Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Early in the morning of 15 August, approximately 1,500 people set off from the climate camp in Germany’s Rhineland to try and enter one of the vast open-cast lignite mines in the area and block the massive excavators. The Rhineland coalfields are the biggest source of CO2 emissions in Europe. (Photographer: Ruben Neugebauer)

Picturing the End of Fossil Fuels

"It’s all of us, the little guys, against the immense, concentrated wealth and power of the biggest companies on earth."

Bill McKibben

When they say a picture is worth a thousand words, writers rebel (or they write 1,500 words). I mean, pictures are great, but they can’t get across complicated concepts. Except when they can.

Which would be the summer of 2015, on two separate occasions. Early in the summer, on the West Coast of the United States, “kayaktivists” in Seattle Harbor surrounded Shell Oil’s giant Polar Pioneer drilling rig, trying to keep it from getting out of the harbor. They didn’t succeed in that, of course—the Coast Guard cleared them out of the way—but they did succeed in reminding everyone of the scale of the destruction Shell has planned. The sight of those small, many kayaks against that one brute drilling platform brought home the existential nature of the struggle: it’s all of us, the little guys, against the immense, concentrated wealth and power of the biggest companies on earth.

And then again last weekend in Germany, at the amazing #EndeGelande protests, when more than a thousand activists managed to elude authorities and congregate inside Europe’s largest coal mine, in front of what are the world’s single largest terrestrial machines. (One, the Bagger 288 is so big it even has its own song). They sat there for most of the day, and the great machines could do no work—and that means, since they move 240,000 tons of coal a day, that a lot of coal was not mined.

But activists can’t stay there forever, and in the end it’s the picture that will do the company and the German government more damage. The Star Wars-like image of people standing in front of the Jurassic digger makes the same point of inhuman, absurd scale.

 

Pictures don’t always turn the future, of course. The German images reminded me of the most famous picture of the Tiananmen saga...

... but sadly, the forces behind those tanks are still in control. His courage faced them down for a moment, but their implacable might won the day.

In the energy world, though, I’m willing to bet that these images are poison to the fossil fuel industry. It’s not just because of their sheer inhuman oversized ugliness, but because they manage to look somehow so antique. Or rather, so modern in a postmodern world. We’re moving quickly to a planet where the small and distributed makes more sense than the centralized and gigantic—that’s why you’re likely getting your news from the net, not a TV channel. Even without understanding the science of climate change—the horror that the carbon from that digger and that drill rig is driving—you have a visceral sense that they’re in the wrong moment, the wrong mood.

The fight against Arctic oil and German coal will be long and hard. But we already know, once we’ve won, what the pictures in the textbooks will be.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org. His most recent book is "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?." He also authored "The End of Nature," "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet," and "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future."

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

GOP 'Silence Speaks Volumes,' Says Ilhan Omar as Boebert's Bigotry Goes Unpunished

"Normalizing this bigotry not only endangers my life but the lives of all Muslims. Anti-Muslim bigotry has no place in Congress."

Brett Wilkins ·


Africans Should Be 'Applauded, Not Punished,' Say Advocates Amid Omicron Travel Ban

"What is going on right now is inevitable," said African Union Vaccine Delivery Alliance co-chair Dr. Ayoade Alakija. "It's a result of the world's failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent, and speedy manner."

Brett Wilkins ·


Biden Drilling Report Blasted as 'Shocking Capitulation to the Needs of Corporate Polluters'

"Greenlighting more fossil fuel extraction, then pretending it's OK by nudging up royalty rates, is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," said one campaigner.

Jessica Corbett ·


UNESCO Members Adopt First Global AI Ethics Agreement 'To Benefit Humanity'

"We're at a critical juncture in history," said Ethics in Tech founder Vahid Razavi. "We need as humans to come together and decide what is the best course of action to take with these technologies before they surpass us in their abilities."

Brett Wilkins ·


Progressive US Lawmakers Mark Black Friday With Calls to Pass the PRO Act

"The right to organize, fight for better working conditions, and fair pay must always be protected."

Jessica Corbett ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo