What It Takes to Become an Activist
Like many fellow Quakers, I’ve composted my banana peels and taken short showers for over twenty years. I’ve signed petitions, written checks to environmental organizations, and recycled, even if I did consume more bratwurst and gasoline than I was proud to admit. During the past two years, however, I’ve realized that my individual actions to limit my carbon footprint are not enough. One of the things that ignited a sense that I am called to do more was a phone call from a dear friend in Botswana, where I had served in the Peace Corps twenty-five years earlier. Knowing that it was summer there, I asked her if it was hot.
“Oh my God!” Mmadithapelo exclaimed. “It’s 45 degrees!”
My mind raced to do the math. That’s 113 degrees Fahrenheit. I checked later on the Internet and learned that what was an unusual temperature back in the 1980s was now the average summer high. I learned that it was so hot during the brief rainy season that rain evaporated before it could be absorbed into the ground, with devastating consequences for farmers. As I read, I realized that the people in the world least responsible for climate change were going to bear the highest cost.
I might have despaired if I hadn’t felt a growing sense that God was calling me to action. I joined a faith-based organization whose mission was to use nonviolent direct action to work for a just and sustainable economy. Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) had chosen the financing of mountaintop removal as its first campaign for a number of reasons. Mountaintop removal is a particularly destructive way to get coal that poisons the water of Appalachian communities, increasing rates of cancer and birth defects, while burning coal is a major contributor to climate change. PNC Bank, which advertises itself as a “green bank” with Quaker roots, is one of the main financiers of the practice. EQAT (pronounced “equate”) is calling PNC to live up to its image by issuing a sector-exclusion against mountaintop removal mining.
Although I liked the things I was hearing about EQAT, I never managed to make it to a meeting until the spring of 2011, when God more or less tricked me into getting involved. Philadelphia hosts a large, expensive flower show at the convention center each spring. In 2011, I kept feeling that I should go on a particular Wednesday, even though none of the friends I invited could make it that day.
Arriving, I discovered that people I knew in EQAT were committing civil disobedience to challenge PNC Bank, a major sponsor of the flower show. As those willing to risk arrest sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” behind yellow crime scene tape, I happily joined their supporters handing out fliers to passersby.
What was interesting for me — along with the serendipity of attending the flower show while this action was taking place — was how happy I felt joining this protest, how hopeful I felt afterwards. That feeling increased when I finally made it to an EQAT meeting. Five people shared their experience getting arrested during an action at a PNC Bank. Another reported on his role supporting those in jail. Still a little nervous about EQAT’s bold approach, I was impressed by how thoughtfully they cared for each other and discussed strategy, and by a sense that their work was led by the Spirit. I threw myself into volunteering, and by the time we organized a walk across Pennsylvania a few months later, it was a central part of my life.
Returning to Africa
Although EQAT gave me a local way to work against climate change, a piece of my calling relating to Africa and the terrible toll climate change is taking there still needed formation. When I decided I wanted to go back for the first time in twenty-five years, circumstances fell into place with amazing ease.
My spouse supported me, and a committee formed to support and pray for me during my two weeks of travel. Through serendipity I reconnected with an old friend who had married a South African and now lived there. Another good South African friend who now lives in Europe just happened to be going home during my trip and helped arrange interviews with eco-justice activists in Johannesburg and a tour of SOWETO.
During my week in Botswana, I visited my friend Mmadithapelo, interviewed government officials, and talked to ordinary people about how the climate is changing. The verdict was unanimous. The weather has become unpredictable, and farmers are facing decreased yields, especially of maize, an African staple. In South Africa the disparity of wealth makes the consequences for the poor even more dire, especially those living near the country’s new coal plants. The plants get precedence over people in the event of water shortages.
I asked the communications director of Greenpeace Africa about a film they’d made claiming 180 million people in sub-Saharan Africa could die as a result of climate change in the 21st century. She said the statistic came from a 2007 UN Food and Agriculture Department study but that the predictions had gotten worse since then.
It’s hard to face a problem of such horrific proportions. Two things helped. First was reconnecting with South African friends whose tremendous courage during apartheid inspired me.
Second was having a supportive community back home open to hearing my message. The group that prayed for me as I traveled, listened to me when I returned and helped me prepare to give presentations to local organizations. Earth Quaker Action Team kept me busy training more people to confront PNC about its investments in mountaintop removal coal mining. Having something concrete to do and great people to do it with gave me hope.
My work with EQAT feels more relevant than ever. I am struck that both Botswana and South Africa continue to mine and burn coal, despite coal’s disproportionate contribution to the climate change they are experiencing. As in the U.S., they are stuck in a model of development that involves digging stuff out of the ground and burning it, despite the abundance of sun and land in a region made for solar power. Especially in Botswana, I could see that average people now consume much more than they did 25 years earlier. I understand why they aspire to our wasteful lifestyle, but I can also see the cost. When I lived in the village, the vast majority had pit-latrines; now people have flush toilets, but the village runs out of water for days at a time.
I realized that my calling has two components – to speak about how climate change is affecting people in Africa; and to advocate for an end to extreme extraction here, since what we do in the United States has a disproportionate effect on the rest of the world, both because of our levels of consumption and because so many people take us as a model. I came home more determined to hang my wash on the line and cut down on meat, but also more clear that such steps are not enough. We really need big changes from big institutions and people bold enough to demand them.
In another bit of serendipity, I was given a chance to make a high-profile public witness this past February when I joined author Bill McKibben, Sierra Club’s Michael Brune, and forty-four others in civil disobedience in front of the White House. The focus was the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would facilitate the exploitation of the Canadian Tar Sands, one of the worst things we could do for the climate at this point. Standing with activists from across the country – from Nebraska ranchers to civil rights icon Julian Bond – I was glad that at least a few of us were representing people of faith. I yearn for the day that religious people take up the tactics of nonviolent direct action en mass in defense of creation and our fellow human beings.
As McKibben said in late April, while preaching at Riverside Church in New York, “This is the largest social justice issue we have ever faced.” Acknowledging that it is the world’s most vulnerable who will bear the brunt of climate catastrophe, McKibben challenged, “Our goal must be to make real the gospel with its injunction to love our neighbors – not to drown them, not to sicken them, not to make it impossible for them to grow crops, but to love them.”
A longer version of this article appeared in the June issue of Friends Journal.