Image via Better Future Project
As this week’s DigBoston went to print this week, residents of West Roxbury and Dedham—many of whom are comfortable suburbanites who never thought they would be protesting encroaching pipelines, let alone laying down in front of heavy equipment—were pursuing a direct action against the Texas-based natural gas behemoth Spectra.
Last week, members of the MIT community who are demanding action on the climate change front rallied outside of their college corporation’s annual board meeting. Their demonstrations piggybacked more than a year of initiatives at Harvard University and other institutions where students and faculty are demanding swift divestments from fossil fuels.
As the temperature in climate justice circles heats up even faster than our oceans, in New England and elsewhere, an increasing number of people are awakening to the importance of the struggle. In many cases, they’re committing themselves fully to related causes, and even putting their livelihoods and in some cases their lives on the line.
Among this growing battalion, Greater Boston activist and author Wen Stephenson stands apart. A former Boston Globe editor and NPR producer, he speaks to the enduring failure of media trendsetters to cover and address the climate crisis. His reportorial chops also allow Stephenson to write about earth crusaders in ways that inspire readers to take up causes themselves.
In anticipation of the release of his new project, What We’re Fighting For Now is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice, we asked Wen about what he describes as “waking up, individually and collectively, to the climate catastrophe that is upon us—truly waking up to it, intellectually, morally, and spiritually, as the most fundamental and urgent threat humanity has ever faced.”
You really crank the volume on the science at the beginning of your book, arguing that the impacts of climate change could in fact be even much worse than is already predicted. To what extent are you pushing the boundaries, and trying to set a new baseline?
I’m not saying anything new about the science or the policy, though in some ways it’s all about policy and the much more radical policies that we actually need. I’ve been struck during the time frame I have been writing the book by the way climate scientists have become far more outspoken in their warnings, and are more willing to say things that in the past have seemed like going out on a limb … I’m sure there are people who prefer to emphasize the middle of the risk curve, who would say that I’m going out on a limb, but I and plenty of others would argue that when you’re talking about catastrophic risk, that there is a responsibility to talk about that end of the risk curve.
How much of a disconnect is there between academia and the public? It seems that researchers may be more radical than the more traditional old guard environmental groups that are characterized in your book as “Big Green.” Are the academics more aligned with the climate justice-minded groups and individuals you profiled herein?
It depends on what you mean by radical, but yes. Many climate scientists are not necessarily political radicals, in fact very few are. Someone like James Hansen, who is outspoken and whose work is consistently emphasizing that high end of the risk curve, he’s actually not very radical politically … It’s that the implication of climate science is radical when you really grasp what the science is, and it’s radical in terms of our mainstream politics. As [author and 350.org founder] Bill McKibben likes to say, “We’re not the radicals.” The real radicals, as he would say, are the fossil fuel companies. They’ve pushed a profit model that is guaranteed to wreck the planet and our own grandchildrens’ future.
There is a chapter in your book about Port Arthur, Texas that really ties the economy to the larger environmental picture. How hard is it to make that connection between everyday issues and the erosion of the planet?
That chapter, “Organizing for Survival,” is where I deal head-on with racial justice, and what I mean by climate justice. It’s an important teaching moment for folks who aren’t familiar with the movement on this level, but for decades in this country there has been an environmental justice movement that’s all about the disproportionate impact of mostly fossil fuel pollution, especially in communities of color.
When folks talk about the need to build a much broader-base climate movement, they’re arguing for a climate justice movement. In the Latino community and the African-American community, these have been real issues for decades. In the front line communities, the poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are to the coming impacts of climate change. There’s been a lightbulb on now for a few years in the more mainstream climate movement that they need to work on coalition building and broadening the movement.
You have some really biting stuff about corporate culture and those who work in it. How much shaming is needed to spur more people into action?
I’m glad you brought that up. Yeah, sure, there will be a little shaming, but hopefully it’s clear that this is as much a self-indictment as anything else. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and I try to really accept my share of the blame. I feel like my generation, the Gen Xers, we really came of age when global warming became an issue. I know that I bear a special kind of responsibility in the sense that I was an editor and producer of national media for two decades in the very time period when this crisis was getting out of control, and like a lot of my colleagues, I didn’t focus on it. I figured it was something environmentalists were on top of.
Part of the book, running through it, is my personal narrative. The arc of my personal story is that self-absorption, that I navel-gazed as the planet burned. So it’s an engagement. A political engagement. It’s about the “radicalization” of a privileged white mainstream center-left liberal. It’s about the wellsprings of that and where that came from. In that, there’s an analogy that what really has to happen, if we’re really going to address this thing we need a “radicalization” of the mainstream.
Is the political left the enemy? There are some points in the book at which it feels that way.
I want to be really clear: the left is not my enemy. The only people who actually are taking the climate crisis seriously are on the left. The right is completely hopeless on this. I’m not just preaching to the choir, but it’s also too late to convert the far-right. What we have to do now is defeat them.
I also get that there are a lot of people, especially on the left and on the grassroots level, who are working on really immediate issues that are affecting lives. How do you tell somebody who is struggling to get by day to day that they need to join the climate movement? At the same time, it’s also a myth that working class people and people in communities of color don’t care about climate change.
As a journalist, I have found your story to be very inspirational. Do you see it that way?
I want to be very clear that I haven’t sacrificed all that much. I’m in an incredibly privileged position that my wife works and can support our family. I did make a deliberate choice to walk away from my career, but I also want to make it clear that I did not quit [NPR] to become an activist. I left because I was completely burnt out. Everybody knew I was burnt out, but everyone was good to me, and I had a very amicable departure from WBUR.
I decided to leave in late November of 2009, and my final day was in March or April of 2010. I wanted to get back to writing, and it was in those months when the shit hit the fan in terms of climate. In those months after I left my job, my decision point was, “Am I going to do a big national job search, or am I going to start writing?” And I made this very deliberate decision that I was going to start writing about climate, and that I was also going to start engaging. I knew that if I did that, if I was really serious about it, that I wasn’t going back to WBUR or the Boston Globe.
I have a line in the book about how this forces us to lay everything on the line, like our relationships, like our careers, our reputations, our bodies, and maybe even our lives. And when I say our lives, I have done profiles of people who have actually risked their lives. What I mean though is committing our lives, and I do feel like I have done that at this point. I am in this ‘til my last breath. I don’t see how there is any turning around at this point.
See Wen read from What We’re Fighting For Now is Each Other on Monday, October 10 at 4:45pm at the Hyatt Regency on Memorial Drive in Cambridge.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.