This past President’ Day my oldest child turned 18 and instead of celebrating his young adulthood with him, I was across the country standing on the National Mall with more than 40,000 strangers. While I may sound like an uncaring mom, the opposite is true. I’d gone to Washington DC precisely because I care so much about the world our children will inherit. This sea of people was at the Capitol asking the President to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and address climate change without further delay. Participating in this rally led me to reflect on the freedoms of speech and assembly that I normally take for granted. And reflecting took me back eighteen years to 1995 when my son was born.
At the time, I was working at the Goldman Environmental Prize –a San Francisco-based award given to grassroots environmental activists -- and the previous summer had researched a nomination that my colleague at the Sierra Club, Steve Mills, had told me would “knock my socks off.” The nomination was for a Nigerian named Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was a well-known author, television producer and a loving parent recently imprisoned after leading non-violent demonstrations for a healthy environment in his native Ogoni region. Located in the Niger Delta, Ogoni land is rich in oil, and Saro-Wiwa was advocating that the region’s main oil extractor, Shell, clean up its act. Leaky pipelines crisscrossed fields and villages, spilling oil onto valuable farmland and contaminating waterways. Meanwhile, the natural gas by-product of oil extraction was flared into the atmosphere around the clock at ground level. Geraldine Brooks, then an intrepid reporter for the Wall Street Journal (and now a Pulitzer Prize winning author) had visited Nigeria’s Ogoniland and provided me with first-hand accounts of the widespread devastation.
Not surprisingly, Saro-Wiwa was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa in April of ’95 and the news reached him in his bleak jail cell. His younger brother, Dr. Owens Wiwa came to San Francisco to collect the award and deliver a speech on Ken’s behalf about the Ogoni’s non-violent struggle for environmental justice. I left my newborn baby for the first time to attend the emotional ceremony. Seven months later, despite fervent pleas from a consortium of human rights groups and environmental activists around the world, we did not succeed in saving this innocent man of letters. Ken Saro-Wiwa was tried by the military dictatorship’s kangaroo court and, in a true act of barbarism, hanged.
At the Forward on Climate rally, I exercised and appreciated my freedoms as an American. As I contemplated Saro-Wiwa’s senseless death, I was struck by the parallels of the Ogoni struggle for environmental justice with our own. This time the non-violent struggle is against the ill-advised oil pipeline Keystone XL. This time the threatened farmland and waterways are in the middle of our country.
It is said that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” But while we are still protesting much of the same damage done by oil companies, our understanding of climate change has shifted fundamentally in the last 18 years. In 1995, unless you were a scientist, the idea that human beings were actually capable of irreparably changing the earth’s climate was at best a vague and distant threat. Today, there is nothing vague about Superstorms or distant about severe drought. Now, an unstable climate threatens every person everywhere and building Keystone XL only brings us that much closer to the edge of global calamity. Keystone is ultimately an environmental justice issue that knows no borders. Canceling it will be an important step towards climate sanity.
Freedom of speech and assembly meanwhile are precious rights and in order to protect our irreplaceable planet we need to exercise them more than ever before. The sacrifices of people like Ken Saro-Wiwa who have gone before us and the legacy we bequeath our children and grand-children who come behind us deserve nothing less.