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I began this essay in a Pacific Northwest on fire. The sky was a heavy yellow-gray, and it was easy to look directly at the orange sun, which seemed drained of heat and even light. I was far from any fire danger, but for days the smoke made the outside air nearly unbreathable, for those of us who could choose to breathe elsewhere. I was very lucky; after years of dithering, I had finally broken down and bought an air purifier in July, knowing that I’d need it eventually.

The smoke was especially disturbing because it permeated the whole west coast and not a little of the interior, and because the fires had then devastated nearly 4 million acres and several small towns, as well as causing the evacuation of a medium-sized city. An automated warning on social media indicated that people with heart and respiratory issues should consider leaving. To where? One would have had to go hundreds of miles to find good air. People already worn down by the pandemic and threats to democracy joked darkly about 2020 apocalypse bingo: surely zombies and aliens were next. …

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Here’s what passes for humor in the climate movement sometimes: emailing one of my colleagues a few months ago, in the midst of some strategic questions about a new campaign, I said oh, well, if we get it wrong it’s not like it’s the end of the….


It’s not helpful to think of the work in this way too often, of course — it would be paralyzing. It’s also not true; in a wildly complex system with countless actors, one month’s failure by one group, examined and metabolized, might lead to a meaningful success months later, possibly by a different group. But an awkward, unavoidable truth remains: if we here in Seattle get the right pieces moving in the right ways, while others across the world do the same, and if what we do inspires still others and it all alchemizes in the right way, we may be able to preserve a great deal more than currently seems likely. …

To Hell with (False) Balance

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One of our busy periods!

For a long time now I’ve tried to parse my deep antipathy to the terms “self-care” and “work-life balance”, most especially as they relate to climate activism and other justice work; it was a relief when the ever-incisive Naomi Klein told an interviewer this week about the youth climate activists she’s been working and traveling with and then said “fuck your work-life balance. What are you willing to give up? If these kids are giving up their childhoods, you know, are you willing to give up your evenings? Are you willing to give up your weekends?” …

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When I was asked to give this sermon, I was supposed to elaborate on a blog piece I wrote called “How to Keep Going”. For those of you who can make it to the Chrysalis Symposium this afternoon, that’s also a focus of my lecture there, but it’s a little long for this, so I wanted my sermon to come at the same idea from a slightly different angle.

The unifying theme in this body of thought for me is that we live in a strange moment when two opposing facts are starkly clear and true:

One, that wanting to feel “hopeful” in any common sense right now is a big ask, and perhaps both selfish and self-destructive as well. …

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I want to talk about power — how much we have, and how we can use it meaningfully.

But I’m going to start with despair. At a beach in British Columbia’s Gulf Islands recently — on my first real vacation in almost three years — I felt much of the loosening that I often feel at the coast. The smell of the sea is home for me, the brush of the waves on the shore, the spark and flutter of sun on the water like innumerable languid butterflies. Breathing at the ocean, I feel different.

I’ve known for a long time that humans and other species are in profound trouble, and that the seas are rising. I’ve known for a long time how much is at risk. I went to BC specifically to have the time to develop my thoughts and write about these risks, and how we can move forward in a way that matters. …

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At the MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Award ceremony on Friday, someone asked me how I keep going—where I find hope.

As a climate organizer, it’s a question I get all the time, but it struck me a little differently this time. What she said was something to the effect of “On a good day, I can believe that we can win against misogyny and racism over time. But climate change, on such a short timeline? Shit. How do you keep going?

I was glad she asked, because we’d been asked the same on our panel, and I’d failed to say what I’d wanted to, which is that I see our job not as having hope, but of making space for hope. If we don’t act boldly in the next couple of years, we lose most of our leverage to save huge swaths of the astonishing life on this planet, and we fail both existing and future lives almost incomprehensibly. …

(and the hope that is)

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Two years ago, four friends and I stopped the flow of tar sands bitumen from Canada into the United States by instigating the shutdown of five pipelines in Washington State, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota. In a letter, we called upon Obama to acknowledge the threat of runaway climate change by keeping them closed; tar sands is the most carbon-intensive oil, and a 2015 study had indicated that we need to be extracting “negligible” amounts of tar sands by 2020 if we want to avoid catastrophe.

We are not extracting negligible amounts, it may go without saying.

Instead, tar sands extraction is expanding by the day, with “replacement” projects like Enbridge Line 3 (in Minnesota) and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline (in British Columbia) slated to double and triple, respectively, their current carrying capacity. …

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There are no two groups dearer to my heart than 350 Seattle and Shut it Down. They share not just me and Michael and Ben and Nicky and Alice and Val and others, but also a DNA of devotion to honesty about the climate crisis, deep commitment to doing everything we can to fight for this beautiful world, and support for one another.

Those who organize and participate in mass protest, and those who engage in high-legal-risk direct action are sometimes skeptical of one another — but the two approaches are deeply symbiotic. Without actions like #ShutDownChase or #ShellNo, it’s hard for us to engage people whose lives don’t allow them to risk prison time — and let’s face it, that’s the great majority of people, people we need actively involved, not just signing petitions and sending money. …

We’re here today to urge Amazon to be a leader. The signs aren’t promising — from the company’s fight against funding for housing for the homeless, to its unwillingness to even disclose, let alone address, its climate impacts…Amazon’s management shows all the signs of people who think they’re not accountable to anyone but themselves.

Their distaste for commitment to the community hasn’t been uniform, though. In 2012, Bezos was asked for 100k to help in the fight for gay marriage…and gave 2.5 million.

Crucially, he didn’t give this money to companies that support gay rights to create islands of tolerance at those companies; he gave it to help change the laws of the state. That’s the difference between that gift, and his willingness to help support Mary’s Place but not to pay taxes so that the City can solve homelessness systematically. …

We Have to Stop Pretending That Solving Climate Change is Complicated

Pssst…you. Yeah, you! I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but we actually do know what to do about climate change.

It isn’t even that hard–certainly not compared to the alternative. And it’ll make the world better for all of us.

Other countries have already begun: announcing upcoming bans on internal combustion engines, instituting congestion pricing, building affordable housing, and investing in renewable energies like there…. is a tomorrow.

By pretending bold and immediate solutions don’t exist, we’ve made even baby steps impossible. It’s time for that to stop: now.

Some inconvenient truths

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about urgency — how to respond to the overwhelming urgency inherent in the need to avoid the climate feedback loops that might make human survival impossible. How to talk about it, how to relate to it day to day, and how it changes the meaning of our every interaction with one another and the world. …


Emily Johnston

Poet, scribe, climate activist, runner, builder. My book, Her Animals, is out now:

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