It’s been over 100 years since Ida Tarbell published The History of the Standard Oil Company which described the insidious ways that John D. Rockefeller built the original Big Oil. Tarbell wrote of Rockefeller, “our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises.”

Standard Oil may be a relic of the past, thanks in large part to Tarbell’s pioneering journalism, but its offspring, companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron, continue to pollute, impoverish, and endanger not only our national life, but the life support systems of our entire planet.

The Great Ida Tarbell

I’ve spent my adult life helping build a movement that could finish the work that Tarbell began 100 years ago: dismantling the fossil fuel industry’s political power.

Back in 2007, I worked with a group of college friends and the environmental writer Bill McKibben to organize the first ever national day of action on climate change, Step It Up. Two years later, we organized the first ever global day of climate action under the banner of, named after what scientists said was the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million (we’re now at over 417 ppm, the highest concentration in all of human history).

We’d hoped that this outpouring of public support for climate action would push our political leaders to act, but it soon became clear that there was a seemingly unmovable obstacle in the way: the fossil fuel industry.

The industry had mastered the art of political influence, buying politicians with campaign contributions, misleading the public with misinformation campaigns, and killing any attempts at climate action by barely lifting a finger. Meanwhile, their tangled web of wells, pipelines, and refineries continued to spread across the surface of the planet like a cancer and the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere continued to rise.

So along with our allies across the globe, we went to work taking the fossil fuel industry head on. In 2011, I helped organize some of the largest sit-ins at the White House in a generation to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700 tar sands pipeline that would run across one of the largest sources of fresh drinking water in the country. Those sit-ins and the protests that followed helped fuel a nationwide resistance to new fossil fuel infrastructure and ultimately pushed President Obama to reject Keystone XL (despite Trump’s best efforts to revive it, the pipeline still remains unbuilt).

In the years to come, would continue to support grassroots efforts to stop new fossil fuel projects, from open-pit coal mines in Germany to new coal fired power plants in Kenya. It was our privilege to support hundreds of organizations and activists on the ground, the majority of them people of color and Indigenous led groups who had been at the forefront of these fights for a generation.

At the same time, we knew that it wouldn’t be enough to battle the fossil fuel industry pipeline by pipeline: we needed a systematic way to weaken the industry’s political power by dismantling its social license.

For inspiration, we looked to the global divestment campaign that helped end apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. With the help of students across the United States, we launched a new fossil fuel divestment movement that quickly spread to colleges, universities, cities, states and religious institutions around the world. The movement has grown beyond our wildest dreams. As of today, more than 1,400 institutions representing over $14 trillion have divested from fossil fuels. Just last week the Pope issued a proclamation urging Catholics to divest and the Queen of England’s bankers sold off her royal holdings in coal, tar sands and Arctic oil.

We also ran campaigns to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the decades it has spent lying to the public about the threat of climate change. Companies like ExxonMobil and Shell knew about the climate crisis as early as the 1970s and took the warnings seriously enough to do things like raise their deep sea drilling rigs to prepare for sea level rise. What they didn’t do was warn the American people about the threat. Instead, they spent millions of dollars to create a network of front groups and phony think tanks to spread denial and misinformation, a network that still operates today.

Throughout all of these efforts, I came to appreciate the importance of storytelling and communications to running a successful campaign and building a powerful movement. No one understood this better than my friend and comrade Bill McKibben, who has always had an uncanny ability to seize on the key fact or figure that could spark a new wave of public action. It was Bill who first seized on 350 ppm as a rallying cry, saw the drama of ExxonKnew, and understood the moral resonance of divestment.

Effective communications wasn’t just about writing press releases and calling up journalists (although there’s been plenty of that), it was about how we centered frontline voices in our work, how we integrated the arts throughout our organizing, or how we staged protests for maximum dramatic effect.

I hope that Fossil Free Media will be a lab that can help organizations and activists experiment with all of these approaches and more.

A place where we can share best practices, develop movement resources, and hone our skills for the fights ahead. If we’re going to beat the fossil fuel industry, it’s going to be in large part because we’re able to tell a better story about the world we want to create.

The story of Ida Tarbell and Standard Oil is a reminder that writers, journalists, and activists have succeeded in taking on Big Oil before. It’s up to us to carry on that tradition today. I hope Fossil Free Media will prove to be a valuable resource for each and every one of us who are committed to that cause.