The science is clear: catastrophic climate change, by any humane definition, is upon us. In What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other (Beacon Press, 2015), author Wen Stephenson tells his own story and offers an up-close, on-the-ground look at some of the remarkable and courageous people who have laid everything on the line to build and inspire this fast-growing movement. This excerpt, which discusses the opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline, is from Chapter 6, “Too Late for What?”
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.
—Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967
Mount Auburn Street, a block south of Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with its brick sidewalks, its exclusive old-boy college clubs, and its late Victorian “Gold Coast” dorms, is about as far as you can get from the piney woods of East Texas.
Unless, that is, you find yourself sitting on an ancient cast-off sofa in the small, dimly lit “library” of a former fraternity house, sunlight and street sounds filtering through lowered blinds, where a group of young people plot nonviolent direct action at the suburban offices of TransCanada Corporation—in solidarity with the Tar Sands Blockade fighting construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. Then you’re practically in Nacogdoches.
That room is where I found myself on an afternoon in December 2012. I was there not as a journalist but to help the organizers, mostly students and recent grads from nearby schools, with media outreach and communications. It was the first time I’d been on the inside of a well-planned civil-disobedience action—the first time I’d felt the tingle of adrenaline, and the faint undercurrent of anxiety, that comes from participating in an act of principled resistance where power would be confronted, laws would be broken, and people would go to jail.
Nervous laughter punctuated the bewildering logistical checklist. This would be no ordinary sit-in. I listened with fascination as kids twenty-five years younger than me, utterly in control, spoke of “jewelry,” or hardware—in the present instance, the hardened-steel chains and locks they would use to secure themselves to each other once inside the corporate office. I’d gotten to know several of the students and twentysomethings over the past summer and fall, working alongside them in the Boston-area climate movement. But in that room, that afternoon, they appeared suddenly older, mature beyond their years, and uncommonly brave.
All of my young friends were acutely aware of their privilege—and yet all of them were fighting for what they called climate justice. And not only for poor and vulnerable people in faraway places but, more and more, for themselves—and for one another. They felt themselves— people of their generation and younger—threatened and oppressed by powerful, corrupt forces far beyond their control. They grasped the urgency and scale of the climate catastrophe—and understood the role of the fossil-fuel industry and its political enablers not only in obstructing any serious efforts to deal with the crisis, but in actually accelerating us toward the climate cliff. They quoted the alarming reports from the International Energy Agency—stating that continued global investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure past 2017 would “lock in” catastrophic warming—and from the World Bank, which had recently declared that humanity is on course for warming of four degrees Celsius this century, likely beyond our civilization’s ability to adapt. They saw the catastrophic trajectory to which their elders have condemned them, and they felt something like desperation—forced onto a radical path by the political and moral failures of older generations. And their analysis was, and is, painfully accurate: at this late hour, to be serious about our climate reality is to be radical. I wondered then, and often still wonder, if young people like these—and those I’ve met in Texas—are the only people in this country with the guts and maturity to accept what that means.
And so it was that on the morning of January 7, 2013, eight of my young friends, supported by perhaps a dozen more organizers of varying ages and experience—and with an increasingly galvanized and resolute national movement behind them—walked into the TransCanada suite on the second floor of a nondescript office park among the strip malls along Route 9 in Westborough, Massachusetts. “This is a peaceful protest,” they announced to the receptionist, and then sat down on the floor facing outward in a tight circle, locked themselves together with those heavy-duty chains around their waists and ankles, and joined hands—bound with superglue. (That final youthful flourish ensured headlines like Boston.com’s: “Protesters Glue Themselves Together at Westborough Office of the Company Building Keystone Pipeline.”) Their names were Emily Edgerly, a twenty-year-old sophomore at Tufts; Devyn Powell, a twenty-year-old Tufts junior; Lisa Purdy, a twenty-year-old junior at Brandeis; Shea Riester, a twenty-two-year-old Brandeis graduate; Ben Thompson, a twenty-two-year-old grad student in mathematics at Boston University; Ben Trolio, a twenty-one-year-old senior at the University of New Hampshire; Alli Welton, a twenty-year-old sophomore at Harvard; and Dorian Williams, a twenty-one-year-old senior at Brandeis. On the carpet, just inside the reception lobby’s glass doors, they spread a banner that read: STOP THE KXL pipeline now. In the photo taken by their support team and distributed to the press, they’re sitting in that circle on the floor dressed as though for job interviews. Eight polite young people concerned for their future.
Dorian Williams, who was then majoring in anthropology at Brandeis, grew up in Chicago, where both of her parents are college professors. With her warm smile and youthful features, you might not take her for a hardcore activist experienced in the ways of nonviolent resistance. But that day in Westborough, at the age of twenty-one, she went to jail for the fourth time.
Her first arrest was in April 2011 in Washington, DC, at the Department of the Interior, protesting mountaintop-removal coal mining and other extreme fossil-fuel extraction. She had just attended the three-day Power Shift conference, which she described to me as her galvanizing moment. In particular, she recalled a succession of three keynote speakers: Lisa Jackson, the EPA administrator; Bill McKibben of 350.org; and Tim DeChristopher, who had been convicted the month before in federal court for disrupting the Bureau of Land Management auction in 2008, and was awaiting his sentence.
“Lisa Jackson said, ‘Look, I’m doing everything I can, but it’s not going to happen from the inside. People need to push from the outside,’” Dorian recalled. “And then that was exactly what Bill McKibben went into. But he said, ‘Look, we’ve been doing the easy stuff—we’ve been doing these big days of action—and it hasn’t been working.’ And then Tim DeChristopher got up and said, ‘Look, I went out and did this action, this is what we need to be doing.’ He said Power Shift can’t happen like this again—we can’t keep coming here and not doing anything. ‘There are ten thousand people in this room,’ he said. ‘We need to all go down to West Virginia. If we sent enough people down there we could end mountaintop removal.’ And I remember standing on my chair, making a promise to myself that if what we were doing wasn’t working, then I needed to be doing something different.”
On the last day of the conference, thousands poured onto the street in an “unauthorized” march to the Department of the Interior. “Eighty people rushed the doors and filled the lobby,” Dorian remembered, and she was one of them. “And I was in this huge room surrounded by all this energy, and thinking, ‘What am I going to do right now?’” Sitting down with the others, she asked herself, “Am I going to get up and leave, or am I going to stay?” She stayed.
“It was a huge identity shift for me” Dorian said. “I was committed in a different way. Like, if it’s not me, who is going to do this? The people in West Virginia can’t afford to travel to DC and get arrested. A lot of people can’t ever afford to get arrested. You know, I’m white, I come from a privileged background, if people like me aren’t willing to take this risk, then who on earth can afford to take these risks?” Her next arrest was in front of the White House in August 2011, along with the 1,252 others protesting the Keystone pipeline.
Dorian’s third arrest came in July 2012, on a mountain in West Virginia, where she and others—organized by Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival (RAMPS), a nonviolent direct action campaign against Appalachian strip mining—locked themselves to a truck at the Hobet mine in Lincoln County, the largest coal mine in the state. She spent ten days in jail, unable to make the $25,000 property-only bail, until sentenced for trespassing and fined $500.
“Walking onto a mine site and locking to a piece of machinery was unlike anything I’d ever done before. I mean, it was a level of personal risk. It wasn’t in DC. It was actually where things can go wrong. You don’t know how the cops are going to respond, how the miners are going to respond. You’re confronting people who have every right to be pissed off at you.”
“I was treated fine,” she said. “Some of the other people I was arrested with were not treated fine.” Watching the police take two of the male protesters into the holding facility was, she said, “the most violence that I’ve ever personally witnessed.” They were being noncompliant, she said, and the police “were just really not careful with their heads.” She saw the protesters yanked out of a van, “so the guy hit his head on the metal van, and then again on the ground. And then a bunch of them were trying to pull him through the door of the processing center, and he hit his head really loudly on the door frame. I thought they’d knocked him unconscious.”
“Leading up to the action was even scarier,” Dorian said. “There were a couple points that were really new degrees of fear that I had not felt before. Because I had no idea what was going to happen. That was the scariest thing. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I mean, the night before was terrible. I was desperately trying to find reception to contact my parents and my support people from home, and trying to figure out whether to go through with it. I was less worried about my personal safety at that point, and more, just—I didn’t want to be a burden on my family.”
“And eventually it came down to the same thing as at the DOI: if someone who has as much privilege as I do can’t take these risks, then who’s going to stand up for this stuff?”
“But I want to be careful not to glorify those who get arrested,” Dorian told me. “Every time I’ve been arrested there’s been twice as many people behind me, and those roles are so important. I want to make sure that everyone out there who can’t get arrested—because not everyone has that ability—still feels like they have every bit as much influence and ability to be powerful in this movement.”
Dorian told me that she had begun to see her motivations in a new way. “When I started out in this movement, it was because of the injustices I was seeing. Going to West Virginia, that was in solidarity with those people who—our government is basically allowing a war to take place on them. These companies are blowing up their homes. If another country had done that, that would be an act of war.”
Those injustices, to be sure, were still part of her motivation, she explained. What was new, she said, was a “deeper acknowledgment of what’s at stake, and what’s on the shoulders of my generation.” Climate change, she said, “has the potential of being the single most trying thing for our species in thousands of years, and it’s falling on our generation to transition to whatever that’s going to look like, that great unknown, in a matter of our lifetimes and our children’s lifetimes.”
“It’s gotten a lot more personal for me,” Dorian said. “The fear I’ve experienced in my activism has never been greater than the fear that I have of climate change. It’s visceral. It’s very real—to a degree that, on good days, it makes me fight, it gives me a fighter’s instinct, which is not something that I would naturally have.
“But on bad days, it makes you want to run away. I know people who want to build isolated farms in the middle of nowhere, to try and escape it all. And sometimes it’s paralyzing. I’ve gone through literally bouts of— not depression, but very serious, very low states of being, for hours to days to weeks at a time. It comes and goes, and you have to wade through it, because it’s never going to go away. You just have to work through it, so that you can keep fighting.”
What are we fighting for? What are any of us who care about climate justice really fighting for? What does “climate justice” mean in the face of the inhuman and dehumanizing maw of the world-devouring carbon- industrial machine—of which we ourselves are a part? What does it mean in the face of the science—which keeps telling us, in its bloodless language, just how late the hour really is?
It seems that movements often reach a critical juncture at which unity—the need to come together around common principles and a common struggle, and a common understanding of what that struggle is about—becomes all-important. Or if not unity—which may in fact be impossible for any movement big enough and broad enough to be powerful—then at least something like solidarity. So I ask again: At this late hour, what are we fighting for?
Trust me, I know full well that any talk of a “transformative,” “radical” movement for climate justice, or any kind of deep political transformation, sounds hopelessly naïve. I get it. I know. I know the country, and the political culture, in which I live and work.
And yet—here I am anyway. Because I also know that abolishing slavery sounded hopeless and naïve in 1857, when Frederick Douglass spoke of struggle. I know that throwing off the British Raj sounded hopeless and naïve in 1915, when Gandhi returned to India. I know that ending Jim Crow sounded hopeless and naïve in 1955, when Rosa Parks stayed in her seat on that bus in Montgomery. I know that ending apartheid sounded hopeless and naïve in 1962, when Nelson Mandela went to prison in South Africa.
For that matter, even stopping the Keystone XL pipeline sounded hopeless and naïve in 2011—before thousands of people started getting arrested and literally laying their bodies on the line, with tens of thousands more pledging to do so, in order to stop it. And before a president of the United States started listening. Yes, the southern leg got built. And yes, the whole thing is just one pipeline—one very big, very dangerous, very symbolic and political pipeline. And yes, Montgomery, Alabama, was just one Southern city. And that bus was just one city bus.
Excerpted from What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice by Wen Stephenson (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.