Photo: Rae Breaux
by Wen Stephenson, excerpted from Grist
It was game time. The Saturday night crowd on the Vermont campus was festive, boisterous, pumped. People cheered and whooped when told that one of their heroes, climate activist Tim DeChristopher — serving a two-year federal sentence for his civil disobedience opposing new oil and gas drilling in Utah — would soon be back on the field.
When the man on the stage, 350.org’s Bill McKibben, said it was time to march not just on Washington but on the headquarters of fossil fuel companies — “it’s time to march on Dallas” — and asked those to stand who’d be willing to join in the fight, seemingly every person filling the University of Vermont’s cavernous Ira Allen Chapel, some 800 souls, rose to their feet.
McKibben and 350, the folks who brought us the Keystone XL pipeline protests, are now calling for a nationwide divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies’ bottom line. Beginning with student-led campaigns on college campuses, modeled on the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, they’ll pressure institutions to withdraw all investments from big oil and coal and gas. Their larger goal is to ignite a morally-charged movement to strip the industry of its legitimacy.
“The fossil fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they should lose their social license — their veneer of respectability,” McKibben tells his audience. “You want to take away our planet and our future? We’re going to take away your money and your good name.”
I was there in Burlington on Saturday to spend some time with the 350.org team, watch their run-throughs, and attend the night’s show, a sort of “dress rehearsal” for the 20-city Do The Math tour, officially launching in Seattle on Nov. 7, the day after the election. The tour builds off of McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which appeared in July and is one of the most widely read pieces in the magazine’s history. Buzz is clearly building, and not just in McKibben’s home state of Vermont. The Seattle show is sold out. The Boston show, on Nov. 15, sold out in less than 24 hours and has moved to a venue three times larger, the Orpheum Theater, with 2,700 seats. (Full disclosure: McKibben sits on Grist’s board of directors.)
Part multimedia lecture — with video appearances by 350.org allies like Naomi Klein, James Hansen, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — and part organizing rally, with a live musical performance, the Burlington event gave a taste of what’s to come. The tour will “evolve,” with different elements and onstage guests along the way — for example, Klein and filmmaker Josh Fox, of Gasland fame, will join McKibben onstage in various cities. Although it was a little rough around the edges on Saturday night, nobody seemed to mind (McKibben was playing, wisely, to his hometown crowd). The basic structure and central message of the show were well in place — and, just as important for 350′s objectives, the organizing wheels were well in motion.
As 350′s Matt Leonard, serving as “tour manager” for Do The Math, explained it to me, the tour isn’t simply about “getting butts in seats” for a lecture or concert (thus the relatively low emphasis on the musical guests in each city, most of whom are yet to be announced). It’s about getting “the right people” in those seats. “This isn’t just for publicity and outreach,” he says. “We’re putting tremendous effort into making sure students, community leaders, college trustees, and influential decision-makers are a part of this event, because they are the ones that will turn this from a talk into a hard-hitting campaign.”
Sure enough, there in Burlington, students at UVM and other area colleges were already talking up divestment campaigns. Elsewhere in New England, a student-led divestment movement, spearheaded by the network Students for a Just and Stable Future, is off and running — at Harvard, Tufts, Brandeis, Amherst, UNH, and a dozen other campuses. Similar campaigns are being discussed on campuses around the country. And on Saturday night, McKibben told the crowd that Hampshire College in western Massachusetts, the first to divest from South Africa in 1977, is the first school in the nation to move toward divestment from fossil fuels.
This is real. And it’s just getting started.