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All Aboard the People’s Climate Train

Activists tackle big-picture questions while traveling across the country for Sunday’s big march in NYC

On an Amtrak train hurtling east toward New York City, a wall is festooned with bright-colored sticky notes announcing workshops and discussion groups: “stories and photos from the Tar Sands Healing Walk,” “Fukushima,” “stories and photos from Keystone XL,” “green sustainable regenerative building;” “near-term human extinction, i.e., 2030,” “Typhoon Haiyan.”

Conversations in the lounge car and across the aisle take on big questions: the culture of materialism, consumption, and profit; how much coal we burn reading a book; getting money out of politics; Wall Street, fossil fuels divestment, and the green economy.

People's Climate Train at RenoPhoto by Bob BennettThe first People's Climate Train in Reno, NV. Two trains from San Francisco carried hundreds of activists across the country for Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City.

Welcome to the People’s Climate Train, one of two trains that departed from the San Francisco Bay Area on September 15 and 16 carrying hundreds of activists across the country for Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City.

I boarded the second People’s Climate Train in San Francisco along with a small but diverse group of 18 activists. We have been joined by dozens more along the way. The mood among the activists is upbeat and engaged, but realistic about the prospects of the mass mobilization delivering significant change. With some of us coming from as far away as Hawai‘i, we have committed to a long, fun-but-wearying trip to help pump up the numbers and volume in what all hope is the biggest climate change protest in US history.

Nobody here expects one big march to change everything, yet there is a palpable urgency about the need for sweeping changes in how we live and do business as a society. As we traverse eye-popping landscapes — towering rocky mountains, deep gorges sliced by white-capped river waters, yellow-orange bursts of early autumn foliage — our conversations navigate a more distressing terrain: ecological devastation and First Nations’ resistance against the tar sands mines in Alberta; the maddening persistence of Big Coal and Big Oil amid an exponentially worsening climate crisis; and a culture and economy of consumption that enables and encourages it all.

The train ride is “a great reminder of what we’re going to New York for,” says Sonny Lawrence Alea, a recent environmental studies graduate from San Francisco State University. “This land is full of opportunities, and we get to connect with the environment, take in the beauty, and reflect on the history of the land.”

Liz Lamar, an activist with the Sierra Club and the Climate Reality Project in Oxnard, California, says “by passing through such beautiful scenery” makes her feel “even more passionate about going on the march. “We’re not separate from nature, we are not separate from the planet — we are part of the planet,” she says.

In interviews and free-ranging conversations while thundering across the land in a big diesel-powered train, this band of dedicated activists — spanning in age from 19 to 68 — voices a variety of views on what must be done and about where the climate change movement is headed. Some highlight the 350.org fossil fuels divestment campaign as a potentially galvanizing change agent, while others urge a greater push for public-sector investments in renewable energy, or a radical transformation of our economy and culture of consumption. Along the ride, as we mix and mingle, other passengers join our workshops and discussions, so even here on the train our word has spread.

While there are differences in our group over which issues to focus on, or how to protest, there is a prevailing urgency that the movement must scale up immensely and take on numerous crises at once. Alea puts it succinctly: “There isn’t a wrong or a right place for the movement to be right now, as long as it keeps going… I hope this helps break down barriers between political parties, so everyone sees this as a universal social justice issue, not a partisan one.”

The People’s Climate March has emphasized a “big tent” approach for broadening society-wide engagement in the movement — illustrated by the more prominent role of low-income communities of color and the more than 1,400 organizations that have signed on as partners, including businesses, labor unions, faith groups, schools, and community-based social justice groups.

Here on the train, the Big Tent has its stakes firmly in the ground, even amid differing ideas about what is needed to create serious change. “We definitely need to show people we have a unified voice,” says Dana Alghanim, who recently completed an environmental planning degree at Sonoma State University. “Especially with other countries, we are all people of the Earth and we are all affected by climate change.”

Alghanim is inspired by the rising tide of young people embracing the climate issue: “Many people were feeling alone, alienated and disconnected,” but are now dedicating their lives to climate action, she says.  “I’ve never been to a march this size. There’s power in numbers.” She sees a continuity between the Occupy movement’s systemic critiques and the potential for the climate change movement to address underlying issues such as corporate power and money in politics.

Climate Train Song from Occupy Riverwest on Vimeo.

Charmaine Shark Barros, an Apache activist working on health and environmental issues in Denver, says the climate movement can (and is beginning to) learn from native peoples. “We’ve been struggling with this for [centuries] — genocide, displacement, gentrification,” and the destruction and exploitation of land taken from native peoples. Whether it’s polluting or erasing water supplies through mining, or destroying ozone, or spraying pesticides on farmworkers, “the environmental question has always been there,” she says. “All of our communities are being taken over by big corporations… If we don’t come together to make changes, we’re really in trouble.”

The question is how will the movement both expand and create the deep, society-wide degree of change that’s so urgently required. How can the climate change movement broaden and “scale up” dramatically without diluting its message about the root causes of, and solutions to, the climate crisis?

As we cross pastel-beige desert plains in eastern Utah, the talk at one breakfast table is of water wars, China buying up farmlands in Africa, and capitalism. “The change that’s needed is so huge, and time is running out, incremental change is not enough,” says Pete Gang, an architect based in Petaluma, California. But, he adds, “There’s no time to overthrow the system, so we need to work within it too.”

Pete Samuels, a former biologist from Minneapolis, touts 350.org’s fossil fuels divestment campaign for “sending a message that permeates throughout society that it’s not acceptable to invest in fossil fuels.” Others, like Steve Dyer, an activist from Petaluma, emphasize the role of the public sector: “One purchase, like the Post Office buying electric vehicles, can make a huge difference.”

In another conversation, Laurel Taylor, a writer and biologist based in San Francisco, voices a common big-picture sentiment: “There has to be a change in the whole paradigm, the whole economy, how we live.” This means addressing not just our carbon footprint, but also a whole culture of materialism, accumulation, and stuff, she says, as we pass piles of dead auto parts strewn near the railroad tracks.

Sunday’s mobilization is purposefully lacking in demands, instead targeting a mass upscaling and diversifying of the climate movement. Of course, the issue of demands and priorities will keep bubbling up — i.e., does the movement’s energy go into swaying market players or pressing for public sector leadership? Or does an “all of the above” approach prevail, expanding the movement while potentially making its focus diffuse?

In multiple conversations aboard the People’s Climate Train, those differences persist on a parallel track, alongside the push for climate movement power and unity. Daisy Pistey-Lyhne, a San Francisco-based consultant working on a range of environmental issues, says that despite “dissent about whether this is the strategic thing to do, being in New York City rather than working with Congress,” ultimately “we really need to support… both building power at high levels and building power at grassroots levels.”

What gives Barros, Alghanim, and others hope is the mass coming-together moment on Sunday, and the potentially unifying nature of an “issue” as sweeping, global, and multi-layered as climate change. “A lot of people have been fighting separate isolated struggles,” says Barros. “But you can’t separate this issue, it effects everyone.”

Filed on board the People’s Climate Train while passing through Chicago.

Christopher D. Cook
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for Mother Jones, Harper’s, The Nation, and elsewhere. He is author of Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry Is Killing Us. His website is www.christopherdcook.com.

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