Robert Meeropol

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“Game Over” Language: A Good Idea?

October 31, 2013

Tags: Bill McKibben, XL Pipeline, Game Over, Rising Tide North America

Bill McKibben is probably the best known environmental activist in the country., the organization he started, has taken the lead in the campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. His justification for this focus is that if the pipeline is built, transporting, refining and burning “the dirtiest oil on earth” will mean “game over” for containing catastrophic global warming. For more information visit

McKibben’s effort to goad masses of people into action is laudable and essential. It is encouraging that ten of thousands are jumping on his band wagon. Acting to achieve clear-cut goals sure beats wringing our hands in anguish over the steadily deteriorating situation.

Aside from having well defined adversaries (TransCanada Corporation, TD Bank North) and the precise objective of stopping construction of a physical object, the effort has the advantage of forcing President Obama to show his environmental hand. He has the power to approve the pipeline or stop it in its tracks. This last is illuminating. Although Obama is delaying his decision, at some point he will come off the fence and either halt a major ecological nightmare or show those on the left who still give him grudging support that his environmental policies are totally unacceptable.

However, there is a downside to putting so much emphasis on one battle. A thoughtful article entitled “The Climate Movement’s Pipeline Preoccupation” by members of Rising Tide North America outlines several pitfalls of this strategy. The quote below highlights a couple of them.

“This escalation and level of engagement [by tens of thousands] is inspiring. But the absolutist ‘game over’ language chances to lose many of them. If Obama approves the … pipeline, what’s to stop many from thinking that this is in fact ‘game over’ for the climate? And if Obama rejects [it], what’s to stop many from thinking that the climate crisis is therefore solved. We need those using the ‘game over’ rhetoric to lay out the climate crisis’ root causes – because just one project is not the end of humanity, [and] stopping one project will not stop runaway climate change.’

Single-mindedness is problematic when tackling a multifaceted global crisis. Just days ago several oil companies won the right to develop a deep-water field off the Brazilian coast that may hold 12 billion barrels of oil. The environmental damage that could result from extracting that much oil from beneath the ocean floor, and the carbon emissions caused by burning it, may pose a greater threat than the XL pipeline.

This is complicated and McKibben sometimes appears to argue both for and against a unitary focus on the pipeline. In a just-published article he decries a broad range of Obama’s energy policies: “His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Artic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking. [H]is green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane – another dangerous greenhouse gas - than any man in history.”

How do we balance the use of engaging, snappy slogans like “game over” with more in-depth analyses of the facets and root causes of the problem. We risk scaring people off by describing the enormity of the challenge, but those who gain a fuller understanding will probably be more effective at recruiting others and more deeply committed for the long term.

We’ve wrestled with this kind of strategic complexity for a long time. I don’t have simple answers and I welcome your thoughts.

Selected Works

"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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