Is Building a Movement a Waste of Time?

There are many quote-gems from Bill McKibben’s latest in Mother Jones about what Keystone XL opponents could learn from the gay rights movement. Here are just two:

“Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks.”


“I mean, the Arctic—from Greenland to its seas—essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your left arm was missing. You’d panic.”

While he makes some great points, especially on the Democrats’ sin of commission, I can’t help but at the same time wonder if his proposed strategy of “building a big movement” is both naive and largely a waste of everyone’s time. I mean, the entire article is spent documenting how ineffectual and cowardly our Congresspeople are, and about how we can’t wait for people in power to “evolve” on this issue, as they are now doing before our eyes on the issue of gay rights. McKibben even points out, I think quite correctly, that for our oligarchs, “a deep affection for oil industry money…turns out to be an even better predictor of voting records than party affiliation.”

So the answer to that is a large movement? Clearly Congress is not going to respond to any amount of protest, let alone civil disobedience (lessons learned from Occupy; in fact most fellow working-class people didn’t even respond). You could say that this strategy worked in the past (e.g. the Civil Rights Movement), but doling out economic crumbs gets harder and harder as there’s less of a pie to go around, and letting someone use a water fountain is a lot easier for those at the top than losing entire industries, including the most powerful one: oil.

I could see building a movement as a way to create communities of support, which we will need as the jobs don’t come back and things get ugly. But something tells me there is no critical mass or tipping point, like for other issues that actually come down to a vote, albeit a farcical one. If the so-called Green movement does have such a moment, it’s the first time someone turns on the faucet and realizes there’s no water coming out.

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