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Al Gore, James Hansen, and Civil Disobedience

Date: 21 August 2007

In a little-noticed op-ed in this past Thursday’s New York Times (”The Big Melt,” with a tip of the hat to Free Democracy for posting it), Nicholas Kristoff reported on a conversation with Al Gore in which the former Vice-President said: “I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers, and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.” His comment was in response to the ever-quickening pace of polar ice melt off, with all its deadly and catastrophic implications, and the role played by coal-fired power plants in advancing our demise.

The comment was also strikingly similar to a recent quote from Dr. James Hansen, the top climate scientist at NASA: “It seems to me that young people, especially, should be doing whatever is necessary to block construction of dirty (no CCS) coal-fired power plants.”

What does it mean when one of the top scientific leaders ringing the alarm on global warming, along with the top political leader, are both suggesting, in so many words, non-violent direct action (or civil disobedience) to confront the challenge of climate change?

Clearly both men must realise the importance of non-violent resistance in social change efforts of this magnitude and agree, if only subconsciously, with historian Howard Zinn’s observation that “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy. It is absolutely essential to it.” (Dr. Hansen, for his part, goes on to quote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution at some length.) Gore and Hansen must both know that non-violent direct action has been a significant catalyst in nearly every major social change movement in U.S. (and world) history, starting in this country with the Boston Tea Party and extending through the anti-slavery, woman’s suffrage, labour rights, civil rights and environmental movements. Non-violent direct action can dramatize an injustice and danger to the general public as few other actions can, and it both provokes and opens up political space for other people, many who had been previously silent, to speak up and take action.

The twin quotes also reflect the urgency of our predicament. As Jay Gulledge, senior scientist at the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change notes in Kristoff’s column, “Over and over again, we’re finding that models correctly predict the patterns of change but understate their magnitude.” It is now believed that summer ice could be gone from the Arctic Sea by 2020 – 30 years earlier than was predicted just a few years ago. We are running out of time.

What is curious, though, is the suggestion of both men that “young people” need to be doing this. Clearly “young people,” a group whose composition varies depending on the age of whoever is uttering the phrase, will have to suffer the disastrous effects of global warming longer than “old people,” or even middle-aged ones. But that does not make the responsibility any less on the older heads among us to take any and all actions necessary to stop the planet-destroying calculus of carbon emissions.

And whatever the current popular image of civil disobedience might be, it is historically inaccurate to suggest that young people need to lead such efforts, unless one wishes to claim that Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, the Berrigan brothers and other famous non-violent leaders were all “young people.” I pray for and will gladly follow leadership from any quarter and age group, but I expect it from those in our movement who are older and more powerful. Especially on non-violent resistance. If I or other younger activists try to organize such non-violent direct action, a few people will hear and join us. If Al Gore were to organise it, tens of thousands would join him.

None of this should in any way be read as criticism of Mr. Gore’s incredible efforts on global warming. He has arguably been the single most effective (and active) person on the planet in raising the clarion call. But perhaps now this leadership is requiring even more of him. After all, if you truly recognize the extreme emergency and catastrophic danger inherent in global warming, how long can you wait before taking the mostpowerful and effective actions in response – as opposed to wondering out loud why those younger and lessinfluential than yourself aren’t doing so?

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