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On Risk, Anxiety, & Reward

Ben and Nicky with their kids on a hike

by Nicole Bradford


On October 11, 2016, my husband Ben was among those supporting the 5 activists who shut down all five tar sands pipelines into the US in an action called #ShutItDown. Theirs was an unprecedented act of climate direct action, and the biggest coordinated move on U.S. energy infrastructure ever undertaken by environmental protesters. Ben faces up to 5 years in prison (the people who actually turned the valves face up to 21 years). We’re in the waiting period, with ears ready for trial dates and lots of time for reflecting…

Many of my friends have had serious and loving questions for me. Why would Ben and you take this risk? What will you do if he goes to jail for a spell? Why civil disobedience? What good do you think the action will do? What’s the impact? Why does the Necessity Defense matter?

And then there are the questions I ask myself: Does the positive impact of the action outweigh the consequences? How do we organize to make mass actions commonplace? Does this action honor and integrate with the indigenous rights movement? With the immigrants rights crisis? With all the fucking crises? How do we use direct actions as flash points to move people closer to political engagement and radical action? Is my phone a listening device now? No, really—right now?

A lot of these questions didn’t percolate up until after the action. Ben and I were driven by a moral clarity to act—and that kind of resolve can obscure detail. He more than me—Ben’s impractical like that. I was thinking of our kids and what the hell I would do in the worst of outcomes…but intellectually I believed, and now understand with my whole heart, that risking ourselves in acts of civil resistance is the only way to proceed now that all other strategies of mitigating climate catastrophe have proven utterly inadequate. This is the truth: we have our bodies and each other as we face into wind.

There are and will be so many casualties—see the Seattle Times just last week. The man-made climate conditions that force famine, war, and mass migration are here, and featured as commonplace in mainstream news outlets.


And then there are the other surprises. #ShutitDown was conceived when we all thought Clinton would win and we would continue to struggle against the (at least modestly receptive) status quo. Instead, Trump won—and our emergency was brought into acute focus. Last week, Trump signed an executive order, directing the EPA to roll back Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan, in truth, was deeply inadequate, but it was a modest step forward.

Conversely, in the first week of his presidency, Trump signed orders:

  • Forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to violate the treaty rights of the Standing Rock by restarting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
  • Demanding the State Department further violate the sovereign rights of not just indigenous peoples, but all Americans by restarting the Keystone XL pipeline.

And in the first two months he has:

  • Nominated a director for the EPA whose official position on climate change is that it is not a problem, that carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas, and who made it his business to cater to the whims of the fossil fuel industry while AG of Oklahoma.
  • Rolled back Obama’s signature achievement to preventing climate chaos – the Clean Power Plan.

Things are going to get much, much worse. Trump and his supporters (including white supremacists) have tethered the nation to a dying industry and an oppressive worldview that belongs in the dustbin of history. Their actions betray a hatred for indigenous peoples, for the undocumented, for communities of color, for LGBTQIA communities, for the houseless, for low income folx, for women, for people with disabilities, and for our kids who are bequeathed a planet beset by profound revolt both ecological and human.

Truly, it’s up to us. No one is going to save us from a man who embodies the greed, the folly, and the destructiveness of a paradigm that has brought all lives on our planet to the precipice. It is the moral calling of our generation, of this moment, to rise forcefully in opposition to the escalating racism, sexism, colonialism, jingoism, and extractivism that this regime advances.

How do we move from this knowledge to real action? How much of our lives do we offer up?


My children are exquisitely young and their joy and sadness bubbles fiercely, all the time. I’m figuring how to adjust my commitments to the larger world while keeping their preciousness in focus. This is hard. There is a new tightness living in my neck and I’m aging a bit faster. My body is poised in tension, in busyness, in fear, in the circular analysis as to whether I’m doing the right things with the right focus. So many questions…

Yet when I manage to be deeply present with my loves, those moments are all the more delicious and hilarious and poignant—beautifully, painfully so. I’ve never enjoyed mothering more, and I feel a deep and frank connection to my children that’s not always been available to me. The accelerating instability of our earth is clarifying. And the act of rising to the enormity of what’s in front of us magnifies the commitment I made to them, when painfully, in love and toil, I brought them to this world.

I know that to use their youth as an excuse to not engage in this struggle would be to betray their existence. Together we are fighting for something all children on earth should be entitled to: a livable planet. And for Ben and me, the work of it becomes its own love story–to each other, and to our children.

And I am, as always, buoyed by my community. I danced this weekend to brass bands and stood with the biggest-hearted people in front of a fire and we laughed. It was fucking joyous and silly and all too surreal as we interpreted old symbols of country, radicalism, and resistance in a decisively new age.

I’m strengthened by the people who thrust themselves into that which is risky and uncomfortable—hoping that everyone might move a tick towards ebullient rebellion. It’s an honor to live among such hearty souls as we grapple with our new dread…as we bump between horrified and numb. As we integrate this instability into our baseline. As we calculate what we can give. As we rise to opportunities long waiting, and secure our irreverence, laughter, and dogged love for each other in the big spaces still available.

I invite you all into this conversation of misgiving and determination, resignation and faith. And ask that you consider what it means to “disrupt the system”, what it will take to build that movement, and how it might change your relationship with the world in surprising ways, to know that you are doing all that you can to preserve it.

Love, Nicky

Event Invitation:
On Wednesday April 12th at 5:30pm, the ‘Comparative History of Ideas,’ along with American Indian Studies and the Ethnic Cultural Center, will host: Disrupting the System: the Valve-turner Direct Action panel, a discussion with the activists of #ShutitDown about the purpose, intent, and value of civil resistance.Please also sign the support letter for the valve-turners!

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