In a meeting of climate change activists recently, I told those assembled that I did not understand why everyone in the room was not outraged at the seeming inaction of policy makers to tackle global warming when the evidence shows that serious response is required
Maybe that is the question that needs to be asked by all.
While Al Gore has served the role of Paul Revere in this revolution, the movement lacks a Patrick Henry. Instead of "give me liberty or give me death," we get muted voices that make it home in time for supper.
That does not mean everyone involved is not deeply committed to our cause. It simply means we lack the necessary will to affect the change our issue demands. Like most policy makers, we are all to tied to a comfort zone that interferes with saving the world.
Our movement has as much dedication as any other, but unfortunately, that dedication has apparently failed in forcing the behavioral and policy changes that will result in the economic overhaul we all desire and must have if we are to ultimately succeed.
One speaker at the meeting suggested that the public might think that the problem was insignificant because it appeared publicly that "no one was doing anything about it." Although that is not an accurate characterization, it does reflect a prevalent attitude of those who rely on Rush Limbaugh and friends for their news.
The movement has come very far in a quick time. Gore has indeed primed the pump, but we all need to step it up further if we are going to succeed in both long-term and short-term goals. Transforming our world while assuring economic prosperity and eliminating carbon emissions is daunting but it is not impossible.
Gandhi once professed, "We must focus on responsibilities, not rights." In our free society, we believe it's our right to waste. No one is going to tell us what we can consume or how much; but is it really a right to waste? What is our personal and corporate responsibility for that?
We do know it is not our right to harm others by our actions, and we have passed plenty of laws to enforce that. Murder, assault and battery are all crimes against others.
No one has the right to kill or hurt another human being gratuitously, but that is exactly global warming's outcome. Millions of people will become refugees due to its ravages. More will die or see their livelihoods stripped as global climate excess destroys the carbon-based economy and creates global uncertainty for our future.
That brings me back to my assertion on outrage.
I remember no successful social movement that was not outraged enough to force policymakers from their comfort zones and into collective action. Suffrage, civil rights and apartheid all required outrage to show the public the scope of the problem. Would we be willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary as those who came before have done, such as Henry, King, Gandhi or Thoreau?
It is unfortunate that our movement so readily rejects those who attempt to raise the rhetoric or tactics used to grab people's hearts and minds. Even the use of certain words is ridiculed in some activist circles because they do not play well in some focus group in Bethesda. The mere mention of acts of civil disobedience is enough to result in an activist's ostracism from the "legitimate" movement.
That is really what is missing from the current dialogue on global warming and coal.
Here we have more than 24,000 American deaths from coal burning-produced fine particles each year, and we know that coal is dumbing down our kids, giving them asthma and causing adult heart attacks and strokes. Mining destroys entire ecosystems throughout coal country, and the disposal of hazardous coal combustion waste contaminates and scars the earth around power plants.
We know that global warming is about to radically alter our planet in ways that will mostly be bad. But yet, we treat that and the other issues surrounding coal cavalierly, almost as something to be dealt with only during the workday.
Of course it is not good for anyone to become completely obsessed with this or any issue. It is certainly self-defeating to stress over anything to the point that it causes depression or a heart attack.
I know that most of the battles won by Valley Watch in the past (our record is something like 33 wins and three losses) have come through dogged effort, sometimes "dirty tricks" and perseverance. But when we know we are winning is when we cause our opponents to take the issue home with them and not allow them to leave it at work.
When PR flacks or corporate engineers and minions are forced to think about Valley Watch or what we are saying when they are trying to watch their favorite TV show, we know they are starting to lose the battles in which we have engaged them.
However, it is also true that they probably are not ever going to take it home with them as long as we have remained polite and completely courteous in our demeanor with them. Sure, politeness gets a polite response, and a coal plant that will operate long after we are gone.
It is not simply an issue of being overly polite in our dealings with the opposition, although I fail to understand why anyone who is attempting to build or permit a new coal plant in the face of the climate crisis deserves anything resembling polite treatment.
Sometimes, we have had to resort to dirty tricks. I guess I rationalize most of this as considering it necessary to "play hardball" with our opponents. I should say that I am proud that I have never treated my opponents with any personal dislike or hatred, since I do understand that they are only doing their job as they see it.
However, I have no compunction in seriously attacking their institutions, whether it is a government unit of polluting corporation.
We usually look closely for their vulnerability, the proverbial soft underbelly, where we can stick our symbolic knife and make them suffer. In 1988, for instance, we were successful in running the German corporation, BASF out of Indiana when they wanted to build a hazardous waste incinerator in one of two Indiana venues.
First, I had the unsavory job of grabbing their trash every week before it was picked up. Reading through their throwaways, amidst coffee grounds and used Kleenex, I discovered lots of invaluable information that ended up being sufficient to make them go away.
It was also during that war that I suggested that BASF, which had a history of being a fascist corporation, who along with a couple of others had developed and ran the concentration camp at Auschwitz, was not to be trusted. I will admit that I was not loved when I suggested the union labor that was actively supporting the construction of the plant would have built "Hitler's Ovens" if they thought there was work in it for them.
Yes, the building trades were angry with Valley Watch and myself for making such a claim, but BASF had said they wanted a 100-year relationship with my community, and I thought it only right to call them out on something they had done just 50 years before.
Yes, we ended up winning (they never did build the plant in either location), and that was the outcome Valley Watch sought, unseemly as the process had to be.
Do the ends justify the means?
That is only for each of us to decide within the context of our own morals and conscience.
I personally believe in civil disobedience as a tactic, usually of last resort. I would much rather get arrested doing some symbolic and nonviolent action against a corporation that is seeking to harm my neighbors and family than attempt to sit comfortably on the sidelines watching pollution ravage the health of my community.
In fact, I see it as a duty of citizenship, much the same as Henry David Thoreau who, when quizzed by Ralph Waldo Emerson as to why he was in jail for one of his protests against the Mexican American War, said, "Why are you out there?" referring to Emerson's freedom outside of jail.
He did break the law to help save it, and so it goes.
Thoreau had a sufficient sense of outrage to take a social and moral stand that resulted in his incarceration. Gandhi had the same sense as did George Washington, Patrick Henry and Martin Luther King.
There will come a time when we will all be forced to stand firmly against our opponents. If we do it politely, without a sense of outrage, I predict the outcome will be a perhaps slowed but ultimate loss to climate change that will irrevocably worsen the lives of our children and their children.
If we do everything we can to up our rhetoric and actions to a level commensurate with the problem, it will be no problem to match our outrage with actions that drive home the point to even the most skeptical naysayer on global warming.
When I consider human history, I see no other choice. I sure do not want my kids to ask one day why no one was doing anything about it. That choice rests with each of us as we seek solutions to a planetary train wreck that I s already beginning to happen.
John Blair serves as president of Valley Watch, an environmental health group in Southern Indiana, and was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism in 1978. He can be reached at .