When Radical Action is Moral

What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice
By Wen Stephenson
Beacon Press, 2015, 256 pages

The first takeaway from Wen Stephenson’s book What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other is that the climate change crisis is truly a climate justice crisis. It is “not merely ‘environmental,’ but human,” he writes. To deny that the climate catastrophe is upon us “is to rob people, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet, of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives – and their children’s lives, and their children’s children’s lives.” In other words, everything is at stake.

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The second takeaway is that those on the frontlines of the climate justice movement are our modern-day heroes: our Henry David Thoreaus, our Ella Bakers, our Martin Luther King Jr.’s. From small-town community organizers, to theology scholars, to anarchist Occupiers, to climate movement celebs, Stephenson’s book is an ode to those who are heeding the moral necessity of our time and leaving it all on the line.

In driving home these two complementary themes of impending climate injustice and uplifting climate activism, Stephenson takes the reader on something of an emotional roller coaster. The question now, he writes, is not whether we will solve the climate crisis, but “whether humanity will act quickly and decisively enough to salvage civilization itself – in any form worth salvaging.” On our current trajectory, we won’t. Rather, we are locking in warming of four, five, or maybe even six degrees Celsius, all by the end of the century.

This scenario – familiar to anyone who follows climate change coverage in the news – can be enough to make even the most optimistic among us hang our heads in despair. Stephenson himself “bottomed out” as he came to terms with the severity of the situation, concerned not just for the planet but for the future of his children. Then he asked, “what next?”

The answer, he finds, is radical activism. A self-described “unlikely radical,” Stephenson comes to the conclusion that the time for mild-mannered moderation, for working within our broken political systems, is over.

The meat of the book deals with Stephenson’s heroes as he travels around the country interviewing those who shaped and inspired his own climate activism. Stephenson – who experienced a spiritual awakening not long before his climate awakening – comes at this from a uniquely spiritual angle, expressing a deep curiosity about the spiritual underpinnings of activists’ work. The result is a broad profile of the environmental justice movement, one that shows there are as many types of “radical” responses as there are climate activists, that a radical response means different things for different people.

For Tim DeChristopher, who was making headlines just as Stephenson was entering the grassroots climate movement, radicalism meant winning $1.8 million worth of bids in a Bureau of Land Management auction of oil and gas drilling leases that he couldn’t afford, and paying for them with prison time. For Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara, two climate activists in Massachusetts, it meant physically putting themselves between a power plant and a shipment of coal. For Reverend Kyle Childress, it meant providing spiritual support for the work of Tar Sands Blockaders who had descended on an East Texas town. For Yudith Nieto, it meant confronting her anxiety about public speaking and throwing herself into community organizing in her Manchester, Texas neighborhood.

Stephenson admits that there are tensions in this work. Outside activists must be careful to work with, not for, local communities. Those who tie themselves to trees or chain themselves to construction sites face the strong possibility of injury or imprisonment. Radicalism can sometimes mean alienating family and losing friends. Not everyone can take on the risk of arrest.

There is also the risk of sounding, as Stephenson puts it, “hopelessly naïve.”

Despite the challenges, Stephenson remains steadfast that, at this late hour, radicalism is not only acceptable, but essential. And even when it seems naïve to believe so, it can work. It worked for the “radical” abolitionists. It worked for the “naïve” activists fighting against Jim Crow. And it worked for the “radicals” who took down South African apartheid.

Overall, Stephenson captures beautifully the dedicated work of a diverse group of climate activists working across the United States. And he has convinced at least one reader that radical action is imperative in the fight to save our warming planet and the people living on it.

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