Does Al Gore think he's too old for civil disobedience?

Speaking at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting, the former vice president and climate activist called for young people to engage in "civil disobedience." But why not old people, too?

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow
Former Vice President Al Gore speaks during the opening plenary of the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting Wednesday in New York.

Speaking at the annual Clinton Global Initiative  meeting  in New York Wednesday, former vice president and climate activist Al Gore called for "civil disobedience" to stop the construction of conventional coal-fired power plants.

Here's what he said, according to Reuters :

"If you're a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration," Gore told the Clinton Global Initiative gathering to loud applause.

This isn't the first time he's said this kind of thing. In an interview with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published in October 2007, Gore called for direct action to save the climate:

“We are now treating the Earth’s atmosphere as an open sewer,” he said, and (perhaps because my teenage son was beside me) he encouraged young people to engage in peaceful protests to block major new carbon sources.
“I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers,” Mr. Gore said, “and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.”

Leaving aside whether breaking the law is ever justified, it seems odd that Gore doesn't seem to include himself in the category of the "young people" he thinks should risk jail to halt global warming. After all, at age 71, Ghandi was arrested and served two years in prison. The US labor organizer Mother Jones was still facing charges of sedition in her 80s. Even TV president Martin Sheen, who is eight years older than Gore, managed to get himself arrested at an antinuclear action in Nevada last year, for what he says is the 65th time.

Civil disobedience has never been the exclusive province of the young. And, anyway, as these and many other nonviolent resisters have demonstrated, you're only as old as you feel.

Maybe Gore was thinking about those six Greenpeace activists in Britain who last October rappelled down the side of a smokestack at the Kingsnorth coal plant and defaced it. They were found not guilty two weeks ago when a jury deemed their actions justified. I'll admit that I'm having trouble picturing the former vice president dangling from a Kernmantle rope 600 feet off the ground.

But acts of civil disobedience need not be strenuous. Gore could have joined the 14 protesters in Wise County, Va., who were arrested last week after chaining themselves to steel drums to block the construction of the Dominion coal-fired power plant. As this video of the demonstration shows, this was an all-ages event. Indeed, the Rainforest Action Network, which helped organize the demonstration, invited Gore to get arrested with them last October. The response from his spokeswoman: "He has not accepted any of their offers to date."

If chains aren't his thing, Gore could kick it old-school and do what Henry David Throreau, the man who popularized the term "civil disobedience," did in 1846. Thoreau, in protest of slavery and the US invasion of Mexico, simply stopped paying his taxes. Tax resistance takes no effort at all, at least until the cops show up at your door.

New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andy Revkin, while not coming right out and condemning anticoal lawlessness, thinks that young people's time would be better spent acting within the law. He suggests instead that they vote (an act that Thoreau derided as doing nothing for justice beyond "expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail"). He also suggests that they educate themselves, conduct energy audits of their schools or communities, or start a clean energy company.

Over at Climate Progress, Joseph Romm, a former energy adviser to Bill Clinton, worries that the problem of climate change might be immune to the kind of nonviolent resistance that Gore is urging – unless of course they have someone, say, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to mobilize them:

I am all for civil disobedience. But this isn’t the civil rights movement or the struggle for India’s independence, where you are appealing to a general populace that will be impressed by the nonviolence of a mass of marchers and shocked by the response of a brutal establishment. Thus, the scale and nature of the problem makes civil disobedience at best a weak solution to the climate crisis — with one possible exception.
Civil rights had Dr. King and India had Gandhi to create a mass movement. If Gore really believes that civil disobedience is an important strategy — then he needs to lead the effort and go chain himself to some fences and sit in front of some bulldozers with thousands of others. If he won’t, then this is all just talk. Gandhi and King certainly never sat around with a bunch of world leaders in a big, fancy hotel and urged others to do that which they were not prepared to do any time or any place, over and over again, until the cause was won.

I'm not persuaded that every movement needs a leader. Sometimes having a head honcho can be more of a vulnerability than an asset. But I'll bet that if the former vice president had turned up last week in Wise County with bullhorn and a cider-vinegar-soaked bandanna (helps with the tear gas), his fellow activists would not have sent him away for being too old.

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