Last week I was in Washington, DC to launch the new Keep It in the Ground campaign that is calling for an end to new fossil fuel leasing on federal lands. A long list of national and frontline organizations has signed on to this campaign, and many of those groups are making this a major focus of their efforts.
As a recent report has shown, the un-leased fossil fuels remaining under federal lands would release 450 billion tons of CO2 if they are developed, and the President has the power to stop it. To put that number in context, Obama’s Clean Power Plan, if fully implemented, would reduce CO2 by about 5 billion tons by 2030. So relative to what is being done, it was a bold ask. But these resources represent about half of the remaining US fossil fuels. Keep in mind that at least two thirds of all global fossil fuels have to stay in the ground, and in terms of global equity, the US has a special obligation to shift faster because of our historical emissions. So relative to what must be done, this was the bare minimum.
We launched the campaign with a press conference in front of the White House and then had private meetings with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of the Interior. Halfway through the press conference, the Secret Service interrupted the event, shut down all of Lafayette Park, and forced us out of the area without explanation. Before we could even complete our ask, President Obama demonstrated that he was more willing to kick citizens off public lands for exercising free speech than to kick fossil fuel companies off public lands for threatening the future of civilization.
The afternoon meetings with the CEQ and the DOI were what I found most interesting about the day. First, I found it interesting that I was invited. Big national environmental groups have never made a habit of inviting me to their meetings with government officials. I have a tendency to be honest, which, to an institutional perspective, means I can’t be trusted. Second, I found it interesting that I was let in. After all, I am still a felon on probation after the Obama administration sent me to prison, and the last time I was at DOI headquarters, 22 people were arrested.
Mostly I found it interesting because these meetings clarified the emerging paradigm of the climate movement and its stark contrast with the paradigm of the Democratic Party. In the room were representatives of Friends of the Earth, WildEarth Guardians, Rainforest Action Network, Center for Biological Diversity, 350, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthworks, as well as frontline activists Cherri Foytlin from the Gulf Coast, Louise Benally from Black Mesa, and Lauren Wood from Utah. We first presented the case for why keeping these fossil fuels in the ground was both necessary and possible alongside testimony of the direct impact of fossil fuel development on local people.
The CEQ officials responded by thanking us for the work we do and informing us of upcoming opportunities to provide public comment for minor administrative decisions. That’s when things got interesting.
The leaders of some of the big organizations in the room pushed back. They said we’re not playing that game anymore. They said we shouldn’t have to chase every comment period of a broken system, hoping to make every decision less bad. They pointed out that the current leasing system does not account for climate change, so it doesn’t work to try to interject a climate perspective into the final stage of a process that has ignored it from the beginning. Unequivocally, they said “We need to shut that whole system down.” Several of them said that what we’re demanding is a paradigm shift. Others pointed out that the part of the movement we represent has already had this paradigm shift, so the Obama administration needs to follow just to keep up. They didn’t say this apologetically, but forcefully.
The CEQ officials began to squirm. This didn’t seem to be what they expected. Frankly, it was not what I expected either. This was not the climate movement that we had five or six years ago. There was no begging, no appeasement, no one-sided compromise. These people sounded less like NGO executives and more like social movement leaders. It was as if fighting climate change was more important than sounding reasonable and maintaining their institutional access.
Near the end of the meeting, I tried to explain the nature of this difference in paradigm to the confused CEQ officials. I said, “The people we represent really don’t care what’s considered politically feasible within the Beltway. That is not their metric of success. And they don’t care if Obama’s policies are better than those of George Bush. The only standard they care about is the demands of the climate crisis itself. While it might sound naive to not limit our efforts to the confines of political feasibility, I can almost guarantee that history is on our side. It is nearly unthinkable that future generations will look back on the Obama administration and compare its climate efforts to what was considered politically feasible at the time. They will compare your efforts to the challenge of the climate crisis, and Obama’s legacy is based on whether or not he rises to that challenge.”
I don’t have any illusions that they understood us any more clearly than if we had been speaking in clicks and whistles. I recognized their reaction as one that I had experienced myself when my friend Ashley Clements, who has a new age spiritual perspective called theosophy, talks about astral dreaming and her other spiritual practices of exploring alternate dimensions of reality. As much as I might want to believe what she is saying, I can’t just dismiss what I have always understood to be the structure of reality. I think those officials were sympathetic and actually wanted to be on the same side as us, but we were literally suggesting that the structure of their political reality is not, in fact, the ultimate reality.
I started to get the feeling that we were acting less like lobbyists trying to change policy and more like missionaries trying to convert them to a different worldview. Convincing those officials that they could transcend the boundaries of their political reality would require a conversion akin to a religious one. What really excited me was that nearly all the organizational reps in the room understood that such a conversion is not going to happen through words alone.
Like any paradigm shift, the alternative will only become conceivable when the status quo becomes untenable. That’s why the groups committed to this campaign will be grinding the whole system of fossil fuel development on federal lands to a halt. Civil disobedience has the potential not only to directly disrupt circumstances, but through the power of our own vulnerability, it also has the potential to psychologically disrupt perspectives and worldviews. It is perhaps no coincidence that the first great articulation of civil disobedience grew out of the Transcendentalism movement, which called people to transcend their institutions and imposed limitations.
As I promised in front of the White House, the days of unresisted fossil fuel development are over. Or as the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Oh my friends, there are resources within us on which we have not drawn.” I have long thought our movement had the resources to make the status quo untenable, and I think we now finally have the commitment as well.