Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Valve Turners

Emily Johnston, Annette Klapstein, Leonard Higgins, Michael Foster and Ken Ward near Seattle in January. Credit Katy Grannan for The New York Times

On Oct. 11, 2016, Michael Foster and two companions rose before dawn, left their budget hotel in Grand Forks, N.D., and drove a white rental sedan toward the Canadian border, diligently minding the speed limit. The day was cold and overcast, and Foster, his diminutive frame wrapped in a down jacket, had prepared for a morning outdoors. As the driver, Sam Jessup, followed a succession of laser-straight farm roads through the sugar-beet fields, and a documentary filmmaker, Deia Schlosberg, recorded events from the back seat, Foster sat hunched in the passenger seat, mentally rehearsing his plan.

When Jessup pulled over next to a windbreak of cottonwood trees, Foster felt the seconds stretch and slow. For months, he’d imagined his next actions: He would get out of the car, put on a hard hat and safety vest, retrieve a pair of bolt cutters from the trunk and walk to the fenced enclosure about 100 feet away. He would snip the padlock that secured the gate and approach the blunt length of vertical pipe in the center of the enclosure — the stem of a shut-off valve for the 2,700-mile-long Keystone Pipeline, which carries crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries on the Texas coast. He would cut the chain on the steel wheel attached to the stem, and turn the wheel clockwise until it stopped.

What Foster didn’t expect was that once he’d broken through the chain-link fence, he would be briefly overwhelmed by the magnitude of what he was about to do. He faced away from the biting wind, and allowed himself to cry. He then put a gloved hand on the steel wheel, which was almost three feet across and mounted vertically as if on the helm of a ship, and began to turn it. For long minutes it spun easily, but then both the wheel and the ground below his feet began to shake. Foster had been told to expect this, but still he hesitated. When he resumed turning, he had to throw his body into the task, at times dangling from the wheel to coax it downward. Finally, he could wrestle it no farther, and the shaking stopped. He felt a profound sense of relief. He replaced the lock on the wheel with a new padlock, sat down and, breathing heavily, began to record himself on his phone. “Hey, I’ve never shot video for grandkids that I don’t have yet,” he told the camera, “but I want any grandkids, or grandnephews and nieces or whatever, anybody in any family tree of mine, to know that once upon a time people burned oil, and they put it in these underground pipes, and they burned enough, fast enough, to almost cook you guys out of existence, and we had to stop it — any way we could think of.”

Ten minutes before Foster entered the enclosure, Jessup and another supporter each called the operations center of the pipeline’s owner, the TransCanada Corporation, and described what Foster was about to do. The company called the sheriff. About half an hour after Foster walked away from the valve station, an officer arrived and arrested Foster, Jessup and Schlosberg.

What neither the sheriff’s department nor TransCanada knew, however, was that while Foster was closing off the Keystone Pipeline, four other cross-border pipelines — in Washington, Montana and Minnesota — were being shut down, too. Together, the pipelines carry nearly 70 percent of the crude oil imported to the United States from Canada.
Foster, who is 53, was charged with criminal trespass and criminal mischief, conspiracy to commit criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. At his bond hearing in Cavalier, N.D., he learned that he faced a maximum sentence of more than 26 years. When prosecutors requested that his bail be set at $100,000, Foster asked for a chance to speak. “Your Honor,” he said, “one of the main reasons for this action is to appear here and see justice done for our children, and to protect the air and land and water that they will require to survive. So it’s very important for me to be here in this courtroom, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m — it’s terrifying — but I am not going to miss it.”

Judge Laurie Fontaine set his bail at $75,000.

I first met Foster on a pitch-black evening in November 2016, a week after the presidential election, in the community room of a progressive church in Hood River, Ore. Foster and the four others accused of pipeline sabotage, all of whom had been released on bail, had been dubbed the Valve Turners, and this was their first public appearance since their coordinated action. They stood in a self-conscious line before their audience, unsure how to begin.

One by one, they recounted their actions on the morning of Oct. 11. Ken Ward, 61, a longtime environmental activist from New England, closed a shut-off valve on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline near Mount Vernon, Wash. Leonard Higgins, 66, a soft-spoken Unitarian and retired state-government employee from Corvallis, Ore., closed a shut-off valve on the Enbridge Express Pipeline near Coal Banks Landing, Mont. Emily Johnston, 51, an editor and a poet, and Annette Klapstein, 65, a retired attorney for the Puyallup tribe, traveled together from Seattle to Leonard, Minn., and turned the shut-off valves on a pair of pipelines owned by Enbridge. The five men and women said little about themselves, dwelling instead on what they saw as the existential threat of climate change and the inadequacy of available legal remedies. “I’m not courageous or brave,” Johnston told the small crowd. “I’m just more afraid of climate change than I am of prison.”

Foster, dressed in what I would learn was his standard outfit — Hawaiian shirt, jeans and running shoes — stood at one end of the row, bouncing on his toes. Slight and agile, he can seem much younger than his years, almost impish. “I’m not afraid,” he said, grinning.

His companions laughed tolerantly; they had heard this before. “Well, that’s good, because you’ve got the biggest charges,” Johnston teased.

The Valve Turners are, for the most part, quiet people. They wear sensible shoes, and several attend church regularly. Most are parents, and one is a grandparent. All are white, all are college-educated and none are truly poor. While all are deeply concerned about climate change, none are immediately threatened by its worst effects: no one’s home has flooded, and no one’s health has been seriously damaged by heat waves or failed harvests or northward-creeping tropical diseases. All say that it is this relative safety — and the relative advantages of age, race, education and wealth — that makes them feel they have a particular responsibility, as climate activists, to push the boundaries of civil disobedience.

Most Americans treat climate change, as the saying goes, seriously but not literally. We accept the science, we worry about its forecasts. We tell ourselves that the effects won’t be as bad as predicted, or that they will happen elsewhere, a long time from now. We tell ourselves that someone else will get serious about fixing the problem very soon. We find some way to blur the causal line between our individual actions and their cumulative effects. This is, in many ways, an eminently reasonable reaction, because it allows us to continue with our daily lives and to tend to the political emergencies of the moment — which are, after all, always numerous.

The Valve Turners take climate change both very seriously and very literally. They are among those whom Ward calls the “climate freakout people” — the scant 2 to 3 percent of Americans who, when asked by Gallup to name the most important problem facing the country today, mention pollution or the environment. They can quote from the work of scientists like James Hansen, the former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, who was an author of a 2008 paper concluding that in order to preserve a planet “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted,” the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere needs to be reduced to 350 parts per million or less. (They can also tell you that the current atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, which was about 385 parts per million when Hansen and his team published their paper, is now above 407 — higher than it has been in at least 800,000 years.) For a variety of reasons, they have found themselves unable to look away from the scientific consensus that global business as usual is likely to cause, and may well already be causing, unspeakable suffering. With what their admirers call moral clarity and their detractors — including some of their loved ones — call tunnel vision, they’ve decided that their own business as usual must end.

Foster may have made up his mind as early as high school, when he starred in a production of “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” the 1970 play about Thoreau’s refusal to pay a poll tax because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War. “It’s very simple,” the play’s Thoreau tells the local constable. “What the government of this country is doing turns my stomach! And if I keep my mouth shut, I’m a criminal. To my Conscience. To my God. To Society. And to you, Sam Staples.”

The modern environmental movement was born around the time Thoreau adjourned to his cabin on Walden Pond in 1845, but the climate movement — the part of the environmental movement concerned primarily with reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and easing the effects of climate change — is barely 10 years old.

For decades, the predictions of climate scientists inspired little citizen action: In North America, at least, the possible consequences of climate change were too abstract, too distant in time and space, to galvanize a popular movement. But as international negotiations kept stalling, proposed legislation repeatedly staggered toward failure and scientific forecasts worsened, frustration grew among grass-roots environmentalists. In 2008, seven Middlebury College graduates and a Middlebury scholar in residence, Bill McKibben — whose 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” was among the first to take on climate change for a mass audience — founded the advocacy group 350.org, named after the study led by James Hansen. The work of McKibben and his students helped define the goal of the nascent climate movement: reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million or less. In the process, they also defined their opponents. Those who were adding the most carbon dioxide to the atmosphere were the movement’s biggest enemies, and at the head of that list was the fossil-fuel industry.

Climate-movement leaders organized mass demonstrations — in front of the White House, at international climate conferences and elsewhere — but almost from the start, a handful of activists began executing smaller-scale, more confrontational actions, hoping to both rouse complacent sympathizers and shame major emitters. In Utah in 2008, an economics student named Tim DeChristopher, who had grown alarmed about the increasing likelihood of climate scientists’ worst-case scenarios, posed as a bidder at an auction for public-lands drilling rights, placing fraudulent bids for leases on 22,500 acres of land. DeChristopher was convicted of two felonies, sentenced to two years in jail and fined $10,000.

Like DeChristopher, Ken Ward, a former deputy director and chief operating officer of Greenpeace U.S.A., had become convinced that such actions were essential provocations. “This is the kind of disruption that’s necessary to change politics,” he says.

Nearly six feet tall, Ward has craggy features, thick, dark eyebrows and a professorial air belied by his customary sturdy workwear. In the fall of 2012, he and other activists paid a series of surreptitious visits to Brayton Point, a port on the southeastern fringe of Massachusetts and the home of an aging coal-fired power plant that was, at the time, the state’s largest carbon-dioxide emitter. Posing as bird-watchers, they surveyed the harbor with binoculars.

On May 15, 2013, Ward and a young Quaker sailmaker named Jay O’Hara piloted a 32-foot lobster boat into the Brayton Point ship channel, dropping anchor in the path of a freighter carrying a load of West Virginia coal to the power station. When the freighter neared, Ward and O’Hara alerted the police and the ship’s crew that they were carrying out a peaceful protest. (“This coal is coming from the United States,” a crew member responded. “What’s the problem with that?”) It took the rest of the day to move the boat, which Ward and O’Hara had named the Henry David T. The pair were charged with three misdemeanors and a felony.

But on the morning the trial was scheduled to begin, the district attorney, Sam Sutter, announced that he had decided not to pursue criminal charges. “Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced,” he told reporters gathered in the courthouse plaza. Sutter added that he would join a climate march later that month. (That year, Sutter ran for mayor of the working-class city of Fall River, Mass., and won.) By then, the owners of the Brayton Point station had decided to close it, citing low energy prices and the costs of retrofitting the facility to meet current environmental standards.

Ward moved from Boston to a small town outside Portland, Ore., and began thinking about how he might continue what he and O’Hara started. Quietly, he began to discuss possibilities with core members of the climate movement in Seattle — conversations that would eventually include Michael Foster.

Foster, a family therapist, longtime environmentalist and father of two, had been living in Seattle for two decades, and he’d recently become active in raising awareness about climate change. But his road to the beet fields of North Dakota began years earlier near Houston, now the southernmost endpoint of the Keystone Pipeline.

Michael Foster, before his sentencing. Credit Katy Grannan for The New York Times

When Foster was 3, his father was shot and killed on the street in Laredo, Tex. His mother, who left the family a few months earlier, lost custody of her three children to Foster’s paternal grandparents. Foster and his siblings were raised in a Houston suburb, Deer Park; his mother remarried, moved to central Texas and maintained an affectionate but somewhat distant relationship with her children. (Not until Foster was in his 20s did she reveal her suspicion that his father, a junior-college professor, had been having an affair with a female student and was shot by a rival.)

Despite the upheaval of his early years, Foster remembers his childhood as a happy one. His paternal grandfather worked for the Shell oil refinery whose smokestacks still punctuate the Houston skyline, and his grandparents were able to raise Foster and his siblings in relative comfort.

Foster’s grandmother died of cancer when he was in eighth grade, and he responded to the loss, in part, with a tent-revival religious conversion, becoming a Baptist. Foster believed that his future lay in the ministry, and he eagerly anticipated the return of the traveling preacher who had drawn him into the church. But as he sat with other believers in his high school auditorium, watching his mentor prowl the same stage where Foster had pretended to be Thoreau, he saw only artifice. “He was promoting his television show, he was asking for money,” Foster says. “I’d learned something about performance, and I could see this was a performance.” He walked out of the auditorium, and out of the church, with a lifelong horror of hypocrisy.

Foster first encountered the notion of climate change when his high school debate team was assigned to research energy independence. In Texas in the 1970s, support for increased domestic oil production was practically a requirement for residency, but the team had to argue both sides of the issue, so they studied the prospects for energy sources at home and abroad. One day, an upperclassman gave Foster an interesting tip: At Exxon, where some students’ parents worked, company scientists had considered the effects of carbon-dioxide emissions on the climate and concluded that humanity would soon have to wean itself off fossil fuels.

“It was just this goofy, weird piece of information,” Foster remembers. “We couldn’t even figure out how to use it — was it an argument for energy independence, or against it?” In 2015, when news broke that Exxon scientists had indeed studied the causes and effects of climate change for decades, Foster would remember how he and his fellow debaters failed to understand that the industry on which their families depended might also be upending their world.

Foster studied theater at the University of Houston and found work performing Shakespeare in local schools. Theater led him to Louisville, Ky., where he returned to school for a degree in counseling, hoping to channel his love for children and the outdoors into a career as a wilderness therapist. After graduation he moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he worked for a succession of outdoor education programs. He also reconnected with his college girlfriend, who was working in Seattle, and in 1999, they married.

They soon had two children. Foster took enthusiastically to fatherhood; the violent death of his own father had given him an early lesson in the uncertainty of life, and he delighted in providing his family with the sense of security he had lost. “My friends started complaining that I wouldn’t spend time with them because I insisted on being home for bedtime,” he says. “I was just so happy — ridiculously happy.”

But Foster was increasingly troubled by one particular threat to his family. In high school, he regarded the heating of the planet by humans as a goofy rumor, but he’d since come to see it as a credible, even pressing, concern. During the summer of 1988, when he was 23, he turned on the television just as Hansen was testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on global warming. “It is already happening now,” Hansen said at the hearing.

That’s it, Foster remembers thinking. Now Congress knows. Now it’s going to be fixed.

It wasn’t fixed, of course. Through the 2000s, Foster worked as a therapist and an outdoor educator, finding solace in the connections he forged between kids and the rest of the living world. But he knew that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was increasing, and he knew that its heaviest consequences — more extreme droughts, floods, fires and storms — would be borne by his children’s generation and those that came after it.

He felt compelled to do more, and in the summer of 2012, at the suggestion of a friend, he traveled to San Francisco for climate-change activism training run by Al Gore. When he returned home, he adapted Gore’s famous PowerPoint presentation for younger audiences, adding stories about kids who planted trees, built their own wind turbines and sued the United States government over its inaction on climate change.

Soon Foster was talking about climate change to hundreds of students every month. He worked with a group of kids who were suing the state of Washington over its climate policy. In 2013, he and Emily Johnston helped found 350Seattle.org, which became part of an intensifying campaign against the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest, successfully opposing the construction of several new coal and oil export terminals in Washington and Oregon. In May and June 2015 in Seattle, Foster, Johnston and hundreds of other activists tried to prevent the departure of Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore oil rig, the Polar Pioneer, by forming chains of kayaks and canoes; the following month, Foster joined another boat blockade, in Portland, that tried to stop a Shell icebreaker from leaving for the Arctic. Though both vessels eventually proceeded north, Shell officials were reportedly surprised by the strength of the opposition and the coverage it garnered. In September, citing the disappointing results of its exploration, the company abandoned its Arctic drilling operations. For Foster, it was a revelation: He had put his body in the way of the polluters, and the polluters had turned back.

In the late summer of 2016, an acquaintance invited Foster to a meeting with Ward and a small group of other activists but warned Foster that his very attendance could make him an accessory to a felony. Foster didn’t hesitate. “How lovely!” he remembers saying. “I’ve been waiting!”

On Oct. 9, 2016, Ward left for northwestern Washington, Higgins for Montana, Klapstein and Johnston for Minnesota and Foster for North Dakota. They agreed that their actions would be nonviolent and that they would willingly accept the consequences in court. All five have faced or are facing trials in the states where their actions took place, and in each, they have sought to use the “necessity defense” — to argue that they broke the law because they had exhausted all legal means to reduce or eliminate a clear and present danger, namely the threat of climate change. The necessity defense, traditionally applied to crimes committed to head off immediate physical threats, has been permitted only rarely in civil-disobedience cases, and it has almost never succeeded. But for the Valve Turners, its articulation is a deliberate extension of their campaign, a way to publicly express the urgency they feel. “It’s both practical and political,” says Lauren Regan, the executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Ore., and the lead attorney in Ward’s case. “Talking about this as a necessity — that really pushes the conversation in a direction the movement wants it to go.”

The Valve Turners see their actions as complementary to the rest of the climate movement, as adding an offense to a movement that has so far played mostly defense — as it did during the mass protests against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and early 2017, which were led by the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes. 

Foster says: “I’d participated in all these different protests, but how much of the poison had I actually stopped? That I had a chance to take a major action against the existing flow — God, finally.”

But the Valve Turners’ tactics are not popular within the environmental movement as a whole and remain controversial even within the climate movement. While the national leadership of 350.org offered its support to the Valve Turners after their arrests, the response from mainstream environmental groups was subdued; for some, the shut-offs were reminiscent of the anonymous vandalism carried out by groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front beginning in the 1980s, which enabled opponents to demonize environmentalists as domestic terrorists.

DeChristopher, who went on to study divinity at Harvard, has worked with several of the Valve Turners through the New England-based Climate Disobedience Center, which provides strategic support to climate activists practicing civil disobedience. He says their willingness to assume responsibility, and to publicly explain their actions, distinguishes their strategy from that of anonymous saboteurs. “If you do something and then run away, that gives your opponents a huge opportunity to come in and say, ‘Let me tell you who these people are and why we should go after them,’ ” he says. “If you stand your ground and tell your story, that puts a face on it, and it can have an entirely different effect.”

This theory was tested when Ward, whose case was the first to go to trial, appeared in court in the small city of Mount Vernon, in far northwestern Washington State, on a cold, bright January morning last year. The judge, Michael Rickert, did not allow Ward to use a necessity defense, ruling that Ward had not exhausted his legal options. Ward was charged with both burglary and sabotage — which, in Washington, is defined in part as willful interference with a commercial enterprise — and as Rickert dryly pointed out, the case was “not exactly a whodunit.” The jury even watched a video of Ward cutting the chain that secured the emergency valve of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. But after nearly six hours of sometimes heated deliberation, the jurors announced that they could not come to a decision on either charge. They told me that all were in favor of conviction except for one, who maintained that Ward’s primary intent was not to break the law but to make a point about climate change.

The judge declared a mistrial based on the hung jury, and Ward was tried again five months later, in June. This time, he was convicted of burglary, but once again the jurors could not reach a decision on the sabotage charge. The second jury was even more divided than the first: a retired nurse who voted against conviction on the sabotage charge described Ward as a “hero,” while the presiding juror, Donald Munro, voted for conviction on both counts, calling Ward a “jerk” who “did it to get attention.”

Another juror, Warren Wicke, a former corporate recruiter who retired to Mount Vernon, voted against a sabotage conviction, calling the charge “overkill,” and described Ward as a “good man.” 

But like many of the other jurors I interviewed, he has his reservations about Ward’s strategy. “I’m worried about somebody trying to outdo him, somebody doing something more outrageous for the sake of publicity,” he said.

The maximum penalty for second-degree burglary in Washington is 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. After the prosecution decided not to pursue a second retrial on the sabotage charge, Judge Rickert sentenced Ward to two days in prison and 30 days of community service, which Ward, an experienced carpenter, fulfilled this summer by working for the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. 

“Do I think that Mr. Ward’s behavior’s going to change if he spends 90 days in jail? No,” Rickert said at the sentencing. “Would putting Mr. Ward in jail change the behavior of other people from throwing the tea off the boat or shutting off the oil pipeline? I don’t think so.”

Most of the Valve Turners say that their acute concern about climate change, and their decision to break the law because of it, have come with significant personal costs. Some have lost friends and partners, and all have found that “climate freakout people” are not popular at parties. Still, most have reached an accommodation with those who don’t share their alarm.

Foster has found such accommodations — with himself, with others — nearly impossible. When Foster committed himself to the climate movement, he also recruited his children, then 8 and 10, to march and speak alongside him. His older child, now a cleareyed 16-year-old, says that both siblings were initially happy to participate — in part because it gave them a chance to spend time with their father, whom they saw less and less of as his activism increased. But before long, they felt pressured. 

“When we would try to refuse, when we would say, ‘Hey, I’m tired,’ or ‘Hey, I have homework,’ or ‘Hey, I have school today,’ it would be: ‘Don’t you care about the planet? Don’t you care about the future?’ ” the older child explains. “That felt awful, because of course we cared, of course we wanted to do our part. But it felt like he was using our voices to spread his message.”

Foster was also determined that his household reduce its own carbon footprint. He tried to talk his family out of a Hawaiian vacation and other travel. He tried to talk them out of buying a Christmas tree and getting a cat. “Everything I do and don’t do today, to pollute or stop polluting, changes what lives and dies on the planet for the next 300 years — in a very specific, particular way,” he told me. “I can’t let myself off the hook.”

He couldn’t let his family off the hook either, and resentments deepened. “When people asked me how things were going, how I was doing, I’d say, ‘He’s doing important stuff, and it matters,’ ” says his ex-wife, Malinda, who asked that her last name and her children’s names not be used to protect her family’s privacy. “I’d also say, ‘I really respect Gandhi, but I wouldn’t want to be married to him.’ ” Both Malinda and her older child say they felt constantly judged, and frustrated, by Foster’s inflexibility. In 2014, Malinda filed for divorce, and his children said they no longer wanted to be part of his activism — or part of his life.
Emily Johnston (left) and Annette Klapstein, two of the valve turners, at a tar-sands pipeline site near Leonard, Minn. Credit Photograph by Steve Liptay
Malinda says the emotional scars Foster left are profound. “I think he believes he is doing what’s right, and he would be the first to say he’s doing this to protect his kids,” Malinda told me. “What’s tragic is that he’s traumatizing his kids’ present, and what good is the kids’ future without their present?” Things might have been different, Foster’s older child added, if he had presented climate change to his kids as something to be aware of, not something to fear. If he had responded to their occasional reluctance with understanding instead of anger. If he had listened. “When I hear someone mention climate change now, I just feel this overwhelming guilt,” Foster’s older child said. “I think, 27 trees. I’ve only planted 27 trees. I haven’t done enough. I have so much further to go.”

After his divorce, Foster, who had already closed up his private therapy practice to focus on climate activism, moved into a room in a house owned by two fellow activists. He now lives on less than $500 a month, usually traveling by bus, train or bicycle. While low-carbon living affords him some peace of mind, he can’t entirely eliminate his own impact on the climate, and he sometimes stands in the grocery store, wondering what he can possibly justify eating. He is not in regular contact with his family — a situation that clearly pains him deeply — and his voice still shakes when he talks about his children. “I am so sorry that I was not able to listen, or sit still enough, or be present with them enough so that they could share whatever they were feeling,” he says now. “I failed to stay close and safe, and be somebody they could count on, and that will always be my single greatest shame.”

Foster’s trial began in Cavalier, a tiny town in North Dakota, on Oct. 2 of last year, and after two and a half days of testimony, the jury convicted him of felony criminal mischief, felony conspiracy to commit criminal mischief and criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. He was found innocent only of reckless endangerment. Foster’s co-defendant, Sam Jessup, a 32-year-old carpenter who accompanied him to the valve and live-streamed its closing, was convicted of felony conspiracy to commit criminal mischief and misdemeanor criminal conspiracy. (The charges against Schlosberg were dropped.) In pretrial hearings, Judge Fontaine ruled that Foster and Jessup would not be allowed to mount a necessity defense, just as the judges had ruled in Ward’s case in Washington and Leonard Higgins’s in Montana. Lawyers for the two other Valve Turners, Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein, were able to persuade the judge to allow that defense in their forthcoming trial, but the decision has been appealed by the prosecution. As a result, the climate scientist James Hansen, who attended Foster and Jessup’s trial, was not allowed to testify, but it’s very unlikely that more information about climate change would have altered the verdict.

Unlike the divided jurors in Ward’s trial, all the jurors in Cavalier were persuaded that Foster and Jessup were guilty of something. “If you want to protest, you can protest,” one juror told me, “but you can’t go on to someone else’s property and destroy things.” Lonny Johnson, the TransCanada employee who visited the site after Foster turned the valve, testified that the valve wasn’t designed to be closed against pressure as Foster had done, but that he’d found no cracks or leaks when he inspected it. The prosecutors, however, argued that a leak could have caused a fire or explosion or polluted the nearby Pembina River. During jury selection, several potential jurors said that they had heard about Foster’s action while listening to police scanners and had been so frightened by the potential consequences that they did not feel they could serve on the jury.

After his conviction, Foster returned to Seattle to await sentencing. He continued to plant trees, give slide shows and talk publicly about his decision to turn off the Keystone Pipeline, and he gave several guest sermons at liberal churches, some inspired by Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” “Hilarious to think my emotional experience is no different today,” he told me in a text.

On Feb. 5, he and Jessup were back in Cavalier for their sentencing, accompanied by Klapstein, Higgins and family members. The temperature was well below freezing even at midday, and the frosted streets were quiet. That evening, in the bar of the town’s only motel, the two prosecuting attorneys sat together, while Foster and his group ate dinner just a few feet away. Foster was in a reflective mood. “It’s so strange to think that tomorrow I could get 21 years — or I could be free for lunch,” he said.

The next morning, inside the century-old county courthouse, Judge Fontaine asked if Foster wanted to make a statement before his sentencing. “Yes, Your Honor,” Foster said.

Apologizing pre-emptively for his tendency to “start preaching,” Foster spoke for almost 20 minutes, invoking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Thoreau. “I don’t know if this action was effective,” he said. “If somebody else, somewhere down the line, takes some meaning from what I did and they apply it in the way that they see fit, that’s what my action was meant to do.”

Jessup, weighing his words carefully, spoke next. “For my entire adult life, I’ve been concerned about this issue,” he said. “I came to North Dakota because I had a hope that through the necessity defense, the people of North Dakota would be given the opportunity to consider the evidence and weigh in, participate in a public deliberation in a way that I haven’t seen.” He added, “I don’t think that this was a perfect realization of that vision.”

Judge Fontaine announced a short recess. “This is not a typical criminal case,” she said when she returned. She had rejected the necessity defense because, in her view, there were still legal means to address climate change. “If you can’t convince the government, then you convince the people,” she said, “and it seems to me the way you convince the people in this world is by 60-second sound bites, by commercials.”

She had, she said, received many letters on Foster’s behalf, most describing him as generous to his community and as doing exemplary work with kids. A few, however, described him as narcissistic and attention-seeking. “You like being in front of the camera, you like all the attention,” she said. “Everything about you, and everything you’ve said to me, is this was the right thing to do, this is what I’m called to do, this is what I have to do. So nothing about that tells me you wouldn’t do the same thing next month, next year, next week.”

Judge Fontaine sentenced Foster to three years in prison, with two of those years to be suspended and served on supervised probation. Jessup was given a suspended sentence of two years. When the hearing ended, two officers approached Foster. He stood, and as he silently mouthed, “I love you,” to his supporters in the front row, he was escorted out of the courtroom. Jessup stayed behind the defense table, looking lost.

The next afternoon, Higgins and I visited the county jail, an 18-bed operation tucked behind the courthouse. We stood in the cramped cinder-block visiting booth, separated from Foster by a thick sheet of Plexiglas, and took turns speaking to him through a phone handset. Foster was dressed in bright orange prison scrubs topped with a matching sweatshirt, and he looked tired but happy. Higgins, whose own sentencing for felony criminal mischief and misdemeanor criminal trespass is scheduled for March 20, teased Foster about his new wardrobe, and Foster laughed. “I’m going to miss everyone,” he said. “The isolation’s going to be hard.” He would miss fresh air too. Thoreau’s cabin wasn’t much bigger than a jail cell, but he got to go outside whenever he liked. Foster acknowledged, though, that he was there by choice, and said he had regrets about his statement to the judge. “I blew it. I really didn’t speak to her concerns.” But for the moment, at least, he felt as if he were in the right place. Then he paraphrased the man he portrayed onstage 30 years ago: “If society is unjust, the only just place for a person is in jail.”

Michelle Nijhuis is a project editor at The Atlantic who also writes about science for various publications, including National Geographic. This is her first article for the magazine.

Does the Illuminati Control the World?

Questioning the hidden power of elites – whether big pharma or secret societies – is really quite sane
If the Illuminati is real, it’s got to be the least secret secret society in the universe. It’s so bad at keeping itself hidden that its existence is proclaimed all over the internet by people whose investigative toolkit consists entirely of Google and a lively imagination.

The most recent would-be whistleblower, however, is far from your usual ex-sports commentator. Paul Hellyer, a former Canadian minister of defence, has blamed the Illuminati for suppressing technology brought to Earth by aliens that could end our reliance on fossil fuels.
Why the possessors of such fantastic kit should prefer to cash in on the extraction of still abundant oil rather than on their incredible, exclusive alternative is mysterious. But since the whole point about secret all-powerful elites is that they are mysterious, maybe that’s to be expected. Perhaps the Illuminati is like that other great mystery, quantum theory: if you think you understand it, you don’t.

Mockery is easy, but it’s also reassuring. It’s good to know that we’re much more sensible and rational than these clearly deluded conspiracy theorists. The problem is that they differ from the rest of us only in degree, not kind.

The reasons why people believe in secret, controlling elites are rooted in basic human nature. We are constantly on the lookout for both patterns and agency. Pattern-seeking is essential for our survival, and the penalties for seeing patterns where none exist are lighter than those for missing patterns that really are there. If our ancestors had failed to notice that crops left to dry tended to die, they too would have expired through starvation. But if they thought they had noticed that sacrificing a goat increased the likelihood of rain, then at worst they wasted the odd bit of meat.

The assumption of agency is also extremely helpful. We cannot begin to understand the actions of others unless we attribute motives to their actions. But adopting what the US philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance” can be helpful even when we know that there is no conscious intention at all. Thinking of plants as “wanting” sunlight or “trying” to flower, for example, is an easy way of understanding their behaviour.

When these basic human cognitive mechanisms create problems we label them as pathologies. Pareidolia, for instance, is seeing patterns in random data, such as the face of Jesus in a cream cracker or the date of the apocalypse in Donald Trump’s social security number. However, from a strictly rational point of view, these mechanisms are always defective. The difference between a “normal” person and one with pareidolia is simply whether the over-sensitivity to pattern causes problems functioning. Similarly, hyperactive agency detection is the human condition, not a medical one.

Furthermore, the causes of our overuse of these basic cognitive mechanisms are often completely understandable desires rather than pathological defects. The world is confusing and complex. Almost all of us try to tidy it up, which is why there are disciplines such as social science, economics and international relations. All require the time, intelligence or education that most of us lack. Little wonder that we often resort to quicker, dirtier ways of making the world comprehensible.

Rather than just dismissing Hellyer and his ilk, we would do better to see how much of our thinking displays the same weaknesses. In many circles, it is a sign of intelligence, not eccentricity, to attribute ultimate power to “a secret cabal that’s actually running the world”, as Hellyer put it. As long, that is, as the cabal is the global financial elite, the military–industrial complex, big pharma or agribusiness.

I’m not saying that these ideas are on the same level of nuttiness as the Illuminati. Indeed, it’s the differences that blind us to the similarities. Because these lesser conspiracy theories are grounded in evident truths, people easily fail to notice when they slide from seeing real, limited power to imagined, total power. The difference between vested interests that exercise influence all over the place are those that exercise control literally everywhere is in some ways small, in other ways critical.

The wrong moral to draw from this would be that anyone who sees hidden power being influenced is crazy. Rather, we should see the Hellyers of this world as the price we pay for being willing to question the manifest order and to expose the secretive interest groups who seek to manipulate the world for their own benefit. When we dig for the truth, we flirt with madness. But in a world where hidden power is all too real, it’s the only sane thing to do.

Julian Baggini is a British philosopher

Going for 10,000

Old Tjikko

The world's oldest individual clonal tree looks like a wimp despite standing tall for 9,550 years. 

 


Growing high atop Sweden’s Fulufajallet Mountain is a Norway Spruce that sure doesn’t look like much—but this little tree is an estimated 9,550 years old, and goes by the name of Old Tjikko.

Located in Fulufjallet National Park, Old Tjikko began growing in this harsh tundra shortly after the glaciers receded from Scandinavia at the close of the last ice age. To put that into perspective, this lowly shrub was growing as humans learned to plow fields, domesticate the cat, and—2,000 years after it first took root—our ancestors begin learning to smelt copper.

Though the tree may have spent millennia as a shrub before the climate warmed enough for it to grow into the spindly tree we see today, scientists had a hunch Old Tjikko was part of an ancient clonal organism. When setting out to establish the tree’s exact age, they carbon dated the roots system beneath the tree itself, revealing the true age of Old Tjikko.

To add even farther to the charm of this scraggly nine thousand year old tree Old Tjikko was named after discoverer Leif Kullman’s dog.
Know Before You Go
Though a small, unmarked path leading through the park to the tree exists, rangers much prefer to lead interested visitors on a free guided tour from the Naturum's entrance to the base of the tree for the sake of environmental preservation that (hopefully) need not be explained here.

Farm Japan

Picture perfect: Volunteering on a farm surrounded by mountains and with a cool stream just outside its front door might sound tantalizing, but volunteers need to be ready to get their hands dirty. | MIDORI FARM
 

Midori Farm: Finding earthy solutions in rural Shiga

The Japan Times  by   Contributing Writer
In 2004, Chuck Kayser faced a first-world problem: How to satisfy his craving for Mexican food in Kyoto? Japan in general and Kyoto in particular faced a dearth of Mexican restaurants or ingredients.
Despite having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, Kayser decided to roll up his sleeves and tackle the problem himself. He planted jalapeno peppers, bell peppers and tomatoes, staples of Mexican cuisine, on his balcony. These humble roots have blossomed into a business and lifestyle. Fourteen years on, Midori Farm now encompasses several plots of land in rural Shiga, sells produce on a small scale and introduces rural life to those wanting a taste of agriculture and nature.
Midori Farm produce for sale
Midori Farm produce for sale | MIDORI FARM

Market solutions

Midori Farm has sold produce at markets in Kyoto, but getting the right produce to the right place at the right time can be challenging. While organic produce familiar to Japanese consumers such as cucumbers, tomatoes and garlic sell well, others are tougher to move.

“Squash is wonderful to plant,” Kayser, 47, explains. “It grows easily, keeps well and is cold-resistant. It’s just not familiar to Japanese, so it doesn’t sell well, unfortunately.”

One solution has been to do business along the lines of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model. The idea is for a small-scale farmer — in this case, one who grows organically — to leave produce at a community drop-off point where locals “subscribe” to guarantee a share of all the produce that farmer grows. This is similar to Japan’s teikei system, which also seeks to build a closer relationship between growers and locals.

Kayser also enjoys selling produce at parties held at Yokai Soho, a community event space in Kyoto.
“It’s great to get some beers and have fun while selling,” he says. 

“Curry sells especially well.” At the moment, curry is the only ready-made dish Midori Farm sells.

But selling produce is just one aspect of Midori Farm’s mission.
Chuck Kayser
Chuck Kayser | MIDORI FARM

Three-pronged mission

“A farm is more than just the sum of its crops,” Kayser explains. His equation for Midori Farm includes three distinct variables for benefits and growth: agricultural, environmental and social.

Japan’s agricultural output is rapidly decreasing as rural areas suffer from depopulation and the younger generation eschews farming. Kayser notes that Japan now imports over 60 percent of its caloric intake, a less-than-ideal situation, especially given that a geopolitical crisis seems just one tweet away.

For four millenia Japan has been utilizing home-grown methods to protect land from topsoil loss. In the past this mostly meant using manure from beasts of burden like oxen, and burning brush to use ash. Brush is still burned (although some residential areas may have ordinances against burning, which are often ignored), and now it can and should include kitchen scraps. Kayser gets cow manure in bulk from local farmers.

Kayser, who has been informed by trial and error, websites and books like “Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan,” notes that in the past, “humanure” — using human waste — was also practiced. While today human and dog waste is shunned due to concerns about unwanted parasites and bacteria, if subjected to temperatures high enough, humanure can provide solutions to multiple problems.

While typical composting can’t be trusted to consistently raise the temperature high enough, firms such as Orgaworld have built factories to turn human waste into usable manure. Kayser says he’d love to see Kyoto invest money in something similar, so our massive collective human waste doesn’t merely get flushed down the pan.

Kayser, who is mainly inspired by modern Western gardening techniques, feels Japan is a little behind when it comes to composting and organic gardening.

“Ironically, I haven’t been able to find affordable konbu (kelp) fertilizer, something used in the West,” he says. “Home centers sell too many chemical fertilizers. People in Japan aren’t doing enough organic gardening.”

To supplement his compost bins, Kayser also routinely scoops up bags of leaves awaiting incineration from garbage collection points. 

Composting the leaves is a simple, eloquent solution to the problems of yard waste, topsoil loss and the pollution caused by incineration.

The third leg of Midori Farm is social. It not only gets individuals involved in gardening and environmental protection, but also brings foreign and local people together.
Volunteers Leo Porte (left) and Camille Chappuis
Volunteers Leo Porte (left) and Camille Chappuis | STUART GIBSON

Building community

Midori Farm has been built on the back of goodwill. Kayser first visited the area — which is closer to Takashima, Shiga, than Kyoto — after a friend tipped him off to reasonably priced land suitable for building a cabin. Unable to purchase land due to zoning problems, Kayser embarked on the 70-minute drive from Kyoto after the landowner offered him use of the land rent-free. It wasn’t long before another neighbor offered nearby land for him to grow food on, then third and fourth plots just a kilometer up the mountain road.

Not owning might seem precarious, but Kayser understands locals’ reluctance to sell.

“Land is heirloom, maybe 20 or 30 generations. They’d feel like they’re selling off their ancestors.”

The land contains a small cabin that had been used by temporary workers back in the 1970s. Families would stay and work seasonally. After Japan gained greater affluence, that practice largely ended, leaving most cabins to fall into disrepair and, eventually, be torn down. Midori Farm’s, while rough and drafty, has survived and is being improved, with the help of Kayser’s carpentry skills.

Camille Chappuis was introduced to Midori Farm in August 2017 by a mutual friend and ended up staying for four months. He says that Japan’s mountains resemble those of his home country, Switzerland.

Chappuis reckons that agricultural work naturally attracts people of goodwill. “Neighbors gave me so many presents,” he says. “They even brought warm clothes in late fall.”

Beyond the material gifts, Chappuis has felt warmly welcomed in this rural community. He enjoyed a day-long “miso soup party,” while on other occasions they have bonded over stronger beverages. 

Several times Chappuis helped a neighbor chain-saw trees downed by a typhoon, some of which he was offered for use in the wood stove or to heat the bath water at Midori Farm.

Especially in summer, volunteering on a farm surrounded by mountains and with a cool stream just outside its front door might sound tantalizing to travelers, but volunteers need to be ready to embrace physical labor. And while it’s comforting to have kind neighbors nearby, the cabin and farm are isolated, with no TV or Wi-Fi, and the nearest store is several kilometers away. More disconcerting, a hospital is even farther out of reach.

“One night I foolishly slipped when breaking boards with my foot and gashed my head,” Chappuis explains. “With blood gushing out, I knew it had to be stitched. Not wanting to bother the neighbors to drive me an hour to a hospital that might not be staffed anyway, I took matters into my own hands. After steadying myself with a few beers, I put in four stitches myself. Look, no scar!” Chappuis quickly added that being careful is far preferable to having to deliver your own emergency treatment.
Yoko and Muneo Kishima
Yoko and Muneo Kishima | MIDORI FARM
One local elderly couple who speak English, the Kishimas, have befriended Kayser, Chappuis and other volunteers.

“Camille came often to eat dinner and watch TV,” Muneo Kishima says. “We have thoroughly enjoyed interacting with him and the others.”

And neighbors who don’t speak English?

“Camille was very friendly,” Kishima explains. “He would chat with neighbors and ask gardening questions. After their pleasant exchanges they’d come ask me, ‘What did he say?’ Neighbors love having them around.”

In particular, Chappuis hit it off with the owner of the tiny sake-ya (liquor shop). “He somehow figured out Camille’s birthday and gave him a canned beer as a present,” Kishima says.

The giving, however, has not been just one-way. On Respect for the Aged Day, Chappuis made bouquets of flowers and a small food basket and gave them to neighbors.
Left to right: Volunteers Camille Chappuis, Mika, Leo and Sean.
Left to right: Volunteers Camille Chappuis, Mika, Leo and Sean. | MIDORI FARM

Workaway holidays

Chappuis has also gotten along well with the six foreign workers — Workaway volunteers — who also stayed in Midori Farm’s tiny cabin and worked alongside him for weeks or months. Workaway is a group that has been connecting travelers seeking volunteer work with local hosts for decades (see sidebar).

Pauline, a Frenchwoman who roughed it with Chappuis in autumn, had crepes prepared every morning for when he got up and created a buzz with her culinary skills. Arturo, who hails from Cancun, Mexico, ended up planting leafy greens rather than jalapeno peppers. Others from Australia and the U.S. enjoyed their stays there as well. Like Chappuis, volunteers are provided staple foods and board in the cabin in exchange for five or six hours of work a day.

“Most have been really conscientious,” Kayser notes. “Only rarely have I felt the work wasn’t done properly.”

For 2018, Kayser is seeking one long-term volunteer to stay a minimum of one month starting on or around March 19, and shorter-term volunteers who would stay a minimum of two weeks. Unlike my own five-month volunteer experience WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms, which predates Workaway) in New Zealand in the 1990s, when all I pretty much did was pull weeds, Midori Farm volunteers have varied tasks that include composting, planting and harvesting. Kayser shares the farming knowledge he’s built over his decade-plus of organic gardening and says he enjoys interacting with the volunteers.
Leap frog: Not all of  the wildlife attracted to Midori Farm is this benign.
Leap frog: Not all of the wildlife attracted to Midori Farm is this benign. | MIDORI FARM

Unwelcome guests

While the volunteers and the local community have gotten along swimmingly, battles with the animal population have been more or less constant.

“There have been years when animals have wiped out a crop,” Kayser says. “It was disheartening to see all that work end with nothing tangible.” Kayser knows monkeys in particular have gorged on the fruits of his labor in the past.

Hoping to remedy the problem with an electric fence, Kayser started a Faavo crowdfunding project (see sidebar). Faavo, Japan’s version of a Kickstarter or GoFundMe page, connects people and projects needing capital with people who have the financial means and goodwill to help.

The ¥100,000 raised fell far short of the desired mark of ¥800,000, but Kayser was able to put that money to good use (Kickstarters, on the other hand, are all-or-nothing).

“Using Faavo was probably not a good move,” Kayser now admits. “It’s not a page that gets a lot of attention.”

Kayser purchased fencing for one plot, sans the electric shocks. Thus far, this fortress has been keeping monkeys at bay. The wire fence is several meters high; atop each post are spiked pieces that don’t, in theory, allow monkeys to get a good enough grip to leap over the extended inner fencing and feast.
Not all hard work:  At Midori Farm, misshapen fruit are celebrated, not rejected.
Not all hard work: At Midori Farm, misshapen fruit are celebrated, not rejected. | MIDORI FARM

The future

Expansion may be in the cards. Across the river from Midori Farm’s cabin is an abandoned campground. Until 2015 the village had run the Hera Fureai Center, which taught agriculture and nature appreciation, on the site. Kayser has used the grounds to camp, barbecue, hold events utilizing the hiking trails and will likely be allowed to use two more large plots for gardens. “It’ll be a big job to reclaim the land from nature,” he concedes.

And just 5 kilometers down the road is Daikokutani, another government-funded campground that is falling into disarray. The grounds, which contain 10 cabins and a huge lodge, are now used just once a year — for all-night raves. Other than that night of music and dancing, Midori Farm might be able to put the venue to use for events, volunteer housing or, more ambitiously, an ecology center.
While operated as a de facto nonprofit, Kayser has applied the brakes to making it official. “NPOs don’t really have special status in Japan,” Kayser explains. “And there are a lot of hoops to jump through to get it.”

In the meantime, Kayser has pledged to maintain NPO-like diligence by working with directors and keeping financing and activities transparent.

While in a sense Midori Farm started as the solution to a tiny problem — Kayser’s desire for Mexican cuisine — problem-solving remains central to its operations. Many interconnected problems regarding the environment, the economy and society can be neatly solved by refocusing on earthy matters.

Kayser, who runs his own school for kids, among other teaching jobs, hopes to dedicate himself completely to Midori Farm by 2022. In the meantime, he will keep farming and hosting volunteers.
“The main goal,” Kayser explains, “is to get people to return to Japan’s traditional food system of eating locally, in season, and having a relationship with farmers the same way they do with other professionals. Along the way, I hope they fall in love with nature and work to protect it.”

Get back to the land

Looking for a money-saving adventure abroad? Workaway connects hosts with travelers who are willing to work in exchange for room and board.

An annual membership fee of $34 gives travelers the opportunity to choose work situations from an extensive country list, from Albania to Vanuatu. While many opportunities involve gardening or outdoor work, they include any sort of unskilled labor.

Workaway is a lot like the granddaddy hosting organization, WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farm), which also, despite its name, contains nonfarming work opportunities. Workaway has the advantage of only requiring a single fee for all countries, whereby with WWOOF, each country has its own organization that must be joined.

Crowdfund options

While Kiva, which offers microloans to individuals on low incomes who otherwise can’t get them, might have been the first crowdfunding site, Kickstarter soon became the standard. Kickstarter projects tend to be more oriented to artistic pursuits and, significantly, project funding is all or nothing.

GoFundMe, which more than doubles the amount of money that Kickstarter transfers to project starters, welcomes any type of project, and even if the amount raised falls short of the goal, it is possible to get that money. Faavo, which is only available in Japanese, has hosted over 1,100 projects since 2012.

Midori Farm: www.midorifarm.net/home-en. Workaway: www.workaway.info