KATHLEEN DEAN MOORE
What are virtues in a time of runaway
global warming? What are crimes?
One Good Turn
T HE MORNING OF OCTOBER 11, 2016, was chilly on the northern plains. Low sun glinted on prai- rie grasses and on the emergency turn-o= valves of the five pipelines that burrowed from Canadian tar-sands oil fields into Minnesota, North Dakota,
Montana, and Washington. At eight-thirty a.m., people wear-
ing hard hats and yellow safety vests approached each of the
pipelines. With bolt cutters, they let themselves into hurricane-
fence enclosures. In several locations, one person videotaped
the action while another cut the chains that immobilized the
valves. These people, men and women, were not burly roust-
abouts; several were past middle age. It took all the strength
they had to crank the heavy wheels on the valves. But when
they had closed the valves on all five pipelines, the entire flow
of crude oil from Canadian tar sands came to a stop.
The shutdown was an act of moral necessity, the Valve Turners explained. Global warming caused by burning fossil fuels is
a desperate emergency, so shutting the emergency valves was
exactly the right response—an act of sanity in a dangerously
Not only that, it was also a call to conscience against an
industry that has shown itself willing, for the sake of enormous
profit, to take down the natural systems that support life on
Earth. Those five pipelines carry 2. 9 million gallons of crude
each day. This amounts to 15 percent of US daily fossil fuel
consumption—as it happens, about the percentage by which
fossil fuel use must be reduced each year in order to prevent
runaway climate catastrophe.
The action was “the biggest coordinated move on US energy
infrastructure ever undertaken by environmental protesters,”
Reuters News Agency said, an action that “shook the North
American energy industry.”
And what did the state district attorneys call it? Burglary. Vio-
lation of the Act for the Suppression of Sabotage and Anarchism.
Criminal Trespass. Felony Property Damage. Damaging Critical
Public Service Facilities. Felony Criminal Mischief. Trespass and
Aiding and Abetting Trespass.
As they awaited trial on these charges, the Valve Turners
spoke openly about their reasons for acting. Last winter, I interviewed them in a broadcast webinar and then met them and
interviewed them again when they spoke in my hometown of
To my surprise, they looked just like the people I meet all
the time in the grocery store, carefully choosing apples or dropping carrots in a bag. Again to my surprise —did I expect them
to stomp and rant?—they spoke with a quiet passion seldom
encountered, engaging with serious questions about what it
means to be a good person when the planet and the future are
I have always believed that the world creates the heroes it
needs from the ordinary people who present themselves. Does
the world create also the thinkers it needs, from ordinary people
who realize that, as the planet’s life-supporting systems approach
irredeemable destruction, we are called to think far di=erently
about who we are and what the world asks of us?
The enormity of the world’s crisis is not just sad, but tragic
in a classical sense. If plants and animals continue to be driven
to extinction at a rate and with a fury the planet has not seen
since an asteroid wiped out most dinosaurs, if entire ecosystems
Left: Michael Foster, moments before shutting off the flow
of oil through the Keystone Pipeline.