Getting the environmental message out there can be tough these days. The media spotlight can be hard to grab, particularly when the message has to do with a major corporations' alleged long-term avoidance of an issue that directly ties into climate change. So often, journalists go for the flashy banners -- the time-sensitive breaking news that they think readers want to see -- rather than reporting on something we've inherently known for years. Such is the story of advancing climate change.
But last Thursday, Bill McKibben found a way to turn that around. It was an artful, if not simple, co-opt of major media -- and a skillful demonstration of something he has been saying to audiences repeatedly recently: Get arrested and speak out.
Last year the CEO of 350.org phrased his message a little differently as he stood before a gathering of wine-sipping Seattlites who had come to hear him speak on the dilemma of Keystone XL: Don't be afraid to get arrested, but wear a suit. Challenge normal perception of what a person who cares about the planet looks and sounds like. Take part in what he calls the "collaboration with the rest of the world to stop climate change in its tracks."
It's not an unfamiliar tenor for McKibben, whose 2013 arrest in front of the White House helped shine a light on public objection to the Keystone XL pipeline project. It also set a benchmark for hundreds of students and thousands of protesters at a Washington, D.C. event a year later.
But this year, the issue isn't as physically evident as a pipeline that was due to cut a swath through some of North America's most environmentally sensitive lands. It's something more nebulous than that, but just as pressing: a corporation's blatant disregard for actions that it knew could herald irreversible climate change.
"ExxonMobil could have changed history for the better. Had it sounded the alarm — had it merely said ‘our internal research shows the world’s scientists are right’ — it would have saved a quarter century of wheel-spinning," wrote McKibben as he sat in front of an Exxon gas station in Burlington, Vermont, waiting to be arrested.
His protest worked. Since McKibben's arrest, social media has had a field day. Dozens of publications have covered the story about the environmental writer-turned-activist who, with the moxie of an entire gathering, staged a one-man protest outside a gas station and reminded the world of the story. And within minutes, months-old news that was already being relegated to the back pages suddenly inspired a reason for outrage .
And the outrage is still making its way to print. Lawmakers, including presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), are calling for a Justice Department investigation into ExxonMobil's prior knowledge that its actions would increase global warming -- while maintaining its assertion that there was no such thing as climate change.
So far, no one has asked why lawmakers didn't propose the investigation earlier this year when the story first began to break. But perhaps that just goes to show the foresight of McKibben's plan: It not only moved the press, but also inspired the country's congressional leaders to speak up.
McKibben's "silly" one-man-stand is, among other things, a masterful lesson to future generations of how big-media priorities work -- and how environmental activism succeeds. It's anyone's guess, however, how well we as a global population with a looming environmental crisis will heed the message.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.