We Should be Outraged

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 phrased it by suggesting 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 policy makers from their comfort zone 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 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 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 3 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 who 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 fifty 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 it 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, said, “Why are you out there?” referring to Emerson’s freedom outside of jail.

Thoreau ultimately won and Walden Pond was saved. 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 Geo. 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 is a longtime environmental health advocate who serves as president of Valley Watch in Evansville, IN. He is also a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and freelance writer. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Deadbeat said on December 14th, 2007 at 8:46am #

    I think global warming advocate need to make better connections. If you were able to link BASF to fascism then why not make similar connection with global warming. I saw no references to capitalism in the article. The problem with coal mining has been around for decades well before the global warming issue became mainstream.

    In addition I detected a degree of arrogance by the author ridiculing folks with the following reference … 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.

    It would seem that Valley Watch has to expand their reach if they desire to reach out to more people. Why should people feel the same sense of outrage to “global warming” when their may have other pressing needs and interest. For example I saw no linkage to wasteful energy use and the huge military budget. Ending the Iraq War and cutting the military budget would go a long way to reduce energy consumption. There was no mention in the article of reducing military spending. There was no outrage from the author regarding this issue.

    Unless equality is addressed I don’t think there will be much interest by the public on this issue. Perhaps “middle class” activist may have the time and money to be interested in global warming but for most workers who are tying to survive day to day they are not going to be as interested in an issue whose effects are not immediate.

    Finally the author assumes that “we” are equal actors and “equally” responsible for the environmental deprivation resulting from Capitalism. We can only become “equal” actors when we have equality.

  2. gerald spezio said on December 14th, 2007 at 9:29am #

    For two years it has been obvious to any genuinely scientific observer that global heating trumps every other issue.

    The factual basis of global heating from fossil fuel burning and CO2 production are glaring and inescapable.

    Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have already died.

    I am a member of a species of ostriches.

    As one person who has done his best to absorb the best science about the consequences of runaway non-linear global heating, it is very difficult to have much hope for the future?

  3. Ron Horn said on December 14th, 2007 at 12:22pm #

    Capitalism is caught in an insolvable contradiction in relation to global pollution and its many effects including global warming. This system, which at its core is the private ownership of economic property resulting in the private accumulation of socially produced wealth, relies mostly on the consumption of mass produced goods. It doesn’t matter if these goods are harmful to people such as weapons and environmentally harmful pesticides or useless items such as cosmetics or shoddily produced products that wear out in a short time. They will be produced because they generate wealth for the owning class. To preserve our resources by producing only what we really need, and to produce those things to function efficiently and to last for lengthy periods of time with a little maintenance is simply not in the interests of capitalists. And then there are the never ending wars for markets and resources that have accelerated since the advent of this system. So this is precisely why we are witnessing so much resistance to doing what needs to be done to save our planet. This system is a disaster and must be changed if we are to survive as a human race

  4. gerald spezio said on December 14th, 2007 at 5:13pm #

    Inescapable evidence of accelerating consequences of increasing global heating;

    The rate of ice-mass loss from the Danish-owned island (Greenland map) increased by 250 percent during a period spanning May 2004 to April 2006 relative to the period from April 2002 to April 2004, the study concludes.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain said on December 15th, 2007 at 3:23pm #

    Climate change is simply Capitalism in action. As long ago as the mid-19th century Marx and Engels mentioned, in passing, the ability of capitalism, with its gargantuan Protean strength and lack of moral restraint, to not only destroy societies and ancient social relationships, but the fabric of Nature itself. The mechanics of climate change were outlined by Arrhenius as long ago as the 1890’s, and we now have fifty years of CO2 measurements showing its inexorable rise. Concern began slowly mounting twenty years ago, rising now to a cacophony as panic sets in, particularly amongst the more intelligent, informed and decent members of society. What has been the reaction of the capitalists who rule the world? Did they mobilize the ‘magic of The Market’ to avert catastrophe? Did they bear in mind their responsibility to the unborn future generations, even their own descendants? Of course not! They put their short-term profits first, as they are required by law and Market Fundamentalist ideology to do. They financed a network of loony and fraudulent disinformationists, some even veterans of the tobacco denial industry, to confuse the stupider elements of the populace. And they crucially realised that characterising climate change as an ideological, Left vs Right question, would enroll the entire vast Rightwing media propaganda apparatus. The result has been predictable. Rightwing propaganda apparatchiks, cunning and unscrupulous, but usually, when you get down to it, ignorant and stupid, mobilised their legions of brain-dead, self-centred, morally obtunded followers, and another twenty years have been lost. These twenty years now seem to have been crucial. There is a very real question whether we have already passed ‘the point of no return’, and one must then face a crucial question, or two. Bearing in mind that the rise in carbon-based greenhouse gases, and the other less crucial if often more potent,non-carbon GHGs, will not just cause worse droughts, greater floods, more violent cyclonic storms and the spread of deserts and the shrinking of polar ice and tropical forests. Crucially it is causing acidification of the oceans, and their thermal stratification. This will cause the already near collapsed fisheries of the world to finally crash, and beyond that doomsday scenarios that mirror the supposed causes of the Permian mass extinction are wretched possibilities. Always to remember that global warming may be the worst of our capitalism induced ecological woes, but deforestation, pollution, species loss and degradation of agricultural soils and myriad other disasters have not been addressed in any meaningful way. Taking as a given that our capitalist rulers and their media and political stooges may be psychopaths, but they are surely not imbeciles, what explains, not just the lack of remedial action, but the furious acts of disinformation and mendacity that spew from the Denialism Industry they created? I’ve shifted over the years to believing that this indifference is not merely the habitual attitude of the psychopath where they are totally indifferent to the suffering of others and crazily believe suffering can be quarantined in the poor world. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that this must be, at some level, a deliberate policy of Malthusian de-population, where the rich world intends to batten down the hatches while the Horsemen of the Apocalypse ravage the poor world. Occasional expeditions will be launched, a la Iraq, to secure vital resources, and these neo-colonial endeavours will be marked as in Lebanon, Iraq, El Salvador or Indo-China, by the use of death-squads, disappearances and torture. We must face the facts that the rulers of our societies are not rational, responsible individuals who will one day see the light and launch a great global campaign of ecological repair and human advancement. They are mostly evil, greedy and stupid, and the system drives out or kills any other type who accidentally falls within its bounds. Unless they and the ultimately anti-human, inhumane and malignant system they serve and of which they are quasi-living manifestations , Market Fundamentalist Capitalism, is utterly destroyed, we are stuffed, and soon. I would imagine the prospects of this occurring, when the psychotics have a near monopoly on the means of violence, no compunction in using it and time is very, very short, are infinitessimally small.

  6. Donald Hawkins said on December 16th, 2007 at 7:23pm #

    US representatives tried to persuade the IPCC to tone down this language, arguing that the word “irreversible” is imprecise. In one example, they argued that should the earth’s major ice sheets melt, they might eventually reform and who said all the great minds are gone.

  7. Mike McNiven said on December 16th, 2007 at 9:05pm #


    Thank You!

  8. anthony said on December 16th, 2007 at 9:06pm #

    Mulga brain you are right on the money.Capitalism unfortunately describes a social system of value exchange between human beings.When this energy is so misdirected and corrupted by the so called elites who really have no concern/life outside of the power and money game the pathological destruction of the biosphere is the consequence.As you say its days of reckoning are well along.The idea of a controlled Malthusian policy is a an artifact reductionist virtual media analysis creates.Capitalism is by nature anarchic if it has any pure manifestation.Unfortunately there is no control over events by any one group.the result is the high probability of the Earth being overun by weed species and this is the optimistic scenario.The annihilation of nursery areas we barely understand could result in the desertification of the planet at our present rate of stupidity.Cannabalism is one of the least taboo areas visited by the blogger with vision but real collapse is a breath away with current conventional thinking and the precarious state of the food chain.But you can count on that old capitalist maxim “eat the sheep”.IMPEACH bad governments before world courts NOW!!!.Rule of Law not civil war.IMPEACHMENT is the only sane course of action .But then its hard to see the pathological insanity loose at the moment adopting a sane solution.