Bill McKibben on the value of leaderless movements
Environmentalist, educator and founder of the climate activism group, 350.org, Bill McKibben has been seen as a leading voice of the climate movement for years. As a journalist, he's written some of the most powerful arguments for addressing climate change, such as his piece for Rolling Stone, Global Warming's Terrifying New Math. And he and 350 have been instrumental in some of the most important activism campaigns, including rallying opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and helping organize a fossil fuel divestment campaign, just to name a few.
In what could be interpreted as his own attempt to pull back from being seen as a leader, Bill McKibben has written an excellent essay on the history of the environmental and climate movements and why it is better off with no single leader.
Rebecca Solnit at TomDispatch introduces McKibben's essay by explaining her own views on the benefits of leaderless movements:
All through my activist life, I’ve seen police looking for leaders to negotiate with or suppress. A body with a head can be decapitated, but headless organisms charge on as long as some of us remain. And many people -- Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, David Graeber of the Occupy movement, Bill McKibben in the climate-change movement, possibly even Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement -- have been mistaken for leaders when they were really something else: catalysts and voices for our movements. They weren’t and aren’t leaders because we aren’t followers. We don’t obey them, but sift through and adopt their ideas, frameworks, and strategies as we see fit, while contributing ourselves. No shepherds, no sheep -- which is a triumph of political evolution and a measure of how far we are from the authoritarianism of the past.
McKibben explains how slightly older generations see the need for a leader for every movement, but notes how this has changed with the movements of today:
it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment -- even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights -- don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.
In just a few years, the climate movement has seen success on a number of important fronts. McKibben sees this as a result of it's largely leaderless structure:
In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.
That’s not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.
What makes leaderless movements so successful, explains McKibben, is their similarity to the distributed nature of a smarter, cleaner energy grid:
For environmentalists, we have a useful analogy close at hand. We’re struggling to replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.