29 – Getting Active Again

29 – Getting Active Again

After a hiatus of almost a year (with the exception of my trip to West Virginia to protest at Joe Manchin’s power plant), I feel the need to get active again. The daily atmospheric carbon dioxide reading at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii for Sept. 13th, was 416 ppm. Despite all the legislation, despite all the technological innovations, despite all the scientific reports, despite the United Nations conferences of the parties, despite all the green living and good intentions, we are not succeeding in cutting our global greenhouse gas emissions. The atmospheric CO2 reading does not lie.




active againWhen I first started my Zen Studies Podcast five years ago, I bought myself a magnet that still hangs on my fridge, saying, “I couldn’t afford a therapist, so I decided, hey, why not start a podcast?”

Of course, my Zen Studies Podcast doesn’t at all fit the stereotype of a self-revelatory, confessional, personal kind of podcast. I’m not interested in Climate and YOU becoming such a thing, either. I appreciate the support and experience of other people, but I hate advice and try to avoid any situation where I could be perceived as asking for it.

However, I feel like I’m at a turning point with this podcast and need to be honest about it. In case it hasn’t been obvious, my main motivation when I started the Climate and YOU podcast eight months ago was to help people make the challenging transition from caring about the climate crisis to doing something about it. Growing numbers of people are not just concerned about our climate and ecological emergency, they are deeply distressed, angry, overwhelmed, and fearful about the future. And yet the vast majority of us continue to go about our lives as if nothing much is happening. Because “We the People” aren’t insisting on commensurate action, our governments dawdle, and moneyed interests obstruct change.

The entire world’s response to COVID-19 proved beyond a doubt that we are fully capable of overnight, drastic change in order preserve human life and prevent the breakdown of our systems. Yes, that shutdown was painful, expensive, and in many ways damaging, but the world survived. How is it we will take such radical action in response to a pandemic, but not in response to the greatest threat to human survival we have ever faced?

The daily atmospheric carbon dioxide reading at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii for Sept. 13th, was 416 ppm. Preindustrial levels hovered around 280 ppm, and we passed what was considered a relatively safe level of 350 ppm around 1980. Our emissions continue to rise precipitously, just when they should be not just leveling off, but declining just as precipitously as they have been rising for the last 60 years. Despite all the legislation, despite all the technological innovations, despite all the scientific reports, despite the United Nations conferences of the parties, despite all the green living and good intentions, we are not succeeding in cutting our global greenhouse gas emissions. The atmospheric CO2 reading does not lie.

It’s time for all moral and capable citizens to do their part to push for commensurate action on our climate and ecological emergency – “commensurate” meaning “action matching the scale of the problem.”

Including me. I’ve had my forays into climate action, and I’ve talked about some of them on this podcast. For a while, I participated with a group, and we kept up a regular schedule of meetings and actions. From that place of engagement, I hoped to encourage other ordinary folks to give action a try.

Alas, it can be very challenging to find something meaningful to do. I talk to so many people now who confess deep concern about the climate plus a sincere desire to help, but almost everyone I know is at a complete loss about what to do. I used to think I had an answer, but apparently it wasn’t the answer people wanted to hear and the movement I was part of fizzled out. Now people hope I will have some suggestions for what to do because at least I’ve been trying to be active for a few years, I’ve done some stuff, and I produce this podcast. But I’m also at a loss.

The problem is no one trying to push for commensurate action on climate knows what to do. This should be obvious because we haven’t achieved commensurate action yet!

You may encounter the rare activist who has managed to stay committed and inspired for a long time – someone who believes in what they’re doing, and who continues to do it even though their successes are incremental, and road ahead is daunting. This is awesome, and we all need to follow their example if we’re going to prevent the complete breakdown of our planet’s life-support systems. However, the truth is that no activist, no organization, no politician, no movement has – yet – figured out what can magically overcome the tremendous inertia of business-as-usual.

So I don’t have a convenient list of things you and I can do, beyond what I’ve already offered on this podcast through things like sharing Margaret Klein Salamon’s “Facing the Climate Emergency.” I don’t even know what I’m going to do.

But after a hiatus of almost a year (with the exception of my trip to West Virginia to protest at Joe Manchin’s power plant), I feel the need to get active again. You might say this podcast is a kind of action, but really, it’s just talking about action. Valuable, perhaps, but not the same thing. It does not keep me engaged with other people. It doesn’t keep me plugged in to what’s happening in the climate movement – the kinds of things that don’t make it into mainstream media sources. The podcast doesn’t require me to step outside the door of my house and move my body in ways that put my actions in harmony with my convictions.

Hopefully, I will be able to maintain this podcast as well as get active again. Perhaps I can regale you with stories about what I try, who I talk to, what works, and what doesn’t.

In the meantime, I’m going to take the next month to reconnect with climate activists in my area and find a way to participate. I’ll return in October with a report, unless I feel inspired to update you sooner.

27 – Are We Powerless?

27 – Are We Powerless?

Are we, as individuals, powerless when it comes to preventing the breakdown of our earth’s natural life-support systems? When I talk to people about the climate and ecological crisis, many people confess feeling powerless beyond their personal consumer and lifestyle choices, which they are aware is not enough to save us. In this episode I explore what we often mean by “powerless” and how we might change the way we think about personal efficacy.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Our Cause for Alarm
A Feeling of Powerlessness in the Face of the Climate Crisis
Embracing Ordinary Power


Our Cause for Alarm

First, I want to acknowledge that, as I write this, parts of China are experiencing record-breaking heatwaves in the context of drought and low water levels, causing serious concerns about food production.[i] In the US, one of the main sources of water in the southwest, the Colorado River, is drying up after a 20-year drought. About 40 million people rely on water from the river but face new use restrictions, and next year there may not be enough water to produce hydropower from the river’s Glen Canyon dam, which forms Lake Powell.[ii] Five 1,000-year rain events have hit the US in the past five weeks, causing destruction and death.[iii] (Links to articles about these events can be found on this episode’s page at climateandyou.com.)

When I started paying close attention to the climate and ecological crisis about 7 years ago, I took special note of news articles that I could categorize as describing “dire circumstances.” I might encounter one a week. Now I can find at least one a day, describing a new storm, flood, drought, or heat wave, or a new situation where people are significantly impacted by global heating or ecosystem degradation. It could be, of course, that the news is simply reporting on such things more often, but I doubt it. News agencies love stories about weather and natural disasters.

Any one of these articles, taken in isolation, could be seen as a story of difficulty or tragedy no different from what our ancestors regularly experienced. Terrible things happen sometimes, and people recover. However, taken together, these articles add up to a serious cause for alarm. You know things have changed when the terms “unprecedented” and “record-breaking” and “1000-year event” apply to situations all over the planet, every day. The disaster of global heating is no longer on the horizon, it has arrived – but, we need to remember, this is just beginning, just the leading edge of the storm.

Anyone who pays attention to relatively unbiased news sources – or, frankly, anyone who is paying attention to changes in their own climate – is bound to be developing a growing awareness of our crisis. Once we learn a little about the situation, we become aware that even our recent landmark climate legislation in the US – a wonderful start which should be celebrated – falls far, far short of what’s needed to prevent catastrophe.


A Feeling of Powerlessness in the Face of the Climate Crisis

Naturally, most of us start wondering what we can do about it. We tend to start by learning how our consumer and lifestyle choices can be changed to minimize our contribution to the problem. If we get a chance to vote for a politician who advocates for climate action, great. But beyond that? Most of us feel pretty powerless.

But what do those of us who confess to feeling powerless really mean by that?

I can’t see inside of other people minds, of course, but I suspect that most of us mean that we can’t think of anything we could do, as individuals, to prevent our looming climate and ecological catastrophe. Or even to make a significant difference.

Now, if we reflect on it, we know it’s unreasonable to think we could, as individuals, prevent climate and ecological catastrophe. Maybe some of us who are really ambitious daydream about such things as starting a movement that mobilizes the world, or inspiring a new religion that focuses on a sustainable relationship with nature. But even those of us who have ambitious daydreams eventually come face to face with our limitations as individuals.

Sooner or later, we realize that the world-as-it-is has tremendous inertia. Even the most passionate, dedicated, inspired, talented, clever, self-sacrificing, and privileged individuals fighting for change – people much more motivated, selfless, and skilled than I am – usually spend their lives toiling away on some issue few people even pay attention to, and see only incremental improvement despite their best efforts.

Massive social and political changes like the one we need to survive global heating – which have happened over the course of human history – often have had remarkable individuals as figureheads, but those individuals simply ended up riding on top of a tidal wave of change. They may have helped start that wave, but it extended far beyond them, and they were only a small part of the whole story. Based on a review of history, it seems like the chances that any efforts we make will contribute to a tidal wave of change seem about the same as the chances we’ll win the lottery.


Embracing Ordinary Power

Once we embrace our ordinariness (or if you’re someone who has been aware of it all along, and eschew delusions of grandeur), what then? The word “power” means the ability to control or influence people and events, or to produce an effect.[iv] As an ordinary individual, we definitely don’t have the power to control the whole world’s response to the climate and ecological crisis. Heck, the American president is sometimes called the “most powerful person in the world,” and Biden just struggled mightily to pass a much-watered-down version of his climate legislation.

If no one is really in charge, then – that is, no individual has the power to impose sweeping, radical change – and the world-as-it-is presents tremendous inertia, are we all doomed to float passively down the stream of causation and just send the world thoughts and prayers? Do we just have to hope the politicians and corporations will suddenly do what they have failed to do over the last fifty years (the amount of time we’ve seen the climate crisis coming), because they have power and we don’t?

If we do have any power at all with respect to preventing complete climate and ecological breakdown, surely that makes us responsible for doing something to help. But what do we have the power to do?

I think we’re all aware that we can control or influence some things around us. We have some limited power. I’ve described the kinds of things we can do on this podcast, including participating with groups like The Climate Mobilization, Sunrise, or Extinction Rebellion, getting involved with local environmental and climate-related issues, and campaigning for candidates who strongly advocate climate action.

However, I suspect that one of the main things that keeps people from getting involved in the climate movement this way, or that makes it likely people will burn out quickly after they start, is a sense of limited efficacy. Any activity has a cost in terms of our time, energy, attention, emotional investment, and perhaps also financial investment. When we conclude our effort isn’t making much of a difference, or that it’s not having the effect we wanted it to have, it’s very easy to feel discouraged and give up.

I’m speaking from personal experience here. At times in the past, I have been very active in the climate movement. At one point I was working on it almost full time. Now, besides this podcast, I do nothing. I don’t think this is permanent state, I just haven’t decided what to get involved in again. But I am very familiar with the frustration, burnout, and despair that arise when you’re doing your best to exercise what little power you have to snuff out a candle while the planet is engulfed in a raging fire. It seems natural to ask, “What’s the point?” and just retreat into enjoying our lives and trying to ignore what’s going on.

When I’m trying to give myself a “take action” pep talk, I remind myself that massive change can come about if each of us does our little part. That there are billions of us, and billions of small contributions actually add up to an incredible effort. I remind myself that we can’t know the true impact of our actions – that a small thing may appear to go largely unnoticed by the world, but quietly set off a chain of events that make a huge difference. That gradually changing minds and hearts – including our own – is as important as any tangible success.

Still, it’s awfully hard to make the effort sometimes when it feels like our power is so extremely limited. I aspire to be more selfless in this regard: To make my contribution without requiring evidence that it’s worth it. To add my droplet to ocean without knowing if I will live to see it become part of a tidal wave of change. To patiently do something good because… well, because it’s good, without constantly asking whether we’re there yet. To exercise what little power I have, at the very least as an antidote to the anguish of feeling powerless.



[i] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2022/aug/24/china-heatwave-scorching-temperatures-and-severe-drought-in-pictures

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/04/opinion/drought-climate-colorado-river.html

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/08/23/flood-united-states-climate-explainer/

[iv] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power


20 – Liberation from the Trap of Green Consumerism

20 – Liberation from the Trap of Green Consumerism

The first place most of us start when comes to taking action on our climate and ecological emergency is green consumerism. Unfortunately, for many us, green consumerism ends up being a dead end. We think it’s all we can do, or all we need to do. This is exactly what the inactivists want us to think. We won’t escape climate catastrophe unless we demand systemic change – a future in which we all have better choices. Fortunately, there are three benefits from escaping the trap of green consumerism.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Being a Green Consumer Is a Start, but It Can Be a Dead End
Green Consumerism as the Ultimate Deflection Campaign
The Need for Systemic Change
Three Benefits of Escaping the Trap of Green Consumerism



Being a Green Consumer Is a Start, but It Can Be a Dead End

The first place most of us start when comes to taking action on our climate and ecological emergency is green consumerism. If we have the means, we aim to buy sustainable products with minimal packaging. We try to buy organic and local whenever possible or minimize our consumption of animal products. We recycle consciously, or drive an electric vehicle, or minimize our plane flights, or install solar panels on our house. We faithfully turn off lights when we leave the room, turn off the water when we’re brushing our teeth, and bring reusable grocery bags to the store.

Our green consumer actions are great. We shouldn’t stop doing them. When these kinds of actions catch on, corporations and businesses sometimes follow suit, changing what they offer and how they do things. Through green consumerism, we’re minimizing the environmental impact we have as individuals and families, which at the very least can be seen as an act of integrity. And, as many people are inclined to say, “If everyone ______, it would make a huge difference.”

The thing us, everyone is not going to make these green consumer choices, at least until doing so is every bit as easy, inexpensive, and attractive as the many choices we have that are decidedly not green. Green consumerism will remain an option only for the middle class or above until laws and regulations bring all consumer goods and services up to a minimal level of sustainability expectations. Not only that, even if everyone did become a model green consumer (an extremely unlikely scenario), it still wouldn’t reverse global heating and ecological collapse, and certainly not fast enough. As Michael Mann puts it in the book The New Climate War, although consumer choice can influence the market, it “doesn’t build high-speed railways, fund research and development in renewable energy, or place a piece on carbon emissions. Any real solution must involve both individual action and systemic change.”[i]

Unfortunately, for many us, green consumerism ends up being a dead end. We think it’s all we can do, or all we need to do. This is exactly what the inactivists want us to think (the “inactivists,” as Michael Mann calls them, being those opposed to action against global heating and ecological breakdown because they profit from things remaining as they are).


Green Consumerism as the Ultimate Deflection Campaign

For many decades, corporate and political interests seeking to prevent government regulation of their activities have waged clever deflection campaigns that shift the blame for negative consequences to the behavior of individuals. For example, the Keep America Beautiful organization was founded in 1953 by beverage companies who wanted to continue selling drinks in disposable containers because they made more money that way. The thing was, these containers were ending up as trash strewn across the landscape, so citizens sought to pass bottle bills which would require people to pay a deposit on their beverage containers and thus be motivated to return them instead of littering.

The beverage companies strongly opposed bottle bills because the added costs of the deposits were likely to decrease people’s purchases and therefore the company profits. Keep America Beautiful invested in PR like the classic “Crying Indian” ad, which showed a native American (not actually a native American, it turns out), who ponders a landscape covered in trash as a tear rolls down his cheek. The ad’s narrator says, “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.”[ii] In other words, it’s not the proliferation of disposable containers that’s the problem, it’s that some people are disrespectful slobs.

The climate version of the classic deflection campaign is the online “personal carbon footprint calculator,” promoted by British Petroleum (BP) in the mid 2000’s. I know I was eager to find out my own carbon footprint, and what I could do to reduce it. I was horrified to discover that despite having no children, living in an apartment, driving very little, being vegetarian and buying organic whenever I could, the calculator said it would require FOUR planet earth’s worth of resources for everyone to live like I did. I tweaked my numbers a bit to see where I could reduce or change things and make a difference, but I couldn’t see a path to consuming a single planet’s worth of resources unless I left my life behind and camped under a tree somewhere. I definitely got the message that the crisis we were in was the fault of greedy, self-indulgent people like me. Thinking like this can either be so discouraging we give up trying to make changes, or we can get so obsessed with making the right consumer choices we have little attention or energy left for demanding systemic change. If you feel at all like this, I recommend reading the article, Worrying About Your Carbon Footprint Is Exactly What Big Oil Wants You to Do by Auden Schendler.

Green consumerism is a positive, necessary thing. At the very least it’s getting us used to the ways we need to live in a sustainable world. But ideally it doesn’t become a dead end, and ideally we don’t walk around convinced that our personal choices are to blame for our climate and ecological crisis. Just 100 companies have been the source of over 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.[iii] The major culprits are fossil fuel companies who seek to maximize profits for their shareholders and keep us dependent on oil, coal, and gas. If you had the option of fueling your car with clean energy and it was no more expensive or inconvenient than gas, wouldn’t you choose the clean energy?


The Need for Systemic Change

We make the best choices we can, but we also need systemic change, so everyone has the option of making better choices.[iv] For example, I would prefer not to fly because of its impact on climate. However, I live about 1,700 miles from my parents, sister, and extended family. It is important for our relationship that I see them once or twice a year. Sometimes I opt to take the Amtrak – the train – instead of the 3.5-hour airplane flight, but the trip is 37 hours long and involves two full nights on the train (sitting upright in a chair). In the age of COVID that is 10 times the amount of close-quarters exposure as a plane flight and requires me to take an additional 3-4 days off work in order to accommodate the trip. It is a huge inconvenience and considerable sacrifice to take the train instead of flying in the US, and I’m extremely unlikely to change that by being a faithful Amtrak customer. By comparison, if the US invested in high-speed rail comparable to the newer Japanese shinkansen lines, a train trip to visit my family could take less than ten hours.[v]

What makes green consumerism a trap is when we fail to think beyond it – to the ways our system limits and constrains the choices we have, and the ways it makes almost all of us complicit in the destruction of life on our planet no matter what we choose to buy or how we choose to live as individuals. Nothing could make the inactivists happier – they can keep us satisfied by tossing us little bones in the form of credit cards that cause a tree to be planted each time you use them, or more sustainable packaging around all the stuff we buy, or the chance to buy an electric version of our SUV. None of this stuff is bad, of course, but it is far, far from enough. The company Amazon has pledged to reach net-zero carbon operation by 2040,[vi] but the entire planet needs to be halfway there by 2030. In the meantime, other companies continue to tap new sources of fossil fuels[vii] and the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are the highest they have been in human history.[viii]

We have influence as consumers, of course, but it is sad and dangerous if that’s the only way we can think of ourselves. We are also citizens – citizens who should vote, but also citizens who can and should engage our democratic process fully – by campaigning for candidates and good legislation, registering voters, serving as poll-watchers, showing up to the offices of our elected officials to hold them accountable, or even running for office ourselves. As citizens, it’s also important for us to do whatever we can to fight for real democracy, because ordinary people are going to demand climate action long before the corporations and moneyed classes are inclined to compromise their profits. Also, to whatever extent democracy is still operating, we are our government, and our government is us. It’s meant to serve our interests – to protect us, to maintain our systems and our common resources. When it’s failing us, it’s no one’s fault but our own if we don’t demand change through whatever peaceful means are available to us.


Three Benefits of Escaping the Trap of Green Consumerism

There are three important benefits from escaping the trap of green consumerism. First, once we recognize our obsession with it distracts us from demanding systemic change, we start looking around for other things we can do. Second, it relieves us some of the pervasive guilt around our inability – or unwillingness – to make every sacrifice that would be required to live a completely pure lifestyle in terms of the climate and ecological emergency, at least for those of us living relatively comfortably in industrialized nations. This isn’t to say, of course, that we shouldn’t still try to make good choices, but it helps to recognize the system is rigged against us. It’s now so extreme that it would take so much time, energy, and resources to live a completely pure life (if it’s even possible), that you would have nothing left to devote to demanding systemic change. Again, just the way the inactivists like it.

The third important benefit of escaping the trap of green consumerism is that it makes it much easier to achieve solidarity within the climate movement, and to broaden that movement to include a much larger and more diverse group of people – something that’s going to be absolutely essential if we’re going to succeed. I wholeheartedly agree with an article I read three years ago, which has stuck with me ever since. It’s in Vox, written by Mary Annaise Heglar, is titled “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle.” The subtitle says: “Stop obsessing over your environmental ‘sins.’ Fight the oil and gas industry instead.” Heglar writes further:

The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous. It turns environmentalism into an individual choice defined as sin or virtue, convicting those who don’t or can’t uphold these ethics. When you consider that the same IPCC report [mentioned earlier] outlined that the vast majority of global greenhouse gas emissions come from just a handful of corporations — aided and abetted by the world’s most powerful governments, including the US — it’s victim blaming, plain and simple.

I suspect many of us avoid so-called “activist” spaces in part because we don’t want to be judged or pressured about our personal lifestyle choices. This concern is not unfounded. It’s not at all uncommon for folks in environmental circles to raise their eyebrows if you eat meat, drive a car, take a lot of plane flights, order things from Amazon, or buy your clothes from Target. Such folks would probably choke if you let on that, God forbid, you had six kids, drove a Hummer, or owned guns. Frankly, questions of personal lifestyle choice are frequently toxic to human relationships and to social movements, unless maybe a particular issue of choice is your single focus (and then your group is likely to alienate everyone outside it). There is really no limit to the number of parameters on which your choices can be judged ethically suspect.

Many groups taking action on the climate and ecological emergency are doing their best to focus on working together for systemic change. This means de-emphasizing personal consumer and lifestyle choices, although of course most of us are well aware of all the stuff we “should” do. People are people, though, so you very well may encounter judgement and pressure about your personal choices from certain individuals, or within certain activist cultures. If you encounter this, I encourage you to state confidently and clearly, “I do my best to make wise choices in my personal life, and I appreciate those choices being respected as my own business. In the meantime, I want to focus on bringing about systemic change because that is the only thing that’s going to save us.”



[i] Mann, Michael. The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back the Planet. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2021, page 61.

[ii] https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-indian-crying-environment-ads-pollution-1123-20171113-story.html

[iii] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change

[iv] https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/28/18629833/climate-change-2019-green-new-deal

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen

[vi] https://www.aboutamazon.com/planet/sustainable-operations

[vii] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/15/climate/biden-drilling-oil-leases.html

[viii] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/03/climate/carbon-dioxide-record.html


Picture Credit

Image by SatyaPrem from Pixabay

17 – The Best Climate Action: Get Together with Friends!

17 – The Best Climate Action: Get Together with Friends!

What’s the most effective thing you can do for our climate and ecological crisis? You might be surprised at my answer: Get together with friends! A group of 3-12 like-minded folks (friends, neighbors, people with common affiliations or interests) can form an affinity group and support one another in facing and responding to our climate emergency.



One of the questions I hear most often with regard to our climate and ecological emergency is, “What can I do?” This question is often asked with skepticism, coming from a place of resignation or despair after people conclude there’s actually nothing meaningful they can do.

You might be surprised at my answer. You might figure I’m going to insist you go vegan or stop flying on airplanes or participate in civil disobedience or campaign for legislation.

My heartfelt and enthusiastic recommendation for the best thing you can do for the climate and ecological crisis is this: Get together with friends! Connect with friends, family, or other like-minded people with whom you have something in common. It will help you Stay Strong and find the best way for you to Take Action. It can even be fun! In this episode I take you step by step through my recommendations for how YOU can best to help prevent the complete breakdown of earth’s natural life support systems.

In summary, my recommendation is that you start – or join – what I’m calling a Climate Action Now affinity group. You can call it whatever you like, or use all or only a few of my suggestions. The most important thing is that you connect with a small group of people with whom you already have an affinity, and with whom you share a desire to find a meaningful way to respond to our climate and ecological emergency.

If you’re already a climate activist you may or may not find this episode helpful, but even if you have found community through a larger group, organization, or movement, you may still find a small affinity group would help ground and support your efforts.

One note before I begin: You may wonder why, when I’m suggesting the very best way to help preserve life on earth, I’m not talking about your consumer and lifestyle choices. I’m not talking about recycling, reusing grocery bags, eating organic foods, installing solar panels or energy-efficient light bulbs, driving electric cars, divesting from fossil fuels, or even voting your conscience. All of those personal choices are very important, of course, and if everyone did them it would make a big difference. However, they would not make enough of a difference. (Click here to read a great article about this.) We need massive systemic change to avert climate and ecological catastrophe, if only so we have access to better options in our lives. Making green or just consumer choices and voting in elections has not been enough, but those deeply invested in business-as-usual would really like you to think those are the only things you have the power to do. I will release episodes about this issue in the near future, but for now suffice it to say that when I talk about climate action, I’m talking about efforts to bring about systemic change.


15 – The Self-Immolation of Wynn Bruce and the Question of Personal Sacrifice

15 – The Self-Immolation of Wynn Bruce and the Question of Personal Sacrifice

How much should we personally sacrifice in order to fight the complete breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems? This is a very difficult question. I reflect on it as I discuss the self-immolation of Wynn Bruce, climate activist and Buddhist, on Earth Day 2022 in Washington DC outside the Supreme Court. What would make someone do such a thing? Is there a way we can hear Bruce’s message without condoning his method?



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Reflections on Wynn Bruce’s Earth Day Action
Making the Ultimate Sacrifice for Life on Earth
The Question of Personal Sacrifice for the Greater Good


Reflections on Wynn Bruce’s Earth Day Action

On Earth Day, April 22nd 2022, a 50-year-old Buddhist named Wynn Bruce sat down and set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court. He died the next day from his injuries. Although Bruce did not leave a letter explaining his actions, he was a climate activist and regular participant at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Boulder, Colorado.[i]

The teachers at the retreat center released a public statement, which can be found on their website:

“Wynn was a frequent volunteer, and participant at retreats at the center. Many of us knew and loved him. We are grieving the death of our friend and preparing a memorial page to honor him.

“We want to be clear that none of us knew about his plans to self-immolate on Earth Day. If we had known, or even had a hint, we would have stopped him in any way possible. That would be our spiritual, moral and legal imperative. Just like everyone else, we are shocked and saddened, and have been trying to process and understand what happened.

“Buddhists take a vow to protect all life and reduce all suffering. We are committed to creative and strategic movement building at the interface of racial healing, justice and climate action. We also lead grief circles so that people can share and work through their trauma in the presence of a loving community. We have never talked about self-immolation, and we do not think it is a skillful protest. Nevertheless, given the dire state of the planet and worsening climate crisis, we can try to understand why someone might do that. While there has been self-immolation in Buddhist history to highlight atrocities committed against Tibetan and Vietnamese people, that is not something that we would ever encourage. We hope we can hear Wynn’s message without condoning his method.”[ii]

Naturally, an action like this is controversial. Within any given group of people, including Buddhists, there are going to be a few who admire Wynn’s action as the ultimate sacrifice and believe that this kind of action, while terribly unfortunate, may be necessary to wake people up to the severity of our crisis. There will be others who are willing to admit Wynn might have had some generous motivation and there might even be some benefit from his action, but that anyone who would self-immolate is also suffering from mental illness. In other words, they probably would have committed suicide anyway, and the climate and ecological crisis just happened to be the problem they fixated on. Others will think killing yourself under any circumstances whatsoever is immoral, negative, and harmful, and that Wynn was pathological, selfish, or both.

I don’t want to debate the merits of these different views. I don’t expect to change any minds, and, generally speaking, opinions on this issue are very charged emotionally.

What I want us to consider, though, is our cultural tendency to blame the individual instead of asking ourselves what is wrong with a society that would lead an individual to do something as radical as self-immolation. A growing number of people in the world are suffering acutely from grief, anxiety, depression, and despair about our climate and ecological crisis and the ways it is impacting their lives or is likely to impact them in the future. When these people seek support and help, they are usually diagnosed with various kinds of mental illness and offered counseling, mindfulness techniques, and medication to manage their “symptoms.” This is easier, of course, than contemplating what we can do about the climate and ecological emergency and sick aspects of our society which have caused it.

If you look at the world as one organism, if you look at human beings as interdependent with nature, then wouldn’t you expect human beings to be showing signs of what we call “mental illness” when so much of the earth is dying? Discussions about the new phenomena of “climate grief” or “climate anxiety” are usually framed as an unfortunate mental health issue that should be addressed with better messaging around the climate issue, or by encouraging people to be more optimistic. But when someone is living surrounded by pollution and they develop a physical illness from it, do we limit our response to treating the person’s symptoms and encouraging them to be strong and optimistic even though they remain surrounded by poison? Oh wait, in most cases that’s exactly what we do.

We can never know what was in Bruce’s mind before his self-immolation, but the questions of motive, and the relationship between the individual and the rest of society, is not at all simple to answer.


Making the Ultimate Sacrifice for Life on Earth

Each of us is very different and, fortunately, only a tiny handful of people in the world will ever consider suicide in order to call attention to a cause. Most of us agree that human life is precious and sacred. We agree that suicide is tragic, and we should do everything we can to encourage anyone contemplating it to make the choice to remain alive. This is why mentions of suicide in the media generally include a referral to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: You can call 1-800-273-8255 for 24/7, free and confidential support. If you are feeling suicidal about anything, including the climate and ecological crisis, please seek support. If general suicide counseling doesn’t acknowledge the validity of your response to our climate and ecological emergency, reach out to the Good Grief Network.

All of that said, the thought of sacrificing your life in order to call attention to a cause is not as unusual or crazy as you might think. On New Year’s Eve 2014, while reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, I had what activists tend to call my “climate awakening.” Years of information, statistics, predictions, and personal observations finally broke through my natural human defensiveness like a wave, and the reality of the climate and ecological emergency came crashing down on me.

As psychology experiments have repeatedly proven, our willingness to believe something is an emergency depends largely on how other people are reacting to it. Subjects will sit in a room that becomes permeated with smoke and not say a thing because no one else is reacting.[iii] Before a climate awakening, we’re one of the silent people in that smoke-filled room. When we wake up to what’s going on, we’re suddenly out of sync with almost everyone else. In our alarm, we seem crazy, as I discussed in Episode 13 – Is a “Crazy” Response an Appropriate Response to Climate Insanity? Typically, after waking up to our emergency, we either shut up and suffer our fear and grief in silence, or we accept that being perceived as an annoying and obsessive weirdo is the price we’re willing to pay to try and get other people to act.

On that New Year’s Eve 2014, when I finally was able to grasp the fact that the course humanity was on was leading to the extinction of life on earth in relatively short order, my body and mind were tense with alarm – just as they would have been if I’d found out a tornado or an invading army were on its way. I remember thinking, “Why the f*** isn’t anyone doing anything?! How could this be happening? If people knew what we were facing, everything would change. Now.

Just as I would have if a tornado or an invading army where on its way, I frantically tried to think of what I could do to help avert this disaster. “Should I go to the nation’s capital and set myself on fire?” I wondered. Surely such an extreme, sacrificial act would wake people up to the severity of our emergency! It didn’t even seem much like a sacrifice, given we were all living on borrowed time anyway. There was precedent for self-immolation as protest, after all. In the sixties, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to Martin Luther King Jr. about the Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc, who self-immolated to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Nhat Hanh said, “To burn oneself by fire is to prove what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination and sincerity.”[iv]

You will be happy to know I quickly set the idea of self-immolation aside. However, I didn’t set it aside because I thought it was wrong, I set it aside because I was unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice unless I could be sure it was worth it – that it would make a substantial difference, that it would turn things around. I wouldn’t even need the payoff to be complete utopia; I would seriously consider giving my life even if the only thing I could guarantee was the long-term survival of the monarch butterfly populations whose migrations are such a wonder of nature. However, I love and appreciate my life and hope it will last a long, long time. I’m not willing to sacrifice it unless I have a guarantee it will result in a tangible and significant benefit – and that’s not the way life works.

There are no guarantees about the outcomes of your actions. In the past, certain acts of self-immolation are widely acknowledge as having had a powerful effect in bringing about change, including those by Vietnamese monks who were protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, and those of two Americans who self-immolated in separate incidents in 1965 to protest the Vietnam war. On the other hand, 150 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009 to protest Chinese occupation, and there is no sign that China’s approach to the country is going to change. In 2018 David Buckel walked from his home in Brooklyn, New York, to a nearby park, and self-immolated to protest the continued use of fossil fuels.[v] His act barely made the news. In the media sources where it was discussed, it was usually framed, as these things often are, as a result of depression or feeling “despondent.”[vi] Few people seem to consider the possibility that self-immolation might be a sign of hope rather than despair: Maybe, just maybe, the act is performed in the hope that it will wake people up to injustice and motivate them to act, and is therefore based in a hope that change is, indeed, possible.


The Question of Personal Sacrifice for the Greater Good

For the vast majority of us, the question is very unlikely to arise whether to literally sacrifice our lives to bring about commensurate – that is, proportionate or adequate – action on the climate and ecological emergency. Still, we all face the question of how much of our personal comfort, pleasure, and security to sacrifice for the greater good. We know that the climate and ecological crisis is already here, that there are already millions of people living in hellscapes because of global heating,[vii] and that the problem is only going to get worse unless humanity radically changes it ways. We know that no one will be able to escape the consequences, including our children and grandchildren.

And yet… as long as we are still able to enjoy some measure of peace and prosperity, why should we not take full advantage of it? Life is so short. After we nurture our human relationships, look after our health, take care of our responsibilities, enrich our minds by reading and learning new things, connect with nature, engage in spiritual practice, give back to our community, and express joy through art, music, or creativity, there isn’t much time or energy left for “activism.” When most of us look at our lives, there is little or nothing we are willing to sacrifice in order to make more space for actively participating in the effort to save earth’s natural life-support systems. We’re happy to do things like opt for organic over factory farmed food if we can afford it, but we hope other people will step up to the task of preventing human extinction.

It’s a fallacy to think that so-called “activists” are engaging in activism because they enjoy it. I think sometimes the dominant view in popular culture is that activism – meaning actively participating in the effort to bring about positive change – is like a hobby. Something you do because you feel an affinity for it, and because you get something out of doing it. Sure, there are certainly people who, at times, become ego-identified with being an activist, and there are sometimes rewards for being active with others. But the vast majority of the activists I know would love nothing better than to become completely obsolete. For the world to no longer need them. So they could go happily about their lives, taking full advantage of whatever peace and prosperity came their way.

I would absolutely prefer to leave behind every aspect of activism and simply focus on being a Zen priest. There is more than enough there to fully occupy and challenge me for many lifetimes. Sadly, I live in a time when I am morally compelled to do more. After all, part of my Zen center’s formal and stated mission is “supporting a vital and sustainable Zen center that will be here for future generations.”

I’m determined to do my part in preventing the complete breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems, at least in part to help my Zen center fulfill its mission. Even so, like anyone I wrestle with the question of how much to sacrifice of my personal life. How much time, energy, attention, emotional investment, and resources should I divert from my personal life to working on climate? I still need to take care of my Zen center, meditate, exercise, rest, and maintain relationships. I am also nourished by spending time with my dogs, playing music, gardening, and watching crime dramas with my husband. During periods when I have worked on climate full time, many other areas of my life have suffered. What’s the right balance? But does it really make sense to be so concerned about the right balance in my life right now given the horrors we are facing in the coming decades? It’s a little like firefighter stopping to do some yoga while a house burns down.

I believe that everyone one of us who could conceivably spend eight hours a week on fighting climate and ecological breakdown did so, our planet would be well on its way to healing. Many hands make light work. But if you started devoting eight hours a week, most people would still be doing nothing. You could devote yourself full time and you would only be more aware of how difficult the task in front of us is.

It really comes down to whether we are willing to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good even though the people around us aren’t doing so. When we have to do their share of the work as well as our own. When the time has not yet come when the climate and ecological crisis negatively impacts everyone’s personal life in such a way that they join the fight. When there is no guarantee our sacrifice will pay off in a way that makes it objectively worth it, or that anyone will even notice it. When sacrificing some of our ease and enjoyment for participating in climate action seems rather silly, given how nice everything still is, for the most part. For us.

Still, if we don’t make the sacrifice, who will? If no one acted, if no one insisted, if no one protested, our governments would not act on climate until it is too late. If our effort helps bring action one day sooner, if it helps prevent the loss of one living thing, isn’t it worth it?

We don’t have to literally give our lives in this struggle, at least not yet. But what are we willing to give? What are we really capable of giving? And are we hoping others will make the necessary sacrifices, so we don’t have to?



[i] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/wynn-bruce-self-immolate-climate-activist_n_6268846ae4b07c34e9e770c1

[ii] https://rmerc.org/in-memoriam-wynn-bruce-1968-earth-day-2022/

[iii] See also: http://www.weirduniverse.net/blog/comments/the_smoke_filled_room/

[iv] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/wynn-bruce-self-immolate-climate-activist_n_6268846ae4b07c34e9e770c1

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Buckel

[vi] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/28/nyregion/david-buckel-fire-prospect-park-fossil-fuels.html

[vii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/02/pakistan-india-heatwaves-water-electricity-shortages


12 – The Coal Baron Blockade: My Story of Participating in a Nonviolent Direct Action

12 – The Coal Baron Blockade: My Story of Participating in a Nonviolent Direct Action


This episode takes you on a journey with me as I travel to the Coal Baron action, prep for it, participate in it, get arrested doing it, face the aftermath, and then reflect on the experience.

If you haven’t already listened to my last episode, Episode 11 – My Upcoming Climate Action: Doesn’t Civil Disobedience Just Piss People Off?, I recommend doing so before you listen to this one, because episode 11 gives you the background of the Coal Baron Blockade (#manchinblockade) and discusses the intentions of nonviolent civil disobedience.

I had hoped to share action updates with you over the course of last weekend but it turned out I was much too busy. However, I did share live updates on the Climate and You Facebook page, which I invite you to check out. You can also visit this episode’s page on the website for photos and links if you’d like to get more of a sense of the action.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Friday, April 7th (2022) – Headed to the Coal Baron Blockade
Friday, April 8th – Preparation for Nonviolent Direct Action
Saturday, April 9th – The Coal Baron Blockade
Saturday, April 9th – Arrest and Detention for Nonviolent Direct Action
Sunday, April 20th – Rev. Barber’s Palm Sunday Service in front of the Grant Town Power Plant


Friday, April 7th (2022) – Headed to the Coal Baron Blockade

I sit at the Portland, Oregon airport, waiting for a red-eye flight to Washington DC and then on to Morgantown West Virginia. I spent the week busily arranging for the care, during my absence, of all the living creatures who are part of my life. In addition, of course, there was all the work that’s required to set aside one’s ordinary work for many days in a row. This is why I rarely leave town!

I have no idea what to expect from this action and the people planning it. I’ve never met any of them. When I arrive where all the activists are assembling, I imagine it will be socially awkward. I imagine listening and watching and feeling rather lonely, all the while alert for signs that these people are crazy or inept. Based on what I’ve heard from them up until now, so far so good (or I wouldn’t be going). But you still never really know until you’re there in person.

Having been arrested in one nonviolent direct action before, that part of this event doesn’t much bother me. More stressful is wondering what kind of reception we’ll get from the local West Virginians. A few days ago, I heard through the grapevine that there was a meeting in the area – an open town council meeting, or something like that – and some locals mentioned the possibility of running activists down if they block the road, or bringing guns to the action. This was all fourth-hand info, but still, scary stuff. Definitely enough to make plenty of people change their minds about participating – which, I suppose, was exactly the point.

I feel immense sympathy with the people in the area we’re going – people in the towns of Grant Town, Fairmont, and surrounding areas and towns. One of my grandfathers worked in the iron mines in northern Minnesota, as did many other relatives. The community flourished for a brief period, but when the mines were exhausted the surrounding towns slowly and painfully shrank and started to die. Most young people, like my parents, moved way to the cities, and those who stayed usually struggled with poverty and relied on government assistance. It was as if family, history, community, culture, and place didn’t matter at all.

Even if the people in West Virginia feel ambivalent about the continued burning of coal, I can’t imagine them loving the idea of a bunch of strangers descending on their town to cause a ruckus and demand change. I wouldn’t if I were them. I’d probably look at people coming from out of state for a protest in Oregon with a skeptical eye, figuring they must have so little real work to do, they can spend their time and money on self-righteous campaigns.

Anticipating an icy reception or downright hostility, I have to keep reminding myself of the reason we’re doing this action. We must disrupt business as usual. Our planet is burning and yet we go about our lives as if nothing is happening. Strangely, although there’s definitely something stressful about causing disruption with nonviolent civil disobedience, if the action is designed well, at the moment of confrontation it’s possible to feel utterly at peace. For that brief moment, every aspect of your activity is unambiguously and completely in accord with what you know to be true and what you believe to be right. This is such an incredibly rare occurrence in modern life.

I was fortunate to experience this once, in the fall of 2019, when I was one of 20 people who staged a sit-in at the Oregon governor’s office. We were demanding that she come out publicly against a proposed liquified natural gas terminal in southern Oregon. The non-US corporation was planning to ship the gas, piped down from Canada, overseas. Of course, they argued that their terminal would be a wonderful economic boon to the nearest town. However, an LNG terminal is also an incredibly dangerous thing, and the pipeline could only be built by taking or infringing on private and indigenous lands through eminent domain – against the wishes of the landowners and residents.

It was wonderfully empowering to be part of an action comprised of such a diverse group – native Americans, ranchers, local environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, and those concerned about the safety of their community. As I was being led down the majestic steps of the Oregon state capital in handcuffs, for perhaps the first time in my life my conscience felt completely clear. Instead of participating willingly or silently in a destructive system, for that moment I was acting exactly the way I thought I should. I was utterly free of cognitive dissonance – the mental and emotional stress human beings experience when our actions are contrary to what we believe to be true or right.

In our infinitely complex, interdependent, destructive society, anyone who participates in society – or neglects to make any effort to change it – inevitably suffers from a constant, pervasive, corrosive sense of cognitive dissonance, even if it’s not something they acknowledge to themselves or others. A moment free from cognitive dissonance is an amazing sensation – like experiencing true freedom, or the absence of chronic pain.

I can only hope that circumstances will align such that I can feel that temporary but deeply inspiring relief from cognitive dissonance again on Saturday, because it will mean the action is well-planned and carried out with dignity and grace.

Fairmont West Virginia

Friday, April 8th – Preparation for Nonviolent Direct Action

After my night of travel, I settled into my hotel in Fairmont, West Virginia. The Red Roof Inn is a Motel 6-style place with absolutely no frills but clean and comfortable. After landing in Morgantown, I got my rental car; it was less than a half hour drive to Fairmont, where I had a nice lunch at the Dutchman’s Daughter Restaurant. The restaurant was perched on a hill (as are most things in this area of West Virginia are, apparently) and had a view of a valley. The room was brightly festive with large bouquets of silk daffodils on the tables.

I fantasized about sincerely asking the waitress if she knew about tomorrow’s protest at the Grant Town power plant. I imagined listening closely to her answer – and giving her a little information about the protest if she didn’t already know about it. (I had realized by this point that Fairmont and surrounding communities is much larger than I imagined, and that the vast majority residents probably knew nothing about the protest and wouldn’t think much about it if they did.) I didn’t strike up a conversation with my waitress, though, in part because I ended up in an intimate dining room surrounded by other diners; I could overhear every word of their conversations if I cared to, and I didn’t want to put the waitress in an awkward position or cause a scene. I imagined being a journalist with the guts to push boundaries and take such risks and felt a little ashamed about remaining silent.

I got a 90-minute nap before leaving for the action camp and arrived around 6:30pm. This was a rustic setting way out in the countryside. There were probably about 100-125 people there, maybe more, and most were staying in cabin bunk rooms on site. Most people had come in pairs or groups, so they had established social connections. Everyone was friendly when approached, and they had a welcome table and all the action leaders were friendly, but – as I expected – it was a little lonely to have come alone. Which is why people don’t do it unless they’re as stubbornly independent and determined as I am.

The email communications prior to my arrival had said things would more or less start at 7, so I figured I wouldn’t have missed anything, but that really wasn’t the case. People had been working on this action for weeks (probably months), and many people had arrived the day before. There were workshops finishing up and delays in serving and finishing dinner, so it was 8pm before basic introductions were made and participation guidelines were set. The guidelines included requests compiled by 30-or-so activists who were part of marginalized groups facing greater risk during these kinds of actions (people of color and transgender people, primarily). It was after 9 before we got down to action planning, and the first thing I had to do was attend a short briefing on the action for those just arriving. This was, of course, very necessary and elucidating, but what was called the “red team” – the team of people willing to take roles with the highest risk of arrest – was, at the same time, meeting on the other side of the room and making plans.

I was worried I was going to miss out on the red team planning and end up having flown all the way across the country in order to hold a banner. However, as I say that I need to point out there are a huge number of roles in an action this size that are absolutely essential but don’t involve taking an action you know you’re likely to get arrested for: Cooks, drivers, medics, marshalls, de-escalators, legal observers, police liaisons, chant leaders, social media posters, you name it! So, my desire to be on the red team should be taken as a reflection of my personal proclivities, not as a comment on the relative worthiness of different action roles. I also gravitated toward the red team because there are usually many more folks able and willing to take on support roles than there are people able and willing to engage in what I like to call the “spicy” activities and deal with their consequences. As someone who is able and willing to do the spicy stuff, it’s probably the best use of me.

The evening got later and later as teams with specific roles huddled here and there in camp common spaces to hatch plans. I finally got myself over to the woman coordinating the red team and stated my desire to participate. There were already, technically, “enough” people doing this part of the action, but at some point I said, “Hey, there can’t be too many people doing this, can there?” And that was that. I was on the red team and would meet with them to get the scoop the next morning. I headed back to my hotel room, where I stayed up late posting updates and getting excited.


Saturday, April 9th – The Coal Baron Blockade

I would love to tell you everything about April 9th, 2022, but I have to be careful not to say too much about the details of the action planning or the action itself. Even though nonviolent civil disobedience is peaceful and nondestructive, it is centered around disruptive activities that are technically pushing or breaking the boundaries of legality. Therefore, the authorities would love to know as much as possible about groups, how they operate, who is involved, and what methods they use – in order to stop, harass, or punish them. Basically, much that surrounds an NVCD action is “need to know” – if you get involved and committed, you’ll find out more, but only as much as you need to know. This protects everyone, because no individual could accidentally or intentionally spill the all the beans, and you can’t be coerced into sharing what you don’t know.

That said, caution about describing this kind of activism also means it remains, in many people’s minds, a remarkable and inexplicable thing radicals suddenly show up and do. I don’t think is helpful when we’re hoping to grow mass participation. So, I’ll share as much as I can.

I arrived at camp by 8am. The morning was cold, around 34 degrees F, and the overall atmosphere was made quite dramatic with alternating snow flurries, rain, hail, and sunshine. I enjoyed the generous breakfast being served buffet-style in the dining room. I remained blissfully ignorant about where the food came from, who prepared it, and how it was paid for. However, I was impressed with the organization and noted that it costs a significant amount of money to put on large, all-invited actions like this.

At 9am sharp everyone was called together for some last-minute announcements and reminders. At 9:30 we broke into our “affinity groups” (the name for the small, semi-autonomous teams which take responsibility for different parts of an action). Outside in the cold, under a picnic pavilion, I finally met my fellow red team members and heard about what they had decided on so far. The gist of it was that we were all going to lock ourselves to one another – forming a human chain – and sit right in front of the power plant gate. We would lock ourselves to one another by sticking our arms into PVC pipes that have a bolt in the middle. We wear chains around our wrists, reach into the tube, and lock ourselves to the bolt. Another person reaches in the other side of the tube and does likewise. Voila! Add a bunch of people together and everyone becomes more difficult to detain and sweep quickly out of sight.

Each of us who was planning to “lock down” was assigned a direct support person who would look out for us and make sure we got in place and were taken care of. These direct support people were also, of course, risking arrest, but the idea was that, at some point, the cops might insist everyone leave, and anyone who wasn’t locked down would most likely take that option. Note that in an NVCD action, anyone taking a spicy role can opt out at any time without shame; great pains are taken to communicate this, so no one ends up feeling pressured, or getting unnecessarily traumatized if they find the situation is more than they can handle. Of course, you don’t get to opt out once the cops have you.

Our morning preparations were rushed and just good enough, but I was impressed by the hard work, resilience, and organization of the core action planners – those who had been working on this plan for weeks. I like things to be extremely well-organized, but it’s the nature of these actions that in the end a lot of it ends up being by the seat of your pants and a skillful management of chaos. It actually takes a huge amount of planning ahead of time to provide enough structure to effectively channel the turbulent energy of the last minute, so I could tell this action – including outreach, trainings, action camp, the rules for participating we had all agreed to, affinity groups, action logistics, artwork – had been meticulously planned. Even if it didn’t feel so much like that as we crammed as much prep into the last hour as we could.

One important piece of the morning was the legal briefing. This is another incredibly important part of a big action – an active legal team connected to lawyers who are willing to defend any activists who end up being charged with something, pro bono. We were reminded of how best to conduct ourselves during the action: There are specific people assigned as “police liaisons.” They do not participate in the action themselves but assure law enforcement of the activists’ intentions to remain nonviolent and nondestructive; it usually helps the cops feel more at ease to have an identifiable person to deal speak to who represents the activists. If questioned by cops, we refer them to police liaison. Cops are trained to ask you questions until you give up information you shouldn’t, self-incriminate, or incriminate others. They are trained to divide and conquer and are allowed to lie to you. We have the right to remain silent and can’t legally be penalized for doing so, so it’s always the best policy until you talk to a lawyer.

In addition to reminders about relating to law enforcement, we were given instructions about what to do if arrested. No one can give any guarantees about what will happen – where you’ll be taken, how long you’ll be held, what you’ll be charged with, etc. – but you’re told a range of possibilities and what seems most likely. This briefing is given to everyone participating, regardless of the level of risk they intend to take (described as red – as in the red team – yellow, or green) because it is not unheard of for police to gather up and arrest everyone in a particular area, or randomly grab people out of the crowd to detain. Note that our legal briefing was not given by a lawyer; as I understand it, lawyers are not allowed to give you advice about the outcome of an illegal activity you are planning to do – they only come in afterwards.

The final part before the action was the daunting task of getting over a hundred people to the action site, which was about 35 minutes away. All these people had to show up around the same time – if people started to trickle in over a long period, the cops would get riled up before anything could actually happen. Parking at the site was severely limited – maybe a dozen cars. Therefore, the action included a whole team of people whose main role was to function as drivers, ferrying people to and from the action site even if that meant their own participation at the site was limited. I really gained respect for the drivers over the course of the day.

Eight of us from the red team crammed into a steamy minivan for the trip. As we got close to the site, I started to get a fluttery tummy from – what should I call it? Nothing as extreme as anxiety, but stronger than stress… in any case, a rush of adrenalin from the anticipation of what the first 5-10 minutes of the action was going to look like. Would there be hordes of cop cars already parked right where we intended to do the action? They knew we were coming. The date of the action and its intended goal had been advertised publicly for over a week. Would the yellow and green risk people be able to take up space and distract the cops while the red team nonchalantly walked up to the gate and started locking down? The first few minutes of this kind of action are critical.

In front of the Grant Town power plant

As it was, amazingly, the action site was not covered in cop cars. We pulled up, jumped out of the car, and went quickly up to the Grant Town power plant gate to get in place. Others hung a beautifully painted banner on the gate: “Manchin: Stop Burning WV’s Future for Profit.” After a couple minutes, we managed to get ourselves locked to one another in a human chain, just as a convoy of trucks came down the power plant driveway. A security guard told us to get off the driveway or we would be arrested for trespassing. Note that we were sitting outside the locked power plant gate, on a driveway a mere 20-30 feet or so from a public road. This also was not the only entrance to the plant; there was no traffic around waiting to get in or out.

Law enforcement response to the action

Shortly after we sat down, though – it was five minutes at the most from the security guard’s warning, probably two – about a dozen cop cars descended on the site, composed of West Virginia state troopers, law enforcement from nearby towns, and county sheriff deputies. Obviously, it was a high priority to shut this thing down as soon as possible; the cops must have been lined up waiting around the corner.

Yours truly (Domyo) locked down in front of the power plant gate

Cops came up the driveway and demanded everyone leave or they would be arrested. They grabbed and arrested several of our direct support people right away, who were determined to look after those who were locked down. Then the cops turned to us and quickly realized seven of us were locked to one another. They tried to get us to talk – to tell them how we’re locked in, how do they get the tubes off – but when we refused to answer any questions, they started talking amongst themselves as if we weren’t there and it was actually kind of funny. They lifted the tubes, tried to reach inside, try to pull our arms out, etc. It was decided that the cops should cooperate to make us all stand up simultaneously and walk us to the road together – away from the most excellent visual of the gate, the banner, and the Grant Town power plant sign – before working further on unlocking us.


Saturday, April 9th – Arrest and Detention for Nonviolent Direct Action

Cops trying to get people out of a lockdown tube

It took about 10-15 minutes of fussing before the cops managed to get the tubes off – all of them except one, which had metal welded around the middle of the PVC pipe. The two ladies locked inside were stuck in a cop car still attached to one another. For the rest of us, as soon as a hand came out of the pipe it was stuck into a zip-tie hand cuff behind our backs. Let me tell you, those hand cuffs – especially when you’re talking about arresting nonviolent protestors who are being completely public about what they’re doing – have almost nothing to do with security or deterrence, and almost everything to do with punishment. The zip ties are hard and sharp. If they’re tight, which at least one side almost always ends up being, they don’t only chafe your wrist, they prevent you from rotating your shoulder out of an incredibly awkward position. This gets very uncomfortable after 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 90 minutes… and the excess end of the zip tie sticks stiffly out behind you a good 6-8 inches, so imagine what that means if you’re sitting in a police vehicle.

Handcuffs and detention and all that comes after is basically law enforcement making you pay for the disruption you caused, regardless of whether you end up being charged with anything, or whether your infraction was actually extremely minor. I cringed to imagine what this punishment would look like if we were people of color, or if there weren’t 100 people standing around watching, or if we had done anything more criminal than sitting on a driveway were someone had told us not to. There would have been 101 ways to torture us – keeping us in hot cars with little air, tightening our handcuffs, refusing access to a restroom, intimidating comments, you name it.

We sat in the cop cars for around 25 minutes while law enforcement decided what to do with us. A total of 12 of us were arrested at the front gate, so there was discussion about some form of van to take the lot of us to the nearest jail. Some cars wanted to stay at the power plant site because the protest was continuing (the protestors stayed on the right side of the boundary the authorities told us marked public property). Then, partway through this waiting process, the cops got a call that another contingent of our action was attempting something at the back entrance to plant. Several of the cars took off in excitement, and we silently wished our fellow activists well.

Back at the front, surrounded by fellow protestors and media, some of us had pretty nice cops who made sure we weren’t too hot, or who left the car door open. I ended up in a car with fellow protestor I ended getting to know really well over the course of the remainder of the day, let’s call him Liam (not his real name). We had dressed for snow but now the sun was out, and we were stuck in a car, so we helped each other take layers off using our teeth.

Then came a weird part. We were taken to what our cop said was the Grant Town “city hall” or something like that. The cars with arrestees drove into a gravel parking lot behind the Grant Town fire station. Grant Town has about 600 residents and none of them were around, so this was remote location. I was suddenly grateful that I didn’t live in a county where this was likely to be a sign we were never going to be heard from again.

Liam and I got out and stood around in the rain with our cop while some ornery-looking officer finally got the last armlock tube taken off our fellow protestors – basically by jiggling, pushing, and pulling their arms until they finally came out. Keep in mind that no one was explaining anything to us – why this was happening, what was happening next and why – nothing. We asked, of course, but apparently no one is obligated to tell us. Next, we were led into the garage of the fire station. There were fifteen of us, because our numbers now included three guys arrested near the back entrance to the power plant. We were left standing in a circle in an empty spot at the end of the garage. At one point we started singing. After a couple activist tunes, we did a number of verses of “This little light of mine.” God only knows what the cops, firemen, and fire station staff thought of us.

The forbidding-looking Fairmont jail

Finally, a van came to take us to the 12 of us arrested at the front gate to the Fairmont city courthouse and jail. After a 20-minute ride we pulled up outside an ancient-looking stone jail with thick, wrought-iron bars over the windows. There were signs posted outside, “Notice! Positively no talking through windows.” Or something like that – a surreal warning that somehow avoided using the words “inmate” or “prisoner.” Anyway, we were taken inside, and everything was taken from us except our clothes. Then 7 of us were put in a very small, windowless holding cell with two metal benches along the wall. The room was probably about 10 feet by 12 feet at the most, and there was a camera on us.

All seven of us were women, having been separated from the men – except for one of us, who was a trans man, but who was assumed to be female by the cops. This was Liam – and I thought it strange that the cops seemed to so quickly assume he was female, when my best guess from the first was that he was a guy. Anyway, Liam didn’t bother to argue. Sadly, my direct support person – let’s call her Jen – was a trans woman and asked to be treated as a woman in jail, so they put her all by herself. For the four hours of detention, the seven of us in the “women’s” cell yucked it up nonstop, and Jen, all alone, could hear us a little bit through the wall. She sat in there with plenty of time to mull over the transphobic comments she had received on her way in (something about the necessity to do a nude search if she was going to be treated as a woman).

Four hours of detention with a bunch of friends may not sound like much, but there’s something stressful and dehumanizing about not being told a thing about what’s going to happen next, and when. None of us had been formally told we were being arrested or read our rights. There had just been a general announcement of intent to arrest and then the cops swept in and went about cuffing and detaining people. None of us had been told what we were being charged with. We didn’t know if we would be there for an hour, or overnight. When we knocked on the door an female officer would appear and we were given small Styrofoam cups of water a couple times, but absolutely no information. We were not allowed a phone call.

A kind of manic camaraderie springs up in these kinds of situations. No one in the cell was particularly fearful or anxious – each of us had a sense of what we were getting into. But stuck in a small room under a fluorescent light with nothing to do but wait for god-knows-what can make you kind of batty. We had wide ranging conversations and finally turned to sharing our bios with one another. At one point we told our female officer we were hungry and she informed us that they weren’t obligated to feed us until we’d been there 6 hours, and that the sheriff wouldn’t release us until “the riot was over.” We were left pondering what kind of riot they could be talking about. Could they really call a peaceful protest in front of the power plant a “riot?”

The so-called “riot” outside the Grant Town power plant

Apparently so. By 7:30 the sheriff’s department was satisfied that the “riot” was over and they started to process us for release. We each got a citation for misdemeanor trespass, which meant we were being released but had more business with the court soon. One by one we walked out into the cold night air and were greeted with applause and whoops of encouragement by the jail support team, which was standing across the street with bags full of snacks. We milled about, hugging one another and sharing news. The protest in front the power plant – the “riot” – had lasted until 6:30pm, when it was aggressively broken up by the cops who yelled over megaphones and threatened to tow all the cars. The protestors voluntarily wrapped things up at that point – but I heard one estimate that there was still around 100 people there at the end, and it went on for about 5 hours. That’s pretty impressive for a protest in the middle of nowhere in rural West Virginia!

When it got too cold standing out on the street, we disappeared into various waiting cars, which took us back to camp.

It was a little anti-climactic to arrive back at camp and have much of our red team already gone – they were driving many hours home, or headed to a hotel, or had disappeared into a bunk room at the camp. A few of us gathered to share action stories over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but then it was time for me to leave too. One of our heroic drivers brought me and another of my red team buddies back to a parking lot where we had left our cars, and then I headed to my hotel. I stayed up posting updates and checking out the footage and coverage of the action, but it was very sweet to fall asleep.


Sunday, April 20th – Rev. Barber’s Palm Sunday Service in front of the Grant Town Power Plant

You might think the story would end there, but no! A beautiful compliment to the Coal Baron Blockade was a plan for Rev. Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign and Moral Mondays to come lead a Palm Sunday service in front of the power plant – at the same location where our action had been. This was also, significantly, near the spot where are body of a young local man was found in 2020: A black, gay man named Arthur “JR” Warren, who was brutally murdered by three other young men. The service was scheduled for 10am, which gave me plenty of time to catch up on sleep, get ready, and grab some coffee and breakfast before heading back to Grant Town.

This seemed to me like the perfect way to follow up our action – with spiritual reflection. Most of the time, I’m moving about, sincere and willing, but not quite in touch with the deeper motivation and love that underlies all of it. The depth and power of what’s happening, and my innermost response to it, comes to the surface at odd moments and causes tears to well up in my eyes. Singing and poetry and prayer tend to do it. Recounting a story of strength, honor, generosity, courage, or compassion will do it. I guess it’s about sensing the presence of nakedly sincere love, hope, and determination. It resonates with something in me and humbles me. It makes me feel like my life is being driven by something below the level of my consciousness – some kind of affinity with all of life that’s like the power of the tide, while all of my conscious efforts are like the waves. I expected a service led by Rev. Barber would help me touch this deeper motivation in myself, plus I looked forward to seeing some of my action buddies there.

I was surprised and disappointed to show up right before 10am and find the parking area opposite the power plant empty except for a cop car and two other vehicles. One of the cars belonged to a woman who was an organizer of this event, and she was in dialogue with the sheriff’s deputy. The deputy said we had been forbidden to use the area, that the parking area was private property. He told us to go back up the road a little where there was a bit of a pullout and do our event there.

I followed the third vehicle – just another attendee like me – down the road, but we got all the way into Grant Town and never saw anything that looked like the pullout the deputy described. We both pulled off the road and then realized the organizer woman had headed in the other direction. We turned around and headed back through what you must realize is a very small town, and we quite out of it a cop flashed his lights behind me and pulled me over. He told me I wasn’t using proper turn signals as I drove about in the town (keep in mind the town was deserted and I had made only one move requiring a blinker – pulling off the road in order to turn around). He asked me if I was part of the protest group from yesterday. I said no, I was sorry, I was just looking for a church service. A guy in a big SUV pulled up beside us and made a questioning thumbs-up sign to the deputy who was detaining me. Apparently satisfied, the out-of-uniform cop in the unmarked car drove off. The deputy took my license back to his car, then came back to me and told me I could go. I gained a new level of understanding of the power of cops and how they can use those powers to intimidate, harass, and obstruct anyone they want to.

But that lesson wasn’t over. Driving back the other direction (carefully!), we found the pathetic, muddy pullout that the first deputy had directed us to. At the most it could fit about 10 cars, if they packed in and double parked, with hardly any room for the ceremony itself. This was Rev. Barber! His car, including several people who were with him, appeared shortly after 10. In order to make more space, several of us drove a little way down the road to park in front of a coffee shop that was most definitely closed at the moment, and was probably not even a going concern anymore. Within 5 minutes several cop cars showed up with megaphones saying this was private property and the owner didn’t want us there. (Remember, cops can lie – it’s highly doubtful they were actually in contact with the owner of the property.)

All of this creepiness made me want to leave. More and more cars were showing up for the service, lining up in the road to wedge themselves in our tiny, approved space. I figured the event just wouldn’t happen.

I will always regret my decision to leave, though. I guess I should have figured this was Rev. frickin Barber, and that there were several fiery and determined women involved who were going to make this thing happen. Once I got back to my hotel, I looked up the event online and ended up watching a recording of the service posted on Rev. Barber’s Twitter feed. It looks like everyone had to leave their cars up the road (except for Rev. Barber) and walk down to the road in front of the power plant. Looks like there was about 20 people present. Barber gave a powerful and impassioned speech and there was singing, and a blessing, and oh… if I’d been there I would have been weeping copiously.

Looks like I need to develop a tougher, more confrontational spirit! If people had let the intimidation tactics of local police stop them, we sure wouldn’t have much justice in the world today. I’ll end my action tale with some words from Rev. Barber’s sermon:

“When we are awake, we must stand for justice. Some people say, ‘I gotta get woke,” but I say, ‘You not only gotta get woke, you gotta get out of bed. ‘Cause you can be woke, and know what ought to be done, but not [be] doing it… You need to know that being awake doesn’t mean things will get easier. Truth of the matter is, if you’re not careful, if you get too woke, it make you want to go back to sleep. Cause knowledge ain’t bliss, y’all…

“It takes time to bring justice. It don’t always happen in a microwave. It’s not one email, one Tweet, one march. You gotta have courage, consistency, and character in order to bring about justice. There’s a lot of folks invested in this craziness [motions to the power plant behind him], but we can do it. How do I know? Because others did it before us…

“We… pray for Manchin, that his heart changes, that his mind changes, that he understands that his arms are too short to box with God, that ultimately he stands not against us, but against the greater universe. If he does not change, Lord, lessen his ability to hurt people. If he does not change, remove his power, God. If he does not change, then remove him from the kind of political offices that allow him to inflict so much pain on so many people.”

I don’t believe in God but I do believe in the power of prayer. May it be so.



I’ve been home for a couple days now, and the West Virginia Rising legal team are helping those of us with charges to address them. It is likely that I’ll end up with a misdemeanor trespass on my record and having to pay a fine between $100 and $500. I can afford this, but a wonderful thing to do is donate to groups and actions like the one I did so they can offer financial support for bail and fines for activists for whom such things are a hardship. If you’d like to help out, go to westvirginiarising.org.

I always feel a little let down after an action. This action is like all the others I’ve been part of in that there is no apparent positive impact. Manchin managed, directly or indirectly, to mobilize local law enforcement to shut down and minimize our disruption as quickly as possible. If you think about it, it’s pretty ridiculous. If the cops hadn’t done anything at all, we would have sat in front of a more or less unused gate in the middle of nowhere, chanting and speechifying to ourselves, until it got dark and cold enough to make us go home. The reaction we provoked, though, is a sign that we were on to something. Just like our brave Black forbears in the civil rights movement knew they could provoke a disproportionate response simply by sitting a lunch counter, we poked the hornet’s nest merely by protesting where a camera could catch us in the same frame as the sign to the Grant Town power plant.

Still, it’s difficult not to feel discouraged or depressed when life goes on as usual – my life, and the millions of lives around me. Our action got some press, but certainly not the attention of national mainstream media outlets. How big would it have to be in order to get attention? How big a sacrifice would certain activists have to face?

I have to remind myself that we usually can’t know the effects of our actions. No, we didn’t manage to raise a big enough stink that Manchin will feel pressured to change anything. But maybe, just maybe, he lay awake on Saturday night, April 9th, knowing that over a hundred people protested outside a power plant that buys 80% of its waste coal from him. That our banners addressed him, that Rev. Barber stopped by the protest and addressed him, and that 15 people were so passionately opposed to his corruption and barbarity that they took actions that got them hauled off in painful zip tie handcuffs and charged with trespassing.

Maybe the local people in West Virginia who were aware of the protest spent a little more time reflecting on what’s going on at the Grant Town power plant, and with Manchin, than they otherwise would have. Maybe a few members of law enforcement find themselves reflecting on how they felt a surprising amount of respect or even admiration for us. Maybe the friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances of those of us who participated will be inspired, and our actions will make this climate and ecological crisis more real to them. Maybe you, listening to this podcast, will have sympathy for those of us who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. Maybe you’ll even join us sometime. Remember, we could really use drivers.