He couldn't believe how easy it was.
The valve, some 100 feet from a dirt road off an empty highway in dead-flat North Dakota sugar beet country, was almost four feet across; it had to be large for the job it was designed to do. He was surprised when he set his grip—righty tighty, lefty loosey—and the valve glided smoothly under his control.
Michael Foster had done his homework. He’d flown from Seattle into northeastern North Dakota. He’d spent the day before rehearsing: driving the one and a half hours to the valve site from Grand Forks, practicing with bolt cutters. He and his companions—one a videographer, one a documentary filmmaker—ate a nervous restaurant dinner, itching to talk about the next day but afraid of being overheard. Turning the valve was a secret. Not even their families knew.
They woke before dawn on October 11, 2016; gnawed on bagels, chewed a little trail mix. They wouldn’t need lunch. Foster, tense, was also possessed of an odd calm he’d felt since a dreamlike epiphany broke over him the night before: a vision of sheriff’s vehicles surrounding the valve site when they pulled up, and Foster striding out anyway, bolt cutters in hand, fearless. “I need to get in,” his dream self told the sheriff. “I’ve come a long way to shut off this pipeline.”
Now, pulling up to the actual valve site, nary a sheriff’s vehicle in view, Foster knew that secrecy was no longer an issue. A friend back in Seattle had already informed the owner of this pipeline, TransCanada Corporation, that its shutdown was imminent. Foster knew his four partners were each poised at their pipeline valves—Corvallis retiree Leonard Higgins near Coal Banks Landing, in Montana, Seattle poet Emily Johnston and retired Bainbridge Island attorney Annette Klapstein at two valves near the town of Leonard in Minnesota, Oregon climate activist Ken Ward near Burlington in Washington’s Skagit Valley. It was happening.
And Foster felt himself enter the zone. “You could argue that all these things in my life were coming together for this beautiful moment,” he said later. “I’d come this far, I was committed to this purpose, and I was on the right side of history.” He climbed out of the rental car, instantly stung by the frigid northern North Dakota morning, biting winds rumbling across the beet fields; he squeezed his bolt cutters around the padlock at the chained gate. It was much harder now than it had been during practice. A lack of cell reception meant his videographer couldn’t livestream the turning, as planned. What if I can’t do this? What if it ends right here? Everything felt extra real. Everything felt slow.
The lock finally snapped.
The chain, around the valve, went faster. That’s when he lifted his cell phone and recorded a message to his family. I can only imagine what you must be thinking. He started to cry. I hope that maybe someday you’ll get why I had to do this. Because it was for you.
He turned the valve.
What Michael Foster and his four fellow valve turners effected that morning in October 2016 was the shutdown of the five pipelines carrying tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, into the U.S.—a stroke of environmental defiance that halted up to 15 percent of U.S. crude oil imports for almost a day, and that Reuters called “the biggest coordinated move on U.S. energy infrastructure ever undertaken by environmental protesters.”
Foster’s move alone stopped for seven hours the flow of oil through TransCanada’s Keystone 1 pipeline, which shoots some 590,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to refineries on Texas’s Gulf Coast. The charges against him—two criminal felonies, three misdemeanors—include the allegation that Foster’s act cost TransCanada $50,000. A couple of felony reckless endangerment charges reflected the heightened explosion risk whenever a pipeline shuts off abruptly—a prospect the valve turners took pains to minimize, and the reason the friend back in Seattle placed the safety calls. These charges were later dropped, when the judge couldn’t find in his case the requisite “extreme indifference to the value of human life.”
“Apparently my indifference to human life isn’t that extreme,” the 52-year-old Foster noted later, mordant smile cracking his face. Indeed, if you ask Foster what drove his illegal act—what these days pretty much drives the entirety of his existence—he doesn’t even pause. The protection of human life.
“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization has developed and to which life on earth is adapted, the CO2 levels in the atmosphere must be reduced to, at most, 350 parts per million,” he says—paraphrasing climate scientist Dr. James Hansen—as often and as loudly as he can. Four years ago Foster folded up his $70,000-a-year therapy practice so that he could say it as a full-time volunteer, presenting climate change lectures at schools across the region, finding age-appropriate ways to break the news that 350 is fast fading in the rearview mirror. “This year’s average is about 406.”
He ticks off the losses we’re racking up, more rapidly than scientists foresaw. The reduction by half of the population of vertebrates since Foster began grade school. This year’s sobering discovery that 91 percent of the Great Barrier Reef is now bleached. The disappearance of rain forests at the rate of more than 50 soccer fields per minute. “We’re not talking about a canary in a coal mine anymore,” he says softly. “We’re talking about all canaries. And every other bird species. And the wild places they inhabit.”
Most people know that fossil fuels are the primary cause of global warming, and that cutting our use of them is the primary fix. What Foster’s keen on preaching—with the zeal of an Old Testament prophet—is that it’s a fix with a deadline. If we were cutting emissions right now, on a path to 350, we’d be cutting some 9 percent a year. (We aren’t.) But if we wait till 2025, Foster says, eight years from now we’ll have to cut something more like 25 percent a year.
“So at that point the idea of 350 as an option for humanity?” he posits. “We missed it. Passed it. Lost our shot at preserving life as we know it.”
If that happens, it’s our children who will suffer—the prospect that agitates Foster most of all. “If we don’t act right away, we get to be the ones to watch it all fall apart in our kids’ lifetimes,” he says. “Everyone says being a parent is the greatest job on earth. Is it really? Then let’s leave them a home that’s not on fire. This is very personal, because I feel for what my kids’ lives will be like in 2050, when they’re my age. Because no matter what path we start today—2050 is a mess.”
When Foster talks like this—about the probability that we may no longer be able to control humanity’s unfettered experiment with fossil fuels, about the fact that irreversible climate change may already have happened—he visibly darkens. Darker than he gets when talking about the prospect of 23 years in a North Dakota prison.
“I was a mental health counselor for 20 years trying to help people figure out how to be more well adjusted to a pathological culture,” Foster, out on bail, told a room of Seattle environmental activists in December 2016. “When I come out of prison, I don’t want to be a mental health counselor,” he told the group. “I’m not sure I’m cut out for the kind of work that therapists are going to be doing in the year 2025.”
The smattering of high school students waiting in the classroom of Seattle’s elite Bush School in Madison Valley, pulling Tupperwares and oranges out of brown bags, had swelled to some 50 kids by the time Michael Foster took the podium for his lunch presentation. It was March, and Foster—five months postvalve, out on bail awaiting trial—was cramming his calendar with climate presentations. He fiddled with the technology; when his PowerPoint music shot on—volume accidentally turned up to 11—he air-guitared for a moment, drawing chuckles from a famously tough crowd.
Michael Foster speaks kid. There is his stature—“120 pounds of pure adrenaline,” he cracks; “I think I was five foot six once”—along with a youthful brand of wiry energy and a merriness in his intense gray eyes that, to be accurate, can only be called a twinkle. Such is his charisma that people just offer him things: free rent from a couple who want to support his work, free haircuts from a barber born in a country we’ve bombed for oil, animal-free food from the guys at his food bank who make sure to save him the tempeh. (A humorously reluctant vegan, Foster tries not to even utter the words cinnamon roll.) He says he lives on about $600 a month.
He began by telling the Bush kids that global warming is the defining issue of their lifetime, then guided them through the lunch-period version of ruination of life as we know it. Only, impossibly: the empowering version. He called for a show of hands: Who’s willing to do something about this? To reduce your own carbon footprint? To cut your emissions by 9 percent a year? To plant your fair share of the one trillion trees we need to suck more carbon out of the air?
Every hand shot up. The tough crowd was transfixed.
In the past five years, Foster has slashed his own carbon footprint and colaunched the Seattle chapter of the environmental activist group founded by author Bill McKibben, 350.org. He’s prouder still of the actions he’s taken with children. The lawsuit several Seattle area kids have filed against the Washington State Department of Ecology under the direction of Our Children’s Trust was given early propulsion by him on behalf of the two original named plaintiffs, his then-preteen daughters.
That lawsuit grew out of Plant for the Planet, the international kids’ organization started a decade ago in Germany by a nine-year-old; its Seattle branch was begun by Foster. Plant for the Planet is dedicated to training kids how to be “ambassadors” for climate justice, along with how to plant the trees needed to breathe in what our fossil fuel consumption is breathing out. “That’s 150 trees for each person on earth,” Foster tells the Bush School students.
On a Saturday a few weeks earlier, he and a group of Plant for the Planet kids had planted tiny tree saplings at Jefferson Park atop Beacon Hill, safely above sea level rise. The saplings had been cloned from the DNA of stumps of mammoth coastal redwoods, which five million years ago were native here—and may be again, says Foster, as climate change renders Washington the new California.
Asked what will befall humankind in the absence of immediate action, he’ll shift and dodge, until, pressed, he puts his head in his hands. “I don’t want to focus on whether or not we become roving bands of cannibals looking for gasoline,” he says, agitated. “I can talk about the gloom and doom, but every time I do I have to say, ‘It’s here! Life is here!’ We have to live as if the future matters—today!”
After his PowerPoint at Bush, Foster lingered, surrounded like a rock star. Among those waiting to speak with him was a high school senior who earnestly asked what project her green group at school might best turn its energies to. Foster suggested lobbying for stickers at gas pumps, to remind consumers of the direct connection between fossil fuels and global warming. She thanked him for the idea—then thanked him again. “This is so important, the most important issue for my generation,” she said gravely. “It’s amazing what you did,” she added, her eyes filling.
When Michael Foster was three years old, his father was shot dead outside a bar in Laredo, Texas. His mother had walked out on the family a few months earlier, so Foster’s paternal grandparents—a kindly high school teacher and his wife, stricken with grief over the death of their son—took Foster, his five-year-old brother, and his one-year-old sister to live with them in the Houston suburb of Deer Park.
With great care the grandparents sat the kids down and told them what had happened to their father, a professor at a junior college in Laredo. Your father died saving innocent people from a dangerous gunman. Your father died a hero. Thus began the improbably happy childhood of Michael Foster, dominated by the loving care of a large extended family. All within Deer Park, the city along the Houston Ship Channel, where Shell and other oil companies ran their refineries.
The bright-lit spewing smokestacks formed the horizon of the Foster kids’ childhood landscape; their chemical odor the kids’ backseat signal on car trips that they were almost home. As with generations of Texas children, oil bubbled up from deep within their story: Foster’s paternal grandfather had worked at the Shell refinery after the war; Foster’s maternal grandfather—a wildcatter who drilled for oil on spec, fueled by dreams of quick riches—bequeathed Foster’s mother an oil well for every child she bore.
Foster and his siblings maintained contact with their mother, who had remarried and moved to central Texas, but to him she almost felt more like an aunt whom they’d visit a couple times a year. Foster’s grandparents prevailed against her in a custody battle when the kids were little, and he and his siblings grew up hearing that she was the first mother in Harris County to lose custody of her children. Indeed, family lore grew up around the idea that what doomed her wasn’t that she had abandoned her family. No, they said, what doomed this mother in the Texas of the late ’60s was her answer when the judge asked if she was a Christian. No, she replied. I’m a pantheist.
And so Foster found support elsewhere, from his grandparents to his neighborhood posse, with whom he roamed, getting into mischief and scrambling up trees. One of them, a particularly smooth-barked magnolia in his grandparents’ backyard, had a gently forked branch which Foster discovered he could lie upon, his shoulders safely cradled, his legs secure around the trunk, his gaze pointed skyward through the leaves. The tree would hold him. He could sleep there.
His grandmother died of cancer when Foster was in the eighth grade, decades before the state of Texas would discover and reveal elevated cancer rates near the refineries along the Ship Channel. A year later Foster attended a tent revival and returned a born-again Christian; he began to carry his Bible everywhere. “I was a Southern Baptist mystic at 14,” he recalls now, with a smile.
He was also developing onstage skills. As an actor, Foster’s high school team went to state for a one-act drama competition in which he portrayed Henry David Thoreau in a play about civil disobedience, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. As a debater, he liked the challenge of having to learn enough about a given topic to be persuasive on both sides.
His freshman year, the topic was energy independence, and the young Foster dutifully drilled down on the research, learning for the first time about concepts—electric cars, solar energy, the greenhouse effect—nobody was much discussing around Deer Park in the ’70s. Among the facts he learned was a fragment of evidence someone had dug out of an internal report from the Exxon refinery across the bay, back in the day when Exxon led the world in climate research. “It said that humanity had five to 10 years to begin to wean itself off fossil fuels if we were going to make it,” Foster remembers. “At the time, we just thought that was nutjob stuff. Nutsy sci-fi talk.”
“And I’m joking about it with my buddies, and I was like, ‘Besides, what would we do with all these oil refineries?’ ”
It was still morning in the beet fields when Foster finished what he’d come to do.
The turning, which felt to him like entering timelessness itself, had probably taken about 20 minutes. He grabbed the padlock he’d brought; rebolted the chain around the valve. Like his fellow valve turners, he had also brought a pot of flowers—in his case, yellow chrysanthemums—which he now plucked and strung into the links of the chain. That idea came from Skagit Valley valve turner Ken Ward, who had suggested that each action should be able to tell its own story. Flowers represent beauty. Love. Memoriam for a pipeline which must never be used again. The fact that oil is really just old plants. He posed for a few photos, then waited to be arrested.
The sheriff arrived about a half hour later, a sweet guy who reminded Foster of a young Wilford Brimley. He rolled up calm and steady, lowered his window, asked what was goin’ on. Foster, who didn’t have anything prepared to say, was suddenly embarrassed. “I looked down at my bolt cutters and said, ‘Well, we came here and turned off this pipeline with these bolt cutters.’ It could’ve been a scene out of Fargo.”
Foster was patted down, cuffed, and helped into the truck he was too small to get into unaided, and he and the sheriff set off to jail—a trip Foster oddly enjoyed. He noticed sunflowers and planted trees; he asked about the weather. Despite concern for videographer Sam Jessup and the documentarian Deia Schlosberg, both of whom were also arrested—along with his deep awareness that white guy activists get the luxury of chatting about gardening on their way to jail—Foster felt content. Even, dare he think it, a little badass. “I had turned off the Keystone pipeline,” he’d marvel later. “I still get a rush thinking about that.”
They arrived at the Pembina County Jail, where Foster was placed in a holding cell. He was freezing. During his booking Foster gave his prints but didn’t speak; he didn’t yet have a lawyer. It being October, most of the pro bono types around North Dakota were tied up with Standing Rock clients.
He would end up staying two days in the Pembina County Jail, with two cellmates. He chose a few books from a reading table and soon found himself engrossed in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, the story of a charismatic and beloved young sailor who accidentally kills a nefarious shipmate and finally—to the sorrow of the many who loved him, but in the name of maintaining martial order on the ship—is hanged for the crime. He uses his last words to bless the ship’s captain who sentenced him.
The story of the martyr Billy Budd captivated Michael Foster.
At his arraignment Foster still didn’t have legal representation. The prosecutor threw the book at him: eight felony and misdemeanor charges adding up to 51 years. A few of these were later dropped, but still Foster was looking at more prison time than any of the other valve turners—all of whom, he learned, had also been successful in their operations. Foster’s videographers, unexpectedly, had also been charged—Schlosberg with a whopping 45 years, later suspended. Leaving the courtroom, he and Jessup and a few officers, including his arresting sheriff, were squeezed into a small elevator. “Thank you, officers,” Foster said, making eye contact with them. “You did your jobs well.”
Out on bail—posted by a fellow Seattle activist—and contemplating his trip home, Foster was confronted with one of those daily choices that traumatize climate activists: Will it be carbon crystallizing in the stratosphere overhead or black carbon coating the Greenland ice sheet? He chose the latter, and was greeted by friends at the Edmonds train station. Instantly he felt like something had changed. Something big.
“Since then people look at me differently,” he would realize later. “Forget the tiny carbon footprint, all the meetings, the trees I’ve helped plant…that’s all cool, but now people give more weight to what I’m talking about. I’m acting like it’s an emergency.”
His mind kept returning to a research study from years ago, a study he’d heard about from Montana valve turner Leonard Higgins. If a subject is sitting alone in a room, and the room begins filling with smoke, the subject will open the door and get out. If, however, the subject is sitting with others in the room, and they sit calmly ignoring the smoke—chances are good that he’ll sit calmly ignoring it too.
“We’re wired to take our cues from each other,” Foster concluded. “Unless we have people acting like climate change is an emergency, we’re going to keep talking about this as if it’s some kind of Al Gore political issue. And we’re going to fry our kids.”
Foster’s group was not the first to shut down an oil pipeline.
In years prior, in a few separate actions including one in 2015 near the Quebec-Ontario border, Canadian environmentalists successfully closed valves to temporarily halt the flow of tar sands. They did not think they were shutting down the pipelines for good; that would be pie in the sky. They were merely trying to raise the public awareness that can.
“When I heard the Canadian thing, I remember thinking, ‘That is the simplest, biggest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do,’ ” Foster recalls. So last May, at the Break Free protests near the oil refineries in Anacortes, he and other activists began discussing in earnest a shutdown of their own. Knowing, as they were planning, that three of the Canadian protesters were then facing life in prison.
They were motivated. Gas and oil pipelines leak regularly, issuing their contents into farmlands and water sources and air, sometimes harming people. By October 2016, the month the Seattle valve turners completed their action, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had logged 220 “significant incidents” in the U.S., in that year alone.
And tar sands oil, extracted from the peaty wetlands beneath the boreal forests of Alberta, is the Voldemort of oils. Dirtier than the conventional crude sucked out of shale reserves like the Bakken fields two miles under North Dakota—for which the Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock is being built—tar sands oil from Alberta is a sludgy mix of sand and clay and the sticky hydrocarbons called bitumen. Not only does the extraction of this mix require more energy and leave behind more carbon, it rips up large swaths of boreal forest, the garland of trees encircling the northern part of the planet. This pristine habitat nurtures numerous species, its outsize carbon-absorption capacity rendering it the largest lungs on earth.
The pipelines carrying tar sands oil thus became the Seattle valve turners’ preferred target; each of the five would choose a U.S. entry point to turn off. As an oil-boom state—North Dakota was Michael Foster’s preferred valve. “This was during Standing Rock, where unarmed people were being arrested for praying, who’d lived here for thousands of years, who’d lost all this beautiful land, and now we wanted to risk poisoning their water supply,” he spits. “Of course I wanted to shut that off.” Never mind that the flow he’d be stopping wouldn’t come from the protested pipeline; the fact that he was stopping oil in North Dakota felt like solidarity.
But for Foster it was even more personal. North Dakota was the new boom-and-bust Wild West; a little like what Texas had been a century before. And Texas, specifically the refineries along the Gulf Coast, was this particular pipeline’s terminus.
Foster would be shutting off the spigot to the landscape of his childhood.
The first of the valve turners went to trial on January 30—a few days after President Trump reversed his predecessor’s decision and green-lit the new section of pipeline called the Keystone XL, a few more days after Trump nominated an Exxon executive to be Secretary of State. Ken Ward, the 60-year-old Oregonian who turned the valve in Burlington, Washington, was being tried in the heart of the Skagit Valley.
Ward was a seasoned activist, having served as deputy director of Greenpeace USA and later as president of the National Environmental Law Center. He was also an icon, the protagonist of one of the most unlikely protest dramas in the history of the environmental movement.
In 2013, Ward and a colleague bought an old lobster boat and anchored it in the path of a 40,000-ton coal freighter at Brayton Point in Massachusetts. The state brought charges, and on the day of the trial—with climate scientist Dr. James Hansen and activist Bill McKibben standing ready to testify—Bristol County district attorney Sam Sutter stunned the court by dropping the charges and announcing that the protesters were right. Standing in front of the courthouse, waving an essay by McKibben, DA Sutter called climate change one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced and declared that the political leadership was failing the people. He then joined Ward in a climate march in New York, in Central Park.
“I tell people it gave me an inappropriately optimistic view of the justice system,” Ward later quipped. Optimism, however, turned out to be oddly warranted for Ken Ward.
In preparation for his trial in Mount Vernon, Ward and his legal team carefully plotted what lawyers call a “necessity defense”: the notion that the illegal action under review was justified to prevent a greater harm, like breaking into a burning house to rescue a baby. But in the pretrial hearing, the judge barred this argument, lest the trial become a referendum on climate change, and referenced “tremendous controversy over…whether it even exists.”
Ward was dumbstruck. “We are in the late stages of global collapse,” he told The Guardian, “and to have someone who is presumably as knowledgeable and aware as a judge…blithely dismissing the biggest problem facing the world is chilling.”
Thus hamstrung, Ward’s team had just four pieces of evidence to give the Mount Vernon jury: a couple of scientific charts, the seven-minute video of Ward turning the Burlington valve, and a sea-level-rise map of Skagit County in 2050—its tulip fields underwater, its refineries poking up out of the sea like little smokestack islands.
After five hours the jury failed to reach a verdict. The judge declared Ken Ward’s case a mistrial.
A few days later, Foster walked into a Plant for the Planet meeting, jubilant. “The jury watched a video of Ken turning the valve…and they still couldn’t agree that he was guilty!” he sang. Mind you, Foster knew that one hung jury did not itself equal victory. Ward was scheduled for retrial, in late May. Foster—who now has a lawyer, from North Dakota—hopes he’ll be able to use the rarely allowed necessity defense at his trial in early October, but he isn’t counting on it. He remains resigned to, if not the whole 23 years, a sentence of some length. “There’s no doubt I’m going to prison,” he says.
But, if you’re Michael Foster, verdicts and sentences are not the most meaningful measures of victory. For him, the victory that matters is the one he’d already snatched out of the beet fields of North Dakota: raising public awareness about 350 parts per million as essential for the survival of future generations. “I made a choice to take an action that I thought was morally necessary to expose a deadly system of injustice against our kids,” he says simply.
“It’s gonna suck being a little old vegan in prison,” he continues, smiling sadly. “But honestly? Living in this system of overconsumption, beside this concrete river of CO2 that is always flowing on I-5—everywhere I go in this town that I love feels like prison. So the idea of living in prison? It doesn’t bother me the way it should.”
Foster was about 20, a student at the University of Houston, when he visited his mother on her farm near Austin. One night after dinner they walked out to the fence post to watch the sunset, along the trail dividing the cotton from the corn, and he mentioned his father’s heroic death. Heroic? she blurted. Your father was shot in his truck beside one of his female students. He was murdered by a jealous husband.
“Gunned down in Laredo, Texas,” Foster sighed later, shaking his head at the tabloid tawdriness. “A Marty Robbins country song.”
So Foster would search for the father in himself, as his path brought him again and again into roles mentoring children: touring with a Shakespeare outreach program for high schoolers while he was in college, teaching city kids wilderness team-building skills before grad school. He’d take them spelunking or rock climbing, deriving deep satisfaction from being their deliverer. “Sometimes they’d panic on a rock face, just freeze up, and I’m the one talking to them, I’m the one keeping them calm,” he says, choking up. Foster decided to become a therapist.
He also became a husband—having reconnected with the high school sweetheart he calls the love of his life—and, in time, a father for real. “The happiest days of my life were the days my daughters were born,” he says feelingly, calling himself “one of those ridiculous Seattle dads” who run parenting support groups and corrals herds of dads with strollers on walks around Green Lake. His wife had a corporate job, and he attended the homefront, running a therapy practice out of his house, making sure he always tucked in his girls at night. As his sister, Kim Cash, said, “We were all using him as the benchmark for the perfect dad.”
His family shared his interest in the health of the planet, the interest that had deepened since it first seized him in a high school debate. His wife supported him in quitting his practice so he could spread the environmental gospel full time; his daughters became so involved with Plant for the Planet activism they signed on as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Mostly, fathering itself intensified his convictions, personalizing his stake in the future livability of the planet. In 2012 he enrolled in the Al Gore Climate Reality Leadership Corps training, returning home to a scheduled house remodel in which contractors had removed the roof of his house. Before they could finish, the contractors abruptly declared bankruptcy and never returned.
And that’s when, freshly vulnerable, Michael Foster stopped holding his tongue.
With his family he began kiboshing Christmas trees and plane trips, insisting on staycations. His obsession with lowering his own carbon footprint meant insistence on bringing down his family’s. His sister couldn’t stand to be around him; he had long since replaced his Baptist certainty with something closer to pantheism, but his environmentalist proselytizing recalled for some the Bible beater he had been in high school.
“I was not just a dark cloud of doom and gloom,” Foster now admits. “I was a dark cloud of doom and gloom who said, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t spend that, you can’t have fun, you have to think about your impact on the next seven generations.’ I was doing it for my family, really—but it just annoyed the fuck out of them.”
Further, his growing docket of climate action meetings took time away from his family, including his cherished good-night ritual with his daughters. “I love Mahatma Gandhi, but I wouldn’t want to marry him,” he started hearing his wife say to friends; Foster found it funny until the day she stunned him with divorce papers. His kids, he claims, told him they no longer wanted to join him in his activism.
Foster was leveled.
His divorce was final last year. He hasn’t seen his daughters since.
I live with grief every day. I learned important lessons. I blame myself.”
All this Michael Foster says with fathomless pain in his eyes. And then he says other things, with another kind of pain visible on his face, every bit as genuine. Like when he’s speaking about fellow climate activists, sincere and committed green progressives, who fly off to Spain or to Thailand on vacation, “actively destroying the planet—for fun.” He goes silent. “I want to be happy for them. But we’ve passed the time for that.”
The divide between compromise and urgency slices straight through the soul of Michael Foster.
It’s a divide that parallels the rift cleaving the climate activism community. On one side, the environmental establishment, which usually agrees on the science but which favors political compromise for the sake of whatever progress, however insufficient, they might realistically secure. On the other, people like Foster, who hold fast to unwavering goals in the name of a deadline they can’t push—but in the face of political opponents they can’t sway.
“Our own people, the environmental groups that have money and resources and massive mailing lists—they’re not willing to ask for what our children require to survive,” Foster says with frustration. “Global warming is on a timeline, and not one of these groups wants to talk about that! They say a weak bill is something we can build on.”
It’s true that ending the cultural dependence on fossil fuels appears ridiculous on its face—given its omnipresence, the vast infrastructure that’s been built to support it, the profits which flow from it. Ridiculous—until someone makes clear that the destruction of the planet is its final stop. Bill McKibben, widely regarded the godfather of the climate Cassandras, believes the valve turning of Ward and Foster and their fellows was important as a bullhorn, helping “remind people how much oil already flows across the border from the tar sands,” McKibben says. “It was a courageous action.”
Now, as icebergs melt and Miami floods and 100-year storms begin arriving on the decade, nature’s thunderous voice is weighing in more and more audibly on the side of urgency.
And helping to face it down, one man for whom the room is filling with smoke.
“He’s incredibly eloquent, passionate, sometimes obstinate…exactly the kind of man we need,” muses Ward. “There are some people who, for whatever reason, come up against this and cannot put it down. Cannot function as if this looming threat weren’t there. Michael Foster is one of those people.”
The valve was so smooth when he started, so ridiculously easy to turn, and the more he turned, the easier it got. It was still freezing out here in the beet fields, and the whole team was still a little tense, but for Foster the nerves were overwritten by a profound calm. Do I even need to keep turning? he found himself wondering. It feels like someone at TransCanada already turned it off.
That’s when he hit resistance.
He figured that signaled he was near the end. Only after a few more turns of the valve, which was now vibrating, did he realize: My god, I’m not at the end at all. This is the beginning.
This is what 36 inches of warm bitumen feels like stopping beneath my feet, he marveled. Weirder still, at the first vibration, the cell reception that had evaded them abruptly popped on. Jessup’s livestream to Facebook began. For two minutes, the supporters who’d tuned in got to see Michael Foster turning off the Keystone pipeline.
Then the vibrating stopped, and the cell reception went inexplicably dead again. And now the valve became really, really hard to turn.
Foster pulled with everything he had. He pulled with every painful loss in his history; he pulled with every bright dream for his children. His pulling arm spent, he dead-arm pulled till he had nothing left. He began reaching up to grab the valve, then dropping to one knee, then reaching up to do it again. Soon he was climbing up the valve as if it were playground equipment, hanging his whole self off the wheel, letting his body weight pull it down.
Climb up, fall down, ass on ground, repeat.
He did that until he’d turned it as far as it would go.
Updated June 9 and June 12, 2017. This article has been updated since publication to help protect the privacy of some individuals.