‘Do something’: an intimate look at the personal lives of climate activists
Early in the morning on 2 September 2014, Abby Brockway left her home in Seattle and, along with two dozen other climate activists, drove about a half hour north to a railyard in Everett, Washington. The group erected a massive, chained tripod over the crossed tracks, blocking a large line of oil tank cars. Brockway sat atop the 20ft structure flanked by a flag which read “Cut oil trains, not conductors.”
“It was so empowering,” Brockway told the Guardian of her hours perched high above the ground and the fleet of police officers who gathered to arrest her and four others for trespassing. The five aimed for a trial, seen in this year’s eco-documentary The Race to Save the World, which would highlight the urgency of curbing fossil fuel consumption at large, draw attention to the risk of oil train spills in their backyards, and test the “necessity defense” – the argument that civil disobedience was the only recourse for stopping fossil fuel’s harm to the planet – in court. For Brockway, the decision to climb the tripod was “a combination of just the literal safety immediately and also long-term safety of the way we’re addicted to oil”, she said. Months earlier, an oil train derailed just a mile from her then-teenage daughter’s school; for Brockway, her daughter’s future outweighed the risk of going to jail. “I had to do this for her.”
Brockway is one of many featured in The Race To Save the World, a years-long documentary project following several activists, aged 15-72 and mostly based in America’s Pacific north-west, as they push, often at personal peril with incredible emotional investment, for immediate action to stem Earth’s accelerating climate crisis. The tactics range from tests of potentially great legal liability – Brockway’s blockage of the oil train, the “Valve Turners” who shut off the 2,700-mile Keystone pipeline in North Dakota in 2016 – to more symbolic or systemic methods.
The film follows the Great March for Climate Action, in which participants walked over 3,000 miles, from outside Los Angeles to Washington DC over the course of 2014; speaks with Aji Piper and his brother Adonis Williams, who along with six other youths sued the state of Washington’s department of ecology for not doing enough to fight climate change; weaves through the 2019 People’s Climate March in New York; and embeds with the longtime climate activist Bill Moyer, who helped organize “kayaktivism” protests to thwart the harboring of a Shell Arctic drilling rig in Seattle with a fleet of kayaks.
The documentary, released as Joe Biden seeks to re-establish US leadership on the climate crisis with a two-day climate summit for 40 world leaders, takes the exigency of climate action and the direness the damage already done as a given. Instead, the director, Joe Gantz, focuses on the personal lives of a representative but by no means comprehensive slate of activists, offering several small, at times mundane and very human windows into the most pressing issue for the planet.
The documentary forgoes ominous narration, expert testimony, or the listing of scientific evidence, because films that “were telling people, again and again, how bad things are and how much worse they were going to get were so overwhelming and depressing that people were tuning them out”, Gantz told the Guardian.
Instead, he aimed for an “uplifting and inspiring and energizing rather than depressing” burrow into the climate crisis by flipping the crisis’s overwhelming scale with footage of individual relationships strained and deepened by the stress and constancy of the work. “These are people who don’t really have the option of tuning it out,” said Gantz. “They have no choice but to do whatever they can even if it puts their career at risk, if it puts them in hot water with their family in many respects, or puts their freedom at risk.”
“Just like my ability to do my work depends on the strength of my relationships at home, social movement is relational,” Moyer told the Guardian. The film’s emotional focus – footage of Aji and Adonis’s tiffs with their mother, or Moyer’s teenage daughter Aziza’s feelings about her dad’s unrelenting activist work ethic, or haircuts given during the climate walk across the country – actually evince activist strategy, according to Moyer. “Building connections to other groups, expanding alliances, is absolutely the most strategic thing you can do.”
“The fact that the film focuses on relationships gets to a kind of truth and maybe a power that we can’t get to if we only talk about statistics,” he added. “We connect to each other with our hearts, and we connect to issues from our gut. And we build solidarity by acting together, doing things together.”
The film also tracks closely the stress of legal proceedings, however much they were intended. Brockway did stand trial in a court which refused to consider the necessity defense; she and the other four activists were acquitted of obstructing the train but found guilty of trespassing. The camera finds Brockway empowered on the tripod but tongue-tied on the witness stand, breaking down into stammers and confusion over several minutes, clearly torturous for her family to watch. Foster was also found guilty in a North Dakota court and sentenced to a year in prison, much to the dismay of his loyal girlfriend.
Relationship stress, climate anxiety, and joy within protests aside, climate change is, to be clear, “an existential threat to all our futures”, said Gantz. But humans being humans, motivation to act doesn’t often arise from a pile of grim facts about the planet’s climate trajectory, its sea of plastic or extended wildfire seasons or disrupted animal migration patterns. The Race to Save the World operates on the individual and personal levels as a relatable, disarming entry point into climate action, even if some of the actions portrayed, such as Foster’s or Brockway’s trespassing charges, probably exceed many viewer’s comfort levels.
“The scale is so daunting, so intangible, and sometimes so invisible,” said Moyer. But “the most important thing is for people to start, and do something. And to lean into the threshold of their comfort, to expand what is comfortable for them” as “rebellion is a muscle that has to be exercised.”
“I didn’t want to underline how bad things are and how much worse they’re going to be,” said Gantz. “I wanted to show that there’s a group of optimistic people who are ready to take action and to do everything they can to affect change.
“We all need to do that if we want to effect the kind of change that needs to happen in the time frame we have,” he added. “The only way that politicians are going to make these changes is if people get into the streets and make their voices heard.”
The Race to Save the World is available digitally on 22 April