Greens used to be great when it came to protesting—top of the table. Activists could chain themselves to trees—or just live in one, like the devoted Julia Butterfly Hill—to protest logging. Anti-nuclear protesters were able to capitalize on the legacy of Three Mile Island, helping to end the construction of new plants. Lois Gibbs, a housewife in upstate New York, launched an unlikely fight against the toxic Love Canal, part of a wave of local activists from coast to coast who demanded clean water and clean air for their communities. If America’s rivers and skies are cleaner today than they were 40 years ago—and for the most part they are—it’s due not just to the work of new laws and enforcement from the Environmental Protection Agency, but because ordinary citizens took to the streets and demanded it.
But climate change isn’t so easy to protest. The very global nature of global warming makes climate activism like trying to throw your arms around the world. It’s still, for the most part, a danger to come—the most visible impacts are far away, in poor and distant places, and hard to separate from background noise of generally bad things in the world. We’re all implicated in our carbon use; we’re all at fault. You can try to fight, say, coal plants site by site—and campaigns like the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal have had success doing just that—but that doesn’t necessarily connect to the larger issue. Bill McKibben and thousands of activists around the world have created the alliance 350.org virtually from scratch, bringing global attention to the coming climate crisis—but you can’t say they’ve had real, practical success yet.
Will the Gulf oil spill change all that? We’ll start to find out today. Before the Deepwater Horizon spill, Dave Rauschkolb, a restaurateur and surfer from Florida, wanted to organize a protest against the expansion of offshore drilling to his state’s waters. He came up with the idea of Hands Across the Sand—people would gather on beaches and link hands to show their opposition to offshore drilling. He did one event on February 13 this year—nearly 1,000 people showed up to St. Pete’s Beach in Florida.
But after the Deepwater Horizon spill, interest in the idea exploded. National green groups like the Sierra Club promoted Hands Across the Sand, as environmentalists seized on a visible way to fight offshore drilling. So at 12 PM today, June 26, at hundreds of beaches around the U.S.—and a few more around the world—people gathered to hold hands and protest the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history:
“This is the worst oil spill that has happened in my lifetime,” said Sarah Mullins, 20, of Kendall [in Florida]. “We all complain about these problems. . . this is our Miami, this is our beach and we need to stop offshore oil drilling.’
Will protests like Hands Across the Sand make a difference? At the very least, they get people involved in environmental issues, people who might never have felt directly threatened by global warming. Green groups will do everything they can to take capitalize on the spill—as well they should—and major environmental disasters have galvanized Americans before. We’re angry, no doubt, and public opinion has gradually turned against at least the idea of expanding offshore drilling. But if Americans want more than that, they’ll have to take to the streets—or maybe the sand—and demand it. June 26 could mark the start.