The Man from Ripton
Calling on Baby Boomers to fight for climate justice
Above: Ripton, VT., Photo courtesy of Flickr.
Of political activists, Bill McKibben, stands out as one who knows his place in the world, which to borrow an overworked and frequently misunderstood concept, is also known as “the environment.”
I cringe at the qualifier, “environmental activist,” used to describe and to rein in McKibben and his ilk. Bill McKibben wears several hats; he is not an ‘environmental activist.’
Above: Keystone Pipeline Protest, Nov. 6, 2011, photo courtesy The Guardian
I first encountered McKibben in Washington DC on Saturday, November 6, 2011. Me and 8 to 10,000 other protestors who had come out to advocate against the Keystone Pipeline project which was sitting on Obama’s desk in the Oval Office, ready for deployment.
First, we heard him speak, about ten minutes I recall. There were also a member of Congress and a representative of an Indian Nation who spoke. After the speeches we were instructed to follow protest marshals and take places around the White House parterre, arms linked. Next he walked the line of protestors, shaking hands with all 2500 of us, who had encircled the White House. Bill McKibben wasn’t just working the crowds — ”Glad to see you. Thanks for coming out.” McKibben walked the human cordon, showing us our “place,” celebrating our momentary power: together we could literally link arms around a symbol and seat of political authority. All at a safe, pre-authorized Capitol Police monitored distance.
It was a protest of presence.
As McKibben quipped, ‘Obama under house arrest’ (although Obama was not there).
It was not my idea to go to the protest. Our friend and co-housekeeper — my wife and I managed a country inn in Michigan at the time — had suggested it. I barely understood what a pipeline had to do with protest; “Keystone” reminded me of a Pennsylvania license plate, not some remote prairie in South Dakota.
“Oh, you should go,” she said, matter-of-factly, sounding like a Capitol tour guide. “They are demonstrating against the Keystone Pipeline in front of the White House.”
Fortunately for me and for us, Bill McKibben did understand the pipeline and “its place” in the scheme of things.
He is perhaps the first correspondent (1) on climate destruction to shed fear of extinction in place of human resolve. Unlike his colleague at the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction), McKibben focuses on the human dilemma from the vantage of collective choice-seekers. To Kolbert’s Cassandra-like posture, McKibben adds that the solution is in the numbers.
Yet, McKibben is not Pollyanna-ish. His columns in The New Yorker focus on the declining value of extraction and its social and political consequences. Like a sailor looking for a breeze in an afternoon day race, McKibben wants to steer us on a winning course: it’s not that we are just pulling stuff from the earth’s mantle, we are also adding to the detritus of a false future. The engine of climate disaster is not only consumption, it’s investment.
And our collective “investment portfolio” needs help.
Presumably, there was a time when Bill McKibben learned “his place,” and started “showing up.” Presumably, there was a time when the pipeline project was an acre of pipe, sitting in weeds, waiting for earth movers and crews to bury it so fossil fuel extractors and distributors could reclaim “investment risk.”
McKibben was not born to protest in the streets and argue anti-capitalism from a soap box. McKibben was born to write. To write about the world, about the fragility of numbers and words and visions. To write about investment, about currency, about destruction.
His organization monikers tell us about his muse(s), his “mojo,” his “place:” “350.org” stands for 350 parts per million, the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “Third Act,” recalls the life stage of those over 60, the Baby Boomers living in semi-retirement and preparing to occupy rocking chairs.
For “350.org.” the ‘message’ is that together we can shift the course of our compass. For “Third Act” we can pause, join McKibben in saying, ‘Baby Boomers have a place in the scheme of things.’
Like the protestors circling the White House, the Baby Boomers once convinced of “their place,” hold considerable power. They could be shaking hands and linking arms.
A major limit to the efficacy of social protest is “showing up,” what Woody Allen once summarized as “75% of success.” Protest for most is a weekend affair, stuffed into the managing of job, family, career and “place.”
McKibben understands this and frequently portrays the Baby Boomers as holding the keys to frequent and consistent public demonstration and activism. Unlike their predecessor, the Silent Generation, born between 1927 and 1945, the Baby Boomers, born between 1945 and 1963, had opportunity (education) and motive (frustration with cold war terror and human exploitation) for continued and sustained social protest. Theirs was the “protest generation,” the “age of Aquarius.”
What happened? Where did all the sixties protestors go?
According to McKibben, they attended to the ‘business of life’: they returned to work, to make families, to consume. In the meantime the Baby Boomers added to their futures: they procreated, they consumed, they saved. As actors in an inherited economic environment, the Baby Boomers added to generations of investors seeking to protect their earnings. And — here’s where the rubber meets the road — the Baby Boomer’ numbers leveraged their ‘showing up’ on this economic stage. Now, proposes McKibben, it’s time for the Boomers to reclaim this leverage, to reclaim “their place.”
“Reminding one another of the early years of our lives is, we think, key. If our first act was pretty fascinating, the second act for too many of our generations focused harder on consumerism than on citizenship; we drifted into an individualism that fit easily with the Reagan ethos of looking out for oneself…
“Plenty of people don’t take older Americans seriously as political actors… Since we’ve been organizing Third Act, it’s been amazing to watch people come in out of the cold to help, people like Sam Brown, who in 1969 helped organize the vast Viet-nam Moratorium Day, which drew millions into the streets, and now is helping run the campaign challenging banks on climate change.” (1)
McKibben was ‘born to write.’
Now of note, McKibben has “retired” from his New Yorker columns to devote his time to helping organize the Boomer activities of Third Act.
He has also moved the discussion of climate destruction back to the people. As stated in the 350.org mission statement, “those suffering from climate change are not the cause,” hence the true focus on climate change is disproportionality. Rather than argue from the past — what humans have done to the climate — 350.org links climate justice and voting rights, the voices of the affected.
Baby Boomers play a convincing role:
“Or think about the equally crucial fight to protect democracy. Older Americans vote in huge numbers; they were 44 per cent of the electorate in 2020, with Boomers closely divided on their Presidential choice and those over 75 clearly favoring Donald Trump. Many older Americans still tended to support the candidates and party backing voter suppression- but Joe Biden narrowed those margins.
“Older Americans must be reminded that we witnessed the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, perhaps the most American thing that Congress has done in our lifetime.”
In this way McKibben echoes more Martin Luther King than Greta Thunberg. The arc of climate justice, to borrow King’s phrase, bends towards removing inequity. Those who lose their vote, will lose their place, literally.
The climate is being destroyed by fossil fuel financial hegemony (“Browning of America,” October 22, 2021, Medium). Voter suppression disenfranchises the very communities who suffer the most from climate destruction. Moreover, this ‘vote,’ McKibben would have us consider, is validated on every trading day on Wall Street as the behemoths of fossil fuel laced portfolios drift like Super Tankers from harbor to harbor, pipe head to pipe head, index fund to index fund.
Who feels this more than once active Baby Boomers, born under the Cold War, matured through Johnson/Reagan/Clinton, now suffering in the afterburn of Trumpism?
“Last fall, young activists called for demonstrations outside the fossil-friendly big banks, and they invited us to join in.
We did, with a certain amount of gallows humor (“Fossils against fossil fuels “ read one banner in Boston). And by the end of the week, younger artists were joining in the Spotify boycott…
This particular dust-up won’t be a decisive battle in the struggle for a better America and a better planet; in fact, there may not be any decisive battles, just a long series of skirmishes that must be engaged by the young but also by the old. We may be nearer the exit than the entrance, but we’re in this fight for the long haul.”
McKibben cautions his protest audience not to sever ties that could be redeployed, not to forsake leverage. Boomers need to resist turning over their retirement portfolios when they could be leveraging these same investment choices. Ironically, showing up doesn’t cost anything. Portentously, Boomers do have motive and opportunity.
They can link arms.
1-The End of Nature, 1988
2-”Boomers Should Fight for Change,” Bill McKibben and Akaya Windwood, NYTimes, February 13. Subsequent quotes from the same article.