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The New Climate Radicals | The Nation

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The New Climate Radicals

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A stone’s throw from the entrance to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Massachusetts, the pavement forks down to the left and dead-ends at a forlorn strip of public beach alongside a brave remnant of wetland, beyond which are small houses. Directly across a narrow inlet from the beach, the power plant rises, half a century old, with its towering smokestacks and the long pier where thousands of tons of coal are regularly unloaded from giant freighters. Not only do the people who live in the neighboring community breathe the pollution from all that coal; Brayton Point is the largest coal-fired power plant in New England and among the largest sources of carbon emissions in the Northeast. 

About the Author

Wen Stephenson
Wen Stephenson
Wen Stephenson, an independent journalist and climate activist, is at work on a book about climate justice to be...

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For protesting Harvard’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels, campus police have told me I will be arrested if I return to the university—which is exactly what I plan to do on Sunday.

Changing the path corporations and the 1 percent have set for our planet is going to take more than a march. It’s going to take a struggle.

One morning this past spring, I stood on that beach with Ken Ward, a fellow climate activist I met through 350 Massachusetts, a grassroots network allied with 350.org and spearheaded by the Better Future Project (a nonprofit in Cambridge where Ken is a fellow and I serve on the volunteer board). Ken turned 56 last fall, is the father of a 13-year-old boy and lives in Boston’s Jamaica Plain, where he supports himself these days as a carpenter and handyman. He’s a good-humored, naturally buoyant kind of guy. He’s studied at Andover Newton Theological School and likes to play Dylan songs on the mandolin. He’s also a veteran environmental insider—co-founder of the National Environmental Law Center and a former deputy director of Greenpeace USA—who happens to be a sharp critic of mainstream environmentalism, which he argues has failed to grapple seriously and urgently enough with the threat of catastrophic climate change. 

Ken brought me down to that beach on a beautiful morning so that I could see the view. Out in front of us, one of those big freighters, the hulking, black-hulled Energy Enterprise, rested at the pier, carrying some 40,000 tons of West Virginia’s finest. An infernal mountain of the stuff rose behind it. Ken wanted me to stand there so I could picture for myself the sheer physical mass of the power plant, the ship and the coal—and so I could see where, in some two months’ time, Ken and a 31-year-old Quaker activist named Jay O’Hara from nearby Cape Cod would put themselves in the way of that freighter. 

Early on the morning of May 15, after a private sunrise prayer service on the docks in Newport, Ken and Jay motored up to Brayton Point in a thirty-two-foot lobster boat, which they’d acquired and rechristened the Henry David T., flying an American flag and a banner that read #coalisstupid. They were about two hours ahead of the Energy Enterprise, and Jay, skippering, positioned the lobster boat in the ship channel along the pier—right where the 689-foot freighter would have to dock and unload. Intending to stay a while, they proceeded to drop a well-fastened, 200-pound mushroom anchor off the stern of the Henry David T.

Ken called the Somerset police and said they were there to carry out a peaceful protest. Sometime before 11 am, the Energy Enterprise came into view, followed close by multiple high-speed Coast Guard boats. As the freighter bore down on Ken and Jay, the ship’s captain made radio contact, ascertained their intentions, and advised them and the Coast Guard that he had ordered “defensive measures” on deck and was prepared to “protect” his crew. Meanwhile, from somewhere above them on the pier, Ken and Jay heard the distinctive chck-chck of a rifle, chambered and ready. When the freighter finally came to a stop, its prow loomed over the lobster boat. Coast Guard personnel boarded the Henry David T. and calmly took control of the situation. 

On the website they’d created for the protest, shared via social media around the world, Ken and Jay explained the reasons for their action, which boil down to this: even the most politically ambitious plans to address climate change at the national level, including President Obama’s newly announced strategy of executive action—which would impose limits on existing power-plant emissions—fall far short of what the scientific consensus says is necessary to avert catastrophe. But if we accept what climate science is telling us—that humanity faces an existential threat and that we’ve all but run out of time—then we have to start acting like it. This means, first and foremost, that we have to stop burning coal, whatever the cost—because the cost of continuing to burn it is immeasurably greater. “We are faced with an imperative like none confronted by any previous generation,” they wrote. “It is our choice to take direct, nonviolent action—putting our bodies between the Brayton Point coal plant and its water-borne coal supply—in an attempt to achieve the outcome necessary for planetary survival.” 

So they demanded the immediate closure of the plant—and, with their action, they helped launch a grassroots campaign, supported by 350.org and 350 Massachusetts, to push for precisely that, and to call for a just transition for workers and the community. (On July 28, a mass protest is planned for Brayton Point, where dozens more will be prepared to risk arrest engaging in peaceful civil disobedience. It’s one of several events planned as part of the nationwide “Summer Heat”.) 

By the time that 200-pound anchor was hauled up by a salvage crane from the channel bottom, as the sun went down behind the plant, Ken and Jay had managed to block, for a day, the delivery of those 40,000 tons of coal. 

* * *

When I told Ken that the action at Brayton Point reminded me of something Greenpeace might have done back in the day, he just smiled and said, “Yep.” 

In fact, if that image of a lobster boat blocking a coal freighter called anything to mind, it was this: in the Pacific waters off the coast of California in June 1975, a small band of committed souls in Zodiac inflatables positioned themselves in front of Russian whaling ships, between their harpoon guns and a fleeing pod of sperm whales. Those iconic images—small boats against a massive industrial force, courageous individuals putting their bodies on the line—exploded into popular consciousness like a “mind bomb,” to use the favorite phrase of counterculture journalist and Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter, who was one of those in the Zodiacs. 

That classic Greenpeace footage can be seen in the new feature documentary A Fierce Green Fire, a sweeping history of the environmental movement directed by Mark Kitchell. But those images of longhaired environmentalists saving whales can be somewhat misleading. When you look into the deeper origins of Greenpeace, as historian Frank Zelko points out in a fascinating new account, Make It a Green Peace!, the combination of “green” and “peace” in the group’s name was meant to carry real significance. Nevertheless, Zelko notes, just as we put the emphasis on the first syllable of the name, so the “peace” half tended to be overshadowed as Greenpeace went on to become the world’s most recognizable environmental organization. 

It didn’t start out that way; “peace” wasn’t always the junior partner. Quite the opposite. Some of those most instrumental in the formation of Greenpeace in the early 1970s in Vancouver, British Columbia, had been deeply involved in the US Quaker peace and antinuclear movements of the 1950s and early ’60s. Heavily influenced by the Quaker emphasis on “bearing witness” and the use of nonviolent direct action, inspired by Gandhian satyagraha, they left a lasting imprint. Indeed, the Quaker-inspired pacifist voyages of the Golden Rule and Phoenix, opposing US nuclear tests in the Pacific in the late 1950s, were forerunners of the early Greenpeace boats, which ventured into the Pacific nuclear testing zones between 1971 and 1974. 

Despite the media infatuation with the radical hippie ecology of Hunter and others, for these Quaker-influenced co-founders, saving humanity from itself was just as important as saving whales, seals or any other species. And whatever tendency there may have been toward a holistic mysticism among the counterculture greens, those elder peace-movement veterans viewed their antinuclear protests, rooted in both science and moral conviction, as sober and eminently rational affairs. 

Canadian journalist and Greenpeace co-founder Ben Metcalfe may have captured it best. “We do not consider ourselves to be radicals,” he wrote for a radio broadcast aboard the very first boat, called Greenpeace, in September 1971—on a voyage launched by the group’s immediate forerunner, the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, to protest a planned US nuclear test on the Aleutian island of Amchitka. “We are conservatives,” he declared, “who insist upon conserving the environment for our children and future generations of men. If there are radicals in this story it is the fanatical technocrats who believe they have the power to play with this world like an infinitely fascinating toy of their own.” 

“The world is our place,” Metcalfe explained, “and we insist on our basic human right to occupy it without danger from any power group.” Words the crew of the Henry David T. could have spoken. 

The week before their action at Brayton Point (though I didn’t know when, or exactly how, or even whether they would go through with it), I sat down separately with Ken and Jay for a long conversation. I came to realize that however much their protest reminded me of a classic Greenpeace-style direct action, they are not to be confused with the sort of save-the-whales environmentalism those iconic images might suggest. If anything, Ken and Jay are like the more human-centered, Quaker-inspired, antinuke Greenpeace founders (Jay after all, is a committed Quaker). Along with their many friends and supporters in the New England climate-justice community, they’re helping build a movement to save creation from humanity, and humanity from itself. 

* * *

Above all, Ken and Jay defy easy labels. They want to reframe climate change as an urgent and essentially human crisis, which both the climate-silent left and the institutional environmental movement have largely failed to address. They want us to understand that the climate challenge is so fundamental that it goes to the root of who we are: it’s a radical situation, in the etymological sense of the word, requiring a radical response. But not radical in ideological terms, necessarily. Rather, we’re confronted with a kind of radical necessity. 

Ken doesn’t think of himself as radical. “I think I’m a deeply conservative person,” he told me, unconsciously echoing Ben Metcalfe aboard the original Greenpeace. “My politics are deeply conservative. I’m just a classic, democratic American liberal.” 

That’s deeply conservative? I asked. “Yes,” he said, “I think it is. In the sense of the founding fathers. You can talk about radical tactics, I suppose, but if you’re asking, ‘What are you? Are you a radical?’ Well, yes—I would like to radically break from what we’re doing right now, but only to return to things that I think are classic American political verities and virtues. I’m not trying to create some utopia or some new thing.” 

We were sitting on the terrace of a suburban Panera cafe, surrounded by parking lots. I asked him, if not something new, then what does he want? “I think we have to figure out how to be a society, and how to be human, within a set of constraints imposed on us from the outside.” 

For Ken, this means recovering what environmentalism was always supposed to be about. “One of the things we fucked up,” he said, “was allowing environmentalism to become Democrat, left and partisan. Because it didn’t use to be that way. Environmentalism, at its start, was beyond ordinary politics. 

“If you ask what is the core of environmentalism,” Ken went on, “well, I’ll say respect for the community of the earth as a whole, rather than just species advocacy. It’s an awareness that we’re on a track to destroy everything, including ourselves, and that we need to solve these things—otherwise, there’s no future. That requires you, if you accept that, to think, ‘How do you solve those problems?’ As a way of looking at things, it’s fundamentally distinct from any leftist thinking.” 

You could say that Ken has earned the right to talk about environmentalism and left politics. He spent most of his career helping build the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) at the state and national levels, and he also worked to move them in an environmental direction. In the 1990s, in addition to co-founding Green Corps (the first and only national field school for environmental organizers) and the Environment America network, he co-founded and was president of the National Environmental Law Center and served as deputy director of Greenpeace USA, running its day-to-day operations. 

But when his son, Eli, was born in 2000, he won a coin toss with his then-wife and decided to be the at-home parent. It was around this time that he began reading the climate science in earnest. The combination of becoming a father and delving into the science seems to have flipped a switch in Ken’s brain: he could no longer view climate as merely one issue among many; instead, it was the only thing that really mattered. “I went back around to all my friends,” he recalled, “and I said, ‘Hey, it’s a lot worse than we even think. In fact, it’s happening in our lifetime. We have to do this now.’” 

And so, in 2005, he set out to create a kind of center, or base, from which to change environmentalism from within, to help reorient the big green groups toward a coordinated, all-out effort on climate and devise a comprehensive strategy commensurate with the scale and urgency of the threat. The kind of strategy that, to this day, still isn’t on the table. 

He called his initiative Bright Lines, and over the next few years he engaged in discussions with a large network of peers and old colleagues, including senior environmentalist leaders and strategists, and wrote a series for Grist.org in 2007 (still worth reading) in which he spelled out the dire challenge in straightforward, no-nonsense terms. The pitch, as he framed it for me, was simple: “We’ve got this looming problem, it’s beyond anything we’ve imagined, and really, what we’re doing now isn’t going to touch it. Let’s at least have a place where we can talk about this stuff internally.” But for whatever reasons—political, institutional, perhaps personal—the Bright Lines concept didn’t take hold. “People toyed with it, and they just didn’t want to…” He considers his words. “There was no felt need for it.” 

“Environmentalism, as we organized it,” Ken told me, “has proved an inadequate tool for handling climate, because the scope of the problem, and the scale of the solution, can’t be fit into the politics-as-usual framework within which our organizations prosper and careers are built. We forgot what we built the institutions for.” 

Since 2008, Ken has turned to grassroots activism, trying to help build a climate movement from the ground up, deeply engaged with the 350.org network in Massachusetts. He is nothing if not resilient, but his worldview has darkened—or hardened. 

In the near term, Ken said, “nothing is going to change. We’re too invested in this; there’s too much power and money and lethargy. We’re not going to do what we need to do, which is to shut all the coal plants down tomorrow. The best that we can hope for, if people are trying to solve this, is that there will at least be a fight about it.” In our national politics, in our media, even in most of our environmental organizations, “we haven’t even gotten to that point where there is at least a genuine fight about what, really, we are facing. That, to me, is the objective.” 

There’s a kind of brutal logic, a strategic calculus, at work. It’s a waste of time, “a fool’s errand,” Ken argued, to obsess over the policy details of moderate, incremental solutions—a modest cap-and-trade program, a “dinky carbon tax”—that are designed within the narrow constraints of our current politics, because they won’t come close to solving the problem, and because a partisan debate over nonsolutions only distracts from any real reckoning. 

By taking direct, nonviolent action to physically block a coal shipment—while launching a campaign to shut the plant down with all deliberate speed—Ken and Jay would dramatize the kind of stark choices we actually face. 

Just suppose, I asked Ken, that they did manage to shut the plant down, however politically unrealistic that might seem—what would the economic impact be? Ken thought about it for a moment. “Compared to what?” he answered. “Compared to not shutting it down? Well, no, we can’t not shut it down. So if the question is ‘What do we do after we shut it down tomorrow?’, somebody else will have to figure that out. There’s no question, though, that we have to shut it down.” 

* * *

“This is about us, and our relationship to the planet, and our relationship to each other,” Jay told me. He lives on Cape Cod, just over the bridge in the town of Bourne, where he grew up. His parents were public school teachers, and they used to sail to Maine in the summers when he was a kid. Now he works an hourly job as a sailmaker to support himself, living simply, and devotes the rest of his time to climate organizing, primarily within the Quaker community. 

Though raised as a Congregationalist, Jay went to Earlham College, a small Quaker school in Indiana, where he became interested in Quakerism. After graduating in 2004 and working on John Kerry’s presidential campaign in New Mexico, he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail: “four and a half months in the woods, walking.” On the trail, he discovered something profound. “Intense community,” he told me—people from all walks of life, all political and religious persuasions, simply looking out for one another. It was clear to him that “we needed to make the world more like the trail.” 

So he moved to Washington and went to work for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the major Quaker lobbying organization, focusing on peace and justice issues. But while in DC, he read New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change—and that did it. “I remember lying in the grass outside Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, bawling my eyes out reading that book. That’s what opened me to the climate crisis.” At that moment, he knew: “This is it. This is the thing that epitomizes our disconnect from each other and the world.” 

Taking a cue from his hero Wendell Berry, who as a young man left literary New York behind and returned to his ancestral Kentucky, Jay moved back to the Cape. He was done with Washington and the inside game of politics. He sought out those who were building a grassroots climate movement in New England, especially young people and students. 

When he returned to DC in August 2011, it was for the first big protest against the Keystone pipeline, where he was one of 1,253 people from around the country who were arrested in front of the White House. 

“We do have to put our skin in the game,” Jay told me. “If we believe certain things about how the world should be, and if we really believe they’re true, they’re only going to be made true in the world if we manifest them ourselves. 

“This is why I think civil disobedience is so important,” he said. It’s not about getting arrested or challenging authority; it’s about drawing a clear moral line. “Civil disobedience makes manifest the tensions that exist in society. It makes them real, in the world, so you can visibly see the tension between what is right and what is wrong. 

“The world does not change just because we say things,” Jay continued. “Just like politics in Washington doesn’t change when someone writes a very well-reasoned, perfectly footnoted argument about how we need to have a global climate policy—because it doesn’t have power. Wonks are not going to save us. We need power.” 

I asked Jay if he now considers himself an environmentalist or a climate activist, or even a radical. “I’m a Quaker,” he answered. 

I asked if he had something against any of those other labels. “I think those labels are fucking bullshit,” he said. “I think it’s ridiculous that we try to divide everyone up into a specific box that we can plug them into, so we can understand them—and marginalize them. I am so done with that. Because this is about humanity. This is about all of us, together, trying to understand and reconcile our differences with the laws of physics and chemistry. And we can’t do that as a special interest group. The special interest is called living.” 

I asked if putting your body in the way of a coal shipment is radical. “I don’t think it’s radical,” he replied. “I don’t think wanting a livable planet is radical.” 

I asked Jay how he arrived at the choice he’s made. He told me there’s something we all need to figure out. “When I sit by myself,” he said, “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?”

* * *

As it turned out, Ken and Jay were not arrested that day at Brayton Point. Once it was clear the anchor would be removed, the Coast Guard allowed them to motor the Henry David T. out of the inlet the same way they’d come. They had been informed, however, that for obstructing a navigable waterway, they could be vulnerable to a federal fine of $40,000 per day. “We were prepared to go to jail,” Ken told me afterward. “What we weren’t prepared for was bankruptcy.” The authorities have since taken a different tack, serving Jay (as skipper) with a complaint for negligent operation of a vessel and failure to act to avoid collision, and both him and Ken for disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct and conspiracy. Their arraignment is set for July 29 in Fall River. Both could face jail time. 

In March, Brayton Point’s owner, Virginia-based Dominion, having recently invested more than $1 billion to modernize the plant, announced that it would be sold to the New Jersey–based private equity firm Energy Capital Partners, which appears to be betting on coal’s future. On the day of their action, Ken and Jay had a letter delivered to the heads of Dominion and ECP, cc’ing Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, calling on them to halt the sale and shutter the plant. 

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A coalition of environmental groups, Coal Free Massachusetts, has been working to close Brayton Point by 2020. But Ken and Jay are saying that’s not nearly soon enough—and that it’s going to require something more than politics as usual.

When we talked before their action, I asked Ken what he really hoped to achieve with the lobster boat.

“I’d like to shut the plant down,” he said. 

Of course, he knew that a single act of civil disobedience, however dramatic, wasn’t likely to accomplish that. Even a powerful and sustained grassroots effort will face a long, uphill fight. Which, to Ken, is precisely the point: the fight. Drawing that bright line. 

Ken and Jay want us to understand: as human beings, we can have coal plants, or we can have a livable future. But we can’t have both.

In “Trek West for the Big Picture” (originally on TomDispatch.com), Chip Ward reports on John Davis, one of the founders of a new school of thought called conservation biology, and his advocacy for an unbroken chain of wild lands spanning North America from Mexico to Canada.

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