Over the past couple of weeks I reviewed a book that dealt with how the climate crisis is being messaged and how many people are actually distanced from, rather than drawn to, this pressing issue by reports of imminent catastrophes and increased costs and the necessity of significant social and economic change. I even jokingly promised no more gloom and doom in this column.
But, as luck would have it, when I returned the book to the library (thanks, South Burlington Community Library, for getting it for me on interlibrary loan) a book with a bright yellow cover on the “New Non-Fiction” shelf caught my attention. “What We’re Fighting for Now is Each Other”, by Wen (his actual name is Oliver Wendell) Stephenson, tells the story of some of the people in the growing climate justice movement who are putting their hearts and souls and, in some cases, their bodies on the line to work for systemic changes that 1) might mitigate the severity of climate changes that have already been set in motion by our burning of fossil fuels, and 2) will create a more just future for the most vulnerable communities who suffer most from climate disruption, those generations yet unborn who will pay the price for our current inaction, and the rest of the living non-human world.
Stephenson compares the climate justice movement to past movements of social change: from the abolition of slavery to the empowerment of women, from the Civil Rights movement to anti-tobacco campaigns, social change happens when a small number of people are willing to take their messages to the streets and force our governments and economies to follow the will of the people. The Climate Justice movement is not just about parts per million and saving polar bears (important as these are) – it is about our humanity, and how we stand up for each other in a world where corporate and governmental powers put profits and staying in office ahead of justice and decency and even survival of our species.
In one particularly poignant chapter, the author tells the story of two men who floated their small boat into a channel in Boston to block a freighter carrying 40,000 tons of coal to the largest coal burning power plant in New England. One of the men, Jay, in an extensive interview, was questioned whether he would be willing to go to prison for his actions.
“That’s not the goal,” Jay continued, “but I could be open to that……. We need to discard our preconceived notions of what we are ‘supposed’ to do and figure out, when I sit by myself, on a mountaintop or next to the ocean, or in my living room, and I know that the world is such a way, and I know that the world needs to be such another way, am I able to live with myself and get up in the morning and act according to what I know is true? Have I done what needs to be done?”
In a subsequent chapter we hear from Tiim DeChristopher, who gained notoriety a few years ago by attending an auction for oil and gas drilling rights on protected government lands in Utah. He won rights to large parcels for millions of dollars that he didn’t have – his purpose was to disrupt the process and call attention to the insanity of looking for more fossil fuels when the science tells us we must keep almost all of these fossil fuels in the ground to prevent devastation even greater than we have already committed the planet to.
When asked by Stephenson whether it is useful to tell ourselves and others “useful fictions” (for example that we can solve or prevent the climate crisis or that we can preserve a livable plane without deep and radical change), DeChristopher replies: “No. The only way they’re useful is to help people cling to false hope. …. I don’t think you can be effective at fighting the real threats that we face if you refuse to deal with the real world.”
More to come next week, when Henry David Thoreau and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weigh in on today’s climate crisis.