Changing the Game: Your Part, My Part

In an era when the oil and gas industry poured more than $22 million into candidates’ coffers in the 2010 election cycle, it is easy to believe polluters hold all the cards. The truth is there are still ways to gain political power that don’t involve writing a fat check.

But in order to get in the game, you have to show up.

You have to get on your feet and make your presence known at lawmakers’ district offices, hometown rallies, or Washington events.  Some folks make their presence known through civil disobedience. I am too much of rule-bound first-born to take that path; being my mother’s daughter and having an arrest warrant just don’t jibe. But I have great respect for those who use this peaceful technique to capture politicians’ attention.

This week, for instance, environmental activist Bill McKibben, has organized daily sit-ins at the White House to call on President Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline . The pipeline, which would run 1,700 miles from Alberta to Texas, would lock America into using more dirty tar sands oil—a fuel that generates three times as much global warming pollution as regular crude.

The people risking arrest include farmers, ranchers, businesspeople, and landowners from along the proposed pipeline route. They include religious leaders, labor activists, and others. And they include the renowned Gus Speth, one of the co-founders of NRDC, the chair of President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, and the former director of the United Nations Development Programme.  Speth was arrested during the sit-in, along with 161 other people so far. In a statement  from the Central Cell Block of the D.C. Jail, he said, “I’ve held numerous positions and public offices in Washington, but my current position feels like one of the most important.”

Having respected citizens like Speth invite arrest—during the same week the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is being dedicated in Washington no less—gets attention. It makes it harder for leaders to pretend constituents don’t care about the tar sands oil pipeline.

But civil disobedience is just one approach. If that’s not your style, you can find other ways to step up.

Because this is the season to get involved. It is the season of candidates riding around on bus tours. It is the season of new candidates joining races every other week. And it is the season of Member of Congress fighting to keep their jobs.

It is a political truism that even when people hate Congress as a whole, they still like their own members. The 112th Congress has blasted that pattern to bits. Earlier this month, CNN released a poll that showed for the first time ever that people are ready to throw their elected officials out of office regardless of party. This is sobering news for lawmakers.  It also means members will be spending more time in their home districts trying to shore up support. I encourage you to attend their public events (you can often find schedules on their websites) and ask them where they stand on key environmental issues.

Posing questions accomplishes two things. First, you find out what their position is.  One of the most powerful images for me in the 2010 election was from a video on YouTube of a young woman from St. Louis asking Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill: are you on the side of polluters or are you on the side of the people? McCaskill said she stood with people, but then she wound herself up into an agitated response, acknowledging the political contributions she gets from coal companies and even saying that the young woman’s question “irritates” her. Well, at least we know more about where she stands.

Second, asking questions show lawmakers that voters value environmental protections. Polluters are very busy trying to tell them otherwise. As the New York Times pointed out recently, candidates for the GOP presidential nomination have turned bashing the Environmental Protection Agency into a part-time sport. I think they do it because they think no one cares about environmental and public health safeguards.

We have to show them that we do care.

Politics is about repetition, and we need to use every town hall meeting, every bus-tour stop, and every ribbon cutting ceremony to tell our representatives that we care about environmental protection. And then we need to do it again.

The more we show up, the harder it is for them to ignore us. And the more we speak up, the sooner they will have to respond.

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