What Leonard Cohen Can Teach Environmentalists About Fighting Back

When our political system seems irreparably broken, our activism is “how the light gets in.”

December 05, 2016

Leonard Cohen, 1934–2016

Takahiro Kyono/Flickr

Just 48 hours after the U.S. presidential election, while tens of millions of people around the globe were still trying to process the shocking results, the world received some more distressing news: Popular culture had just lost one of its wisest and most distinctive voices, Leonard Cohen. The Canadian-born singer-songwriter and poet died on November 7, although word of his death wasn’t made public until three days later.

Cohen’s songs—stark, prophetic, mordantly funny, and shot through with dark wit and religious imagery—have meant a great deal to me over the years. But in the wake of the election, and in the context of what seems to be a national mood of desperation regarding the fate of sensible environmental policy, one song in particular has new resonance.

In the chorus of “Anthem,” from his 1992 album The Future, Cohen intones:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Most of the people I know who spend their days fighting for climate action, wildlife, wild lands, renewable energy, and cleaner air and water—and I know more than a few of these people—aren’t feeling terribly hopeful lately. Each new day seems to bring another cause for despair. President-elect Trump has threatened to renege on our nation’s commitment to the groundbreaking Paris climate accord. The two men who are leading the transition teams that will fill top positions at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy are, respectively, an open climate denier and an anti-renewables lobbyist with close ties to the Koch Brothers. To boot, incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus has confirmed that his new boss thinks climate science is “a bunch of bunk.”

In other words, there’s plenty to be worried about—and plenty of reasons to believe that the worst is yet to come.

But as I was listening to “Anthem” again the other day, it hit me: There’s also cause for hope, and even optimism. What feels, unmistakably, like a breaking or a fracturing of environmental progress is also an opportunity for people who care about the planet to come together as they’ve never done before—and to show the world, including our next president, that we won’t allow anyone to undo what we’ve spent decades accomplishing.

Here’s something to mull over, especially if you’ve been feeling extra-doleful in recent weeks. Historically, elected officials have had a very difficult time rolling back environmental protections that are already on the books. Even when past presidents have claimed a mandate (something this president-elect cannot do), they have failed to overcome the public opposition standing in their way. Take, for example, Ronald Reagan, who at the height of his postelection popularity was nevertheless smacked down in his attempt to dismantle the EPA. As University of Michigan professor Andrew Hoffman has pointed out, resistance from the media, Congress, and the general public was simply too much for his administration to bear—and he wisely gave up and turned his attention to other, more winnable battles.

Which brings me back to Leonard Cohen. In addition to the poignant call to action embedded in its chorus, another line in “Anthem” seems to capture the mood of environmental advocates—and, indeed, all progressives—at this fraught cultural moment. In the second verse, just after he's castigated the “lawless crowd” of hypocritical politicians who cloak their wrongdoing in religious rhetoric, Cohen warns:

They’ve summoned up a thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

I’ve listened to (and sung along with) that line hundreds of times before. But the full weight of Cohen’s words didn’t strike me until I heard them a few weeks ago—just after I had finished scrolling through my Facebook feed, where all signs appeared to point to the formation of a postelection thundercloud ready to rain down some truly righteous action on the land.

Maybe you’ve noticed it, too. Record numbers of people, in the days and weeks after the election, pledging their support for organizations devoted to civil liberties and women’s health and anti-discrimination. The emergence of rapidly growing online movements dedicated to pluralism and tolerance. Or the thousands of volunteers who swarmed to frigid North Dakota to help the Standing Rock Sioux protect their water and their sacred sites from the depredations of an oil pipeline.

Over the weekend, we got a much needed glimpse of what it looks like when the thundercloud of righteous resistance opens up and the power structure has no choice but to run for cover. On Sunday came news that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had denied the request by the Dakota Access pipeline’s builder, Energy Transfer Partners, for an easement over Lake Oahe. This turn of events represents a major victory for the water protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux—but it’s also a victory for the causes of solidarity, collective action, and environmental justice. When we come together and stick together, we win.

Last week I asked one of my colleagues at NRDC (which publishes onEarth) how many new members the organization has signed up since election day. Her answer stunned me: 24,000. That’s nearly 1,000 people a day since November 8 who have realized that, taken together, they constitute a thundercloud—and that any elected officials who think they can back out of our climate agreements, hand over our public lands to oil companies, or dismantle the regulatory systems that keep us safe are going to hear from them.

Ring the bells.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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