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

by Rev. Domyo Burk

I designated today, a Wednesday, as a “day off.” When you’re self-employed, like me, there’s never really a time you can put work down with complete mental ease. There’s always something you should be doing, and it’s only your self-discipline and hard work that will allow you to make a go of it. However, I’ve found it’s useful, when possible, to designate a day “off” – when I do all kinds of stuff, just not the stuff I do the rest of the time. And, ideally, “day off” stuff does not involve sitting at the computer.

This day off began with meditation and a leisurely breakfast. While eating my cereal I read the news. Sure, I read the news online, but somehow sitting at the dining room table and reading it on my phone is a special treat, as opposed to eating and reading in front of computer, which inevitably leads to more time at the computer. Today was warm and sunny – not the kind of weather we really ought to be having in Portland in November, but it instilled in me a hope that I might be able to spend some time out in the yard.

I never got out in the yard, however, because I spent the bulk of my day meeting with a local climate activist, Ken Ward. Ken’s a bit of celebrity in climate activist circles because he’s the subject of a short but very good documentary called “The Reluctant Radical.” The documentary follows, among other things, Ken’s attempt to shut down an oil pipeline as part of a coordinated action by the “Valve Turners” on October 11, 2016. Across the country – in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Washington – the Valve Turners broke into enclosures and shut down the valves on five different oil pipelines, more or less simultaneously. This stopped the flow of about 15% of US crude oil imports for the better part of a day. The action was symbolic, because they knew the pipelines would be turned back on almost immediately, so they didn’t try to hide their actions and expected arrest. In fact, so the action was safe, they phoned the respective energy companies ahead of time, informing them of where and when the shut-downs would happen. Part of the action’s strategy was to get into the courts and argue for the right to present a “necessity defense.” That allows a defendant to present their motivation, including the presentation of climate science and testimony from expert witnesses, and argue that their action was necessary in order to prevent greater harm. Ken won the right to use the necessity defense in Washington state, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be acquitted or avoid jail time. He’ll find out in February.

I had very briefly met Ken before, at a climate rally in downtown Portland, but I really didn’t know what to expect when meeting him again. I’d sent him a message online saying I was interested in maybe starting a chapter of Extinction Rebellion over here on the “Westside” – the western suburbs of Portland, and surrounding wine country – and I knew he also lived over on this side of town. I didn’t know whether he’d respond at all, but I was excited that he was, indeed, interested in what I was thinking about, and was happy to meet. Although I was excited to meet Ken, I didn’t know what to expect. I tried to emotionally prepare myself for an awkward conversation, a lack of rapport or connection, or a basic lack of interest in whatever I might be able to offer to his ongoing effort to find the most effective form of climate activism. After all, Ken’s in the big leagues. He’s spent his life in the field of environmental activism, most of it in paid positions. He took part in one of the highest-stakes climate actions ever. He’s the subject of an award-winning documentary that will soon be featured at a film festival in Ireland, where he’s going to be on hand to speak. I’m an idealistic Zen priest who has fantasies about civil disobedience but has never done anything more than carry clever banners at rallies.

I was sitting on a curb in the sunshine when Ken arrived, and as I stood up I knew this meeting would go much better than my consciously-lowered expectations. He smiled openly and seem enthused to be there. We grabbed a snack at the nearby fancy grocery store, took a seat in their bright and airy cafeteria, and proceeded to talk for almost three hours. By the end of our conversation I had to pee so badly it hurt, but I couldn’t bear to break it off… there was always one more thing to add…

It’s relatively rare for two people to meet who both have a conviction that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and who feel a deep sense of despair about that fact (as opposed to the strange, emotionally-disassociated resignation expressed by some people), along with a passionate sense of responsibility for doing something about it. Neither Ken nor I are newcomers to these feelings. We weren’t converted by the IPCC’s recent conclusion we have only until 2030 to radically alter business-as-usual, or else face a significant possibility of runaway global heating. We’ve felt like this all of our lives as we watched our society rape and pillage the Earth as if there would never be any consequences – at least, no serious consequences to the comfortable lives of those of us with wealth and privilege.

Those of us who walk around with this sense of existential angst and responsibility with respect to life on this planet are pretty damned lonely much of the time. Daily life is a careful dance between authenticity and learning to shift into an adaptive mode more in harmony with the people around us. Because we love those people, and we love our lives, and we love the sunlight filtering through the fall leaves, and we love art and laughter and pointless pastimes like reading mystery novels. If we spend too much time focusing on injustice, destruction, and impending doom, we succumb to depression, despair, anger, and bitterness. And we alienate our loved ones, who do their best to sympathize but just don’t see things the way we do.

Ironically, then, the increasing number of people in society convinced we’re in an ecological and climate emergency means some of us are less lonely that we used to be.



Photo Credit: Wired Magazine, Pipeline Vandals Are Reinventing Climate Activism

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