Outrageous civil resistance, conducted with wit and civility

November 27, 2018

A response to Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, by Bill McKibben (Blue Rider Press, 2017)

In this, his seventeenth book on the environment, Bill McKibben adopts what is for him a new style of writing. He gives us a fable, a wild story of five people in Vermont who interrupt regular TV and radio broadcasts with their own outside-of-the-law, call-in talk show.

It happens in Vermont, during another winter without much snow. The story’s political climate is shaped by the Trump White House. The characters include a governor who is convinced that Vermont needs to go big time, one sign of which is a new stadium with retractable roof. For many in the business community, going big time means replacing local businesses with national chain stores and local craft beers with national brands.

Not so for Vern Barclay, who has spent much of his long life hosting talk shows on local radio. Sitting outside on a winter day that was too warm, he mused. “Goodness didn’t demand the one-way arrow toward Progress and More. It was, he thought, a blessing to have lived out his life in a place that spun slowly like that yellow leaf, an eddy in the American rapids, a place that was shrinking when most of the country was growing growing, ever-growing” (p. 78).

He partners with a young, slightly autistic techie and a life-long Vermont woman who teaches classes on how to live in Vermont to new-comers—mostly retired executives, lawyers, and academics who are choosing Vermont as the place where they could finish out their lives. They are joined by a young woman biathlete, an Olympic gold medalist whom Vern had coached. Before the story ends, Vern’s 96-year-old mother who lives in a nursing home is part of the team.

Their campaign’s edgy theme is that Vermont should withdraw from the Union and reestablish classic Vermont values and patterns of personal and community-based ways of life. Vern directs their efforts. Young Perry digs up information and uses his hi-tech skills to get them on the air and avoid being traced to their hide-away at Sylvia’s house. Trance, with her Olympic-based public persona, becomes the focal point of their climactic confrontation with Vermont’s law enforcement system and the F.B.I.

By story’s end, Vermonters all over the state are involved in the debate and, following Vern’s urging, are planning to discuss secession in the town meetings that soon will take place in communities—little and large—all across the state. While Vern continues to urge that the people renew their distinctive, localized, freedom-loving way of life, he edges away from his advocacy of secession. “He knew precisely how fallible he was—he sensed he was on the right path, he really did think the country was too big, out of control. But it was one thing to argue that, and another to act on it; and the pleasure he took made him all the more suspicious” (p. 169).

McKibben begins his two-page author’s note at book’s end by writing that an “advantage to writing a fable is that you get to append a moral to the end.” For this book, it is not that everyone should secede. “Instead, it’s that when confronted by small men doing big and stupid things, we need to resist with all the creativity and wit we can muster, and if we can do so without losing the civility that makes life enjoyable, then so much the better.”

As an example of how this idea plays out “in the age of Trump,” he cites the action on the first day of his presidency which “saw millions of (mostly) women in pink pussy hats on the street, followed in subsequent days by sights of conscientious Americans flocking to airports to protect immigrants, or thousands of New York bodega owners shuttering their shops for a day in protest of the new regime’s Muslim ban” (p. 219).

In his comment about the book published on the jacket, Bernie Sanders states two hopes: first, that no one secedes, but also “that Americans figure out creative ways to resist injustice and create communities where everybody counts.”

We’re enduring a period of harsh, angry confrontation that seems only to harden people in their positions, making it difficult for any kind of civil, sober discussion and development of new ways of responding to the crises that most people admit, at least privately, are sweeping the world. Pink pussy hats have been put away, the mid-term elections are past, and a different political mix is taking over in Washington and many other parts of the nation.

This is the time for serious conversation and prudent legislation in the real world. What will it take to make such talk possible? More episodes of creative civil resistance conducted with wit and civility might be one answer.

Fighting for a world with less oil and more honey!

November 9, 2018

Responding to Bill McKibben’s book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014)

In 1989, when he was still in his twenties, Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature. It was his first book and the first of its kind, a book on climate change written for non-scientists. It was a best seller, translated “into a couple of dozen languages.” He continued to write, more books, magazine articles, op-eds, and blog posts, hoping that people would be persuaded about the climate dangers facing the world and change how they lived.

When changes did not occur even after twenty years had passed, Bill concluded that more direct action was necessary and that he had to take the lead. He gathered friends from across the country, consulted with experts on activism, and recruited students from the Vermont college where he taught.

Early in their consultations, they decided that the oil industry had to be their target and they focused attention upon a project that previously had been little known, a pipeline proposal called Keystone XL that was designed to transport almost a million gallons a day of oil pumped from tar sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Construction was underway and all that seemed still to be needed was approval from President Obama who had already given signs that he was likely to approve.

Bill and his collaborators formed an organization entitled 350.org. He cross-crossed the nation, making speeches to audiences that kept growing in number. He led protests, frequently being one of the people arrested. During this period of time, the nation was experiencing increasingly serious weather that seemed to confirm what Bill and other activists were saying, but even so there seemed to be little response from business or political leaders. Dangers because of human impacts upon climate continued to become more threatening.

At the same time that he was learning to be an activist in the campaign against big oil, Bill was becoming an activist of a radically different kind. He became friend and then business partner with Kirk Webster, a reclusive Vermont beekeeper who was developing what Bill describes as “a very different, very beautiful way of dealing with a malfunctioning modernity.” In 1985, Kirk had begun raising bees and selling colonies, queens, and honey. Despite the increase of disease everywhere that was decimating the bee population, Kirk was determined to pioneer a better response, which was to refuse the use of chemicals and develop bees resistant to disease and adapted to new conditions, including those brought about by climate change.

He lived alone, made no use of the internet and other technologies that seem to dominate the lives of most people today. When Bill needed respite from his battle against big oil, he spent time on Kirk’s little farm, helping him during the course of an entire year covered by the book. Kirk was demonstrating the “wonderful kind of life that’s possible with full-time farming on a small place” (p. 2).

Late in the book, Bill gives the moral of his double narrative. It is not what one oil executive was saying, that global warming is an “engineering problem with engineering solutions,” and that as weather changes require us to move crops around we’ll adapt. Rather, Bill writes: we should instead start producing a nation of careful, small-scale farmers such as Kirk Webster, who can adapt to the crazed new world with care and grace, and who don’t do much damage in the process.” Already, Bill continues, people are making that change. In the previous year, after a century of decline, there had been “a net gain of thirty thousand farms in the country. And almost all the new ones are small” (p. 167).

At book’s end, Bill was coming to a second conclusion. Despite the success of his activism, including the public acclaim he was receiving, the life he was living didn’t feel like his life. “[I]t wasn’t me, or at the least it wasn’t the me that used to be the one that wrote difficult books, that had time to figure things out instead of just reacting.” He supposes that some people thrive on the constant rush of the internet and public action, but he concludes that he is not one of them. “A writer, if you think about it, is someone who has decided that their nature requires them to hole up in a room and type. You can violate your nature for a while, but eventually it takes a toll” (p. 239).

I for one am glad that Bill McKibben is a writer and continues to bless the world with what he writes. Oil and Honey is one more proof that his proper work is putting words on paper and giving them to the world—words that describe reality, identify wrong doing, propose new possibilities, and give us hope. In the paperback edition that I read, Bill writes a new afterword, describing a change of mind that he was experiencing, one that depended much less upon a few leaders than upon movements of people, vast numbers of people everywhere who develop new ways of life and resist the energy-hungry, climate-changing way of life that now is threatening to destroy the world.

He sees an analogy in what the power industry describes as “distributed generation.” Instead of a few huge power plants, what we need are “ten million solar arrays on ten million rooftops” linked together to provide the electricity we need. While we need a few gifted people to lead us forward, even more, we need millions of ordinary people who are changing the way they live in order to live better lives and, while there’re at it, saving the world. Together, we are “fighting for a world with less oil and more honey.”

The Great Migration

November 1, 2018

Responding to The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2010)

The two cities where I have spent much of my life (Portland, Oregon, and Indianapolis) are alike in two respects: historically, they have been anti-slavery and highly resistant to settlement by African Americans. In parallel but distinctly different ways, both cities were strongholds for the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. One of my current research interests is to learn more about these racist social systems within which I have lived for nearly seventy years. My purpose, in part, is to do what I can to help shape a better future in cities like the two I have known.          

A chance conversation recently called my attention to a book that helps me understand race relations in the century that started around 1915, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. She writes that beginning with World War I and continuing until the early 1970s, “some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s” (p. 9).

Black southerners left all of the states of the old South—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—along with Kentucky, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. They traveled to the former Union states—New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, California, Nevada, Oregon, and the District of Columbia, along with the border states of Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri, and Washington, which was admitted to the Union after the Civil War (p. 556). Their numbers overpowered the size of earlier migrations across North America, the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, with 100,000 participants, and the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s with 300,000.

I became aware of the movement of African Americans into Portland, where I grew up, during my pre-teen years when many people, including black southerners, came to the Portland-Vancouver area to work in the shipyards during World War II. During my first three years in high school, I was aware of only one African American in my traditional college-prep school, and he, an upper classman, was one of the more popular students on campus. In 1948, the Vanport flood destroyed the homes of many people who had moved to the city during the war years and many families were relocated. As a result, approximately thirty-five African American students were transferred to my 1,200-student school. Although a tiny minority, they were a conspicuous presence because they stayed together as a group. Those of us already there, most of us white with a scattering of Asian American students, didn’t know how to respond to classmates with a different way of using our mother tongue and with different social mores. We kept to our separate ways. Read More ….Great Migration Wilkerson