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US President Joe Biden signs into law H.R. 5376, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (climate change and health care bill) in the State Dining Room of the White House on Tuesday August 16, 2022. (Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Inside the Climate Movement and Still Outside the White House

Nonviolent social social movements are the way the small and many stand up to the mighty and the few.

Bill McKibben

 by billmckibben.substack

I should have known it wouldn’t work.

The White House had kindly invited me (and many many others) to a celebration of the new Inflation Reduction Act this afternoon. I had mixed emotions about the idea of celebration—the bill is far from perfect. But I decided to go because:

1) I figured there’d be no better chance to buttonhole congresspeople to oppose the dumb side deal that Prime Minister Manchin is trying to make, a deal that would override widespread citizen opposition to the archaic Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline on behalf of his industry buddies. Please join in here.

2) I wanted to see Varshini Prakash and others from the Sunrise Movement get their deserved praise—I’ve been working alongside her (behind her, really) since she was a teenager divesting UMass Amherst from fossil fuels, and watching her team emerge as the best combination of idealism and pragmatism in the recent history of environmental campaigning has been a pure joy; without their Green New Deal, no IRA.

3) And, if I’m totally honest, after being arrested three times outside the White House, I was kind of curious what it looked like on the other side of the fence. Also, my wife, who has had to put up with being married to a farflung campaigner, had been invited as well, and she looked truly beautiful in a blue and white dress. A frock, really—so so pretty.

Important deals, ones of this size, don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen because far more people, with no official power of their own, have been pushing for years and decades.

But it was raining hard this morning in Vermont—in fact, as a reminder of what’s at stake the Burlington airport set a new daily rainfall record, breaking a mark that’s lasted 97 years—and so the plane never left. We drove the trusty EV back home, and I returned the funeral suit to the back of the closet, and then sat down to type these words. Clearly the holy spirit, or karma, or the genius of the universe wanted to remind me that my place was on the outside, and that outside was a useful place too.

Inside players, at least some of them, are the ones we tend to know about: senators and cabinet members and so on. They—and the army of aides, wonks, and policy people who do the actual work (big shout out today to Leah Stokes and her colleagues at Evergreen)—are absolutely necessary; they seal the deal. It’s true that pundits give far too much weight to insiders (too-cleverest-by-half column of the entire summer came from the Washington Post, arguing that Joe Manchin deserved more credit than Bernie Sanders for this bill—in fact, had not Sanders run an insurgent candidacy for president and very nearly succeeded (twice) we definitely would not have the first real ‘big government’ bill since LBJ being feted today). Still the inside game really matters; and so it would have been nice to thank Gina McCarthy and John Kerry and Brian Deese and Jigar Shah and Ali Zaidi and all the others who toil within the confines of official structures.

But important deals, ones of this size, don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen because far more people, with no official power of their own, have been pushing for years and decades. The path to the IRA begins back with Jim Hansen—unknown NASA physicist--testifying before Congress (and eventually heading to jail). It continues through people like Al Gore making a movie (which made far more of a difference than anything he did while he held inside power as veep), and then lots of people you’ve never heard of going to jail to fight pipelines or to ban fracking. As the movement expanded, there were soon tens of thousands of people fighting to divest their college endowments or pension funds, and millions working to make their homes and their neighborhoods cleaner. The environmental justice campaigners, the indigenous activists, the scientists who finally left the lab and hit the streets, the ministers and rabbis and monks, the writers. Each small victory—and really, each small campaign, even the ones that ended in defeat—helped shift the zeitgeist a little more, eventually creating the new political climate that allows legislation to happen, forces companies to start making net zero promises, keeps building momentum. The power of that movement (and the power of Mother Nature continually hitting us upside the head with a two by four) can be measured in polls, in campaign contributions, and in the dawning recognition in the slowly turning brain of Mr. Manchin that the only thing he’d ever be known for in this world was blocking the last chance to save it.  

All these people were on the outside, and they got the work done. You’ve heard of Gore and Hansen, of Greta and Rev. Yearwood, of Dallas Goldtooth and Robert Bullard. But you haven’t, of course, heard of most of the people who made this happen, because they are legion. Nonviolent social social movements are the way the small and many stand up to the mighty and the few; today celebrates the moment when you, collectively, proved yourself a little bit stronger than Exxon.

So it’s no great loss to be back home instead, where I can do what I can to help in the next phases of this outside fight— which I think will involve taking on the big banks and financial institutions that are still merrily financing the toasting of the planet. We need to keep pushing, one action at a time: every city treasurer that decides to break with Citibank, every credit card holder that takes a video of themselves cutting up their Wells-Fargo card, everyone who joins the Banking On Our Future pledge helps move us forward. If we do our job, then someday there will be another party at the White House when the president or the Fed chairman or someone tells us that the financial system will henceforth be helping with the future, not preventing it.

I’m sorry I couldn’t be at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue today, but I’m really  sorry I couldn’t be with the Third Act Sacramento chapter outside the local Chase branch. The first is marking the change we’ve forced so far; the second is forcing the change we still need to make. On we go!

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of and 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."

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