Earlier this month, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein released their new documentary film about the global struggle for climate justice, This Changes Everything, based largely on Klein’s 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. the Climate. As it happened, the film’s release coincided with the publication of another book by a Nation contributor, Wen Stephenson’s What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (much of which originated in The Nation, and which was excerpted in the October 26 issue). With two projects so closely related, and so closely connected to The Nation, appearing at the same moment, it seemed like an occasion for a dialogue. Stephenson exchanged e-mail with Lewis and Klein last week, and what follows here is their correspondence.
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Dear Avi and Naomi,
You’ve given the world a precious gift with This Changes Everything, a remarkably beautiful film, because you’ve not only given us the stories and words but also the faces and the living, breathing voices of people organizing and fighting for survival, and for some hope of justice, on this careening planet—people fighting not only for the earth, or for themselves, but for each other. As someone engaged in that struggle, and as a parent of two young children who face a deeply uncertain future of climate disruption, I can’t thank you enough for this. It has stirred and fortified my will to fight, and I’m certain it will do the same for many others.
There’s a moment in the film which took my breath away. In a sequence of images from Blockadia—that borderless and entirely real country, stretching across this continent, where people have laid their bodies on the line, in some cases risking everything, to confront and resist the fossil-fuel industry—I saw one of those faces, and it was a face I knew. It belongs to a young man named Matt Almonte, who grew up in New Jersey and Florida, and at the age of 21, after spending some time with Occupy Tampa, lit out for the territories and joined the Tar Sands Blockade in East Texas. I write at length about TSB, and briefly about Matt, in What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other, exploring what was learned in TSB’s dramatic yet failed campaign of nonviolent direct action, part of a genuine grassroots uprising, to stop the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline—which went operational in January 2014.
When Matt appears on the screen, he’s inside part of that pipeline in the predawn hours as it awaits construction. Matt and another activist named Glen Collins locked their arms to concrete-filled barrels placed inside the pipe, and to one another, in order to prevent construction of that section from going forward. When law enforcement proceeded to use heavy machinery to pull the pipe sections apart, Matt and Glen were almost gruesomely injured, possibly even killed. Basically, their arms could have been torn off. But their screams, and those of their support team, finally convinced the police to stop. Matt spent a month in jail.
Matt told me that he believes the lasting impact of Tar Sands Blockade “was to show ‘ordinary people’ that it’s absolutely vital to take direct action, and that even in a community like East Texas, people are rising against the fossil-fuel industry.” Matt said he identifies more with anarchism than environmentalism, and that the Keystone XL pipeline “isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s a human issue, a social issue.”
To me, one of the most important roles of a radical social movement, in this case the climate-justice movement, is to bear moral witness—to force the issue. It’s to say to politicians, and really the whole mainstream society, “If this is what it’s come to—if I have to risk my life inside a pipe in order to get your attention, and force you to acknowledge the insanity of business as usual—then so be it. Here I stand.” Matt Almonte and Glen Collins are only two such witnesses. There have been countless other examples.
What is it going to take for this country, and for yours, to have an honest debate about the situation we’re in? Here in the US, the Democratic candidates for president are falling over themselves trying to sound serious about the climate—and yet not a single one has actually spelled out for the American people the true scale and urgency of the crisis, what the science tells us is actually necessary to address it, and what the human consequences of failing to address it are likely to be. What will it take to force an honest debate? And what, to your mind, would that debate sound like?
With much gratitude,
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First things first: thanks right back at you for your moving and inspiring book. They have so much in common that it’s tempting to call the overlap in subject and analysis a remarkable coincidence. Except it’s not. These movements really are rising, and people around the world are coming to the same conclusions for a reason.
One of the things we love about What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other is that it takes readers inside the pipe—right there on the front lines with the brave and passionate people of Blockadia. And then it discovers that the real battle line is within ourselves. We need more work that zooms in on the point around which this crisis and our very fates will turn: the moment we decide to fight.
In shooting This Changes Everything, we traveled around the world for five years, and met people on the frontlines, from Andhra Pradesh, India, and Tianjin, China, to the Tar Sands of Alberta and the Powder River Basin in Montana. And we tried to capture that same galvanizing moment, when people in communities connect the dots between a proximate threat to their air, land, and water, and the economic logic of endless extraction and consumption that is driving us all over the climate cliff. It is that connection—that you describe so well as not just political, but spiritual—that leads to action, the urge to get off the couch, to put bodies on the line.
In trying to show this moment in film, we shot hundreds of hours of footage, of course, but we also reached out to more than 100 activist filmmakers over these years, seeking footage that would show the breadth as well as the depth of resistance. That’s how we came across the shots of Matt.
Our co-editor Shane Hofeldt spotted a film online called Blockadia Rising, which drew mainly on the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas. As tireless as he is ingenious, Shane reached out the only way he could find, with an email to the “donate” page of TSB’s website. Eventually he connected with the filmmakers, who were incredibly helpful, even as they continued their work of documenting and participating in more direct actions themselves. But connecting was only the first step of an odyssey through corrupted hard drives, repairs, filesharing services with suspended accounts, renewed subscriptions that turned up…the wrong files! The usual unseen and anything-but-glamorous work of documentary filmmaking. A year later, we finally had the high-res files of Matt’s courageous act. And Shane went on to follow a hundred other circuitous routes to documenting Blockadia.
Of course we don’t mean to equate the struggles of storytellers with the infinitely higher-stakes actions of activists on the frontlines. But we share this backstory in the hopes that Matt one day reads it—so that he and Glen and all the other fighters out there know that their courageous actions continue to reverberate, are reaching and changing countless other lives.
This is particularly important because as we’ve learned on our journey through Blockadia, not every action feels like a victory. Matt and Glen’s certainly didn’t. So it’s critical to tell these stories with a longer arc, where you can see the momentum and ripples of these individual acts. Yes, the southern leg of Keystone was built. But the northern leg has not—in fact, in these critical recent years, not a single new major export pipeline from the Tar Sands has broken ground. The kayaktivists in Portland and Seattle didn’t stop Shell from sending its icebreaker and drilling rig to the Arctic. But the delays they created clearly had an impact on the company’s decision to pull out, and the Obama administration’s decision to put up further regulatory barriers to Arctic drilling (of course we still need a clear moratorium).
But to begin to answer your big question: we don’t think these victories in keeping fossil fuels in the ground are enough—on their own—to create the debate about transformative change that this crisis requires. They are buying us time and creating a movement that is beginning to move from the No (keep it in the ground!) to the Yes—what the transition to a post-carbon world must look like.
Which is why we helped launch the Leap Manifesto in Canada, where we live. Emerging from an historic coalition of movement groups across sectors and silos—endorsed by First Nations leaders from the Tar Sands and Black Lives Matter Toronto, migrant rights and anti-poverty groups, big Labor and small business—the manifesto argues that to respond to this crisis we need to move from small-scale solutions to big, ambitious policies. And we outline them: not just moving to 100 percent renewable energy within two decades, not just massive investments in zero-carbon housing and transit, but a vast expansion of the entire existing low-carbon economy—the caregiving economy. Healthcare, education, daycare, the arts, and public interest media.
This is the policy expression of the ringing slogan of the People’s Climate March: to change everything, we need everyone. We’re convinced that to build a movement big enough to take on both austerity and extractivism, we need to lead with an inspiring vision of the world we want—one that will deliver huge benefits to the majority of people, that will solve multiple crises at once.
Can this work? Can we build a movement big and powerful enough to take on the richest industry in history and all the political clout it wields? Well, the odds don’t seem great. But we have no time to wonder and doubt, only just enough time to act. We all have to take a stand where we are. Matt and Glen tried to use their bodies to stop a pipe. As storytellers, we owe it to them to try to change the story.
Avi and Naomi