Ordinary people trying to save the world

New film depicts the lives and struggles of climate activists

In 2014, after actively working on the climate issue through conventional, legal means since the mid-1990s, frustrated by the continuing slide toward climate catastrophe, I engaged in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. Five of us and our friends erected a tripod across a track in front of an oil train at the BNSF Delta Yard in Everett, Washington. The Delta 5, as we came to be known, held position on the tripod for the next eight hours. The action is portrayed in the opening scenes of The Race to Save the World, a documentary focusing on the lives and struggles of grassroots climate activists, including one of my partners in the Delta 5 action, Abby Brockway, who sat atop the tripod 18 feet in the air. (I show up in a few walk-ons through the film.) 

The movie also portrays our court trial, a seminal event in which we presented the first climate civil disobedience necessity defense in a U.S. courtroom, and the second in the world. We argued that though we broke the law, it was necessary to avert the greater harms of climate disruption and oil train explosions. More on that a little later. 

The Race to Save the World was released on Earth Day and is now playing in U.S. and U.K theaters. Watch the trailer here. The film is a document of a time when the forward edge of climate action moved from the suites of climate NGOs to the streets of mass protest and direct action. That time in the middle years of the last decade saw key actions that elevated the profile of the climate crisis, leading to the surge in public concern we see today. It helped spur widespread acknowledgement of the climate emergency, with Joe Biden and other national leaders calling it an existential crisis.

If people hadn’t taken to the streets, and if some hadn’t put themselves on the line, made sacrifices and taken personal risks, I doubt we would be where we are at today. The documentary tracks the lives of some of those people with special focus on five of them.  Four are from Seattle, a hotbed of climate action. I am honored to have worked with three of them and know the fourth well.  

IT DOESN’T TAKE A SUPER-HERO

This is an unscripted documentary without a narrator, instead letting the people and scenes of action speak for themselves. “I make a very particular type of documentary,” filmmaker Joe Gantz says. “I call it life in progress. I fade into the background, let life progress organically and create the story in editing. I spend a lot of time with the subject so they get comfortable with me being around.” 

When Gantz began planning The Race to Save the World, “I wanted to make another kind of climate film, following people dedicated to turning this around. A number of films try to tell people the facts about climate change. When you watch those films they are very educational but very depressing at the same time. I came at this from a very different direction, looking at people like yourself in the trenches. It’s much more energizing.  Encouraging people that ‘I can do something.’”

Gantz portrays not only stirring action scenes – such as the Delta 5 blockade, the kayakatavist uprising against the Shell Arctic drilling rig docked in Seattle harbor, and the coordinated shutdown of all pipelines transporting Alberta tar sands oil into the U.S. – he also enters the homes of activists and captures their real-life struggles.  With family tensions and even breakups. With depression and insomnia. That was intentional, to show that it doesn’t take a super-hero to save the world.  Ordinary people can take action. 

“The majority of people know climate change is real and we have to do something, or it just gets worst,” Gantz explains. “But people don’t know how to make a difference. But when you see the people in the film, so regular, they don't come across as Heroes with a capital H, but ordinary people trying to do what they can. It’s not intimidating. As a viewer you connect more through their vulnerabilities than their heroism. You can identify with their humanness. Everyone is doing something wonderful, but they’re also struggling through.”

The Race To Save The World has won critical acclaim, including best documentary at both the Soho International Film Festival and the Indian Cine Film Festival in Mumbai. It has been accepted into the Paris International Film Festival, Dumbo (Brooklyn) Film Festival, Cannes Independent Film Festival and the North Dakota Environmental Film Festival.  The Guardian gave it a favorable review. 

Testimonials have come in from climate leaders including scientists James Hansen and Michael Mann, Bill McKibben, Greenpeace leaders Jennifer Morgan and Annie Leonard, Post Carbon Institute Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg, and Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day, who said, “Successful social movements always have a small number of deeply-committed people willing to take extraordinary risks,  The Race offers a frank look at some Americans who have chosen to place their bodies at the ‘tip of the spear’ in the fight for climate justice. Their courage, and their resolute optimism, is inspiring.” 

FIVE ORDINARY PEOPLE

Gantz, who is based in Los Angeles, became familiar with the Pacific Northwest doing an Emmy-nominated HBO documentary, American Winter, about the decline of the middle class and rise of poverty in the U.S. The documentary is based in Portland. 

“People in the Pacific Northwest are real,” he said. “Maybe it’s the spirit of having to go through a long gloomy winter each year. Compared to people in sunny climate like L.A., there’s a real gritty honesty.”

So the region, with its vibrant climate community, was the natural place to begin looking for activists willing to participate in his immersive filming experience. It wasn’t easy, he explains. In fact, he says, it was the most difficult of his films. It takes a lot of trust from the subject and the people around them, especially when an out-of-town movie crew from L.A. shows up. Gantz ultimately settled on five, including the four from Seattle. 

“Seattle has a great community, a combination of commitment and bringing in people in a big tent,” he says.

The four are Abby Brockway, Michael Foster, Bill Moyer and Aji Piper.  The fifth is Miriam Kashi, a retired therapist from Iowa in who took part in the transcontinental Climate March.

In summer 2014, I met Abby at a Backbone Campaign action camp, where we and others began to make plans for the Delta 5 action.  Abby is a housepainter and deacon in her Presbyterian church. Many were the meetings with team members including our lawyers. We also practiced rapidly erecting the tripod a number of times and having Abby climb to the top, a complex dance you have to get right or risk lives.

“I believe we can change things,” Abby says in the film.  “It’s just a little drop in the bucket, but if you fill the bucket it’s a good thing.” 

Gantz was able to film our 2016 trial in Snohomish County District Court. He captures Abby’s first try at testifying, when she had a panic attack, and her husband telling her afterwards, “I don’t give a damn about this case. I love you.” On her second try after a court recess, Abby relates how she was spurred to action by an oil train derailment close to her daughter’s school. In all our testimonies, we related how we had tried conventional means to have an impact, with little success. “Everything I did didn’t feel like it was making a difference,” Abby says.

Judge Anthony Howard was persuaded to allow us to present a necessity defense. We brought on a number of expert witnesses on climate and oil train risks. After arguments were completed, he retired to his chambers to decide whether to let the jury consider the evidence. When the trial came back into session, he said, “These defendants are tireless advocates of the kind we need in this society to prevent the kind of catastrophic effects we see coming and that our politicians are ineffectively addressing.”  But he concluded we had not made the case that we had no reasonable legal alternative to breaking the law. In the end, we were convicted of 2nd degree criminal trespass and sentenced to two years on probation. We met members of the jury in the hall afterwards who told us they would have voted to acquit if they had been able to consider the necessity evidence. 

Abby confesses her own difficulties to the filmmaker. “I don’t feel like I’ve been the best mother because I have not been present for a year and a half.”  Sitting next to her husband, she says to gain the climate action we need, “it’s going to take a mother going to jail.” Her willingness to take a jail sentence surprises him. “That’s the first I heard of that.” At the end of the trial, husband and daughter both express great relief. 

I first came to know Michael Foster when I served with him on the 350 Seattle Hub, the organization’s governing body. I’ve known a few people with as much dedication to an issue, but none more. So when Michael and four other of my friends shut off Alberta tar sands pipelines across four states in the 2016 Valveturners action, each one risking decades in prison, it was no surprise. “I was crossing a threshold I could not un-cross,” he relates in the film. Originally charged with felonies together carrying potential sentences of 81 years, Michael ultimately was sentenced to a year in the North Dakota State Penitentiary and served six months, the only one of the Valveturners to do hard time. 

The Race pulls no punches when it comes to personal difficulties. Michael’s were some of the most heartbreaking. His commitment led to family breakup.  “I think climate is what caused our divorce,” he relates, his pain showing. “I was becoming more and more obsessed and spending less time with my kids.”  His voice cracks as he relates a note from one of his children, “For Christmas I wish I could get my dad back.” 

In 2014 I met Bill Moyer, executive director of The Backbone Campaign, a progressive grassroots organizing outfit. Even as the Delta 5 team was preparing for our oil train action, Bill and I started working on a book about how to electrify rail lines, with a pilot effort on the BNSF Northern Transcon line.  Solutionary Rail was published in 2016.  Both had the same goal, to push the railroad beyond dependence on bulk fossil fuel shipments. Electrification would enable rebuilding mixed freight and passenger traffic. 

In the middle of that in 2015, Shell announced it would make Seattle the base for its Arctic drilling operations and pulled the Polar Pioneer drilling rig into the port. Bill, who had previously taken part in kayak actions against a mine on the island where he lives, swung into action and initiated a kayak resistance to the rig.  “They bring this beast, this monster, into the beautiful Salish Sea, and we get to fight them with kayaks,” Bill recounts.  A local reporter coined the term “kayaktavist,” and ultimately Shell cancelled its Arctic drilling effort. I believe the various protests on the water and land side ultimately had something to do with that.

The film brings out Bill’s own family stresses. His wife confesses, “I can’t say it’s easy when Bill is gone a lot.” His teenage daughter Aziza mentions how it’s hard when her dad is late to her birthday party.  Bill himself says, “The last thing I want is for Aziza not to expect me to be in her life.” That kind of honesty characterizes The Race.  He nearly sheds a tear when she says, “I can’t imagine having that kind of persistence. It’s really inspiring to me.” 

Aji Piper, the fourth subject, is a young black men who has been a frequent performer at climate protests,  playing ukulele and singing climate-themed songs with his brother. The film covers Aji’s participation as a plaintiff in Our Children’s Trust youth climate lawsuits against Washington state and the federal government, charging that their actions are endangering his generation’s right to a healthy environment. The movie includes many heartwarming home scenes, for example, Aji and Adonis playing chess. It also delves into Aji’s own emotional challenges. He confesses depression that sometimes keeps him from getting out of bed, and insomnia that leaves him “electrically awake.” “This is not something you should have to do at 17 years old,” Aji says in the film. “I’m feeling the weight of the world. I’m so distraught. What is going to convince people to do something about it?” 

The film tracks the fifth major subject, Miriam Kashi, from the Climate March’s start in L.A. across deserts and plains until its conclusion in Washington, D.C. “This is an antidote to despair for me. Making my steps count for something. You do not lose until you quit. I am not quitting.” At the same time, the stress on a 72-year-old body of walking across the U.S. comes out. “Now I know what the term bone-tired means.  I’m pretty exhausted.”

IT TAKES PEOPLE IN THE STREET

The Race to Save the World comes out some years after the major events it covers. “It doesn’t bother me at all that this didn’t happen last year. It’s about the commitment of the people,” Gantz says. In fact, recent Black Lives Matter protests demonstrate its relevance.

“I actually think this is a perfect time for this to come out in a way. Because what I am dreaming of is that this type of film can help create the movement that will get the kind of numbers Black Lives Matter put in the streets. The protests convinced people change is drastically needed right now.” 

Though much progress has been made advancing the climate issue, “It needs people in the street,” Gantz says. “A concerted worldwide effort will only happen if the people lead. Without a show of solidarity by people all over the world, we don’t have a chance to act on the scale we need to. If we do then we will make the governments do this.” 

It’s up to ordinary people to make this happen, people like my friends in the film, who commit their lives and cope with the struggles and stresses it puts on them. The Race to Save the World is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking that captures the full picture. Of course, I’m biased, but I highly recommend you see this film to inspire your own actions.  

I suggest you buy tickets to streaming access through Abby’s group, Faith Action Climate Team, here.  Abby will join in an on-line panel on the movie June 5 at 7 pm Pacific. Register here.  

My story on the Delta 5 action and trial is here.  I’ll be doing more writing on the action and other civil disobedience engagements in future posts to The Raven. So make sure to sign up for the email list, and subscribe if you can!