Author Rick Bass schools writers in environmental activism
RIPTON — Acclaimed writer and activist Rick Bass sparked a lively discussion about activism, the environment, and the justice system when he gave a lecture titled “The Joy of Being Arrested” at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus this past Thursday morning.
Bass told the story of being arrested when he zip-tied himself to the gates of the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline the day after President Obama’s State of the Union address in February 2013.
He was arrested along with a cast of notable public figures, including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., actress Daryl Hannah, and Middlebury College scholar-in-residence Bill McKibben, whose group, 350.org, organized the demonstration.
The proposed pipeline project would carry tar sands oil 2,000 miles, from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. It has been a major item of national contention and has drawn sharp criticism from environmental organizations such as 350.org.
The venue for Bass’s lecture was not a political forum per se; it was the 1st annual Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ conference. The conference is co-sponsored by Middlebury College and Orion magazine, a leading publication of environmentally oriented writing.
In his talk, Bass cast the demonstration as a successful effort to raise awareness in the media of the Keystone controversy.
“Being arrested was fun,” he said, “like when you’re 5 or 6 years old and you get to go with your friends to a birthday party.”
Some members of the audience felt that Bass took too much for granted. One woman pointed out that for Bass, “an attorney will be there shortly after to set you free, even though there are many people in this country who do not have that … there are more subtle and complex ways to engage with people.”
Another audience member recalled protesting the Vietnam War.
“It was hard to call home when your voice had been changed by tear gas,” she said.
Bass acknowledged that a protest such as this one can be a spectacle, but it was a necessary spectacle.
“It’s a shame that it is a dog and pony show,” he said. But, he added, being arrested as an activist “is a media circus, and it can be a chink in the armor.”
He also saw such arrests as only a first step. He quoted Gandhi to show the progression that such activism ideally takes:
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you — and then you win.”
Bass also criticized President Obama for “largely ignoring” the issue of climate change.
“It’s a shame that while we were protesting, the president was in Florida, playing golf with Tiger Woods,” he said.
Bass knows a thing or two about energy development. He is a former oil and gas geologist who began writing short stories on his lunch breaks. Now a highly respected writer, Bass has increasingly turned his attention to environmental writing and activism.
Bass, who lives in the Yaak Valley of Montana, is committed to preserving that wilderness and others like it. His books include “Why I Came West,” “All the Land That Holds Us” and “The Lives of Rocks.”
He has visited Middlebury College several times, and is a close friend and colleague of McKibben, who resides in Ripton. A well-respected author on environmental issues, McKibben founded 350.org as an effort to raise awareness of carbon dioxide pollution.
The lecture was part of a program of public events at the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, which took place from June 9-15. It also included writing workshops and tutoring for its participants.
Along with the Middlebury School of the Environment, which will have its inaugural session this summer as well, the conference is the latest in a series of environmentally conscious initiatives launched by the college.
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