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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Follow the Leaders
distributed 10/9/09 - ©2009

"When the people lead, the leaders will follow." So says the conventional wisdom.

The cynical saying is "conventional" because it is generally true. Often, our "leaders" need to be dragged along by those with a larger vision and a deeper conscience. Too many "leaders" only speak and act when they are sure that they express the views of most of their constituents.

But leaders can lead. This morning's surprising announcement that Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is a reminder that vision does make an enormous difference. Vibrant leadership can carry along a multitude of followers and allies.

The 2009 Peace Prize, apparently, affirms a transformation of US leadership style in the world. The timing of this fall's announcement from Oslo might be seen as both an encouragement of the Obama approach, and a backhanded anti-Nobel to the recently-departed Bush administration. Obama merits the prize, not for clear accomplishments in his few months in office, but for a dramatic turnabout in values and strategy. Diplomacy is the first choice for action, and multiculturalism recognizes the authenticity of conflicting value systems. The Obama administration seems to take seriously the reality of a global community and the rightful claims of future generations. The Nobel committee has affirmed those approaches as constructive ways to peace -- and the prize puts pressure on President Obama to stay that course.

In the US, and around the world, Obama is seen as a genuine leader. In last year's election, Mr. Obama developed a passionate and engaged constituency that adopted his theme of hope. His campaign gave voice to a vision that was attractive and compelling to a sizeable percentage of the electorate. He was out in front as a leader, framing the issues and defining the values that could shape public policy. Obama led with personal charisma and deeply rooted perspectives, and the people followed.

Through the last nine months, some commentators have observed, President Obama has not stopped leading, but the people have stopped following. Many of the community activists who worked tirelessly on the campaign have been far less active in supporting a legislative agenda. (A presidential strategy which has looked to Congress to define policy details may have contributed to that fall-off of engagement.) On climate change and health care, Mr. Obama's ongoing calls for dramatic change stands in contrast to the cautious assumptions in the saying about "the leaders will follow."

When the leaders do lead, the people must follow. Whether the leaders are elected officials, community activists, religious leaders, artists or scientists, the people must affirm clearly expressed truth, and be active in supporting the cause.

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The reality of genuine leadership, and the need for constituencies to support the leaders, was nudged into my awareness before today's Nobel Prize announcement. An article on the Grist website a few days ago was titled, On climate, leading from the front (for a change). Geoffrey Lean wrote: "Something unusual seems to be happening in the struggle to wake the world up to the reality of climate change. Almost unprecedented for an environmental issue, national leaders appear to be out ahead of public opinion in their respective countries."

He pointed to presidents and prime ministers who are staking their careers on stronger climate change policies than their citizens want. In Britain and France, Germany, Japan and Australia, as well as the US, leaders of the affluent nations are trying to drag their legislatures and citizens toward responsible actions. So too in the "developing" world, the highest officials from Mexico, China and India understand the depth of the crisis, and are trying to lead. They are out in front of other politicians and the populace of their nations.

The final paragraph of Lean's article's noted, "National leaders, of course, do know they can make a difference and have been briefed on the true extent of the climate crisis. That may explain why they have leapt out front on this issue. Their countrymen now urgently need to be brought up to speed."

When the leaders lead, the people must join in the cause.

Last summer, climate activist Bill McKibben said, "I was at the White House a month ago. Their clear message was, 'Make us do it. Build the movement that gives us the room to do the things we want to do.'"

The leaders need a movement. The leaders need crowds of supporters.

If you're sick of me writing about the 350.org climate change movement, hold on. The focal day of action that I've been pushing is only two weeks away, and I will address other things soon. But I affirm, once again, that the international day of climate action on October 24 is a vitally important act of support for those leaders who are really leading.

I ask you, I urge you, I challenge you, I dare you! If you are concerned about the viability of our beloved planet in the face of rapidly accelerating climate change, if you care about the injustice of climate impacts falling most heavily on those who did not cause them and who are least able to adapt, then take part in this movement.

Here are three ways that you can support courageous leaders, and prod the reluctant ones.

  1. Create a new "350 event" in your community. One measurement of movement building for 350.org is the number of events being held. A lot of small events is more significant than a few big ones, because it shows that local folk are willing to take the initiative, talk to their friends and neighbors, and claim the climate cause as their own.

    It is not hard to create an event. Gather a few people at a significant local site, and have your picture taken with a "350" sign. Have some friends and neighbors over for dessert, and talk about our responsibility to provide a viable Earth for future generations. Show An Inconvenient Truth or other film at your church or school. That's all it takes. Register your event with 350.org, and post a picture for the "visual petition". You can add to the count of actions which proves a committed constituency.

  2. If you can't create an event, join one in your community. The 350.org website has improved tools to locate the events which are already planned near where you live -- or near where you will be travelling that day. Participate in one of the thousands of events that will be held worldwide, and grow the movement.

  3. If it is not appropriate to have a 350 event in your community -- if an act of public witness is more likely to spawn a backlash and destructive controversy -- find another way of supporting the genuine leaders. Email the White House and push for dramatic leadership from the US at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. Call your Senators and demand stronger climate provisions in the "Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act". Make a donation to an organization that is building the movement. (Here's one suggestion!)

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Many times, we have been the people who lead, in the strong hope that the leaders will follow. This fall, heading into the Copenhagen negotiations, there are some real and courageous leaders. There are government officials, scientists and faith leaders who are speaking truth, and trying to bring the rest of us along. It is time for us to support and encourage them.

The leaders are leading. Let us build a movement that follows their lead.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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