In October, I joined four friends to shut down five pipelines that carry tar sands oil from Canada into the United States. I now face a jail sentence of up to 22 years. If you understand the climate crisis, you’ll know this was the right thing to do.
IN as little as a month, I will go to trial in an America different from the one in which I committed my “crime.”
In October, I joined with four friends to shut down five pipelines carrying tar-sands oil from Canada into the United States. We first made safety calls to the pipeline companies, telling them of our action, then we broke chains giving us access to emergency pipeline shut-off valves. (In my case, in Minnesota, the company shut off the flow of oil remotely.)
At the time, we lived in a country where an act of peaceful civil disobedience had a hope of resonance even in the White House, because our president, however flawed, understood the tragedy of climate change and the historical necessity of civil disobedience. The only resonance I can imagine now would be the new administration’s glee at how quickly they could brand us “terrorists,” as they set about the business of dismantling environmental protections just when we need to redouble efforts to take care of our only home.
So America is different now, and it worries me. I’m not so naive as to disregard the sense of impunity granted to corporations and prosecutors. If we needed further proof of that, we got it this week, with President Donald Trump’s move to revive Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline — projects with broad and deep opposition.
The planet, though, is precisely the same. Presidents come and go, but physics is in charge here, and it has no mechanism to pardon us for burning ever more fossil fuel. We have tinkered with things that were more sensitive than we understood — and so far, every mistake in our understanding has been that we’ve underestimated the speed with which the planet’s stability can fall apart.
Since the Industrial Revolution the use of fossil fuels has accelerated our impact so intensely that the world is almost unrecognizable: the smog in our air and lungs, the lead and mercury in our waters, the plastics in the bellies of seabirds and fish. All of this is tragic. Young people today may not die from these things — they’re likelier to die from famine or drought, from the terrible storms of an unbalanced planet, and from wars and dislocation caused by all of these things, as well as by sea-level rise that will radically change our maps by the end of the century. This is what scientists know about our future if we don’t seize this moment to ambitiously reduce and phase out the use of fossil fuels.
I respect scientists. I understand the profound vulnerability of our position, and I will do everything in my power to leave a decent world behind, even if it means going to prison. My friends, of course, feel similarly. It was a combination of deep grief and deep hope that drove our actions — grief that our political systems have failed us and hope that once again, history will reveal that peaceful civil disobedience is the one force that can wake people up, so that we understand the danger and demand a decent future for our children.
It’s not like this is a fringe idea — most Americans, including many Trump voters, worry about climate change and want action. Most wouldn’t shut off pipelines themselves, of course, but they understand that the system isn’t working. When they also understand how dire the situation is, and how the new administration is fighting their interests, we will be unstoppable.
I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few days about John Lewis, and the vastly greater dangers he and other civil-rights activists faced: murders, beatings, dozens of arrests in the Deep South. It’s humbling — and necessarily so, because what we all need to do now is to toughen up, and focus only on what’s important.
We cannot be distracted — and those in the new administration are masters of distraction. Not just our lives but every life is at risk — and not just the future of civilization, but the future of decency. How easy will it be to share when the world’s food systems start to unravel? Not very, but if we believe in anything at all — God, justice, karma, decency — it doesn’t matter that it’s not easy.
My friend Ken Ward, who participated in the pipeline shutdown, goes to trial as early as next week, in Skagit County. The rest of us will have trials sometime in the next few months. I’m charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors, facing a potential prison sentence of 22 years.
It doesn’t matter if we end up in prison. There are many of us who see all this — and more — every day. The election of Trump hasn’t made us shrink into our private lives. Quite the opposite, and this will be even truer if the administration engages in overreach either in overturning the policies of the science-respecting previous administration or in coming after those of us who are trying to help turn the tide. The work will continue.
What matters is that we can live with ourselves. What matters is that we can continue to believe in the possibility of hope for this beautiful world.
What matters is that we all can.