As a longtime activist I did not expect to be blown away by the Canyon Country Action Camp held for a week in July at Swasey’s Beach in Green River. The purpose of the week-long event was to empower and educate people to become regional organizers and leaders in the fight for climate justice and a livable future. Climate justice means recognizing and working at the intersections of environmental degradation and the racial, social, and economic inequalities it perpetuates.
First, there were the young people —those in their 20s and 30s who understand that climate justice is the human rights struggle of our time and that it is inextricably linked to global economic justice. They were looking for new ways to impact not only individual behavior but also the fossil fuel industries that are at the center of the global economic system.
There were a handful of elders—those of us who have been through many campaigns over the past five decades and are grateful for youthful and middle-aged compatriots. We are still learning, active, and wanting to be involved in the most important issue of our time.
There were the big thinkers, such as our local gem of a historian, lawyer Rebecca Hall, who searched social movement history for lessons to be learned in the fight for climate justice. While we rely on strategies and tactics from the Civil Rights movement, Rebecca suggested that what we are attempting in disrupting the fossil fuel industry has more in common with the movement in the late 1700s and early 1800s to abolish the slave trade. Our goal is fundamental systems change in the world economic order, much like the challenge faced by those for whom slavery was intrinsic to their economic system. Today the stakes are the short-term profits of large corporations and a small group of individuals vs. the air, water, land and food that are the ultimate infrastructure of human civilization.
The 100-plus attendees included 14 members of indigenous nations —those who have known that in this web of life we are all connected and from whom we continue to learn. Representatives from the Dineh (Navajo) and Lakota Nations graced us with their wisdom, knowledge, commitment, singing, prayers and drumming.
Information-packed teaching sessions were led by professionals from nongovernmental (NGO) organizations and others who are in for the long haul in this defining worldwide struggle. Their expertise was both deep and wide, ranging across issues from land and water management, fossil fuel extraction, techniques of community organizing, legal rights and media management.
The veteran experts built a solid foundation, helping attendees connect the dots among power, inequality and climate change; introducing concepts and practical applications of nonviolent direct action; and explaining technical issues related to tar sands, oil shale and energy development in our region and, in particular, our state. US Oil Sands, a subsidiary of the Canadian company that wants to build the Keystone XL Pipeline through the middle of the U.S., holds roughly 32,000 acres of leases of state public lands at PR Springs (north of I-70 along the Colorado border), and the BLM plans to open around 130,000 acres of federal public lands in Utah for tar sands mining.
The focus was on the immediate proposed tar sands mine at PR Springs, the first permitted tar sands strip mining or open-pit mining site in the US, and the construction of the Seep Ridge Road industrial corridor on the Tavaputs Plateau.
Then, they got down to the nitty-gritty—clarifying regional environmental justice issues, including the complex web of land management agencies in Utah and the rural West and their roles in the permitting processes; legal challenges; industrial processes; potential impacts to the environment and communities; as well as strategies for developing successful direct action campaigns and implementing creative and effective actions.
While the climate crisis is an issue that affects everyone, those who feel it first are the marginalized around the world. Earth’s population now includes an estimated 26 million climate refugees, people who had to flee their homes due to flooding, desertification or other climate change consequences over which they have no control. This includes the government of the Maldives, off the southern tip of India, that is buying land in other countries with the intention of moving whole populations when their land is under water—in our lifetimes; the Cucapa people of the Colorado River delta, who have been forced to move to higher ground because of unprecedented storms, causing massive flooding; and the indigenous peoples of downriver communties in Canada who report rare types of cancer and genetic mutations in wildlife.
Our futures are linked to the experiences of these climate refugees. No one is immune. Those of us in Salt Lake will be at the frontline of the next wave of destruction. The US Oil Sands company proposes to build refineries in Green River. However, in the meantime, they plan to transport the “dirty oil” from tar sands to North Salt Lake’s already toxic refineries, And they want to expand those as well.
The Seeds of Peace Collective out of Montana facilitated a community kitchen that accommodated dietary restrictions and provided three delicious and nourishing meals each day.
Despite the 103-degree temperatures, the size of the encampment, generational differences of opinion on effective nonviolent direct action and high anxiety regarding the disastrous and rapidly expanding climate crisis, we came together to learn, organize, strategize and live peacefully for a week, culminating in the nonviolent direct action at PR Springs, where work on the road and prelimary mining tests were stopped for a day.
You will continue to hear from the organizers of this training, Peaceful Uprising and the Moab-based Canyon Country Rising Tide. Peaceful Uprising, the organization that emerged from Tim DeChristopher’s disruption of an auction of oil and gas leases, is now headed by Henia Belalia, a talented and committed activist.
You will continue to hear from those around the state, nation, and world who understand that no one is immune from the radical effects of climate change.
Action Camp lit the fire in the belly, once again, and I saw that climate justice is the cause for the rest of my life. It reawakened my belief that there are enough people out there thinking—”doing the math,” to quote Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org). Perhaps local and state governments will not stand up to transnational corporations. But a lot of people care that this project sits on top of Colorado River headwaters which supply drinking water to nearly 30 million people. They are going to stand strong for the health and beauty of this region and help prevent these types of dirty extraction operations from happening around the world.
To learn more about the camp itself, including pictures, videos and news coverage, go to canyoncountryrisingtide.org and www.peacefuluprising. org/.
Links to other articles about the camp, with more content about the growing movement to stop the mining of tar sands in Utah and how you might participate, and great photos, include the following:
Editor’s note: Naomi Silverstone’s activism goes back to 1964 when she was an exchange student to Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. After Bobby Kennedy was killed, she worked on the presidential campaign of Hubert Horatio Humphrey and has been campaigning for progressive candidates ever since. (Factual text comes from the Canyon Country Action Camp welcome packet.)