"The older I get the better I know
that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hand of the young,
who dare to run against the storm"
Ella Baker's Song, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Sweet Honey in the Rock
This weekend, over 10,000 students and young green energy activists will converge on Washington DC, for a historic national youth summit, Powershift09 (www.powershift09.org) Organized by the Energy Action Coalition and a mind-boggling network of nationwide student organizations, Powershift09 will present 72 non-stop hours of panels, workshops, concerts and speeches with a take-no-prisoners message: It's time for the White House and US Congress to stand up to the dirty energy lobby and pass the energy and climate policies we truly need.
Twenty four million young voters helped to put President Barack Obama into office. Powershift is about stirring, educating, training, and mobilizing these young voters into a vibrant movement to keep Capitol Hill accountable to a sustainable green agenda--to feel the urgency of the moment to pass bold, comprehensive energy and climate legislation.
In a time of naysaying and foreboding crisis, the phenomenon of Powershift should be an inspiring bolt of energy for anyone in the green movement, regardless of age. "Being young is a state of mind,'' my hero Ella Baker, the legendary Civil Rights organizer, once declared, "and young people are the people who want change.''
We need that change now.
Last spring, NASA climatologist James Hansen and a group of leading scientists published a paper in Science magazine that spelled out the future projections of carbon dioxide emissions and climate destabilization in clear terms: "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."
"What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future," Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the UN's International Panel on Climate Change, has declared. "This is the defining moment."
On Monday, March 2nd, another historic event is planned at the Capitol Power Plant, to symbolically take this message to Washington, DC. As the first massive act of civil disobedience, thousands will cross the line to demand an end to our nation's denial of the spiraling impact of dirty coal and old coal-fired plants. Rallied by a clarion call from our beloved farmer-poet laureate Wendell Berry and pioneering climate change author Bill McKibben, this historic action is organized by Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network and sponsored by a broad alliance of citizen groups (www.capitolclimateaction.org).
As a 100-year-old relic, the Capitol Power Plant spews over 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions to keep government buildings warm. Not far away, the Potomac River Plant operates on coal hauled from mountaintop removal strip mines that have left parts of Appalachia in ruin.
For many of us, the March 2nd action will not be our first time to cross the line. In fact, the historic act of civil disobedience at the Capitol Power Plant follows in the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement and the Free South Africa Movement.
On a cold fall day in 1984, at the age of 21, I sat in the holding tank of a Washington, DC precinct jail, listening to my jailmate describe his recent visit to South Africa. The impoverished black townships were aflame. In the face of widespread strikes, the repressive Botha administration had unleashed its police and military with brutal force. Over 6,500 striking laborers at the Sasol coal-to-oil plant had been dismissed. The apartheid system withheld political rights for the majority black population. Nelson Mandala remained in prison.
The Reagan administration chose to deal with this horrific situation through a policy of "constructive engagement," which effectively turned a blind eye to the atrocities of apartheid, and rejected any calls for economic sanctions on South Africa as an instrument of diplomacy.
"Constructive engagement is another slogan for a state of denial," my jailmate, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, told me.
For Coffin, who was the head minister at the Riverside Church in New York City (where I served as his aide in the mid-1980s), the journey to a Washington jail cell had not resulted from a whimsical decision to protest. As part of the Free South Africa Movement, launched that fall by several organizations such as TransAfrica, we had blocked the doors of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC, as an act of civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience, Coffin reminded me, was a non-violent act of drawing attention to an ignored crisis taking place in an administration beset by crisis management. In the spring of 1961, as the chaplain at Yale University, he had boarded the bus in the volatile Freedom Rides to Montgomery, Alabama, to test the desgregation laws on transit.
The troubling facts about dirty coal demand a similar movement for a new generation.
It's time to end our constructive engagement with dirty coal.
Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and the forthcoming, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books).