By Erik Love
Bill McKibben has not only succeeded as a thought leader for environmentalism over the past few decades, he has also pushed forward the leading edge of how activism happens in the 21st century. Based on our conversation with him, it seems clear that McKibben is actively looking for new ways to generate grassroots enthusiasm for action on climate change. As a leader in the recent protest campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, McKibben has helped to organize rallies, marches, and civil disobedience efforts. While visiting Dickinson, he sparked action on the campaign to divest from fossil fuel companies – and he engaged in some one-on-one organizing with faculty and students to push them toward that effort. McKibben is one of the most dedicated activists to visit Dickinson in quite some time. One of the key questions currently confronting dedicated activists like McKibben is the extent to which activism can move onto the world wide web.
The question of using the web to motivate protest is hardly new, of course. In fact, communications technologies have always rapidly been taken up both by activists (and by the authorities) in protest campaigns. There are some reasons to think that some of the capabilities provided by the web offer unique challenges and opportunities, though, in ways that the ditto machine, the telephone, radio, and television could not. Protesters that use the web have disrupted at least two components of protest that used to be stable: risk, and physical copresence.
My University of California colleagues Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport describe in their excellent book, Digitally Enabled Social Change, how tools provided by the web give activists entirely new repertoires of protest. When anti-war activists in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to protest against Vietnam, they had to take risks – ranging from embarrassment to getting beat up or locked up. These protesters had to assemble, physically, in the same place at the same time, and this required money and other resources to enable coordination. The protest tactics of the 20th century anti-war movements were therefore expensive: they carried risks and required time and money. By contrast, the anti-war activists working against the Iraq War in the early 2000s were inexpensive. These 21st century activists could protest with much less risk and much less cost.
What implications do these innovations have for climate change activism? McKibben, through his website at 350.org, through his use of Twitter (@BillMcKibben), and in many other ways has been among the most innovative activists working to develop methods to take climate change activism online. Questions remain, however. Can protesters who “gather” online but never actually meet one another “in real life” develop the same kind of durable social connections as protesters who spend time and money to physically join together? Will the use of web technologies dilute the meaning of protests? In other words, does a rally on the National Mall with 50,000 participants have the same impact as a Twitter account with 50,000,000 followers? These questions – and many others – remain open. McKibben isn’t waiting for answers to come to him – he’s working to find the answers himself. And that’s very compelling. “See” you at the protest.