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On the Supreme Court Putting a Stay on Juliana v. U.S.

Kelsey Juliana Awtt Portrait

“Government actions knowingly and willfully created the climate crisis. From this crisis young and future generations face increasing dangers. As courageous, creative changemakers we have the opportunity and moral authority to change the social, political, and economic structures that cause injustice and climate chaos. Youth are standing up for our fundamental right to inherit a stable and survivable planet. We have everything to gain from taking action and everything to lose from not.” – Kelsey Juliana

Humans like to make plans. We ask our children to plan for their adult lives, their dreams and careers. The responsible thing to do. We try on plans like costumes, compare them to those of our friends, plot a trajectory for accomplishment, middle life, family, community. Where do we want to live? How much money will we need to sustain the life we want to lead? We plan for retirement. Plans give us a sense of direction, control and continuity. We construct our identity around our plans. If we can, when unforeseen events blow up our plans, we make new ones. Plans tend to make us conservative; to be adventurous we need alternative plans. Some of us have tried to experience the exhilarating freedom of living planless. Most of us have lived in times when planning seemed sensible because plans were based on assumptions about what we thought was reality: the sun rises and sets, the seasons turn, geese migrate, rivers flow, steady work creates security, seeds germinate and rain falls and food is plentiful. Plans align us with reality, and old folks’ later years are sweetened by the growth and expectations of the young.

Because of the acceleration of climate change, planning is now ironic at best, more likely absurd. We go on planning, but instead of seeming like good folks hoping for the best, we seem suicidal fools who refuse to come to grips with the reality of our situation. Nature shouts in our ears, drowns our cities, reduces neighborhoods to kindling, dries up our crops, extinguishes the species around us, and tells us we ain’t seen nothing yet. Worse, our government which presumably is responsible for long term planning for the health of our species – why else have a government? – counsels us to take no notice of nature’s warnings, take no notice of the our scientists’ predictions, draw no conclusions from the increasing ferocity of the weather.

I’m remembering now my sweet, gullible grandmother. On Sundays in the 1950’s she’d put my brothers and me in the backseat of her old Chevy, a space as big as a small apartment, and drive out into the flat Ohio countryside to buy fresh eggs and milk from a farm. White farm houses. Ancient maples. Loud tractors. Towering corn. Farm dogs barking, racing in the dust beside the car. A big, handsome woman in a gingham dress asking how many dozen we wanted. What did a dozen cost? 50 cents? 25 cents? There was nothing fancy about this life then, except that it was enabled by a dream plan of continuity. I knew nothing about white privilege, nothing about native genocide, nothing about slavery or racism, nothing about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I only knew the privilege of the round trip weekend journey into a bucolic countryside and a grandmother who seemed to enjoy being teased by three little boys. Why would anyone want to alter any of that? Why would anyone sweep away those fields and farms and replace them with malls and tract housing? Factory farms. Manure ponds. GMOs. Roundup-ready soybeans. Glyphosate. We counted cows in the pastures. We proclaimed what we would be when we grew up. Plans germinated as reliably as corn.

I’ve not been made a naive idiot by nostalgia, nor a baffled curmudgeon by the rate of change. But I am angry. I’m not angry at the people who, adrift in the beneficence of the American Dream, accumulating wealth and wanting it to go on forever, failed to come to grips with where we were headed. In their position any of us might well have acted the same. I’m angry at their criminal denial now. They know that their vastly profitable systems of energy, transportation, farming, war-making, and investment are unsustainable, herding us at a fierce gallop into the abyss. I do not use the word criminal casually. Politicians, fossil fuel executives, big bankers, generals, think tank academics, who ooze back and forth through revolving doors, have all agreed to play off profit and power against doom. They put their chips on the insane MORE rather than sane LESS. They feel entitled to MORE. It’s useless to ask if they have grandchildren or if they think their wealth will insulate them from the coming disaster. Besotted by their ballooning bucks, they don’t care. I look now at my grandsons seat-belted in the back of my car as we drive to the u-pick organic apple farm, where we will bite into juicy apples permeated by the world’s toxic taint no matter how careful the good farmers are, and love and rage boil in me.

I re-read the previous paragraph. I realize that making blanket condemnations about powerful people in powerful systems may be less than fair. Language like that denies common humanity. Often these are decent people caught in, dependent on, what have become abhorrent systems. The reasons that brought them there may not be the reasons that keep them. And none of them was asking, “How can I best cause climate catastrophe?” They may not have the courage to cut themselves loose from these systems. To one degree or another we are all trapped. But the world needs us to cut loose now, to be the heroes of our own lives. About the people at the top, though, the ones whose cynicism is infinite and infinitely destructive, the ones who know exactly what they are doing, I have no empathy. My empathy can barely comprehend their multitude of victims.

So, in times like these, we must ask, What side are you on? The side of the rainforest, or the side of the company that clear cuts the rainforest for another palm oil plantation? What does one need to do to jolt the powerful from the swoon of money, that swoon in which they go on planning accumulation when that planning is dangerously wrong? Principled argument against them is like hurling rotten tomatoes at the castle wall. If their only language is money, how do we speak money?

Maybe this is the right moment for a tax boycott. Should we pay taxes to a government that doesn’t govern? (I use “government” and “corporation” interchangeably.) Should we pay taxes to a government that ignores the public trust, to a government acting with criminal negligence? Should we pay taxes to a government that mocks science? My feelings aren’t abstract; they’re very personal. Should we pay taxes to a government that considers the future of my grandchildren, of all children, of no importance? Why should we? This is no government at all. Why pay taxes if there is no governing? I believe in the necessity of taxes for the common good. But this government is leading us to common disaster.

I’m ashamed of myself for not being a war tax resister. Morally it is the right thing to do. Previously I felt war tax resistance morally right but strategically weak – and it invited the state to take whatever you had, including your freedom. Climate change tax resistance seems different to me. Once the state begins to act responsibly – make climate policy in accordance with science – I’d pay again. I know full well that U.S. militarism is integrated insidiously into climate change. Pollution, habitat destruction and CO2 emissions are essential to war making, both its purpose and its result. We make wars to secure access to fossil fuels. We violently dismantle cultures to promote regime change. With war we create a chaos of violence that is a good metaphor for the more general and pervasive climate chaos to come. But to an American public propagandized to the point of being war zombies, I’m hoping climate change tax resistance may appear different (while it acts as war resistance, too). ‘

Or not. Americans profess to hate taxes. On the contrary, they hate people who don’t pay them. But if you are very rich and don’t pay, then they admire you and want to be like you – after they win the lottery. Common sentiment extols the tax cheat who stashes millions in the Cayman Islands. Perhaps those who make such people heroes don’t realize how soon the Cayman Islands will be under water. I simply know I can’t look at myself in the mirror and say, “Oh well, I guess whatever happens happens.” The outlook is dire.

This week the Supreme Court put a stay on the Juliana v U.S. case that had been scheduled for trial in Eugene, Oregon on October 29th. Under the Public Trust Doctrine twenty-one young people (the lead plaintiff being Kelsey Juliana) have sued the U.S. government demanding that U.S. climate policy be aligned with what science tells us we need to do to survive sustainably on this planet. The case insists on the right of people to be able to plan for the future. The case, thanks to pressure from our corporate government, may not be heard. This is a travesty. What was once the keystone of democratic law – the separation of powers – has become the consolidation of powers – the legislative, executive and judicial branches declaring their allegiance to each other and to the money that dictates their behavior. The high court is saying that young people have no voice, no standing, in their future. When Brett Kavanaugh sat in front of the Judiciary Committee and waxed eloquent about the rule of law, what he really meant was the rule of power. That’s why they selected him.

Naomi Klein Awtt Portrait
AWTT portrait of Naomi Klein

The Americans Who Tell the Truth project celebrates the idea that determined, courageous citizens can create justice in a system which purports, however reluctantly, to want it. Usually this proves much more difficult than many would like to acknowledge. But the moral arc can be bent toward justice. And has been. That arc, however, is moral only when it bends. Otherwse, as now, it is the arc of corruption, the arc of folly, the arc of grief for what might have been. Why would we pay taxes to support that? The greatest contest of our time is over who gets to bend the arc.

One could envision a restorative justice process: the climate scientists like Jim Hansen, the climate activists like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, the children from the Juliana case, the Earth Guardians, the Koch brothers, Mitch McConnell and a covey of politicians, some economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs, and the Joint Chiefs all sitting in a circle, listening to each other, asking: What is to be done?

How likely is that? Not as likely as climate meltdown. Come together, folks. Resist. Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Demand with courage, love and imagination.

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