Against the Wickedness of Wasted Time

Recently I had the privilege of collaborating on a publication called Burn Zone with Danny Lyon, the photographer. He had written an anthropocene/autobiographical essay and taken some striking images of the area around his home in New Mexico after several catastrophic fires. Thinking strategically from his days in the civil rights movement he wanted to assemble a directory of so-called Climate Criminals to accompany his essay, and he wanted me to do the research. My strategy for staying ahead of lurking climate despair is to say yes to everything, so I worked on this research project, and what emerged is a handsome print volume, and a handsome free digital download, available here:

Two problems have arisen from this project, though I don’t regret taking part in it. One is that our political terrain has shifted dramatically in the direction of surveillance and fossil fuel free-for-all. So be it. The second is that Danny misrepresented the work of my organization, Conceivable Future, in his essay, and now the error has been replicated in some of our press. While the misunderstanding plays out in a funny way between his and my introductions to the ‘baddies’ list, generally I think people are a lot likelier to read his essay than to read mine.  To that end, I’ve copied the text of my essay below. If you’re reading this you probably know about Conceivable Future’s work already, but to reiterate, we organize around the threats climate change poses to reproductive justice. We do this to protect people’s reproductive sovereignty, not curtail it. Please read on:

Against the Wickedness of Wasted Time

“You’re a climate activist. OK, so where is the climate movement?” This was nearly the first thing Danny Lyon said to me the day I met him. My friend Rebecca, Danny’s daughter, had invited me and my partner Chris to visit her family outside of Bernalillo, New Mexico, and her dad wanted to have a climate summit.

This question drove me nuts: the past 10 years of my life have been increasingly devoted to writing, researching, protesting, and, lately, organizing in the climate movement. I know it to be large, growing, and skillful. The movement is in every corner of the country and the globe, but our mantra has long had to be “connect the dots.” Connect the dots between individual weather disruptions to show a larger picture of change. Connect the dots between grassroots efforts to share strategies, hard-earned skills and much-needed resources. Connect the dots between the multitude of shell companies, revenue streams and project proposals this industry has generated to keep doing destructive business in plain sight of the people it’s harming. It may have been hard to see us.

Climate change is a crisis on an inhuman scale: it’s easier to look right through it than it is to look everywhere, talk to everyone and still be unable to comprehend its enormity. Every climate activist can tell you that our work is largely in presenting human- size struggles and stories with which to engage: a coal export terminal, a fracking well, a piece of legislation, a species of mollusk. The list goes on, to the end of the world.

The people who profit from the sale of fossil fuels have played a really cunning game, and we have lost more than 20 years of possibility as a result. As we approach dangerous environmental tipping points, a phrase my friend Eiren Caffall wrote in a song comes to mind: “the wickedness of wasted time.” The alliance of corporate executives, their legal teams and the politicians they finance has pushed the line so far back from progress that liberals now congratulate themselves simply for acknowledging the existence of this threat to our lives.

Occasionally the thought passes through my mind that if we can’t save ourselves, then we don’t deserve it, but this thought is a product of that 20 year campaign of wickedness: we are not all equally guilty. Many people on earth have emitted barely more than their breath. Yes, we American individualists have consumed much more than our share of resources, but even we do not have our hands on the big levers. We don’t have hired legislators defending our right to poison the world which has nourished us.

Danny wanted a list of the worst of the worst, a climate j’accuse. We had a great, lively conversation, though he didn’t want to hear anything about my organization, Conceivable Future. If he’d asked, I would have told him this: we demand an end to US fossil fuel subsidies. We get people together in homes and community spaces across the country to talk about the threats climate change poses to our generation’s reproductive freedoms, and to build collective power out of what’s been a private struggle until now. We also gather testimonies on our website, and use them to communicate the human stakes of the crisis.

I had two aims in making this list. First, I wanted to make a useful resource for activists, or soon-to-be activists, that paints the big picture of how fossil fuel influence is working against human prospects, no matter what state you live in. Here are places to hold creative public protests, here are Twitter accounts to barrage with truth-telling, here are numbers you can call to report a climate emergency. I plan to use it in my own organizing, and I plan to expand it online. Second, I wanted to say that we’ve gotten as far as we can in the climate movement while accommodating a fantasy that things can stay the same. Change is here, the bells are ringing. Every minute we waste is a lost life, a lost freedom, a lost species.

This weird politeness, the difference between what we know to be true and what is said out loud, is simply a product of the money the fossil fuel industry spends. We pretend that climate denial is just wrong-thinking, a difference of opinion, but the legislators who deny climate change are all being paid to do so. All of the information in the list I created is publicly available. I relied heavily on Oil Change International’s Dirty Energy Money database, and Organizing for Action’s Call Out Climate Deniers directory, as well as gubernatorial campaign donation reports, where available; Greenpeace’s reports of their recent academics-for-hire sting; and legislators’ and corporations’ websites. That is to say, this wickedness is not a secret. If we stop pretending that climate change denial is an honest mistake, then we can also tell our liberal legislators that simply acknowledging the crisis is no longer sufficient. We can see who among them is on the fossil fuel payroll as well.

I’ve been calling this list the “Baddies List,” and I think that does a fine job of presenting the inadequacy of language in the face of this calamity. Danny’s right that the people in this list are trying to derail the movement, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. If this crew quit and went home, others would assume their roles defending old, bad ideas with a calcified fear of change. It matters less who they are as individuals than who we are.

In my Conceivable Future work, I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over the tension between individual private lives and big, powerful forces. How does our movement become large enough, and powerful enough, to change our course in what little time we have? On the days I believe it to be possible, I think the path looks like this: be rude and be loving. Look everywhere, talk to everyone, get together. Shout what we know, then learn more, and shout again. We will never have better odds than we do right now.

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