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James R. Wells: Activism through Writing

September 2015

Unsung Heroes

James R. Wells: Activism through Writing

by Kathryn Fentress

Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.

James Wells moved here from Tennessee with his wife and daughter 10 years ago. He is a software consultant and writer of fiction and articles about environmental issues for the Whatcom Watch and for the Daily Kos website (

Kathryn: What environmental issues have been most important for you?

James: First I would like to acknowledge that I am relatively new to environmental activism. Up until three years ago I was busy with my job and family and writing an occasional article for the Daily Kos. The coal train issue galvanized me. Before moving here we lived on property that had an acid seep from an abandoned coal mine. The awareness that we didn’t want our daughter to grow up so close to toxic waste prompted our move. So I met first with Whatcom Docs ( Several of us began offering workshops on how to make effective comments at the coal train hearings. About 8,000 attended the six hearings and there were 14,000 individual personally written comments. The enduring lesson here is democracy 101. People think democracy is about voting for people, and that is part of it, but daily democracy is looking at the decisions that affect your community. If our community hadn’t been very clear that we were watching every detail, the coal train would have been a simple check-the-box operation.

You mentioned workshops. Please say more.

Nicole Brown introduced me to the idea of public commenting workshops and several of us offered them for between five and two hundred at a time. Most impressive was that we didn’t have to tell people what to be concerned about. They knew what to be concerned about. The variety and knowledge experience was phenomenal and people were motivated to work together without any core organization. Organizing is asking others to do things you want them to do and I realized I am not very good at that. I now more often take the role of motivational speaker. After all the facts have been offered, I share with people what they can do, and that they can definitely make a difference.

When we worked on the commenting workshops, I realized that the process of public commenting is a life skill that is applicable in many places. Introduce what you are concerned about and then request an action. This format can be used in many settings. We are also teaching others that it is possible to get the results you hope for.

Very early in the coal train process, coal train proponents put out a strong message that there is nothing we can do so you might as well support this effort so we get a few crumbs for it. This was very calculated so one of the first things you have to get through is this notion that there is nothing we can do. For example, the idea was pushed that if you stop the coal train here, it will just be rerouted somewhere else at an unspecified place and time. That is just not true. The industry people tell us that if you are concerned about coal being burned in China, there is nothing you can do because they will just get it from somewhere else. The NW Alliance, for example, is made up mostly of hirelings from the corporations, and they deliberately try to create despondence and despair. When 8,000 people come out for the hearings, we are demonstrating that we don’t believe this propaganda, and that other outcomes are possible.

My cover story in the July 2015 Whatcom Watch focuses on how many times advocates for fossil fuels don’t really focus on the merits of the proposal. They focus on other distractions that we might call “purity test trolling.” For example, people in kayaks are protesting Arctic drilling, so the argument is that kayaks are made of petroleum products so their protest is not legitimate. Purity test trolling says if you have any impact at all on the issue, you have no standing on that issue. The logic is that no one can really say anything because we are all dependent on fossil fuels. These are masters at diverting us from what matters to things that create self-doubt. No matter what the topic, recognize that you are being deceptively sold the notion that you have no power to change things. Simply take action no matter what. There is a huge difference between driving a car right now and creating new big industries that will lock us into large emissions forever. We need to force examination of every project. Capital investment in fossil fuel is morally indefensible.

What do you mean by morally indefensible?

Morality is about our responsibility to other people, especially to the people who have less power, and at some level everyone and all other creatures in our world. Decisions cannot be made just based on overt power dynamic, which we have gotten used to. Our responsibility is to the entire system of life. Industry has become good at hiding the real costs. If they are allowed to hide costs, then we don’t get to know the negative results. For example, say statistically that a fossil fuel plant will kill a number of people. Moral decisions need to be made with all of the information, all the real costs, and the full set of costs. With that full disclosure most people would decide the plant is a bad idea. Our essence as a people is to work together for the benefit of all. If we do not use morality as part of the criteria, we will be in trouble.

How to take care of yourself, keep yourself hopeful?

I go outdoors a lot. I enjoy backcountry skiing and I go caving when I can. Caves are sacred for me. I also have a child and am motivated for her sake. I see two choices: you can believe you can make a difference or not. I believe I can. I am also encouraged by the students at Western who are taking charge of their future. Western has a lot of very active students, many organizations working on renewable energy and divestment. They invited me to take part in several events, and I was impressed at how well they were organized. The thrust was all about empowering students. Students come and go, of course, but many of the organizations on campus have long track records.

Any other environmental issues cooking for you now?

I am working on a two-part article that addresses how we communicate about climate change. Climate advocacy information is often presented at the big picture level: this much fossil fuel damage to the world, etc. I believe education about climate issues could be more effective. It could also be targeted better, and we need to focus on how we inspire and motivate folks. I would also like to continue teaching people how to communicate more effectively.

What would you recommend to our readers?

Speak personally, but also be unflinchingly truthful and accurate. Instead of how I feel, I describe the thing and the experience of the thing. Others can decide what or how to feel about it. If you present the most unadorned factual issue, you don’t have to rant on. Take action whenever you can, and understand that every victory helps.

Thank you, James, for your insights and creativity. James will be doing a reading from his novel “The Great Symmetry” at Barnes and Noble on September 19 at 2 p.m.

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