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The Power of People

What Are People Doing about
the Gulf Disaster?

In the last month, anger at the BP oil disaster
has begun turning into action.

Here are some of the things Americans are doing.


Last month I wrote a blog with six things we Americans could
do about the Gulf oil spill, ranging from a takeover of BP to launching a massive transition to a post-oil economy. Many commented on the piece, some adding their ideas for what could be done and news of what they are already doing. Others complained that the blog failed to offer a way for individuals to get involved; some even argued that we Americans simply don’t have the clout to get these things done.

It’s true that if we act alone, we are powerless against the negligence not only of corporate giants like BP but also of the regulators and officials who should be holding them accountable.

But it’s also true that people power ended apartheid, achieved the 8-hour work day, overthrew dictatorships, and ended Jim Crow laws.

We can make the changes that are needed, and this moment of shock and grief at the horrible damage to the Gulf is the right time to act. As Robert Kennedy Jr reminded me in a recent interview, it was an oil spill (a much smaller one) in Santa Barbara, along with the burning of the Cuyahoga River, that set the stage for the first Earth Day and the passage of the landmark Clean Water Act.

Even more is at stake today. On the front lines are the fragile ecosystems and beautiful bayous of the Gulf, as well as the people who make their lives and their livings there. But really we all live in the Gulf—we are all threatened by the gushing oil that, even when burned instead of spilled, is upsetting the delicate balance of our life support systems. Once we pass critical climate tipping points, it will be too late to commission a study to find out what went wrong—we need to transition away from oil, starting now.

So what will it take?

Every sector—from transportation to food, from electricity generation to buildings and land use—can be transformed to help us kick the oil addiction and become a climate-friendly world. In the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine, we quantified how much each of these sectors contributes to the problem, and showed how each can become part of the solution. It can be done, and a stable climate isn’t the only benefit of making this shift—we also get cleaner air, less war, healthier communities, lower energy bills, healthy ecosystems that can sustain thriving populations of wildlife and fish.

To get to a post-petroleum world, we’ll need a combination of political leadership, people power, and the initiative of individuals and communities making the changes they can.

Political leadership is what we often think of first; we expect our elected officials to use their best judgment, even in the face of special interests. Katrina vanden Heuvel of the Nation, for example, calls on President Obama to take responses to the Gulf disaster to the next level:

“He must seize this crisis as a transformative moment to lay out a new and sane energy policy—one that will protect environmental and public health, create jobs and break our addiction to fossil fuels.”

Likewise, Jesse Jackson recently added his voice to that of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in his call for the government to take over BP.

But it will take people power to get political leaders to the needs of people and other life forms ahead of the short-term interests of the powerful special interests who are fighting climate change legislation and regulation of offshore drilling.

YES! Magazine has been covering the ongoing work climate activists. But there’s a whole new movement building from the tragedy of the Gulf oil disaster. Here is some of what’s taking place:

  • Huffington Post,, MoveOn, and others are joining forces to organize meet-ups all over the country on June 8. There are over 300 listed.
  • More than 400,000 people have joined the Facebook page “Boycott BP,” and over 100,000 have joined “One Million Strong Against Off-Shore Oil Drilling”
  • People have been showing up at BP gas stations and elsewhere to protest the disaster. is organizing protests around the country.
  • The Energy Action Coalition is organizing young people for a summer of projects for a clean energy future.
  • June 26 [past] people will be gathering along beaches as part of Hands Across the Sands to say no to offshore drilling.
  • Dozens of green groups are supporting a bill introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont  to ban offshore drilling along the U.S. ocean coastlines and raise fuel efficiency standards to 55 mpg by 2030. According to a Sanders statement, the new policy “would bring the United States up to par with China, Japan, Canada, South Korea and nations in Europe that already have more aggressive standards than the U.S.”
  • Many are working hard to defeat Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s resolution to block EPA regulation of climate-changing pollutants.
  • Some people are volunteering to travel to the Gulf to join those already there cleaning up beaches.
  • But what should we be demanding? In comments on my blog, here are some of the things people suggested:
  • Ban offshore drilling.
  • One person recommended supporting Rep. Raul M. Grijalva’s bill to lift the $75 million cap on liability related to the economic impacts of the spill.
  • Put a price on carbon. Make sure carbon-based fuels reflect the full cost of their production and use, including environmental costs. When the market begins telling the truth about which fuels are really cheap and which ones are expensive, the market will take care of much of the problem.
  • Create a big, inclusive Brain Trust Project that will leave the Manhattan Project in the dust.
  • “Work for Peace. As Yes! continues to remind us, our war machine consumes more oil that any other activity in the country.”
  • “Tell Congress to spend $500 billion on public transportation, not on new and wider highways across the U.S.,” writes one blog commenter. “It is not just about personal choices of citizens ... It’s really about controlling where trillions of our tax dollars are spent on infrastructure and subsidies that limit people’s choices of doing the right thing and living in a more sustainable way.”
  • Bob Herbert wrote in his New York Times column (not as a blog comment) that we have to take on the corporations that have amassed way too much power (and will have even more under terms of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision): “The U.S. will never get its act together until we develop the courage and the will to crack down hard on these giant corporations. They need to be tamed, closely monitored and regulated, and constrained in ways that no longer allow them to trample the best interests of the American people.”
  • In our homes and communities, we need to begin making the shift ourselves, one home, one block at a time. Some my favorites suggestions in this category are:
  • “Cut your driving in half; quit flying except in emergencies. Ride a bike.”
  • “Buy local, especially local food.”
  • “I have a friend who has given up his car June 1st. I am so proud of him. I plan to do the same. ... Your small change could be multiplied by those you inspire.”
  • “We have to stop buying most of the crap and services we spend money on.”
  • Get an energy audit and find ways to reduce fossil fuel waste at home or in your business.
  • “Call your local media and demand more honest coverage of the issue. ... Use social networking sites to awaken your circle of influence to the truth of our addiction to oil and what we can do about it. ... don’t use single use plastics.”

There is plenty to be done, and every single one of us can be part of the solution, no matter whether we hold a political office or run a company, or whether we’re making changes and organizing in our own communities.

Together, political leadership, people power, and local initiative make the shift to a clean energy future possible. Each one helps to support the other, so there’s no reason to wait until there’s good policy to act locally, or to put off being an activist until you, personally, are completely beyond using fossil fuels. The truth is, there’s no time to lose.


Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sarah is executive editor for YES! Magazine.