In September 2014, I was emotionally and intellectually riveted by Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, a masterwork that chronicled the financial and ideological impulses that pushed our planet towards a climate cliff. I wrote that Klein’s research was so thorough, her writing so compelling and her vision so powerful that the book ”deserves to be viewed not as one of the greatest nonfiction works of the 2010s, but as one of the greatest nonfiction works of all-time.”
Just over a year after the release of This Changes Everything comes another book about the climate crisis that merits equal praise to Klein’s instant classic. Not only is this work every bit as strong as Klein’s iconic book, it is, as an assessment of the moral implications of the fossil fuel industry’s wanton assault on our atmosphere, far stronger, far more passionate, far more intellectually and emotionally enriching than even Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home. This new masterwork, this new standard of excellence, is Wen Stephenson’s What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice.
Stephenson, a veteran journalist and former Atlantic and Boston Globe editor, has emerged as one of the world’s most powerful voices for climate justice; I still remember how elated I felt reading his outstanding November 2012 piece for the now-defunct Boston Phoenix about the mainstream media’s refusal to cover the climate crisis with the urgency and seriousness it deserves. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had a number of e-mail exchanges with Stephenson since the publication of that Phoenix piece, though I have never actually met him.) Stephenson has continued to write about the moral need to reduce carbon pollution and protect those already victimized by its worst impacts for The Nation and Grist, among other venues. In What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other, Stephenson first discusses his own growing realization of just how serious the climate crisis had become:
My sheer belatedness in reaching this point is mind bending—in fact it’s perhaps the most difficult thing for me to understand and accept. How could I have gone so long in denial? Not denial of the science, the fact of climate change—I was always reasonably well informed. I mean denial, on some deeper level, of my own part in it, my responsibility—personal and political—and of what climate change will mean in the years to come.
I took no comfort in knowing that I was far from alone in my lateness. My entire generation, more or less, as we entered middle age, stood indicted. Those of us born in the late sixties and early seventies came of age along with the knowledge of global warming. And yet, a full twenty years on, here we were, the vast majority of us, having done little or nothing about it…
What I’m saying is, there’s a spiritual crisis, or struggle, at the heart of the climate crisis and the climate struggle—a crisis we’ve hardly begun to come to grips with, or even acknowledge. The immense suffering that is now inevitable, within this century, on this rapidly warming planet is the result not only of an “environmental” or “economic” or “political” crisis—or even, for that matter, a “moral” one. It’s all of these combined, and yet, if possible, more. It’s what I can only call spiritual.
Having awakened to the urgency of the climate crisis, Stephenson committed himself to the long fight against the perfidy of an industry that deliberately polluted for profit, damaging our political and media atmosphere just as viciously as it damaged our physical atmosphere. Much of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other focuses on those he has met on the course of his fight for climate justice: Klein, the courageous activist and former political prisoner Tim DeChristopher, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, writer Wendell Berry, Texas environmental-justice activist Hilton Kelley, acclaimed sociologist Robert D. Bullard, NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program head Jacqui Patterson, activists Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara, Texas pastor Kyle Childress and countless others who have devoted their lives to ensuring that future generations can survive.
These activists are unified by a faith that a better, cleaner, more just and secure world is indeed possible—a faith that nurtures and sustains despite right-wing resistance, mainstream-media cowardice, and progressive reluctance to make the climate crisis a “main-event” policy priority. With regard to that last point, Stephenson observes:
…[A] question that kept running through my mind was simply this: Where is the left? Where has it been? Why is this not at the top of the progressive agenda, with a robust social movement merging environmental, economic, and racial justice under the banner of climate justice?
It’s an odd thing, if you think about it. For a long time, in many precincts of the left, and especially across a broad spectrum of what could be called the economic left, humanity’s accelerating trajectory toward the climate cliff has been little more popular as a topic than it is on the right. In fact, probably less so. Plenty on the right love to talk about climate change, if only to deny its reality, downplay its urgency, and take shots at Al Gore. On the left—to say nothing of the ever coolheaded center—denial takes different forms.
It’s unclear what explains this reticence about the existential threat facing humanity, beginning with the poorest, including in the United States. But a lot of people I know in the climate movement think that the left, and the economic left in particular—pretty much the entire spectrum from mainstream liberals to anarchist Occupiers—has not yet taken on board the real implications of our galloping climate catastrophe. Not really. Not the full, stark set of facts. It’s as though the implications of climate science, when you really begin to grasp them—for example, that the depth and speed of the necessary emissions cuts are incompatible with economic growth as traditionally defined—are simply too radical. Even for radicals.
Thankfully, Stephenson has fully grasped the implications of this crisis—but that’s not enough. The United States political system must also fully grasp those implications. To that end, this salient and necessary book must—not should, must—be read by every Democratic presidential contender, as well as Republican presidential contenders Lindsey Graham and George Pataki, the only two GOP contenders who dare to acknowledge the reality of human-caused climate change. (The only reason I don’t recommend the other Republican candidates read the book is that they would probably just burn it.) Further, a book of such consequence should be taught and discussed in our nation’s schools; trying to understand the climate crisis and the climate movement without reading it is as absurd as trying to understand African-American history without reading Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Alex Haley.
It is fitting that What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other hits stores just as the fossil-fuel industry finds itself staring down the barrel of a potential federal racketeering investigation after the revelation of the industry’s callous disregard for scientific facts and human rights. Stephenson has, in effect, made an irrefutable case for an aggressive federal prosecution of the fossil-fuel industry; the activists chronicled in his majestic book have collected all the evidence needed to hold the fossil-fuel industry fully accountable for its demonic deceptions.
This book is a needed burst of hope in the face of man-made despair. It is an affirmation of humanity, a flawlessly written work that elevates the conscience and will renew the commitment all men and women of good will have to protecting the only planet we call home. This is a work of profound faith, profound passion, profound wisdom, profound beauty. Barack Obama may have once called for “[freeing] America from the tyranny of oil,” but that call wasn’t strong enough. We need an uprising against the tyranny of oil, gas and coal, and Wen Stephenson has made the strongest case possible for revolution.