5 august 2013

The New Climate Radicals (Part II)

Ken Ward and Jay O'Hara are reminiscent of the human-centered, Quaker-inspired anti-nuke founders of Greenpeace.

Wen Stephenson The Nation August 5-12, 2013

“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.

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?”

* * *

As it turned out, Ken and Jay were not arrested that day at Brayton Point. Once it was clear the anchor would be removed, the Coast Guard allowed them to motor the Henry David T. out of the inlet the same way they’d come. They had been informed, however, that for obstructing a navigable waterway, they could be vulnerable to a federal fine of $40,000 per day. “We were prepared to go to jail,” Ken told me afterward. “What we weren’t prepared for was bankruptcy.” The authorities have since taken a different tack, serving Jay (as skipper) with a complaint for negligent operation of a vessel and failure to act to avoid collision, and both him and Ken for disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct and conspiracy. Their arraignment is set for July 29 in Fall River. Both could face jail time.

In March, Brayton Point’s owner, Virginia-based Dominion, having recently invested more than $1 billion to modernize the plant, announced that it would be sold to the New Jersey–based private equity firm Energy Capital Partners, which appears to be betting on coal’s future. On the day of their action, Ken and Jay had a letter delivered to the heads of Dominion and ECP, cc’ing Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, calling on them to halt the sale and shutter the plant.

A coalition of environmental groups, Coal Free Massachusetts, has been working to close Brayton Point by 2020. But Ken and Jay are saying that’s not nearly soon enough—and that it’s going to require something more than politics as usual.

When we talked before their action, I asked Ken what he really hoped to achieve with the lobster boat.

“I’d like to shut the plant down,” he said.

Of course, he knew that a single act of civil disobedience, however dramatic, wasn’t likely to accomplish that. Even a powerful and sustained grassroots effort will face a long, uphill fight. Which, to Ken, is precisely the point: the fight. Drawing that bright line.

Ken and Jay want us to understand: as human beings, we can have coal plants, or we can have a livable future. But we can’t have both.

In “Trek West for the Big Picture” (originally on, Chip Ward reports on John Davis, one of the founders of a new school of thought called conservation biology, and his advocacy for an unbroken chain of wild lands spanning North America from Mexico to Canada

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