The New Climate Radicals | The Nation


The New Climate Radicals

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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. 

About the Author

Wen Stephenson
Wen Stephenson
An independent journalist and climate activist, Wen Stephenson is the author of What We're Fighting for Now Is Each...

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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.” 

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