by Lowell Bliss
Dr. James Hansen and Bill McKibben have earned the right to be frustrated. Hansen was the first government scientist to warn publically about global climate change (Senate hearings, 1988) and McKibben was the first journalist to write a popular book on the subject (End of Nature, 1989). Now twenty years later, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to grow beyond the level of 350 parts-per-million, a number on which both men have staked their careers and the well-being of their grandchildren. Did Martin Luther King ever wonder, "What do we do now that W.E.B. DuBois has said all that needs to be said?" Did the Mahatma Gandhi ever wonder, "What do we do now that Gokhale has said it all?" Hansen and McKibben can ask it of themselves: "We don't know of any other way to word this thing. What do we do next to communicate how serious we are about climate change?" You can almost hear their heads tossing at night, lying on their pillows, staring at the ceiling.
On September 27, 2010, Dr. Hansen was arrested along with 100 others for refusing to move their protest against mountain top removal coal mining from the front sidewalk of the White House. DC police officers, many of them African-American, arrested the protestors in front of an Obama White House, and loaded them on a bus powered by natural gas. (Feel free to read that last sentence again.) Hansen had previously been arrested in West Virginia in June 2009 for trespassing with protestors on Massey Energy property. He had signaled his intentions earlier in an incident recorded by New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert (June 2009). A reporter had caught up with Hansen at a rally and asked, "You are one of the preeminent climatologists in the world. How does this square with your science?""I'm trying to make clear what the connection is between the science and the policy. Somebody has to do it."
"Civil disobedience?" the reporter asked, and then inquired about getting arrested. Hansen replied, "I wouldn't hope. But I do want to draw attention to the issue, whatever is necessary to do that."
McKibben is such a prolific writer that whatever he's thinking about in any given month will achieve ubiquity across blogs and magazines. Last month he was thinking about civil disobedience. In Sojourners (Jan 2011), he writes: "Since campaigners have in many cases changed their own lives, and tried for two decades the obvious tactics, such as legislative advocacy, without result, maybe the time has come to heighten the stakes, with mass action at the most obvious sites, from coal-fired power plants to corporate headquarters and congressional offices." In Christian Century (Dec 27, 2010), McKibben contemplates actual tactics including who to recruit and how to dress: "So if I'm going to be involved in this kind of battle, I know who I want by my side, at least at first: those of us born in, say, the Eisenhower administration or before. Many of us participated or watched as the civil rights movement pioneered these tactics and understand that their power derives in no small measure from the dignity that marked those events. I don't wear a necktie very often, but if I'm going to get arrested, I'm going to have mine neatly knotted." (c.f. a very dapper James Hansen).
I think it was science historian Naomi Oreskes who said of Hansen's career, "He's developed the habit of being proven right," five or ten years after having seen and declared something to be true. In 1988, Hansen told the Senate that anthropogenic global warming was no longer a projection; it had already begun. It makes me wonder how many of the rest of us will be on the picket lines five to ten years from now. Last week, Gretchen Peck of the student creation care ministry Renewal called me and asked for some coaching as she made her way to speak to students at George Fox University in Oregon. "Anything else I should tell them?" she asked. The fact of the matter is, it's fairly easy to convince the younger generation of the glories of God in his creation, of the call to love their neighbors, of the need to care for the environmentally distressed poor. It's not even necessarily difficult to move them to take action. But here's what I told Gretchen: "This next generation is going to have to bump it up. They are going to have to go beyond lifestyle changes and figure out what it means to lay down their lives for the love of Christ and others in creation care." I'm not so prescient as to suggest that there will be environmental martyrdom, mass civil disobedience, or game-changing arrests. But laying down our lives has got to mean something. Doesn't it?
I know nothing of James Hansen's faith background. Bill McKibben likes to say, "I'm just a Methodist Sunday School teacher." But there is historical evidence to suggest that Martin Luther King and even the Mahatma Gandhi once asked themselves, perhaps in the wee hours of the night, "What do we do now that Jesus has said everything that needs to be said in the Sermon on the Mount?"
Lowell Bliss is the director of Eden Vigil and the author of a forthcoming book, Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees. He wishes to thank Rev. Peter Sawtell, publisher of Eco-Justice Notes, for sparking this article.