Bill McKibben, Armed With Naïvete on Keystone XL Pipeline

Time to Stop Being Cynical About Corporate Money in Politics and Start Being Angry

by Bill McKibben, reposted from Tom Dispatch

My resolution for 2012 is to be naïve — dangerously naïve.

I’m aware that the usual recipe for political effectiveness is just the opposite: to be cynical, calculating, an insider. But if you think, as I do, that we need deep change in this country, then cynicism is a sucker’s bet. Try as hard as you can, you’re never going to be as cynical as the corporations and the harem of politicians they pay for.  It’s like trying to outchant a Buddhist monastery.

Here’s my case in point, one of a thousand stories people working for social change could tell: All last fall, most of the environmental movement, including, the group I helped found, waged a fight against the planned Keystone XL pipeline that would bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Canada through the U.S. to the Gulf Coast. We waged our struggle against building it out in the open, presenting scientific argument, holding demonstrations, and attending hearings.  We sent 1,253 people to jail in the largest civil disobedience action in a generation.  Meanwhile, more than half a million Americans offered public comments against the pipeline, the most on any energy project in the nation’s history.

And what do you know? We won a small victory in November, when President Obama agreed that, before he could give the project a thumbs-up or -down, it needed another year of careful review.  (The previous version of that review, as overseen by the State Department, had been little short of a crony capitalist farce.)  Given that James Hansen, the government’s premier climate scientist, had said that tapping Canada’s tar sands for that pipeline would, in the end, essentially mean “game over for the climate,” that seemed an eminently reasonable course to follow, even if it was also eminently political.

A few weeks later, however, Congress decided it wanted to take up the question. In the process, the issue went from out in the open to behind closed doors in money-filled rooms.  Within days, and after only a couple of hours of hearings that barely mentioned the key scientific questions or the dangers involved, the House of Representatives voted 234-194 to force a quicker review of the pipeline.  Later, the House attached its demand to the must-pass payroll tax cut.

That was an obvious pre-election year attempt to put the president on the spot. Environmentalists are at least hopeful that the White House will now reject the permit.  After all, its communications director said that the rider, by hurrying the decision, “virtually guarantees that the pipeline will not be approved.”

As important as the vote total in the House, however, was another number: within minutes of the vote, Oil Change International had calculated that the 234 Congressional representatives who voted aye had received $42 million in campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry; the 193 nays, $8 million.

Buying Congress

I know that cynics — call them realists, if you prefer — will be completely unsurprised by that. Which is precisely the problem.

We’ve reached the point where we’re unfazed by things that should shake us to the core. So, just for a moment, be naïve and consider what really happened in that vote: the people’s representatives who happen to have taken the bulk of the money from those energy companies promptly voted on behalf of their interests.

They weren’t weighing science or the national interest; they weren’t balancing present benefits against future costs.  Instead of doing the work of legislators, that is, they were acting like employees. Forget the idea that they’re public servants; the truth is that, in every way that matters, they work for Exxon and its kin. They should, by rights, wear logos on their lapels like NASCAR drivers.

If you find this too harsh, think about how obligated you feel when someone gives you something. Did you get a Christmas present last month from someone you hadn’t remembered to buy one for? Are you going to send them an extra-special one next year?

And that’s for a pair of socks. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who insisted that the Keystone approval decision be speeded up, has gotten $1,111,080 from the fossil-fuel industry during his tenure. His Senate counterpart Mitch McConnell, who shepherded the bill through his chamber, has raked in $1,277,208 in the course of his tenure in Washington.

If someone had helped your career to the tune of a million dollars, wouldn’t you feel in their debt? I would. I get somewhat less than that from my employer, Middlebury College, and yet I bleed Panther blue.  Don’t ask me to compare my school with, say, Dartmouth unless you want a biased answer, because that’s what you’ll get.  Which is fine — I am an employee.

But you’d be a fool to let me referee the homecoming football game. In fact, in any other walk of life we wouldn’t think twice before concluding that paying off the referees is wrong. If the Patriots make the Super Bowl, everyone in America would be outraged to see owner Robert Kraft trot out to midfield before the game and hand a $1,000 bill to each of the linesmen and field judges.

If he did it secretly, the newspaper reporter who uncovered the scandal would win a Pulitzer. But a political reporter who bothered to point out Boehner’s and McConnell’s payoffs would be upbraided by her editor for simpleminded journalism.  That’s how the game is played and we’ve all bought into it, even if only to sputter in hopeless outrage.

Far from showing any shame, the big players boast about it: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, front outfit for a consortium of corporations, has bragged on its website about outspending everyone in Washington, which is easy to do when Chevron, Goldman Sachs, and News Corp are writing you seven-figure checks. This really matters.  The Chamber of Commerce spent more money on the 2010 elections than the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined, and 94% of those dollars went to climate-change deniers.  That helps explain why the House voted last year to say that global warming isn’t real.

It also explains why “our” representatives vote, year in and year out, for billions of dollars worth of subsidies for fossil-fuel companies. If there was ever an industry that didn’t need subsidies, it would be this one: they make more money each year than any enterprise in the history of money. Not only that, but we’ve known how to burn coal for 300 years and oil for 200.

Those subsidies are simply payoffs. Companies give small gifts to legislators, and in return get large ones back, and we’re the ones who are actually paying.

Whose Money?  Whose Washington?

I don’t want to be hopelessly naïve. I want to be hopefully naïve. It would be relatively easy to change this: you could provide public financing for campaigns instead of letting corporations pay. It’s the equivalent of having the National Football League hire referees instead of asking the teams to provide them.

Public financing of campaigns would cost a little money, but endlessly less than paying for the presents these guys give their masters. And it would let you watch what was happening in Washington without feeling as disgusted.  Even legislators, once they got the hang of it, might enjoy neither raising money nor having to pretend it doesn’t affect them.

To make this happen, however, we may have to change the Constitution, as we’ve done 27 times before. This time, we’d need to specify that corporations aren’t people, that money isn’t speech, and that it doesn’t abridge the First Amendment to tell people they can’t spend whatever they want getting elected. Winning a change like that would require hard political organizing, since big banks and big oil companies and big drug-makers will surely rally to protect their privilege.

Still, there’s a chance.  The Occupy movement opened the door to this sort of change by reminding us all that the system is rigged, that its outcomes are unfair, that there’s reason to think people from across the political spectrum are tired of what we’ve got, and that getting angry and acting on that anger in the political arena is what being a citizen is all about.

It’s fertile ground for action.  After all, Congress’s approval rating is now at 9%, which is another way of saying that everyone who’s not a lobbyist hates them and what they’re doing. The big boys are, of course, counting on us simmering down; they’re counting on us being cynical, on figuring there’s no hope or benefit in fighting city hall. But if we’re naïve enough to demand a country more like the one we were promised in high school civics class, then we have a shot.

A good time to take an initial stand comes later this month, when rallies outside every federal courthouse will mark the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision. That’s the one where the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the right to spend whatever they wanted on campaigns.

To me, that decision was, in essence, corporate America saying, “We’re not going to bother pretending any more. This country belongs to us.”

We need to say, loud and clear: “Sorry. Time to give it back.”

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.  This piece was originally published at Tom Dispatch.

21 Responses to Bill McKibben, Armed With Naïvete on Keystone XL Pipeline

  1. catman306 says:

    Here’s a totally ignored (by the media) news story of real interest. The rulings of the judges are partially quoted here:

    Montana High Court Says ‘Citizens United’ Does Not Apply In Big Sky State
    State Supreme Court Issues Remarkable Ruling Against Corporate Speech
    January 1, 2012 |

    Montana’s Supreme Court has issued a stunning rebuke to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that infamously decreed corporations had constitutional rights to directly spend money on ‘independent expenditures’ in campaigns.

    The Montana Court vigorously upheld the state’s right to regulate how corporations can raise and spend money after a secretive Colorado corporation, Western Tradition Partnership, and a Montana sportsman’s group and local businessman sued to overturn a 1912 state law banning direct corporate spending on electoral campaigns.

    continued here:

  2. Typical of Mckibben, insightfully stated, the occupy movement world wide has it right; anger will grow as awareness of inequity and the failure of US style capitalism and democracy to address the corporate money in politics issue. Please keep it up Bill and know we are listening.

  3. thanes says:

    Un-addressed global warming and the corruption of politics are inextricably linked, obviously. One is a possibly fatal symptom of the disease. Can the symptom be dealt with first, and then the disease?
    I don’t know. James Hansen has written about these two, but this might be the clearest discussion I’ve seen making these two really the same fight. Kind of a two-front war. I think I’ll be hopefully naive, too. America has won a two-front war before, and we will again.

  4. TKPGH says:

    Well done, Bill.

    It’s the “hopeless outrage” I feel most often. We all know the clock is ticking and we can’t lay a finger on those responsible (though if Limbaugh suddenly materialized within arms reach right now, he would not enjoy his time in my presence). I’m hopeful that, this year, we can bring about the climate showdown that so desperately needs to happen. The anti-corruption groups are our allies in this fight. Their message is something everyone can understand and flock to: the challenge is to help them understand what is at stake in regard to the climate and oceans crisis. Failure carries an extremely high price.

  5. Polymerase says:

    The football game analogy leaves one essential group off the hook: the fans in the stadium (AKA the voting/nonvoting public). Only a small fraction of the fans seem to be paying attention to the game: Most of them are just living day to day, paycheck to paycheck, trying to raise their kids, hang on to their job, etc. The political money game in D.C. with politicians and lobbyists dressed in identical suits just doesn’t provide the escape to a place in the mind that engages their souls in a visceral way that real football games or “reality” shows do.

    Another, smaller, but more engaged group of fans may actually have the time and energy to consider and respond in a rational way to the dire consequences of climate change, but they are so deeply identified with conservative subcultures that doing so would generate unbearable cognitive dissonance. Moreover, for these fans to even express concern about climate change within these subcultures means risking expulsion from their social networks, which is one of the most deeply threatening thing most of us fear on a daily basis (even liberals/progressives, too – see “Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Culture Conflict, Rationality Conflict, and Climate Change” by Kahan, et al.). As such, maybe we should sponsor a NASCAR team, and write “” on the top of the race car to begin to break the stereotype of climate change being only a “liberal” issue. As Bill knows, it’s all about learning how, in the words of Edward Bernays, to take actions which ‘just interrupt’ the continuity of life in some way to bring about the [media] response.” (from “Visiting Edward Bernays” by Stuart Ewen, 1995).

    Accordingly, unless we take our message to these two groups of fans in ways that address their overriding economic and social needs, they will continue to be oblivious or to actually cheer when the pollutocrats pay off the referees on the 50-yard line.

  6. prokaryotes says:

    “A good time to take an initial stand comes later this month..”

    On a sidenote, another chance is to advertise hybrid and electric vehicles during the coming oil embargo time.

    Also it is time for a ribbon or certificate to show that you care about your carbon footprint.

  7. Ernest says:

    “… we may have to change the Constitution, as we’ve done 27 times before. This time, we’d need to specify that corporations aren’t people, that money isn’t speech, and that it doesn’t abridge the First Amendment to tell people they can’t spend whatever they want getting elected. Winning a change like that would require hard political organizing, since big banks and big oil companies and big drug-makers will surely rally to protect their privilege.”

    This is a good specific demand that OWS should consider. (It complements the Tea Party’s Balanced Budget Amendment.) Irrespective of whether either becomes reality, it makes a good talking point, puts a spotlight on the issue.

  8. Forest says:

    Bill’s comments apply equally in Canada where, instead of the Keystone, we have the Enbridge pipeline. Our “prime minster” has indicated he will fight any US assistance in helping to stop the Enbridge, even though $100 million of fossil fuel money (much of it foreign) has been donated to ensure the pipeline hearings are favorable to industry. Whether the oil flows through Keystone or Enbridge, it will still be burned, and the green house gases will enter our common atmosphere. We need to stop this lunacy. In northern Canada where I live, this January we have no snow and temperatures this winter have averaged +20C above normal with massive grass fires destroying homes. Never seen that before, ever.

  9. prokaryotes says:

    Same scenario in germany…

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Spot on. Only reality intruding through their perceptual systems, and dissent accelerating through the communities with which they identify, have the power to change these entrenched belief systems, ME

  11. fj says:

    Bill McKibben is the real thing; pure inspiration.

  12. Richard Miller, Ph.D. says:

    Great Piece by McKibben. The environmental groups need to follow his lead.

    There has been a great deal of research on how social movements bring about political change following the work of the academic Gene Sharp. Students of Sharp founded the International Center for Non-violent conflict. See here

    I would recommend to all of you reading the short guide to effective social action, what they call non-violent conflict:

    It is my contention that environmental groups, if they organize properly and have courage in line with the problem, have enough power to force politicians to do the right thing.

    In Dr. Robert Brulle’s essay entitled “The US Environmental Movement”, which you can find at, he writes:

    “The U.S. environmental movement is perhaps the single largest social movement in the United States. With over 6,500 national and 20,000 local environmental organizations, along with an estimated 20-30 million members, this movement dwarfs other modern social movements such as the civil rights or peace movements. It is also the longest running social movement.”

    This represents a great deal of power if it is used properly. That is why environmentalists should be reading the links I provided above.

  13. Gail Zawacki says:

    Dr. Fuller suggests it’s time to move way, way beyond unachievable and ineffective goals, and start talking about adaptability, in other words, grow up and get real:

  14. Raul M. says:

    If air temps are 10degrees C warmer than last year in Jan. And the oceans temps count for GW calculations, how long does it take the oceans to warm enough to have absorbed just one degree of that air heat?

  15. jEREMY says:

    ….and yet the supreme court allows the corporate money to flow unabated and claims it will not influence!

  16. Forest says:

    This site has attracted 13 comments. It is both a great site and a great commentary by Bill. Yet,the USA has over 300 million people; there should be many more comments. Yesterday the Canadian CBC article on the Enbridge pipeline was posted. It has now attracted about 1200 comments, most are against the pipeline. About 5 comments are added per hour. Canada has 1/10 the population of the USA. It is heartening that, considering our population we are getting that kind of response. The USA now needs to not only match that, but exceed it by at least a factor of ten. You have much more influence there. Best of sincere luck and good management. We all need it.

  17. prokaryotes says:

    CP is an insider source, if you look up similar articles over at Huffington Post you get 1-10k comments..

  18. Mike Roddy says:

    Good one, Bill, a lot of us have been thinking along the same lines. We cannot continue to accept being suckers.

  19. Jameson Quinn says:


    Thank you. You are a true hero, and it is true that we cannot effectively defend against climate change without going on the offense against political corruption. As others have said, I hope that environmental organizations can take your words to heart and make the fight against corruption an important part of their strategies.

    Now, let me be even more hopefully naive than you are. If climate politics is polluted by political corruption… then it is just as true that pollitical corruption is multiplied by the two-party duopoly, and that the two-party duopoly would crumble if we changed our voting system. With only two parties, the options of most voters are reduced to nothing, while the options and leverage of the corporate backers are the dominant factor. The only way we’ll have the leverage to take back the Democratic party, is if we have a real choice. (And yes, I’d rather take back the Democratic party than build a new one.)

    As long as we use plurality voting and single-member districts, “Duverger’s law” says that two-party domination is inevitable. But there are other options. For more on the various options for reforming plurality, see ; for more on SODA voting and PAL representation, the options I favor, I have a draft of an argument at , and descriptions of the methods at and .

    As for strategies for reform, you’re obviously right that the first step is to build awareness and pressure, a la OWS. But it’s good for people to know that we have a plan for what comes next, too: an article V constitutional convention, as Lawrence Lessig argues here:

    In the struggle,

  20. jEREMY says:

    My concern is this taking the shape of the slow and fragmented campaign. Do we have time to wage a battle with the fossil fuel giants? Look, all they need to do is delay action and sap our energy and focus. Oil and coal is still be consumed and expanded with capital infrastructure projects being built.
    Now, please I am not critizing Mr McKibben and his actions. Without him and others in Global Warming would be largely out of the public view. Unfortunately, cigaretts are still being sold and smoked. Will we say the same of fossil fuels fifty years from now?
    I think the answer is yes by the looks of things…even if climate change is beyond the tipping point.

  21. jEREMY says:

    Looks like the campaign is the same as the one wages against the tobacco industry. Cigaretts are still be sold today and I’m afraid fossil fuels will still be consumed fifty years from now