fray and fall apart, if savage weather drives people to starvation,
to violence, to helpless upheaval and flight —this is unbearably
sad. It becomes tragic, however, when those events are the consequences of human decisions rooted in what we might have called
virtues: industry, hard work, supreme cleverness and magnificent technological genius, competitive nature, powerful oratory,
loyalty to one’s own.
But humans have the capacity, and perhaps one last chance,
to make di=erent decisions. As a philosopher, but also as an
activist, I wanted to know exactly what the Valve Turners were
thinking about that last chance as they waited for sheri=s to
drive miles across the prairies to arrest them. What grief and
love —or was it fear? — called them to think di=erently about
their obligations? I wanted to know what different set of vir-
tues they called on as they cranked the sti= wheels of the fossil
fuel industry. And what might their decisions suggest to the
rest of us — heartbroken and desperate to act — about how to
answer the world’s urgent call for a new understanding of who
we are when we are at our best, we human beings, and how
we ought to act?
What did I find when I listened closely to the Valve Turners? Woven together, their words created a new story about the
characteristics we will need as we face the global emergencies:
Sanity. Prudence. Courage. Good faith. Truth. Compassion.
Kathleen: When you describe the world we are living in, you use
words like “bizarre,” “surreal,” “terrifying,” “insane.” What are
you talking about?
Leonard: Our country has known for decades that a steady,
job-preserving shift away from fossil fuels to renewables was
necessary. Instead, political and business leaders allowed that
opportunity for an easy changeover to slip through our fingers.
They are working together instead to prolong fossil fuel profits
even though the pollution from extraction, shipment, and burning of those fuels is literally killing us. It’s insane.
Emily: We’ve run out of time, and there is not a single law or
legislative proposal on the table anywhere that will keep the earth
below 1. 5 degrees Celsius of warming—beyond which, scientists
have made clear, the life-supporting systems that we depend on
start to fall apart.
In existing mines and wells alone, there are already three
times as much carbon as we can burn and have even a fifty-fifty
chance of keeping temperature increases below 1. 5 degrees Celsius. We need to immediately end the extraction and burning
of the dirtiest fuels—coal and tar sands—in order to preserve a
fifty-fifty chance of a livable world. It’s surreal.
We have a choice between a world that is radically changing
and inhuman and inhumane, or a world that’s a decent place to
live, where people are doing all they can to address the immediate problem of fossil fuels and their tragedies: mass migration
and refugees fleeing starvation and unbearable heat and ruined
land; widespread extinctions; acidic oceans that may not produce
enough oxygen for whales—or for us. I’m not fighting fossil fuels
because I want it to be a little less hot and have there be a handful
fewer people su=ering and a handful fewer species going extinct.
Kathleen: Enbridge Inc., the owner of two of these pipelines,
said that you were “inviting an environmental incident,” adding, “These are criminal acts that endanger the public and the
environment. We take this very seriously.” The Montana Petroleum Association called you “ecoterrorists,” which is harsh
indeed. How do you respond?
Michael Foster is a Texan who grew up across the street
from a Shell Oil refinery. Now, at fifty-three, he is a
quintessential tree hugger, whose organization mobilizes kids to plant giant sequoias around Puget Sound.
Leonard Higgins, sixty-five, a father of five grown children and two grandchildren, has a trim white beard, a
slow, low voice, and a quick smile. Before he retired,
he worked for thirty-one years managing information-technology projects for the Oregon state government.
Emily Johnston is the youngest at fifty, a Seattle poet
and veteran climate activist, deeply in love with the
damp green hills where she runs with her dog. Her
recent book of poems is Her Animals.
Annette Klapstein, sixty-four, is an outspoken, gray-haired woman, a mother who is now retired from her
work as an attorney for the Puyallup people in Washington State.
Ken Ward, sixty, is a longtime activist from Oregon
with unruly dark hair and a rueful laugh. He is trying and, as he admits, generally failing to cultivate a