A Personal Journal about Trying to Do the Right Thing in a Climate Emergency

by Rev. Domyo Burk

This post was begun on Friday, 11/22

I spent last night in jail because of an act of civil disobedience. After 10 hours spent occupying a very hot and stuffy office, 45 minutes with my arms tied behind my back with sharp plastic zip ties, and 5 hours spent stripped down to one layer of clothing (not including underwear) in a grim 10’x12′ concrete jail cell with 11 other women, I’d never felt better.

It was a little weird signing my property-release form next to the prompt “Inmate’s signature,” and a charge of criminal trespass shouldn’t be taken lightly with a maximum (unlikely) penalty of 30 days in jail, but nonetheless the mood of my 20 fellow activists and I when we were released at 5am, in the bitter cold, was nothing less than jubilant.

My good feelings about an act of conscience leading to arrest have nothing to do with pride. I’m only telling other people about it in the hopes that it will inspire them to take bolder action in their own way. My good feelings also have only a little to do with a sense of accomplishment; our specific demand was not met, and probably won’t be. We can hope we made some kind of positive difference, but it’s difficult to tell.

Instead, I think I felt (and feel) great because putting my body on the line for my convictions provided a profound relief from cognitive dissonance, a state of mental discomfort that arises when we experience “conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.” The theory is that we naturally want consistency among our beliefs, and between our beliefs and our behaviors. Acting contrary to what we believe or know to be true causes us mental, and sometimes even physical, distress.

I think I’ve experienced a pervasive sense of cognitive dissonance ever since I was a child, from the first time I realized there was unimaginable suffering going on in the world but I was essentially supposed to ignore it and just worry about myself. On the one hand I held a deep conviction that responding generously and compassionately to suffering was a moral obligation, but on the other hand I did nothing about it. Cognitive dissonance. Then, as a young adult, I realized my society and lifestyle were directly or indirectly connected to a whole lot of injustice and destruction, but there didn’t seem to be any viable alternative to business as usual – that is, if you wanted to be a part of society at all (and I did, if only to change it for the better). So I believed the whole system was wrong, but I continued to participate in it. Cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a sign that I’m living out of harmony with my deeper self – the self that knows I’m interdependent with everyone and everything. The self that knows a clear conscience is a greater joy than the sensual pleasures I can’t let go. When my actions conflict with my core values, my life starts to feel shallow and insincere. My joys are constrained by the need to keep part of my heart closed off to what’s going on. Engaging in my own internal doublespeak, I start to doubt anything is really true.

Bear with me for a moment while I give you some context for my civil disobedience: Yesterday, there was a protest rally in Salem, Oregon, at the state capitol, in opposition to a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline and export terminal in Southern Oregon. Oregonians have been fighting this project, called Jordan Cove, for almost 15 years. Pembina, the Canadian company behind the project, makes bold predictions about job creation and positive economic impact, and argues that natural gas is a clean and environmentally-friendly source of energy that’s the wave of the future.

In reality, after a brief construction boom, the Jordan Cove project would not provide all that many jobs and the company would get huge tax breaks. The pipeline and terminal would have many negative environmental impacts and be extremely dangerous for those living anywhere near them in the event of a forest fire, earthquake, or tsunami. By arguing their pursuit of profits by selling gas in Asia is in the “public interest,” Pembina would be granted eminent domain and allowed to clearcut a 95-ft-wide swath of land and lay an explosive pipeline across private lands, traditional tribal territories, and public forests, leading to bitter opposition from private landowners and indigenous tribes. Not to mention that the project would become one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state (yes, natural gas burns cleanly, but the process of fracking it, transporting it, and liquefying it produces more greenhouse gasses than it’s worth).

When I heard there might be a nonviolent direct action happening in association with yesterday’s anti-Jordan Cove rally, I signed up right away. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for the opportunity to align my body with my beliefs like this. The chance to participate in civil disobedience doesn’t come often, because to do it in an effective and relatively safe way means you can’t do it alone.

I will write more about my experience later, but right now I’ll focus on the experience of being, for a time, freer of cognitive dissonance than I have been since I was a blissfully ignorant child:

After a perfectly decent rally which might otherwise have gone mostly unnoticed, we starting singing a simple, beautiful song together. “We have got the power, we have got the power, we have got the power, it’s in the hands of us all.” Hundreds of voices joining together and echoing in the most amazing way in the capitol rotunda. Our aspirations had space to ascend as if we were in a cathedral, and the all-embracing human music told us what we were singing was actually true. Click below to listen.

Fifty of us occupied Governor Brown’s office for over eight hours, refusing to leave until she publicly came out against the pipeline. She was away from the capitol most of the day, but did come to talk to us around 9pm. She refused our demand. The amazing thing was that for the whole time of the occupation, stuck together in a relatively small, stuffy room, none of us were bored for a moment. We sang, chanted, shared our stories, gave each other rousing speeches… our sense of solidarity and purpose created a community out of people of all different ages, from various places in the state, with different relationships to the issue: Affected landowners and community members from Southern Oregon, indigenous tribal members, and those of us concerned about climate change and ecological damage. This was the only place we wanted to be.

Twenty-one of us decided, around 9pm, to stay despite the formal warnings from state troopers that refusing to leave would mean being arrested for criminal trespass in the second degree. They really did try to convince us to go, and arrests didn’t begin until we all sat on the floor together, joined hands, and sang. Two troopers escorted me out, cuffed, through the dark, cavernous capitol rotunda about 11pm. The whole scene was strangely beautiful. They walked me slowly and carefully down the stairs so I wouldn’t trip, and as I walked I knew that plenty of people wouldn’t understand or agree with what I was doing. I knew all of this was a big pain in the ass for the troopers. But I was expressing my convictions with my body, and that felt powerful and right. In the quiet, spacious moment, there was no cognitive dissonance at all.

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