Letter from Bill McKibben

by: Heather on 08/31/2011
Posted in: Activism

As a Canadian, I am deeply ashamed of this country's continued exploitation of the Tar Sands, despite the horrific environmental cost. Hundreds of Americans have been arrested in peaceful protest outside the White House in Washington, DC, for the so-called crime of calling on their own government to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline which would flood their country with dirty Tar Sands oil. Among those who have been arrested is activist Bill McKibben, who has written the following letter encouraging people to join in this "moral witness" of civil, non-violent direct action.


Dear brothers and sisters,

This is an impertinent letter. It arrives out of the blue, asking you to do something hard, and to do it quickly, and for all that I apologize. A week ago I wouldn’t have written it. Then we were just beginning a two-week long series of protests outside the White House in Washington DC trying to persuade President Obama to block construction of a giant pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.

We knew the cause was important. These tar sands are the second-largest pool of carbon on earth, after the oilfields of Saudi Arabia. Our greatest climatologist James Hansen, of NASA, says that if we tap them heavily it will be “essentially game over for the climate,” and hence for people around the world who live near the margin and suffer first and fastest as the planet warms.

But there are many important causes, and many protests, and very few of them ignite. This has turned out to be the exception. So far 400 people have been arrested outside the White House, in seven daily waves of very civil disobedience. It’s the largest non-violent direct action like this in the environmental movement in generations. And it continues for another week. We would be so grateful if you could come to Washington and join us in this moral witness, and if you could help us recruit others to do the same

At first the police reacted with the logic of force, jailing us in Central Cell Block of the DC jail, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds.  I spent two sweaty and sleepless nights there with, among 40 others, Rev. Jim Antal, who heads the UCC in Massachusetts. Twenty women spent the weekend huddled together on a concrete floor without even a bed, air-conditioner blasting at them. It was hard but not impossible—and we woke up Sunday morning singing that old spiritual “Certainly Lord.”  Because new waves of arrestees kept coming, the police have figured out that we will not be deterred by suffering, and they have become humane and professional. Still—you’ll be put in handcuffs, put in a paddy wagon, taken to a holding cell, and fined $100; it’s not easy for any of us who are normal law-abiding Americans to be arrested; it takes a certain leap of faith. 

Hence this letter. We’ve long since won the scientific arguments around this pipeline, but we need people steeped in our various religious traditions here to make sure that the president—who for once can stop this project with a simple stroke of the pen, never having to even ask the opinion of Congress—understands that the defense of Creation is a moral imperative as well as a practical one. 

I have no right to make this request of you. I’ve never risen higher in the religious hierarchy than Methodist Sunday School teacher. But there are moments when the Holy Spirit, the ruach, seems to break through a little. This has been one of them, with hundreds of common Americans displaying uncommon courage. For me the most moving scene of the week may have been a middle-aged woman who suffers from debilitating anxiety disorders so profound that she has a service dog with her at all times. When the police told her they wouldn’t let her take her dog to jail, she swallowed hard and got in the paddy wagon herself, and with the support of those around her made it through the next few hours. (And it was a joyous, tail-wagging reunion!). 

The stirring memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King is now open on the mall—and down in front of the White House we’re doing our best to provide a kind of living tribute to the greatest preacher our society has produced, and perhaps the bravest. If you can join us, please go to http://www.tarsandsaction.org/ and sign up. I know it’s a lot to ask. That’s why I’m asking you. 

Bill McKibben 

P.S. Please spread this invitation far and wide in your circles; I’m painfully aware that the short notice makes it inconvenient. Which is so often the way with the most important things.   




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