It was the fall of 1969, 37 years ago, at the height of the
Vietnam war. I was doing anti-war community organizing in
Lancaster, Pa., having left college that spring at the end
of my sophomore year. Before doing so I had publicly
returned my Selective Service draft cards to my draft board
in Lancaster and, in response, had been sent an induction
notice demanding that I report to go into the army.
That early September morning, I showed up with 100 people to
support me as I burned my induction notice in front of the
draft board rather than get onto the bus to go to the
induction center in Harrisburg.
As the weeks went by after that action, as I did my local
organizing, and as no legal action was taken against me, I
found myself questioning if I was doing enough to try to
stop the war. Every day there were reports about hundreds of
Americans and Vietnamese being killed. The U.S. air war was
escalating and the danger of an expanded war with China
seemed very real. Weren’t there stronger actions that could
Yes, there were, and several months later I participated in
one. Joining together with Catholic priests and nuns and
others, I helped to plan and participated in nonviolent
civil disobedience at draft boards in Philadelphia and the
offices of a war corporation, General Electric, in
Washington, D.C. on two consecutive nights in February. For
the next seven months, until I was arrested inside a federal
building in Rochester, N.Y. at 5 a.m., I lived a “life of
crime” as part of what was called the Catholic Left.
Who would have expected it? Nothing in my middle-class
upbringing pointed toward this as my post-college “career,”
except for one thing: being brought up by two loving parents
to believe that if you felt deeply about an issue, you
should follow your conscience, do what you believe is right
even if there is risk involved.
I’ve been remembering those early years of my activist
career recently. I’ve done so because, within the two mass
movements that I’m most active with, the peace movement and
the movement to slow, stop and reverse global heating, there
is discussion (the latter) and action (the former) to “up
the ante.” This summer thousands of people fasted for
anywhere from a day up to a couple of months as part of a
“troops home fast” initiated by Code Pink. Then last month,
according to the website of United for Peace and Justice,
“more than 275 people were arrested in over 20 nonviolent
civil resistance and civil disobedience actions, at the
White House, Congressional offices, military bases, and
military recruitment centers in D.C. and across the
There should have been more people arrested. What the peace
movement should be doing is something on the scale of, if
not exactly the same thing as, what was done in May of 1971
when thousands of people were arrested in Washington, D.C.
as part of a Mayday action to disrupt the functioning of
government for that one day. No more business as usual if
the war isn’t ended!
The peace movement needs the spirit and mass willingness to
risk injury or arrest that we most recently saw with the
youth-driven global justice movement of 1999-2001.
The climate crisis movement needs the same thing, but it
appears that it’s nowhere close to it, unfortunately.
Despite months of talk about the need for “next level”
actions, there have been none since a student sit-in on the
campus of Penn State and a small Congressional office sit-in
in Montana this spring.
This is so despite the fact that just about every week there
is a new, scary scientific report about what is happening to
our climate or what will happen barring a rapid change in
-The perennial Arctic sea ice, which normally survives the
summer melting season, abruptly shrank by 14% between 2004
-Extreme drought is predicted to affect about a third of the
planet this century, according to the Hadley Center for
Climate Prediction and Research in England.
-A study reported in the journal Science found that “the
speed at which the Greenland ice sheet was melting has risen
threefold in the past two years compared with the previous
five.” If the Greenland ice sheet melts into the ocean, sea
levels worldwide will rise by 20 feet.
-BBC News reported on September 4th that “carbon dioxide
levels are substantially higher now than at any time in the
last 800,000 years, the latest study of ice [cores] drilled
out of Antarctica confirms.” Dr. Eric Wolff from the British
Antarctic Survey went on to explain that “in the core the
fastest increase seen was of the order of 30 parts per
million (ppm) [of carbon dioxide] over a period of roughly
1000 years. The last 30 ppm of increase [in recent years]
has occurred in just 17 years.”
-Methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than
carbon dioxide, is being released from melting permafrost at
a rate five times faster than previously thought, according
to a recent Nature study.
Scientists are deeply concerned that with this acceleration
of the process of climate change, we may soon, within years,
reach a “tipping point” at which there will be so much
carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere
or “in the pipeline” that it will be almost impossible to
avoid an escalating series of catastrophic natural
calamities throughout the world.
In the face of this deepening world crisis, what is the
state of the climate movement?
There’s a lot that’s positive. Over the past year and a
half, a number of events seem to have had the cumulative
effect of broadening, popularizing and strengthening the
movement: the Kyoto Protocol going into effect in February,
2005; Hurricane Katrina; the actions around the world on
December 3rd last year, especially the big 30,000 person
demonstration in Montreal outside the U.N. Climate Change
conference; and the popularity of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient
There’s important movement on college campuses with the
Campus Climate Challenge and within the religious community,
including among conservative evangelicals.
It’s encouraging to see the broadly-based activism leading
up to the Congressional elections, particularly for the
second International Day of Climate Action on November 4th
Over 300 mayors, representing cities and towns with about 45
million people, have signed onto the Mayor’s Climate
Protection Agreement, indicating an intention to take action
to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their locality as if
they were signers of the Kyoto Protocol.
It was important that the California state government passed
legislation to reduce greenhouse gases by 25% by 2020, and
it’s very important that there is now legislation in
Congress, in both houses, to reduce greenhouse gases by 80%,
the amount needed to stabilize the climate, by 2050.
However, the likelihood is that this timetable is far too
long to avert catastrophic climate change. We don’t need 80%
reductions 44 years from now, we need them now or as soon as
That is where nonviolent civil disobedience comes in.
Down through history social movements that were effective
had to push the envelope, or needed a wing of it that was
willing to do so. Status quos don’t change by playing by the
big money-stacked rules of the game. We can’t have any
illusions that ExxonMobil, Peabody Coal, the other giant
energy corporations and their bought politicians will just
nicely go along with a serious clean energy revolution.
Dramatic, creative, intelligent, nonviolent actions are
urgently needed to ramp up the political pressure and force
a quickening of the timetable.
We have to draw strength from the spirit and example of the
young people of the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Often
as they were sitting in or breaking laws that were
protecting injustice, they sang a song written by Malvina
It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that’s Freedom’s price
We don’t mind.
It’s past time for some climate activists prepared to pay
the price of Freedom from Big Oil and a Healthy Planet for
our children and grandchildren.