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Thoreau's Radicalism and the Fight Against the Fossil-Fuel Industry

As the battle over Keystone moves toward a climax this summer or fall, when Obama is expected to make a final decision, it has become the central rallying point for a broad and diverse climate movement at what looks like a pivotal, and “radicalizing,” moment. More and more, what Bill McKibben recently dubbed the “Fossil Fuel Resistance” is turning to nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to make its demands seen and heard.

A statue of Henry David Thoreau stands outside a replica of his cabin near the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.,AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

On a clear and seasonably cold Sunday morning in March, I made my way through the streets of an old neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, and entered a large, converted brick building from some other century. Inside, in a cavernous room with worn floors and south-facing windows lit by the sun, a group of seventy or more young climate activists—mostly college students and recent graduates from the Boston area, along with a few veterans of the Occupy and global justice movements—were gathering for a full day and night of final preparations before carrying out a dramatic peaceful protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. The company building the pipeline, TransCanada Corporation, has its US Northeast office down the road in Westborough, and there, the next morning, twenty-five of these activists—accompanied by more than eighty others, young and old—would be arrested for conscientious, nonviolent civil disobedience. 

These people, and those like me who support them, might with some fairness be called “radical”—not just because of their willingness to go to jail to express their principles, but because what they demand lies well outside the limits of mainstream partisan politics and conventional media wisdom. 

How radical are they? They insist that those in power take seriously the international scientific consensus that says global greenhouse emissions must be cut at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and that two-thirds to three-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, if today’s young people and future generations are to have any reasonable hope of a livable climate. They insist, given this reality, that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry heed what leading scientists are telling them: that massive new long-term investments in fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL—which will only accelerate and prolong the extraction of carbon-heavy crude from the Alberta tar sands, one of the largest carbon pools on the planet—are unconscionable. 

Those activists in Worcester and Westborough weren’t alone. As the battle over Keystone moves toward a climax this summer or fall, when Obama is expected to make a final decision, it has become the central rallying point for a broad and diverse climate movement at what looks like a pivotal, and “radicalizing,” moment. More and more, what Bill McKibben recently dubbed the “Fossil Fuel Resistance” is turning to nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to make its demands seen and heard. 

The resistance has spread across the country. The fights are intensifying against mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia, coal exports from the West Coast and shale-gas fracking in the Northeast, with waves of civil disobedience actions. Most dramatically, along the Keystone’s southern leg from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast in Texas (greenlighted by Obama last year during his re-election campaign), members of the Tar Sands Blockade—including climate activists, property owners, indigenous groups and people from frontline communities—have put their bodies in the way of the pipeline’s construction, often at great risk, both physical and legal. In early March, CREDO Action issued a call to activists to resist the pipeline, and more than 59,000 people have now pledged to engage in peaceful civil disobedience if Obama approves it. Even the Sierra Club officially decided in February to participate in civil disobedience for the first time in its 120-year history. Its executive director, Michael Brune, was among forty-eight protesters arrested at the White House on February 13, three days before some 50,000 people rallied and marched in Washington to oppose Keystone and call for serious action on climate change—the kind of action that science, and conscience, demand.

When Brune announced the Sierra Club’s decision in January, in a short, eloquent piece titled “From Walden to the White House,” he explicitly invoked the legacy of Henry David Thoreau and, of course, Thoreau’s most famous essay, “Civil Disobedience.” For Brune, as for many other activists, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience is a sacred American tradition. “We’ll be following in the hallowed footsteps of Thoreau,” he wrote, “who first articulated the principles of civil disobedience 44 years before John Muir founded the Sierra Club.” 

And yet, as the climate movement embraces the legacy of “Civil Disobedience,” perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and remembering just how radical Thoreau really was—and why. We should remember what it was, exactly, that made him so. Not his night in the Concord jail—that was the easy part—but something else: a readiness to speak the truth, forcefully and without compromise, no matter how fanciful or extreme it may have sounded to jaded ears or what risks it might have entailed. What’s more, if we’re going to invoke Thoreau, we should remember that he was less an environmentalist (a term that would have made no sense to him) than a radical abolitionist—and that the logic of “Civil Disobedience” led directly, a decade later, to “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” 

If that thought doesn’t make you pause, it should. We might want to ask ourselves if we’re really ready to walk in Thoreau’s footsteps, and what it might mean, at this radical moment, if we did. 

Despite its global reputation for greatness, I have to admit that I’ve never much liked “Civil Disobedience,” the essay Thoreau began drafting in his cabin at Walden Pond in the fall of 1846. The tone is a little too arch, his performance somewhat preening. “I was not born to be forced,” he writes. “I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.” Regardless of such posturing (or perhaps because of it?), you can’t help feeling that there’s not a whole lot at stake for him personally—that he was, in a way, slumming it there in jail for a night—so that it takes on the air of a privileged intellectual exercise, a kind of abstract thought experiment to be conducted, after a good dinner, in Mr. Emerson’s parlor. 

Still, for all the mannered poses, there’s a reason the essay has lasted, that its influence extends across continents and centuries. So it’s worth reminding ourselves what Thoreau is really saying in “Civil Disobedience.” From a relatively minor incident, now wrapped in legend, in the last week of July 1846—he was stopped on his way into town to get a shoe repaired and asked to pay his poll tax, which he refused to do, though it meant jail—Thoreau gets down to first principles. The country was engulfed in controversy over the Mexican War, a flagrant act of aggression to expand slave territory to the west, and there was even secession talk in the North. But why, Thoreau wants to know, should he wait for a vote in the State House? “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?” 

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The moral equation, Thoreau is saying, isn’t terribly complicated. There are expedient reasons to recognize the authority of a government, as he admits. But he insists that we recognize those situations “in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may.” He goes on, in the very next lines, to offer a stark analogy: “If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself…. This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.”

From this straight-up, no-nonsense formulation, Thoreau lays down a marker, a point from which he’ll navigate. “Action from principle,” he tells us, “the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.” 

This is strong stuff—and prophetic, in more ways than one. What we have here is a kind of working definition of Thoreau’s radicalism: call it the willingness to face the “essential facts” (as he put it in Walden), and then to act as both facts and conscience require. Doing so, he assures us, “is essentially revolutionary”—the only real way to change the world. 

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Contributing writer Wen Stephenson (Twitter: @wenstephenson) is an independent journalist and climate activist.

A longer version of this essay appears on the website of the Thoreau Society, which just launched the Walden Climate Change Collaborative. For more info, visit