RIPTON — It’s the year of the protester, according to “Time” magazine, and Ripton’s Bill McKibben fits the bill. So well, in fact, that he made it onto the “People Who Mattered” list in the magazine’s annual year-in-review issue.
“It really puts it into perspective when you have Osama Bin Laden listed two places away,” joked McKibben, a writer, environmental activist and scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College. He shares the spotlight in the list announced last week with the likes of acquitted murder suspect Casey Anthony, the web activism group Anonymous, Congresswoman and Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann and pop superstar Adele.
But, McKibben stressed, it’s not his accomplishments exclusively that landed him in the national media this year: it’s everyone who participated in the actions coordinated by environmental group 350.org, which he co-founded with students at Middlebury College.
“I’m not in there for individual accomplishments,” said McKibben. “It’s the recognition of a movement that’s started over this past year.”
Members of the group catapulted into the media spotlight in August with demonstrations and arrests in Washington, D.C., as they urged President Obama to kill the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project.
The project, which would move unrefined oil extracted from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, down to Texas, is being touted as a source of jobs and domestic energy by its proponents, but as a climate nightmare by its opponents.
Shortly after the demonstrations that culminated in protesters five-deep surrounding the White House early in November — in what McKibben says was the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years — Obama took action. Though he did not kill the issue, he postponed his decision on it until 2013, after the coming elections.
In recent days, however, the project has resurfaced, both amid budget discussions in Congress and among the Republican candidates for president. House Speaker John Boehner has pledged to tie the issue onto a bill that would extend payroll tax cuts, and during last Thursday’s Republican debate, frontrunner Newt Gingrich admonished the Obama administration for holding up the “creation of 20,000 jobs” and the payroll tax cut to protect the “left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco.”
McKibben said last week that far more than U.S. jobs are at stake: it’s the future of the world’s climate, coming in a year when humans pumped unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“When (NASA’s James Hansen) the foremost climatologist in the world says, ‘Tap heavily into the tar sands and it’s essentially game over for the climate,’ that doesn’t leave much room for equivocating,” McKibben said.
He said it’s anybody’s guess what will happen with the Keystone pipeline, but that the voice of 350.org has been heard, and has raised the issue into the eyes of the public.
“It’s very hard for any of us as individuals to make a significant dent in this problem — we’re always up against the financial power of the fossil fuels industry,” said McKibben. We’re going to have to find other currencies to work in.”
Those currencies, he said, are spirit, passion, creativity and even bodies. More than 1,000 people were arrested while protesting the Keystone pipeline earlier this year.
More recently, Occupy Wall Street movements around the country have made their voices heard. McKibben said he’s visited nine Occupy encampments to speak and join in the protests.
“Wall Street’s been occupying the atmosphere for the past 30 years, and now someone else is,” said McKibben.
Accordingly, 350.org’s focus over the next year will likely move to what McKibben sees as the core of the issue: the role of the corporation in U.S. politics.
“Environmentalists never win any permanent victories. The most we win are temporary victories,” he said. “We’ll do our best to keep fighting the Tar Sands, but also to move on to these root questions of corporate power.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.