The New Climate Radicals | The Nation


The New Climate Radicals

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“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. 

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.

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?”

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