Earlier this winter Northern Lights.mn sent each committee member a questionnaire focusing on themes and features of Northern Spark 2016. Here’s what they had to say.
Independent journalist & Climate Activist
An independent journalist and climate activist, Wen Stephenson is a contributor to The Nation and the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon Press, 2015). A former editor at The Atlantic, where he co-created and edited TheAtlantic.com, and at The Boston Globe, where he edited the Sunday “Ideas” section, he has also been the managing editor of PBS’s Frontline.org and the senior producer of NPR’s On Point. He has written about climate, culture and politics for The Boston Phoenix, Grist, Slate, The New York Times and the Globe. In 2012, he helped launch the grassroots climate-action network 350 Massachusetts.
Of the topics: move, nourish, interconnect, perceive, act, which engage you? With which does your practice align, reflect or agitate, and how?
All of them, really. But “interconnect” and “act,” in particular. I think the title of my book says it well enough: “What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other.” Emphasis on “fight” and “for each other.”
What are two important ideas or questions related to the subthemes you identify with, that the public should know or ask?
1) There are no serious responses to climate that are not political. Which is to say, moral. The climate catastrophe is a crime against humanity.
From my book’s Preface:
“…given what we know and have known for decades about climate change — [indeed, given what we now know ExxonMobil and other major oil and gas companies have known for decades about climate change] — to deny the science, deceive the public, and willfully obstruct any serious response to the climate catastrophe is to allow entire countries and cultures to disappear. It is to rob people, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet, of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives—and their children’s lives, and their children’s children’s lives. For profit. And for political power.
There’s a word for this: these are crimes. They are crimes against the earth, and they are crimes against humanity.”
2) Stop speaking of Paris as some kind of historic achievement. Please. Just stop.
Paris ratified the failure of the mainstream environmental movement and the whole mainstream center-left approach to climate. Despite the remarkable gains of renewable energy worldwide, and the promise of new technologies, we are nevertheless racing toward worst-case scenarios.
Indeed, this is what the “landmark” agreement adopted in Paris in December—hailed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—essentially ratified. The leaders in Paris finally acknowledged that two degrees spells catastrophe for much of the world’s population—and perhaps for everyone—and admitted that the limit we really should be aiming for is 1.5 degrees, if that’s even possible. (This, by the way, is what developing nations—those in the climate bull’s-eye, whose people have done little or nothing to cause this crisis—have been saying: “1.5. to stay alive.”) And yet, those same world leaders in Paris did nothing to strengthen their existing pledges, which come nowhere close to putting the world on a path to achieving even the two-degree limit. In other words, the Paris Agreement—to be signed at a UN ceremony in New York on Friday—ratified the yawning gap between what science (not ideology) says is necessary and what politicians, and protectors of the status quo, say is possible.
Meanwhile, under Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s corporate-friendly “all of the above” energy policy—with its disastrous expansion of fracking (see Bill McKibben’s recent Nation cover story, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry”)—the United States became the largest oil producer on the planet. Sorry, you can’t claim to take climate science seriously and at the same time vastly expand your national production of oil and gas. That’s not a credible climate plan. It’s a form of climate denial.
From the perspective of your field in general, what are two of the most pressing concerns about the effects of climate change that the public should know?
1) Poor people, mostly people of color, are fucked.
2) We are entering an era of global instability that is ripe for political evil.
What is missing from that conversation about climate change? Whose voice is missing?
The voice of the poor and the disenfranchised.
Also, too often, voices of progressive faith communities, who are a vital part of the climate justice movement.
What has been your experience of how and why people’s behaviors change in relation to climate change?
Most of the people I know who are most committed to the climate justice movement are people of faith, not necessarily in a traditionally religious way, but in a deeply spiritual sense none the less. It’s a profoundly moral and profoundly human issue for them
In your view, how does or could art add to the climate change conversation?
Innovative forms of communication that connect us to each other as human beings, that can help us hold onto our humanity as we go through this time of extreme and chaotic change, are essential.
And yet as artists (and I would count myself, as an essayist and author of narrative nonfiction, in that camp), we need to understand that art is secondary. What’s needed, right now, is action. Artists should be going to jail first, making art second.
If what we’re doing isn’t pushing ourselves and our peers out of our personal and collective comfort zones — wherever those boundaries may lie (obviously, a lot of artists have already gone to jail for various causes) — and provoking the strongest (and often most unpleasant) kinds of responses from the society in which we work, including the government and powers of the police state, then we’re probably not doing and saying the things that most need to be done and said.
Peace, and best wishes.