Few landscapes connote dystopian waste like Richmond's Chevron refinery. Razor wire circles the 2,900-acre complex—a gray metropolis of rusting train tracks, lake-sized oil drums and charred smokestacks that smolder like giant cigarettes. It's difficult to look at the site without remembering the 93 air-safety violations the refinery's been slapped with since 2008, or the black clouds that engulfed the smokestacks when a diesel leak caught fire last August, hospitalizing 15,000 residents who inhaled the vaporized sludge.
In other words, it's the perfect setting.
As fog dissolves into concrete heat on an August morning, 2,000 protesters march down West MacDonald toward the refinery's gates. They carry signs echoing other social movements—"Occupy Chevron"—and sing "America the Beautiful" and "We Will Overcome." From white-haired hippies holding sunflowers to Ohlone tribe members carrying a giant banner reading "Pissed" to college kids in camo with painted cardboard messages of "Separate Oil and State," there's a distinctly moral tenor to the rally. It will end almost too poetically with a massive sit-in in the refinery driveway—where a Chevron flag waves beside the one with stars and stripes—and 210 arrests.
Along with protests in Ohio, Washington, D.C., and Utah, this rally's stark, urgent narrative of good vs. evil is intentional. Cosponsored by environmental nonprofit 350.org, it's part of a national effort to shift the climate-change debate from partisan gridlock at the congressional top and do-what-you-can green consumption at the individual bottom. According to founder Bill McKibben—contributor to Rolling Stone and the New Yorker and author of The End of Nature—it's time to organize, Civil Rights–style. And it's time to vilify oil conglomerates like Chevron as though they were tobacco companies or Apartheid-era South Africa, divesting from pensions that fund them, getting arrested on their properties and giving the fight against climate change what it so desperately needs: an enemy.
McKibben's approach may sound simplistic, especially to an environmental mainstream that has, for years, preached something equally true: Chevron was not created in a vacuum. After all, the company's tea-colored, shimmering liquid is filling our SUVs—aren't we the problem, not them? But McKibben argues that the personal responsibility mantras of hybrid buying and biking, while important, just aren't enough. They aren't enough to combat wildfires and hurricanes, ocean rise or carbon flooding the air. They aren't enough to mandate cap-and-trade laws or encourage solar on a massive scale, even though the technology exists. And they're no match for the billions of dollars poured into studies and campaign contributions assuring 46 percent of the country that everything is A-OK.
And so, perhaps fueled by simple desperation, McKibben's moral movement is gaining some unlikely support.
A gangly, white-haired college professor from Vermont, McKibben comes off like a doomsday prophet—albeit a humorous one that can back up his claims.
"I've now, quite unexpectedly for me, been arrested a few times, and it's not the most fun thing in the world, but it's not the end of the world, either," he says to the thousands gathered at the march, right before he walks into Chevron's driveway and is cuffed and led to an armored car.
"The end of the world," he says, "is the end of the world."