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Wen Stephenson's Posts


The children: Why a generation is putting itself on the line for the climate

I recently picked up a book that's been sitting in my must-read pile for a long time: David Halberstam's The Children, a remarkable account of the African-American students who began the momentous lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville in February 1960 and went on to risk their lives as Freedom Riders and as movement leaders in Birmingham and Selma. Half a century on, it can be easy to forget that citizens of this country took such risks, and made such sacrifices, in order to gain basic human rights.

Still, I thought I knew the story. So I was startled to find myself pierced, on the very first page, by Halberstam's description of one young woman's inner struggle:

Years later, though she could recall almost every physical detail of what it had been like to sit there in that course on English literature, Diane Nash could remember nothing of what Professor Robert Hayden had said. What she remembered instead was her fear. A large clock on the wall had clicked slowly and loudly; each minute which was subtracted put her nearer to harm's way. ... It was always the last class that she attended on the days that she and her colleagues assembled before they went downtown and challenged the age-old segregation laws at the lunch counters in Nashville's downtown shopping center.

Halberstam then describes Diane Nash's memory of the night before the first sit-in, on Feb. 13, 1960:

On that evening, she had sat alone in her room at Fisk University. Suddenly she was hit with an overpowering attack of nerves. What had she gotten herself into? she wondered. ... She, Diane Nash, a coward of the first order in her own mind, a person absolutely afraid not just of violence but of going to jail, was going to join a small group of black children and ministers and take on the most important and resourceful people in a big, very white, very Southern city....

It was a joke, she thought, it will never happen. We are a bunch of children. We're nice children, bright and idealistic, but we are children and we are weak.

I think I know why those words pierced me the way they did. Over the past year and a half, I've gotten acquainted, and at times worked closely, with a group of student climate activists in the Boston area. And while the situation they face is vastly different on multiple levels -- historical, cultural, political, personal -- from what students like Diane Nash confronted, I've seen them begin to make similar choices, and to take, or be willing to take, similar risks. A number of them have been arrested -- some multiple times, and in unpredictable circumstances -- for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience protesting the Keystone XL pipeline and extreme fossil-fuel extraction. And they are ready to do more.


Could ‘peer progressives’ turn the climate around?


No doubt like a lot of Grist’s climate-conscious readers, I tend to view humanity's near-term future as, well, problematic -- no, make that downright terrifying. So, when I saw the title of Steven Johnson's latest book, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Then when I saw that the book contains barely a passing mention of climate change, you could say I was a little skeptical of Johnson's grip on our planetary reality.

Now, I've been a fan of Johnson's for years. I've worked with him from time to time as an editor and producer. He's one of the most admired science and technology writers around, author of books like Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, Everything Bad is Good For You, and Emergence. And despite the new book's title, he's not simply another glib techno-utopian. He's also, rest assured, fully aware of climate change.

But he does, emphatically, still believe in a future marked by progress. And in this book he argues, ambitiously, that the most promising developments driving social progress today can be seen in an emerging wave of thinkers, entrepreneurs, artists, and activists he calls "peer progressives."


What's a peer progressive? To begin with, they're inspired by the decentralized, non-hierarchical, "peer-to-peer" structure of the internet. As Johnson notes, however, "the people I was interested in were not evangelists for the internet itself. For them, the internet was not a cure-all; it was a role model. It wasn't the solution to the problem, but a way of thinking about the problem."

Johnson goes on to describe the rise of the peer-progressive worldview, centered on the principles of the leaderless "peer network," as something approaching a social and political movement. Slowly but surely, he writes,

a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems -- the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. ... Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks. Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange.

Johnson points to peer-network success stories like Wikipedia and Kickstarter and New York City's 311 system, even political protest movements (the relative success of which can be debated) such as MoveOn and the Arab Spring uprisings and Occupy Wall Street.

I find all of this tantalizing. Johnson, I think, is clearly on to something. But there's just no getting around the glaring, and puzzling, absence of climate change -- and the pressure it exerts on any optimistic vision of the future -- from his book's argument. How could one of our best, most zeitgeist-savvy science writers paint a picture of our moment so conspicuously incomplete? And yet, is it possible that the part he gets right -- the promise of peer networks -- can somehow help us deal with the part he left out?

I had to ask. And Johnson gamely agreed to an email exchange for Grist, which I’ve lightly edited here.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Cue the math: McKibben’s roadshow takes aim at Big Oil

Rae Breaux
Bill McKibben onstage at the University of Vermont, Oct. 13, 2012.

It was game time. The Saturday night crowd on the Vermont campus was festive, boisterous, pumped. People cheered and whooped when told that one of their heroes, climate activist Tim DeChristopher -- serving a two-year federal sentence for his civil disobedience opposing new oil and gas drilling in Utah -- would soon be back on the field.

When the man on the stage,'s Bill McKibben, said it was time to march not just on Washington but on the headquarters of fossil fuel companies -- "it's time to march on Dallas" -- and asked those to stand who'd be willing to join in the fight, seemingly every person filling the University of Vermont’s cavernous Ira Allen Chapel, some 800 souls, rose to their feet.

McKibben and 350, the folks who brought us the Keystone XL pipeline protests, are now calling for a nationwide divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies’ bottom line. Beginning with student-led campaigns on college campuses, modeled on the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, they’ll pressure institutions to withdraw all investments from big oil and coal and gas. Their larger goal is to ignite a morally charged movement to strip the industry of its legitimacy.

"The fossil fuel industry has behaved so recklessly that they should lose their social license -- their veneer of respectability," McKibben tells his audience. "You want to take away our planet and our future? We're going to take away your money and your good name."

Read more: Climate & Energy


Gus Speth: ‘Ultimate insider’ goes radical

Gus Speth arrested at White House Keystone pipeline protest, August, 2011. (Photo by

James Gustave Speth, who goes by "Gus" and speaks with a soft South Carolina drawl, is nobody's picture of a radical. His resume is as mainstream and establishment as it gets: environmental advisor to Presidents Carter and Clinton, founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and World Resources Institute, administrator of the U.N. Development Program, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, now a professor at Vermont Law School, and distinguished senior fellow at Demos. Time magazine has called him the "ultimate insider."

And yet this elder environmental statesman, author of the acclaimed books Red Sky at Morning (2003) and The Bridge at the Edge of the World (2008), has grown ever more convinced that our politics and our economy are so corrupted, and the environmental movement so inadequate, that we can no longer hope to address the climate crisis, or our deep social ills, by working strictly within the system. The only remaining option, he argues in his forceful new book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, is to change the system itself. And that, he knows full well, will require a real struggle for the direction and soul of the country.

Which is why, as he writes on the opening page of the new book, he was arrested in front of the White House on Aug. 20 last year -- along with Bill McKibben and eventually more than 1,200 others -- in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

"My motivation," he writes, "was climate change: After more than 30 years of unsuccessfully advocating for government action to protect our planet's climate, I found myself at the end of my proverbial rope. Civil disobedience was my way of saying that America's economic and political system had failed us all."

Invoking the moral legacy of the civil rights movement, this uber-environmentalist has now written a book not about climate and the environment (though the climate crisis looms large in its pages), but about America, the path we're on, and the path we could be on -- to a far better and safer future -- if enough of us are willing to fight for it.

Parts of this book are, frankly, tough to read. In the opening section, Speth looks unflinchingly, even matter-of-factly, into the abyss, spelling out just how deep the hole is that we're in -- not only environmentally but socially and economically, from rising poverty and inequality, to declining education and public health, to massive Pentagon budgets, out-of-control campaign spending, and, yes, outsized carbon emissions.

But Speth doesn't stop there. He goes on to paint a remarkably positive vision (some will call it utopian) of an America that, he argues, is still -- despite everything -- within our grasp.

As a prominent figure in what's been dubbed the "new economy" movement, centered in places like the New Economics Institute and the New Economy Network, Speth looks to underlying forces, what he calls the "operating system" driving our political economy. New-economy thinkers embrace the idea, as Gar Alperovitz wrote in The Nation last year, "that the entire economic system must be radically restructured if critical social and environmental goals are to be met." They want to build an economy "that is increasingly green and socially responsible ... based on rethinking the nature of ownership and the growth paradigm." As Speth shows, real-world models -- from genuine progress indicators to employee-owned corporations and co-operatives to Transition Town initiatives and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies -- are all around us.

At the heart of Speth's vision, then, is a "sustaining, post-growth economy." And yet it will never be more than a vision, he argues, without a transformative progressive movement for far-reaching democratic reforms (starting, perhaps, by rolling back Citizens United) coupled with urgent action to prevent catastrophic climate disruption in the decades ahead.

It's a tall order. But Speth sketches -- in the book and the interview here -- what he argues is a plausible scenario, one he believes we can already see starting to play out. If it sounds merely wishful to you, it seems only fair to ask, at a time like this, whether you have a better plan -- and whether you believe business as usual is really an option.

I spoke with Speth by phone on Friday, Sept. 7, the morning after President Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


Through a green glass, darkly: How climate will reshape American history

Through a green glass, darkly: How climate will reshape American historyPhotos by John Gress, Reuters / Shutterstock.

Standing amid the Permian Basin oil fields in New Mexico last week, Mitt Romney announced an energy plan that takes "Drill, Baby, Drill" to a whole new level. Handing states control over oil, gas, and coal extraction on historically protected federal lands, he chucked a century of bipartisan policy going back to Teddy Roosevelt. For Mitt, it's "speak politely and carry a big drill."

The moment reminded us -- as you can bet we'll be reminded again this week when the GOP convenes in Tampa -- what the Romney campaign, to a large extent, is really about: the untrammeled freedom to extract wealth from the commons, whatever the costs to current and future generations.

But even more, moments like this offer a window onto what historian Mark Fiege calls "an environmental history of modern conservatism." In his magisterial new book, Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States, Fiege suggests that the conservative movement itself "gathered political power from the transformation of the American landscape and in reaction to the environmental, economic, social, and political crises generated by that transformation." In fact, he goes on, "the modern conservative movement might be understood fundamentally as an argument about nature."

That's just one of the provocative insights in a book that fellow historians are hailing as a landmark of environmental history. And yet Fiege's work challenges what we even mean by "environmental history." The chapters are as much or more about people and iconic passages or events in the American past -- the Salem witch trials, the Declaration of Independence, slavery and Lincoln and the Civil War, the transcontinental railroad, the atomic bomb, Brown v. Board of Education, the early-'70s oil crisis -- as about "natural" environments. You almost wonder why Fiege calls it "an environmental history" at all. It's just history, fully told.

Read more: Politics


Radiohead and Mood music for a climate movement?

Click to embiggen. volunteer Mark Schwaller on Tuesday before the Radiohead show. (Photo by Sam Parker.)

The amphitheater formerly known as Great Woods, at the edge of a large conservation area in Mansfield, Mass., is now called the Comcast Center. Given that the headliner there on Tuesday night was Radiohead -- a band that famously dropped its major corporate label, once touted Naomi Klein's No Logo, and is now teaming up with the grassroots climate activists of -- the name dripped a fitting irony.

Not that Radiohead has ever had a problem with contradiction or cognitive dissonance. Arty, cerebral darlings of serious post-boomer, meta-critical rock, they've made a career and some pretty great music out of it -- doing their best to subvert techno-consumer culture by its own devices for a good two decades.

So whatever else I may have felt, as a longtime Radiohead listener meeting up with a dozen fellow volunteers at the Comcast Center to help recruit concert-goers for the climate fight, the ironic dissonance of the setting made a certain sense. I mean, you have to admit: There's something slightly dissonant about Radiohead as mood music for the climate movement. The band's vibe -- ethereal but intense, more than a little dark at times, even manic-depressive -- may match many a climate activist's state of mind more often than we'd like to admit. But it's hardly an obvious fit with the bright, "Yes we can!" spirit of a 350 rally. Which is to say, don't worry: There's nothing wrong with you, you're not missing some subtle coded message, if the 350 logo doesn't pop into your head when you hear Thom Yorke sing.

Read more: Climate & Energy


‘I withdraw': A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth

A longer version of this interview appeared at

Paul Kingsnorth.

Not everyone is quite ready to hear, or accept, what Paul Kingsnorth has to say.

An English writer and erstwhile green activist, he spent two decades (he’ll turn 40 this year) in the environmental movement, and he’s done with all that. And not only environmentalism -- he's done with "hope." He’s moved beyond it. He’s not out to “save the planet.” He’s had it with the dream of “sustainability.” He’s looked into the abyss of planetary collapse, and he's more or less fine with it: Collapse? Sure. Bring it on.

In 2009, he founded, together with collaborator Dougald Hine, something called the Dark Mountain Project. A kind of loose literary collective -- with a website, annual Dark Mountain anthology, an arts festival and other gatherings -- it's a cultural response to our global environmental, economic, and political crises. “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” appeared that summer and got some attention, mostly in the U.K. Kingsnorth and Hine have summed up their message this way:

These are precarious and unprecedented times ... Little that we have taken for granted is likely to come through this century intact.

We don’t believe that anyone -- not politicians, not economists, not environmentalists, not writers -- is really facing up to the scale of this ... Somehow, technology or political agreements or ethical shopping or mass protest are meant to save our civilization from self-destruction.

Well, we don’t buy it. This project starts with our sense that civilization as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse -- which is already beginning -- could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices.

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.

Some have called Kingsnorth a catastrophist, or fatalist, with something like a death wish for civilization (see John Gray in The New Statesman and George Monbiot in The Guardian). Others might call him a realist, a truthteller. If nothing else, I’d call him a pretty good provocateur.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Why I’m walking to Walden for Moving Planet

Walden Pond.Photo: Troy B. Thompson I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? ... Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. So spoke Henry David Thoreau, that inveterate nature walker, to an audience in Framingham, Mass., on July 4, 1854, in his great abolitionist address called "Slavery in Massachusetts." The times and the country have changed, but the words still ring in our ears. This Saturday, Sept. 24, I'll be walking with …


Why take the 'Green Dragon' bait?

Evangelicals are greener than you think

A veteran climate warrior told me recently that he doesn't believe we'll ever win the "climate fight" because "climate" itself has become too loaded, a cultural Rorschach, and the battles over it have become proxies for too many other things. We're bogged down in the quagmire of an intractable left-right civil war, and climate action is a casualty. Like many who've contributed here at Grist, he wants to reframe the whole challenge. When he said that about proxies, I couldn't help thinking of last Friday's post by Christopher Mims, "Environmentalism is a plot to take over the world, says coalition …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living