Lots of people eagerly study all the polls and reports on how many people believe that climate change is real and urgent. They seem to think there is some critical mass that, through the weight of belief alone, will get us where we want to go. As if when the numbers aren’t high enough, we can’t achieve anything. As if when the numbers are high enough, beautiful transformation will magically happen all by itself or people will vote for wonderful politicians who do the right thing.
But it’s not the belief of the majority or the work of elected officials that will change the world. It will be action, most likely the actions of a minority, as it usually has been. This week’s appalling Obama administration decision to let Shell commence drilling in the Arctic sea says less about that administration, which swings whichever way it’s pushed, than that we didn’t push harder than the oil industry. Which is hard work, but sometimes even a tiny group can do it.
“We don’t need everyone on board; we don’t need one magic person in office; we need ourselves.”
Take San Francisco, population 850,00, which is near the very top for percent of people who believe in climate change, according to a pollster I spoke to recently. I wish that meant that there were 850,000 climate activists in my town, or even 425,000. But I’ve watched for two years (and sometimes joined) the group of people pushing the San Francisco Retirement Board to divest its half billion dollars or so in fossil fuel investments. In April of 2013, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an exhilarating unanimous (but nonbinding) resolution asking the Employee Retirement Board to divest.
Out of the 850,000 San Franciscans, seven or eight dedicated people have kept the divestment initiative alive, while the retirement board balks, stalls and grumbles about how straightforward changes in a modest portion of their portfolio are difficult, impossible, dangerous (even as they lost tens of millions when petroleum and coal stocks crashed). The activists pushing this forward are not one percent of San Franciscans, which would be 8500 people, or .1%, 850, but about .001% of people in the city.
They’ve come this far by being dedicated, tenacious, deeply informed on the issue and on board policy, and by regularly meeting among themselves and attending most of the meetings. Occasionally they get more people to show up, but they’ve carried the weight for two years. Recently they had a substantial victory, and they may yet win. For all of us. Otherwise divestment might have slipped away in San Francisco. It’s been the same at schools from Rutgers to Stanford: small groups of students and allies have pushed divestment and, sometimes, won. This is the kind of race that tortoises, and not hares, tend to win.