McKibben and Berry call for civil disobedience at DC coal plant: “Bear witness to an evil”

Is it time to get arrested to send an urgent message about preserving the health and well-being of the next 50 generations to warm the planet?

Two of America’s leading men of letters, Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben, have written an urgent open letter to all Americans saying “yes” [my thoughts at the end]:

Dear Friends,

There are moments in a nation’s–and a planet’s–history when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction. We think such a time has arrived, and we are writing to say that we hope some of you will join us in Washington D.C. on Monday March 2 in order to take part in a civil act of civil disobedience outside a coal-fired power plant near Capitol Hill.

We will be there to make several points:

  • Coal-fired power is driving climate change. Our foremost climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen, has demonstrated that our only hope of getting our atmosphere back to a safe level–below 350 parts per million co2–lies in stopping the use of coal to generate electricity.
  • Even if climate change were not the urgent crisis that it is, we would still be burning our fossil fuels too fast, wasting too much energy and releasing too much poison into the air and water. We would still need to slow down, and to restore thrift to its old place as an economic virtue.
  • Coal is filthy at its source. Much of the coal used in this country comes from West Virginia and Kentucky, where companies engage in “mountaintop removal” to get at the stuff; they leave behind a leveled wasteland, and impoverished human communities. No technology better exemplifies the out-of-control relationship between humans and the rest of creation.
  • Coal smoke makes children sick. Asthma rates in urban areas near coal-fired power plants are high. Air pollution from burning coal is harmful to the health of grown-ups too, and to the health of everything that breathes, including forests.

The industry claim that there is something called “clean coal” is, put simply, a lie. But it’s a lie told with tens of millions of dollars, which we do not have. We have our bodies, and we are willing to use them to make our point. We don’t come to such a step lightly. We have written and testified and organized politically to make this point for many years, and while in recent months there has been real progress against new coal-fired power plants, the daily business of providing half our electricity from coal continues unabated. It’s time to make clear that we can’t safely run this planet on coal at all. So we feel the time has come to do more–we hear President Barack Obama’s call for a movement for change that continues past election day, and we hear Nobel Laureate Al Gore’s call for creative non-violence outside coal plants. As part of the international negotiations now underway on global warming, our nation will be asking China, India, and others to limit their use of coal in the future to help save the planet’s atmosphere. This is a hard thing to ask, because it’s their cheapest fuel. Part of our witness in March will be to say that we’re willing to make some sacrifices ourselves, even if it’s only a trip to the jail.

With any luck, this will be the largest such protest yet, large enough that it may provide a real spark. If you want to participate with us, you need to go through a short course of non-violence training. This will be, to the extent it depends on us, an entirely peaceful demonstration, carried out in a spirit of hope and not rancor. We will be there in our dress clothes, and ask the same of you. There will be young people, people from faith communities, people from the coal fields of Appalachia, and from the neighborhoods in Washington that get to breathe the smoke from the plant.

We will cross the legal boundary of the power plant, and we expect to be arrested. After that we have no certainty what will happen, but lawyers and such will be on hand. Our goal is not to shut the plant down for the day–it is but one of many, and anyway its operation for a day is not the point. The worldwide daily reliance on coal is the danger; this is one small step to raise awareness of that ruinous habit and hence help to break it.

Needless to say, we’re not handling the logistics of this day. All the credit goes to a variety of groups, especially EnergyAction (which is bringing thousands of young people to Washington that weekend), Greenpeace, the Ruckus Society, and the Rainforest Action Network. A website at that latter organization is serving as a temporary organizing hub: If you go there, you will find a place to leave your name so that we’ll know you want to join us.

Thank you.

Certainly we should have stopped building new coal plants in this country a long time ago. Indeed, we are going to have to start shutting down existing plants as soon as possible (see “Hansen et al: We must phase-out coal emissions by 2030 and stabilize at or below 350 ppm“).

The coal industry has no one to blame but itself and its allies. The industry, together with the Bush administration, decided not to take the threat of global warming seriously and therefore walked away from the central effort to develop a coal plant that doesn’t destroy the climate (see “In seeming flipflop, Bush drops mismanaged ‘NeverGen’ clean coal project“). Thankfully, we have more than enough affordable and practical low carbon alternatives (see “Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?“).

I can’t argue with the call for civil disobedience. If any issue cries out for civil disobedience and marching in the streets, it is this one. That said, each person must decide on their own how best to express their conscience in the public arena consistent with their values.

I am very fortunate to have this blog and many other means of communicating the dire nature of the effort to stop humanity’s self-destruction. Therefore, I am not going to participate in this activity — although I do reserve the right to change this judgment. So I don’t see how I can call on others to do so (see “Gore calls for civil disobedience to stop coal. But will he lead like Gandhi and King?“)

But Berry’s and McKibben’s letter deserves to be widely read — and their call to civil disobedience needs to be seriously considered by anyone who understands what it means that humanity is headed inexorably towards 1000 ppm and more than 5°C warming this century (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 0: The alternative is humanity’s self-destruction“).

One thing is crystal clear. As the President-elect recently said: “The science is beyond dispute… Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.”

16 Responses to McKibben and Berry call for civil disobedience at DC coal plant: “Bear witness to an evil”

  1. Dean says:

    I’m proud to say I’ve been acquainted with Bill McKibben since high school; he was one of the first non-scientists to sound the alarm on global warming. I believe he published the first book on the subject, in 1990. He has tried hard for almost twenty years to educate the public about what’s happening (writing, lecturing, lobbying, demonstrating) without civil disobedience. If anyone has earned the right to make this call for radical action, he has.

  2. charlie says:

    umm, isn’t this the congressional coal-fired heating plant? that only congress has the authority to shut down? that isn’t even needed any more?

  3. Rick says:

    well I wouldn’t participate in anything like this, but I have to admit I’m impressed by the effort. – and yes, coal is ugly. It would be good to do away with it.

    The coal system is a big mountain in itself and razing it to the ground seems hugely ambitious.

  4. Dano says:

    I’ll pass this on. I have many books by both authors on my shelves and can attest to their being leading lights.



  5. athada says:

    Where is the citation to this letter? I can’t find it anywhere (even using Google).

  6. Jim Bullis says:

    It would be a sorry thing if we were to turn this subject, which is a relatively simple engineering discussion, into a full scale conflict.

    Dr. Chu of a previous post discussed building heat loss and the enormous benefit of insulation.

    Bullis, yeh that’s me, has shown that motor vehicles can be made that use 80% to 90% less energy, but can still move at high speeds.

    And that same Bullis has pointed out that by using car engines to generate electricity in cogeneration mode, we can double or triple electricity production relative to central power plants, and use more favorable fuels in the process.

    If we took the above approaches, the use of coal would naturally diminish.

    Instead we have in this anti-coal campaign people leading the charge who have no idea what they are talking about. It seems they have heard a lot of anecdotal evidence and questionable statements about the effects of coal, and are very good at acting like cheerleaders.

  7. Roger says:

    This sounds like an idea whose time has come–in fact it is long overdue!

    Bill Mckibben, Jim Hansen, Ross Gelbspan, and others have been trying to wake us up to the dangerous course we are on for years. While the progress of the past few years is encouraging, it is still too slow to assure us of saving the planet from a runaway greenhouse effect. If we reach that point, the future of man is one of unstoppable death and destruction.

    So, if getting arrested is the cost of saving the planet, please count me in.

  8. hapa says:

    @jim bullis: “nature” has nothing to do with american markets, for energy or anything.

  9. Fred Ceancis says:

    Less Ghandi, more George Washington Hayduke

  10. says:

    Need to get the civil disobedience up and running now, in time for the millions of economic depression refugees who will join in soon enough. The times they are a-changin’

  11. Jim Bullis says:

    Hapa, I had no idea anyone would think I was talking about trees and flowers on this. My dictionary gives 21 definitions of natural. In the noun list the first definition is, “an idiot,” which is also not the meaning I had in mind.

    Idiocy does apply to this discussion. An example of “idiot” is a person who would take warlike action without making serious effort to find an alternative. I thought we might have learned our lesson given our last eight years of experience.

    And Fred, who the heck is Haydyuke?

    As to a more serious point, there are certain ways people act that prove they are not scientists. Of course, McKibben and Berry do not pretend to be scientists so they are free to spout anecdotal evidence that might or might not be relevant. The same comment applies to Al Gore.

    As to “NASA’s James Hansen” quoted by these cheerleaders, if he actually says that the “only hope” is to stop use of coal, then I submit that his credentials as an engineer are lacking and he should stay in his physics department, if that is what it is at NASA. I actually suspect if he was asked the right question he might answer that it would be pretty good to stop the use of oil also, or maybe instead.

    But I would also like to point out that if coal was “stopped” the price of natural gas would go through the roof and probably that of oil as well. When that is realized the fools climbing the smoke stacks will be dusted off like flies.

    Which gets me back to natural. It seems that an economically viable solution should be looked for seriously. That would be what I mean by natural. And I reiterate, this natural approach would start with drastically cutting the use of energy in ways that can be sustained in budgets of ordinary folks. Wouldn’t it be great if those clamoring for disobedience might put a little enthusiasm into actually thinking.

  12. Jim Bullis says:

    Just a couple details:

    A much bigger “much of the coal used” now comes from the Powder River Basin and it is much lower in sulphur. The effect on the environment by the open pit Powder River mining operations seems to be comparable to plastering the desert with solar panels, maybe a lot less if the final solar systems were to get in place.

    Yes, if there are coal plants close enough to urban areas to make children sick, then put them on big enough smokes stacks or shut them down. Go yell at the EPA about this. That is their job.

    But oh what fun it is to call for violent action and get a lot of attention doing so.

  13. Mike G. says:

    Jim Bullis: The action is specifically NON-VIOLENT. In fact, the term “non-violence” is used twice in this post, and never is the word “violence” used without the “non-” part preceding. Not to mention, non-violence is what’s denoted by the “civil” in civil disobedience. Coal being the dirtiest fuel around, I’m not sure I agree with you that Hansen and Gore calling for an end to its use is somehow misinformed, but I still read your arguments with interest. Saying that they’re calling for violent action, however, as if they’re being flippant about this, is just a gross misrepresentation.

  14. Peter Meyer says:

    Jim Bullis may be a decent engineer. I grant the techological possibilities of what he has suggested here. However, he has exhibited a woeful lack of understanding of the most rudimentary social processes, which makes him as rank (and I use the term in its multiple meanings) an amateur here as he accuses McKibben, Berry and Gore of being. (My credentials? A PhD in economics, and decades working in policy and planning.)

    The issue is not the technological feasibility of shutting down coal. The issue is the political will — and the economic power that is expended to undermine that will. So long as Bullis offer comments based on the naive presumpotion that the existence of a preferable technological option will in some miraculous way result in its adoption in the controlled economy of the United States, he will be politically irrelevant. (Oh, yes, I did say we had a controlled economy — there’s n ofree market anywhere and all economies are controlled, in one form or another in every nation on earth.)

  15. Jon says:



  16. J4zonian says:

    Jim Bulllis,

    It might be something remotely like “a simple engineering discussion” if conservatives, psychology, and the approaching destruction of civilization were not part of it. But they are, so it isn’t. It’s a very complex engineering and construction discussion and project embedded in the most important and charged psychological issues of the last 1000 years. We’re talking about the images, feelings and ideas about death that everyone has, doesn’t admit, and so projects onto global death. We’re talking The Book of Revelation, in more ways than one.

    The fact that technology and other choices that could avoid catastrophe are available is not the point. Of course they are, and have been for decades. The fact that we haven’t made those choices and developed those technologies is the point, and while we have taken a giant leap forward in the last month it still seems that the public is not recognizing the true depth of the danger and as a result we are still moving too slowly to save our civilization from the pain and destruction of climate change.

    And by the way, George Hayduke is a character in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkeywrench Gang, an iconic name, word, (“monkeywrench- to sabotage, especially for ecological or similar reasons.) I can understand not knowing that kind of (1975) popular culture, (although not the unwillingness to do a 40 second search to find out) but to be so ignorant of the discussion (without seeming to be an obvious denialist) as to say Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, Al Gore and for that matter, James Hansen don’t know what they’re talking about and haven’t put enthusiasm into thinking, when the subject is climate catastrophe, is so ludicrous as to have made me stop and re-read it several times to make sure I hadn’t gotten it wrong.

    One thing this particular clamorer has thought is that we don’t need people talking about absurd desert-covering solar installations when we have many many times the area we need for solar panels already covered with roofs, parking lots and roads, right where the power is needed. We have millions of buildings that can be retrofitted, thousands that can be built right with passive solar heating and cooling, the first time starting now, and millions of sites for wind generators.

    OK now have we buried the Bullises enough for one thread? Can we get on with the important work of preparing ourselves for the coming program of education, persuasion and healing that we need to begin this week?