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Detroit Water Brigade Fights for Basic Human Right of Clean Drinking Water

There are many variables that factor into water access, including geography, socio-economics, climate change. The fact that water is necessary to sustain human life, however, is undeniable. In 1977 the United Nations Water Conference declared water to be a human right, stating “All peoples, whatever their stage of development and social and economic conditions, have the right to have access to drinking water in quantities and of a quality equal to their basic need.” The UN has reaffirmed this principle many times in the subsequent decades, and in 2009, concluded, “States have an obligation to address and eliminate discrimination with regard to access to sanitation.” 

Photo credit: Detroit Water Brigade

Despite these resolutions, many people worldwide remain without clean drinking water. Every year, roughly 1.5 million children under the age of five contract illnesses from contaminated drinking water and die. The UN estimates that 1.2 billion people live in geographically water scarce regions, and another 1.6 billion are affected by economic water shortages, meaning their countries “lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.” This means that for nearly half the world’s population, free access to clean drinking water is a luxury they simply cannot afford. The bottling of water from aquifers in one region to be sold at profit in another region only exacerbates this problem.

The most immediate consequence of this practice is the drop it causes in the aquifer. This means that the wells drilled by local residents are no longer deep enough to reach clean drinking water, leading to contaminated water flowing into the drinking water supply, causing disease. In coastal areas, this can also cause saltwater intrusion, making the water completely undrinkable. Saltwater seeping into wells also has drastic environmental effects, killing agriculture and natural vegetation, as well as fish and other aquatic life. Even without saltwater intrusion, just depleting the aquifer changes the flow of sediment in local streams, disrupting food sources for fish and impacting entire ecosystems. Another huge problem is the infrastructure needed to transport water out of rural areas, leading to issues similar to those seen with fossil fuel extraction and logging. This, combined with the obvious environmental concerns surrounding plastic bottle production, makes water bottling an environmental nightmare.

The most pressing concern for water rights activists is negative health effects caused by the lack of clean drinking water. According to recent reports, Nestle is found to be a primary offender of violating human rights. In places like Pakistan, where clean drinking water is already hard to come by, Nestle is tapping the aquifers, bottling the water and selling it back to the wealthiest residents, while poor villages see their wells run dry because of this practice. Maude Barlow, a former UN chief advisor for water issues, states, “When a company like Nestle comes along and says, ‘Pure Life is the answer, we’re selling you your own ground water while nothing comes out of your faucets anymore or if it does it’s undrinkable’—that’s more than irresponsible, that’s practically a criminal act.”

Water privatization is not just a problem in places like Pakistan, however. It’s happening right here in the U.S. In Fryeburg, ME, Nestle has sought, through their subsidiary, Poland Spring, to extract ground water to be bottled and sold internationally. The local residents there have protested the contract between Poland Spring and Fryeburg Water Company, fighting to stop Nestle from extracting their groundwater at an unsustainable rate. 

In Michigan, Nestle is causing more problems. Three Native American tribes filed a lawsuit in 2002 against Perrier’s subsidiary, Great Spring Waters of America and Michigan Governor John Engler. (Because Nestle bought Perrier in 1992, this makes Great Springs part of their portfolio). The Michigan natives claimed that Perrier was violating the 1986 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) by extracting water from the Great Lakes Basin to be bottled and resold. The plaintiffs claimed that the practice of pumping out 575,000 gallons per day would lower the water table for the entire Great Lakes region. They went on to predict that this would diminish local rivers and streams, affect navigation on rivers and lakes, and harm the commercial fishing industry. Nestle and the state argued that bottled water is classified as a food product, and therefor exempt from the WRDA. The judge ultimately threw the case out before it saw conclusion, saying the plaintiffs did not have the right to sue under the WRDA. The state of Michigan still has no limits to the amount of water that may be extracted. 

Currently in Detroit, MI, residents are facing a water shortage of a different kind. Since May, the Detroit Water Authority has sought to stop service to 3,000 households per week, for being $150 or more delinquent on their bills. In a city where 40 percent of residents are living at or below the poverty level, this translates to the most vulnerable segment of the population being denied a basic necessity.

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“It’s been a lot of stress and worry,” says Meeko Williams, spokesperson of the Detroit Water Brigade (DWB), an organization bringing relief to those most affected by the shutoffs. “A lot of seniors are having their pensions snatched away, their healthcare compromised, and now they don’t have any water to drink. Children are being snatched away from their loving families because of their parents’ inability to pay the water bill, and also disabled veterans have been going through much stress and worry … So it’s been just an unfortunate situation, and we’re doing everything we can to try and assist those individuals.” 

Photo credit: Detroit Water Brigade

The Detroit Water Brigade was founded on June 1, in response to the mass shutoffs. Since then a small but growing group of volunteers has been collecting and distributing bottled water, rainwater collection and filtration systems, and other forms of support to families struggling to survive without water. They have also been collaborating with the People’s Water Board and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization to try to get policy changed surrounding water access. Justin Wedes, the other co-founder of the DWB, says that the city is specifically targeting the city’s most defenseless people, while letting big corporate accounts go unpaid.

“The governor, Rick Snyder, through his appointed emergency [city] manager, who has usurped the democratically elected leadership of Detroit, has made it very clear that it’s going to be regular people who are going to pay the price for this deficit.” According to Wedes, roughly a combined $30 million in delinquent water debt is held by corporate and city owned accounts. That’s to say nothing of the numerous abandoned houses that are leaking water, but have not been disconnected by the water company.

“There is, I believe, a double standard in enforcement when it comes to commercial versus residential accounts,” Wedes claims. “The prime example is the Palmer Park golf course … a private golf course, which is now in public ownership … that is over $400,000 delinquent on its water bill. Now, with the oncoming bankruptcy proceedings, we’re going to see again and again, these examples of private debts being socialized, so that regular people are being forced to pay for things like golf courses.” Wedes chuckles at the inherent irony of this situation, and adds, “The citizens of Detroit do not uniformly benefit from the Palmer Park Golf Course.”

Wedes and his fellow activists have been raising their voices with a list of demands, including a moratorium on water shutoffs, as well as the reinstitution of the water affordability plan that was once the law of the land in Detroit. This plan states that citizens should pay no more than 2.5 percent of their pre-tax income on water. As of today, many residents are paying as much as 20 percent of their income, with Detroit water rates at nearly double the national average. In a city with some of the lowest income rates in the country, this prices people out of the water market altogether. The Detroit Water Brigade’s position is that rather than adopt what Wedes calls the “blame the poor mentality” which has been pushed through the local and national media, there is an opportunity to tell a different narrative, one of economic and ecological progress in the city of Detroit.

“Here is an opportunity to look at how we can better manage water in the city of Detroit,” Wedes states. “The storm water and drainage issue is one that we can immediately begin to correct.” With the majority of Detroit’s water debt being held by corporate and public entities, storm water drainage is a huge part of the problem. Companies say they simply can’t afford to pay the drainage fees. According to the DWB, there is a straightforward fix. 

“In cities like New York, citizens are offered grants if they can find more cost-effective ways to channel rainwater away from the drainage system,” says Wedes, who spent several years living and volunteering in New York before returning to Detroit. “They’ve taken these grants and built innovative new storm water retention systems; that for example utilize rainwater catchment barrels, storm water runoff gardens, and other green architecture in order to utilize the earth’s inherent capacity to absorb water.” 

With this huge chunk of water management out of the way, the city would be able to focus its limited resources on the citizens’ inability to pay. Wedes claims it’s not fair to expect the average Detroit resident to pay for a crisis caused by decades of poor urban planning. 

“It’s really only because of the advent of cities that humanity is facing this fabricated crisis of storm water flooding. So the next time your hear about dirty sewage water running off into a stream after a storm, ask yourself, ‘Why are we still thinking about cities in a way that is not in harmony with the water system?’” Wedes laments recent setbacks in Detroit’s environmental policy. The city shot down a proposal to bring goats in to keep overgrown vegetation in check. The state of Michigan also recently banned chickens in urban settings.

“That was done on false pretext,” Wedes claims. The argument for the ban was to protect residents from the sights, smells, and noises of farm animals, but Wedes states, “In reality, it was another handout to large agro-business.” With a situation as serious as Detroit’s water crisis, activists believe desperate measures are warranted. The DWB would like to see rainwater collected and filtered, used to flush toilets and wash clothing at the very least. They are also distributing water purification implements, so as to help residents who have had their water shut off collect rainwater and make it potable. 

“These types of alternatives will not only cut down on the cost to the department,” explains Wedes, “but also will decrease the environmental footprint and impact of the department and make for a more sustainable Detroit.”

In order to get some common sense solutions implemented, Detroit activists are going public with their demands by speaking out in the media, and organizing direct actions against water shutoffs.

“I believe it’s going to take people blockading the water shutoff trucks to get even this,” Wedes stated during a meeting at DWB headquarters last week. On Thursday, he made good on that threat, lining up with other activists to stop the trucks and ultimately being arrested. The last person to be removed from the blockade was Baxter Jones, a disabled Detroit resident who refused to move his wheelchair from in front of the truck until Police forcibly pulled him out of the way. At the planning meeting, Jones was fully on board with direct action.

“That’s what needs to happen,” Jones proclaimed. “Because you’re right, they don’t give a doggone, and they’re not going to give a doggone until they are shamed.” Some of the people present at the meeting were hesitant to take direct action, but Meeko Williams agreed wholeheartedly.

“People need to understand that this is a life and death situation,” Williams stated. “It’s hot today. Seniors have heat strokes, dehydration, all these other implications. We sit around here, thinking this is small change, but we need to be shutting down streets and raising hell.” Williams worries that if drastic action isn’t taken to achieve change, desperate citizens will take matters into their own hands.

“They’re fed up,” Williams explains. “People are gonna go downtown, and end up throwing a brick at Dan Gilbert’s buildings and tearing up downtown Detroit.” (Gilbert owns some of the properties delinquent on their water bills.) Members of the DWB claim anti-corporate sentiment is growing among Detroit’s impoverished citizens. 

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“We are not going to pay for their crisis,” Wedes proclaims. “We are not going to allow the banks and corporations to ruin our country, our neighborhoods, our families, our lives.” 

Thankfully, the Detroit Water Brigade is starting to get some help, as awareness surrounding the crisis spreads. In six short weeks, the DWB has gone from a two-man operation to an organization with dozens of volunteers, hundreds of donations, and public support from local politicians like Representative John Conyers. 

“Water is a human right; it’s necessary for life,” proclaims Conyers at a joint press conference held at DWB headquarters. Conyers believes there are a variety of factors that led to the water crisis. “In Detroit we have a shrinking population, with high unemployment,” he explains. “We also have an aging infrastructure. And on top of all that, the Department of Water and Sewage of the City of Detroit is understaffed.” Conyers went on to state that he has written to President Obama asking for funds to bail out the citizens of Detroit. He also proposed a sit-down meeting with the water department to broker a solution to the problem, without shutting off water to the city’s most vulnerable residents.

“We’ve got an emergency that demands immediate action,” he says, “regardless of what’s in the constitution.” Due to a law passed by republican-led state legislature, Detroit citizens have no legal recourse to challenge decisions made by emergency manager, Kevin Orr. Conyers says the time for amending the constitution is after the struggling population of Detroit has been restored access to water.

“The thing that bothers me most, is that there are some homes in which there are young people, kids, infants, who are going to be feeling the brunt of this; and I don’t hear anybody speaking out about this.” He went on to state that this is “the most important issue on my agenda,” to which he received a round of applause from the activists surrounding him.

Since the media blitz launched by the DWB and other organizations began, more and more support has started rolling in from across the country, and around the world. Their economic transparency page boasts donations from more than 20 states and several countries. Not-for-profit organizations as well as businesses are getting involved in the fight. A church group from Utah plans to drive a truck full of water to Detroit after collecting it from their local community. A guitar shop on Cleveland’s east side is donating a variety of instruments to be raffled off to benefit the Detroit Water Brigade. Shop owner Jason Falstreau immediately connected with the people being affected by the water crisis.

“This isn’t out of the realm of possibility in Cleveland,” says Falstreau. “This could happen in any poor city in the U.S. These people are our neighbors, and they need our help.” 

Erie Street Guitars will be raffling off several guitars in person on July 19, during the Willoughby Arts Fest. They will also be donating a Gibson Les Paul Studio to be raffled online by the Detroit Water Brigade. Donors can purchase tickets for that raffle until Aug. 31. This donation, combined with support shown by many in the arts communities, like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, warms the heart of Danny McGlashing, who has been commuting to Detroit from Boston to help out.

“When a musician creates music, it comes from deep within and must flow freely outward,” says McGlashing. “Equally, water must flow freely if a city is going to thrive. In this, water and music are very much alike; it’s amazing to see the music community step up for Detroit during this water crisis.”

Community members all agree the plentiful water resources of Detroit, a Great Lakes city, should be accessible to all. Alex Hill, who has spent a great deal of time fighting for access to clean drinking water in remote African villages, is astonished it’s come to this in the U.S. 

“I was in Ghana and an organization had come in and built a community well, but then the community leadership put a lock on the well and required people to pay in order to access the water, when it was actually meant to be a community resource,” Hill cites. “Obviously those are low-resource settings whereas Detroit is a place of abundance … It’s just odd to have that juxtaposition.” Hill goes on to say that in his international efforts, he has never come across such hesitance to provide residents with clean drinking water as seems to be occurring in Detroit. 

“I can’t say there’s ever really been significant resistance to providing people with water,” he says. “Water is a human right, It’s a limited resource on the planet, and it’s going to take everyone to ensure that resource continues to be accessible … that makes it easier to monetize, make it a commodity, and deny it to people who can’t pay,” he laments. “But, from the public health perspective, water is a basic need. If you don’t have water, you’re not going to survive the week. You can’t deny people water.”

The rest of the Detroit Water Brigade hopes that enough people feel the same way, and that the tap will be turned back on to the city’s most vulnerable residents.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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Volunteers participate in 2018's International Coastal Cleanup in (clockwise from top left) the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Norway and Washington, DC. Ocean Conservancy / Gabriel Ortiz, David Kwaku Sakyi, Kristin Folsland Olsen, Emily Brauner

This coming Saturday, Sept. 21 is the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), the annual Ocean Conservancy event that mobilizes volunteers in more than 100 countries to collect litter from beaches and waterways and record what they find.

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