.
I’ve had a number of people come up to me since and say, “You know what? It’s on my bucket list now, to go to jail (laughing).”
The second thing we told people, and this was a little more unusual. The second thing we told people was,
“If you’re going to come get arrested, would you please wear a necktie or a dress.” Now, I wore a necktie
tonight, but as Sue will tell you, that’s fairly rare. Basically, in Vermont, we just sort of swaddle ourselves
in fleece and try to make it through the winter.
We wanted to make a point, and I think it’s an important point that’s worth making, which is that, as far as I’m concerned,
there’s nothing radical at all about what we’re asking for in the environmental fight. All we’re asking for is a world that
works like the one that we were born into and that all human beings whose history we know about were born into.
That’s not actually a radical demand at all. If anything, it’s a highly conservative demand.
Radicals work at oil companies. If you’re willing to get up in the morning and make your money that is your one goal in life,
apparently, if you’re willing to do that by altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere in defiance of every climate
scientist and now with the visual proof that the polar icecap has melted, if you’re willing to do that, then you are a far
more radical actor than any human before you.
It’s our job to figure out, in this case, how to kind of check that radicalism, to let some kind of just basic common
sense carry the day, you know? That’s the compelling, consuming fight that we’re in. I do not know if we will win it.
The reason I don’t know is because it’s one of the first fights that we’ve ever been in that comes with a very sharp time limit.
One of the most interesting things about Gandhi was his incredible patience. In the 20s and 30s, he built up the first round of this
great nonviolent fervor in India. Then, when the British cracked down for the first time, when there was the massacre at the bazaar at Amritsar,
then Gandhi said, “You know what? We’re not ready yet. We’re going to back off. We’re going to slow down.”
For a decade or more, he emphasized other work, emphasize practical, as he called it, work and village industry and all those
kinds of things, saying, “We’re building up the sort of strength of character that …”
Dr. King the same way. Dr. King always ended every speech with that quote from, I think, from Theodore Parker,
maybe, saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It may take us a while, but we’re going to win.
The famous speech he gave the night before he was shot, remembering Moses on the mountain.
“I may not get there with you, but you will get there. There is no doubt.”
Well, the arc of the physical universe is short in this case, and it bends toward heat.
And if we don’t quickly get things under control, then we won’t ever get them under control, because the physics of the situation means
that the feedback loops that start kicking in take it past our ability to control. That’s why it seems so desperately important and urgent to
me to be sort of out everywhere we can trying to fan this particular fight.
I don’t know that we’re going to win, but I do know now — and this was something that even a few months ago
I don’t think I could have said – but I do rest somewhat easy in the knowledge that we’re at least going to fight.
That there’s going to be a serious, serious, serious peaceful, nonviolent, beautiful fight. Don’t know if we’re going to win.
Do look forward to being shoulder to shoulder with you all in that fight. Thank you all very much. (Applause)