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Navigating the Swirling Currents of Climate Activism

By Keith Kloor
Mar 6, 2013 9:17 PMNov 20, 2019 4:47 AM


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I didn't come of age in the 60s and early 70s, but I know my history. I know that the U.S. fractured over the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights movement. I know that Americans took sides on the home front and that this turned kitchen tables, universities, and streets into battle zones. Families and friendships were torn asunder. Entrenched values and norms were challenged. Yes, it was a turbulent time. But the the passions and stakes were high. Such is the messy, unpredictable landscape of social change. As Jefferson Airplane sang in 1969:

Look what's happening out in the streets Got a revolution Got to revolution

I am certain I would not have been on the sidelines. My own political awakening coincided with the Reagan era, in the 1980s. At my college (the first one I attended), I helped organize "teach-ins" on U.S. military involvement in Central America. I was the guy who wrote about the nuclear freeze movement for his college paper and brought Christopher Hitchens to speak on campus. ("Comrade, where do you get a drink around here," was the first thing he said to your formerly curly-haired, 20-year old radical turned middle-aged blogger.) When I wasn't skateboarding, playing drinking games and experimenting with altered states of mind, I was debating politics and antagonizing born-again Christians with essays in the school paper on our Godless world. ("You are going to hell, but I will pray for your soul," one of them used to say to me.) The point being, I was having a blast (a little too much) and engaging intensely with issues of the day. In ten years, my oldest son will be 18 and presumably a freshman in college. It's hard to project what his interests will be at that point in time, but I will be thrilled if he has an idealistic streak and wants to make the world a better place. (I'm also hopeful that he'll be more recreationally responsible with his independence than I was.) Let's say, for the sake of argument, he was 18 today and awakening to environmental issues, such as climate change. How would he express his activism? I'm guessing he would be drawn to the divestment initiative and the anti-Keystone protests that Bill McKibben and other leaders of the climate movement have sparked. And if he asked me what I thought about him marching in front of the White House or demonstrating in front of a coal plant, I wouldn't discourage him. If he had been 18 in 1993 or 2003 and said he wanted to sit in a tree to protect old growth forests, I wouldn't have discouraged him. Civil disobedience is a time-honored tactic that has drawn attention to many a worthy cause. I would however, draw the line at tactics that destroy property or harm anyone. I would not want my son to set fire to ski resorts, car dealerships, or send bombs in the mail. I would caution him against extremism. If my son were old enough to join today's climate movement, I would also explain to him that the intense disagreement over the Keystone pipeline needn't be viewed through a black and white lens. I would try to explain that the loudest and most passionate voices (on both sides) tend to frame such battles in stark terms. That can't be avoided, but I would counsel him that being open to and maintaining tolerance for the views of others would give him a larger perspective of the cause he was involved in. Summing up, the significance of Keystone as an entry point into the burgeoning climate movement should be obvious to anyone who has participated in similar causes in their own youth. That is why I have consistently argued for its legitimacy, while acknowledging, as others (who are green allies) continue to point out, that it is not the best battleground to plant the climate flag. But as Time's Michael Grunwald puts it:

Keystone isn’t the best fight to have over fossil fuels, but it’s the fight we’re having.

Still, in the public discourse over environmental concerns and how to address them, there is a constant struggle between emotion and reason. We see it play out now in the biotechnology and climate/energy arenas. To me, finding a balance between emotion (passion) and reason (logic) is a means to staying grounded as these debates rage on.

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