In the modern age of 2018, we’re constantly encountering messages about environmentalism. Maybe they come from Facebook, where people share photos of animals trapped in plastic or with straws stuck up their noses. Maybe they’re from corporations like Starbucks, whose straws have been supposedly ditched in favor of a similarly plastic-heavy cup design. Either way, the world seems to have woken up to the fact that the environment is being steadily destroyed by human influence, and we need to do something about it. But how far is the world willing to go in order to make this happen?
It’s not that people shouldn’t stop their own personal environmentalism practices. By all means, use reusable bags at the grocery store, stop using plastic straws, compost as much as you can and avoid materials like styrofoam whenever possible. At the same time, however, remember that this is not the end of our fight to preserve the environment. At the root of the issue lies the oil and coal corporations that won’t stop their drilling, and direct action against them may be the only way for them to cease, and many people have already shown that it’s possible.
On Oct. 22, Willamette University was visited by Native activist and self-proclaimed water protector Winona LaDuke who has worked tirelessly over the years with environmental organizations, many of which she founded herself. LaDuke participated in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, ND, and is already gearing up to spend her summer in Minnesota protesting the Line 3 pipeline, a protest which she invited students to participate in.
“I have been to about every nuclear power plant in the United States protesting,” she told attendees of her Atkinson lecture in Hudson Hall. “There’s a reason there haven’t been new nuclear power plants built in the last 30 years. It’s because of people. People like us, people like your parents.”
And then there are those who are willing to go a few steps further and break the law for an opportunity to take a stand against climate change. On Oct. 11, 2016, five activists broke into enclosures of a tarsands pipeline run by the TransCanada Corporation, in Washington, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. A New York Times article reported that after using heavy-duty bolt cutters to break through the chained fence and unlock the valves, the activists proceeded to turn them off, effectively stopping the flow of oil throughout North America.
All five were arrested in the respective states of action, and put on trials that lasted many months. However, only one was sentenced to time in prison, and history was made in Minnesota when a judge ruled that the two arrested activists would be able to use the “necessity defense” in the name of climate change, according to Common Dreams. While not everyone is prepared to sacrifice their livelihoods in the name of climate change and direct action, the valve turners showed us that climate change is something worth fighting for, and that courts may be starting to realize the necessity of such actions.
Ken Ward, the activist responsible for shutting down the pipeline in Washington, has been involved in environmental movements for most of his adult life, and has turned to direct action is past years. The 2017 documentary “The Reluctant Radical,” follows Ward in the months leading up to and after his decision to become a valve turner. He is shown setting up camp on the railroad tracks in Anacortes, WA in order to protest oil refineries, blocking gas station pumps and dispensing information about Shell to patrons and anchoring a dinghy in front of a giant Shell icebreaker on its path out of Portland.
The documentary also shows that in 2013, Ward and a fellow activist anchored in front of a coal-carrying vessel in Massachusetts, and after being arrested and subsequently supported by the local district attorney, the coal plant was effectively shut down. Direct action created successful change.
Direct action is a difficult route for many of us to take, especially in a society where securing jobs and promising futures depends on having a clean record. However, it’s important to remember that the fight doesn’t end when you ditch the straw and use a canvas bag at the grocery store. As the Earth continuously warms and corporations continue to ignore its detrimental effects, we can never become complacent.