By Wen Stephenson. Beacon Press, 2015. 239 pages. $24.95/hardcover; $18/paperback; $23.99/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
When I was young, our family would make an annual summer trip to Willow Grove Amusement Park. At the entrance stood a giant clown beating a large drum warning of the dangers ahead. The biggest, scariest, and most famous ride was a roller coaster rightly called the Thunderbolt. As the series of cars began its initial steep climb toward the highest point of the ride we could hear, held tightly in our red seats, the loud clacking as wooden braces locked in behind us, keeping the cars from slipping backward. It was then, at that moment, that we realized there would be no turning back, no getting off, and that we could only continue forward together through the terrifying ride we knew lay ahead.
This was the sensation that came to me as I read Wen Stephenson’s new book, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice. At this point there is no going back, Stephenson writes, no saving the planet from the terrible effects of climate change. There is no getting off this ride. We are all going to go through this together or not at all.
In 2010, when veteran journalist Wen Stephenson awoke to the true scale and urgency of the climate catastrophe bearing down on humanity—one which he saw as damaging first and most severely the poorest and most vulnerable—he experienced what he calls “the spiritual crisis at the heart of the climate crisis.” In a period too difficult to bear alone, Stephenson returned to Walden Pond and to the writings of American radical Henry David Thoreau for comfort and inspiration. He found there a remarkable new insight: that the great subject in Walden, and in just about everything Thoreau wrote, wasn’t the environment or even nature. “It was how to live as a human being in relation to both nature and other human beings, because the two can’t really be separated.”
For two years, from 2012 to 2014, Stephenson traveled across the country meeting with more than 70 individuals involved in climate activism and talking with them in depth about their own awakenings and how their activism has forced what once was considered radical and extreme into the mainstream. By sharing his meetings and conversations with these individuals—who have “laid everything on the line to build and inspire this fast-moving climate justice movement”—Stephenson helps us understand what drives them, where they find the strength to remain on the “front lines,” and what they believe they are ultimately fighting for. He calls these individuals “new American radicals” and argues that the front lines of climate justice are less like environmentalism as we know it and more like the great human rights and social justice struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from abolitionism to civil rights. It is a movement for human solidarity.
As the scientific measurements of climate change becomes more irrefutable, the problems caused by climate change more intractable, and the effects more imminent, we human beings find ourselves awakening one by one to the truths about climate justice, and asking ourselves and each other some of same questions Thoreau asked himself. How are we to live now? How are we to move forward in relation to nature and other human beings?
And while these new American radicals working at the “front lines of climate justice” have taken widely differing paths, it seems they have some shared convictions: that the transformation needed now is less one of environmentalism and more one about human rights and social justice; that we need a mass awakening, a shared vision, and a new story that will compel us to change; and that the strength and power for this revolution, “one that is freed through individual spiritual awakenings, is ultimately the power of love itself.”
Readers ready to accept Stephenson’s starting point—that we are traveling this scary and profoundly spiritual climate justice journey together whether we want to or not—will find these in-depth “dispatches from the front lines of climate justice” educational, sobering, and inspirational. I find this book as valuable and as necessary as Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges’s Wages of Rebellion.
Quakers will find in What We’re Fighting for Now a very challenging and stark series of queries. How can we find the words, create the visions, and engage in the actions that will help us identify and release the spiritual energy and the power of love for one another to forge a moral and compassionate way forward together? This is an important book that takes the reader on a stark and difficult ride, yet provides accompaniment by fascinating individuals willing to share their spiritual, political, and moral journeys. We are not and will not be alone as we confront climate justice. But doing this work does require that we make a commitment, that we make the choice to engage in the journey—risk bearing pain that activist Rachel Plattus describes as “walking around with a knife in your chest.” It requires us to accept Bill McKibben’s statement that “we are looking at the difference between a world with civilization and a world without it.”
We must suffer the loss of an old world view, Quaker activist Jay O’Hara told Stephenson during his interview, and confront an unknown future as faithfully as we can. We may not know where we will end up and we may not know what we will confront along the way. What we do know, according to O’Hara, is that the only force strong enough to sustain us on this ride and to make just and moral action possible will be rooted in love.