On December 2, 1964, a little known college student gave a stirring speech on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California Berkeley. A few of those memorable words from the since deceased Mario Savio convey a vital message for us a half a century later:
"Facing tragically harmful outcomes it is immaterial that the bad acts are lawful."
“There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop."
These three sentences reflect the power of non-violent civil disobedience, which in turn is a force that can help sustain democracy. Savio’s words—brief, cogent and passionately conveyed—express how purposeful non-cooperation and peaceful resistance can redirect a misguided society. His causes, racial justice and free speech, are still important for us today. Yet I see another cause that calls for the same commitment.
We are confronted today with a great challenge that was largely unrecognized in 1964: serious climate disruption. Again, the power elite are failing to muster an adequate response. Facing unacceptable consequences, the rest of us must take action.
As we now know, chief among the human causes of climate change is relentless burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas—and pumping of carbon into the atmosphere. In effect, the sky is filling up with an invisible blanket trapping ever more heat. After thousands of years of human existence, in just one century we have started to run out of sky.
Glaciers are melting. Seas are rising. Familiar seasons are warping. Nature is disrupted with vulnerable species disappearing. Fishing, ranching and agriculture are all under stress that threatens food production for history’s largest global population.
The chief economist of the International Energy Agency says the atmosphere can absorb at most another one trillion tons of CO2. The world’s known reserves of just oil and natural gas contain that and coal reserves hold much more. Climatologist William Hare puts it this way: "We can burn less than a quarter of known economically recoverable fossil fuel reserves between now and 2050.” This means converting rapidly enough to leave most coal and unconventional fossil fuels (like tar sands, tar shale and petroleum coke) in the ground. Removing fossil fuels from the energy equation will require far greater energy efficiency. We must get more work from each unit of energy. Fortunately, efficiency is today's cheapest energy source. Renewable power is also cheaper today and can be generated at increasingly competitive cost.
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Yet today’s economic engine continues to be hitched to fossil fuels and capital still flows there.
No mistaking it, entrenched interests remain committed to the old energy. After all, oil and coal are the most profitable enterprises in history and remain so. Companies extracting, refining and distributing fossil fuels in North America made $200 billion dollars profit in 2013.
It is important to recognize as Savio did that citizens are morally responsible for both our government and the commerce in which we participate.
In 1848 writer Henry David Thoreau could no longer tacitly participate in war or the institution of slavery. Thoreau withheld his tax payments and in an essay entitled Civil Disobedience explained his noncooperation. One hundred years later, Mohatma Gandhi inspired by Thoreau, led a peaceful revolt that achieved freedom from British rule. Gandhi called his brand of peaceful protest "civil resistance."
In 1963, Martin Luther King, in his letter from Birmingham Jail, advocated for nonviolent resistance based on a moral responsibility to break unjust laws. King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
Facing tragically harmful outcomes it is immaterial that the bad acts are lawful. Coal, the most problematic energy source, has long come with high external costs including black lung, lung cancer, mountain top removal, acid rain smog, mercury and arsenic pollution. Add climate disruption to these externalities and the impacts of this odious power source become plainly unjust and intolerable.
There has never been a network of mutuality, a common destiny like that created by global warming. In addition to scientific, engineering and financial innovation, people need to peacefully resist the machine powered by dirty energy. Invoking Mario Savio’s metaphor, we must put our bodies on the gears, wheels and levers of that machine.
Though global warming was not on Savio’s agenda in 1964, it is a challenge his words anticipated. Once you understand the facts underlying the climate imperative, and your heart rebels against leaving a disrupted and increasingly hostile climate for future generations, you can no longer passively take part.