December 04, 2019

Mothers Out Front is making sure kids have both an Earth and a democracy to inherit.

by Johnny McNulty

Across America, groups of citizens led by local moms are gathering in living rooms to discuss how to pull the levers of municipal, county, and state government. Their goal is to fight climate change and protect their children’s future and they are redeeming the democratic process while they’re at it. They aren’t trying to seize power; they’re reminding policymakers that they already have it and are unafraid to use it. These teams make up Mothers Out Front, a mom-led movement of citizens using their power to heed scientists’ warning that we have only one more decade to slow our carbon output and avoid the most catastrophic scenarios of global warming. To do so, they will wake lawmakers from their lobbyist-induced slumber, and assert the sovereignty of We The People before it’s too late.

Appropriately, this citizen-led movement was founded in Boston. Boston was home to the beginning of the American Revolution, which started with a meeting of like-minded radicals gathering at the Green Dragon Tavern, eventually calling themselves the Sons of Liberty. This movement began with a meeting of like-minded moms in co-founder Kelsey Wirth’s living room, which has become Mothers Out Front. That first meeting was inspired by the shock Kelsey felt when she read her young daughter a book about coral reefs and then realized that every single reef is predicted to die within her daughter’s lifetime. What other organisms, ecosystems and landscapes will she see die, Kelsey wondered, and why have we made so little progress? Kelsey’s second realization was that she could not possibly be alone. There must be many, many mothers outraged at what was being stolen from their children’s future. The group’s name comes from Kelsey’s firm belief that if a car were speeding towards their child, any mother would throw themselves in front of it. So why wouldn’t moms do the same about climate change?

Just as that first revolution spread to taverns in Philadelphia and throughout the colonies, this one has spread to living rooms all over the country. All politics is local, and so Mothers Out Front is local, teams of moms stopping new fossil fuel plants and pipelines in their own backyards and lobbying statehouses.

Those local teams put pressure on local governments to tackle climate issues on municipal and county levels, while multiple teams coordinate to affect change on the state level. This is important, because persistence and presence are the only way to counteract the efforts of industry. Fossil fuel companies can endow their own think tanks to produce white papers on why pollution is wonderful, but even a small group of angry moms is not something a town council member can afford to ignore.

Together, they have halted or delayed the construction of new fossil fuel power plants and gas pipelines, pushed cities to adopt new energy policies and forced states to adopt new emissions limits. In Massachusetts, Mothers Out Front identified hundreds of leaks in the state’s methane pipeline infrastructure. These leaks represent a massive immediate health risk, accounted for an astounding 10% of the state’s total greenhouse output, and billions of dollars in wasted energy meant for heating and cooking. Their efforts forced the state to tighten regulations on pipelines, forced the gas company to fix the leaks, and created higher standards for any future pipelines.

Kelsey would be the first to tell you that these local groups are the leaders of this movement. Centering local teams from every community is a main focus of Mothers Out Front’s mission. This is especially true of frontline communities - poor communities, communities of color and Native American communities. Dirty infrastructure is almost always routed through communities without the political clout to stop them - like the recent treaty violation that placed a pipeline through a sacred watershed on Standing Rock Sioux land. Conversely, efforts to protect communities from rising sea levels and temperatures are always focused on wealthy, white areas, while others are ignored.

This is why Mothers Out Front centers local moms and their allies. It is a movement of leaders who reveal and grow more leaders in their wake, creating a virtuous cycle of change. Kelsey Wirth helped build mothers and other concerned citizens a vehicle to protect their children’s future, and they are the ones driving it.

There is a tension between what we think of as leadership and what we think of as power. Nowhere is that tension more keenly expressed than in politics in a democracy, where we focus on individuals convincing people to hand them power and call them their leaders. But that’s not what power is, and that’s not what leadership is. Our founding documents are explicit: sovereignty resides in the people, power granted by their consent. When the people lead a movement, the elected should be expected to follow.

When the people lead a movement, the elected should be expected to follow.

The work Mothers Out Front does is important because of its achievements alone, but it is equally important to society as a reminder of where power and leadership truly reside in a democracy. Right now, we believe individuals convince people to hand them power in elections, and then those individuals become the leaders. But that’s not what power is, and that’s not what leadership is. Our founding documents are explicit: sovereignty resides in the people, power granted by their consent. When people lead movements, the elected are obligated to use the power granted to them to help government follow.

Every Mothers Out Front team leads. They lead out of their right, as the sovereigns of the body politic, and they lead out of obligation, because only by raising their voices can they cut through the noise of lobbyists for entities that will never have children, entities that will never breathe air, entities that mark time in quarters instead of birthdays.

We have been here before. Standard Oil controlled 90% of the global refining business at its peak, making its owner John D. Rockefeller the richest man in history, dwarfing the titans of today. He was merely first among many robber barons, and Standard Oil first among the “trusts” - corporate entities with monopolies that made competition impossible and political opposition unthinkable. Stopping the choking black smoke of industry and rail as it decimated forests and lungs, backed up by the fortunes of oligarchs, seemed unthinkable in the late 19th Century.

Until it wasn’t. Until Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive movement broke up the monopolies and created anti-trust laws that would ensure they didn’t return. Standard Oil was broken up, its influence diffused (its largest descendent eventually became Esso, like its ancestor’s initials, and then Exxon). The income tax was introduced, as was the idea that the public should be able to protect their health and the environment. The National Park system was established, as well as the Food and Drink Administration, and child labor finally outlawed.

There is only one tool that all of us have at hand, and that is our democracy. It will only work for us if we demand it.

Corporations were never powerless in America, but a balance was struck that lasted almost a century, until the generations that had witnessed the despoiling of the American wilderness of the 19th Century, the inequality of the Gilded Age, the brutality of Pinkerton strikebreakers, the senselessness of the Great War, the folly that led to the Crash, the grinding reality of the Great Depression and the near-apocalypse of World War Two began to pass. Perhaps the EPA was a bit overzealous. Perhaps overpaid workers were taking too much of the profits. Perhaps separating consumer and investment banks was hasty. Perhaps vast inequality won’t cause political distortions this time. Maybe monopolies and cartels aren’t that dangerous, and if they say regulating carbon is bad, well, maybe it is.

And so we are here again. As Kelsey Wirth asked herself reading to her daughter about coral reefs, "why have we made so little progress?" But as the examples from a century ago illustrate, progress can seem impossible up until the moment it becomes inevitable. And we have no other choice. The most recent UN Climate Report estimates humanity has only one decade left to avoid some of the worst-case models of climate change. There is only one tool that all of us have at hand, and that is our democracy. It will only work for us if we demand it. It’s the kind of lesson any good mother tries to teach their children: if you want something done, you have to do it yourselves. Together.

Mothers Out Front at the Youth Climate Strike in September, 2019

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