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Wen Stephenson's Counter-Friction to Stop the Machine

By Alexis Rizzuto

What We're Fighting For Now Is Each OtherWhat has been your relationship with environmental issues?

My mother took me to my first protest when I was six, against the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire in 1976. She also took me for walks in the local woods and taught me about trees. So I had a good grounding both in caring about nature and citizen activism, which has stayed with me throughout my life. At this point in history, the number one issue is climate change. If we don't address that, everything else will be beside the point.

What do you look for in books dealing with these issues?

Obviously, I hope the books I look for on environmental issues will move people to action. The way to bring people in is through stories. Having something new to add to the conversation is important as well, but I look for writing that can teach about the issues by engaging readers with good writing and compelling storytelling. Whether the book is about solar power, orcas, or farming, the information is grounded in stories of people, places, struggles, hope.

And sometimes, as in literary nature writing as opposed to issue-driven books, the writing is enough—creating something beautiful in the service of nature speaks to our human connection with the “natural” world and with each other.

What drew you to Wen Stephenson's book?

As a member of the climate movement—I was active in 350—I felt Wen Stephenson’s What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other was the book we needed right now. A clear-eyed look at reality, brutal as it is, and stories of people working to face that reality with an effort equal to the crisis, to make their lives “a counter-friction to stop the machine” as Wen quotes from Thoreau's Civil Disobedience in the book's epigraph.

How did you come across Wen and his work?

I think Wen originally approached our director, Helene Atwan, about the book, but what I remember most is a meeting Wen and I had at the beginning, sitting outside the Cafe Vanille on Charles Street. That's when the book was really hatched. He outlined his journey since deciding to leave mainstream media: the awakening to the climate crisis that pushed him off his track, his wading into climate activism on and off the page, the spiritual aspect of the journey, and the comparison of the climate movement to abolitionism and thinking of activists as the “new radicals.” To me, that sounded like the makings of a good book.

Wen StephensonWhat was it like working on the book with him?

I had one experience working with Wen that I haven't had with any other author. During the writing and editing process, we also stood shoulder to shoulder in several rallies, marches, vigils, and protests, in Maine, in Salem, Barnstable, Harvard Square, in front of the Statehouse. (And we were both in NY for the People's Climate March but didn't find each other.) Our dedication to the cause translated into our shared dedication to the book, which was a great experience.

Do you have any favorite passages from the book?

In Chapter 4, “We Have to Shut It Down,” Wen tells the story of the voyage of the Quaker peace ship, The Golden Rule, an act of civil disobedience continued by The Phoenix, to protest nuclear weapons in 1958. Not only is the story inspiring—especially to those conducting the 2013 “lobster boat protest” against a coal shipment in Brayton Point, symbolically depicted on our cover—but we just found out that The Golden Rule is sailing again as a peace ship. The urgency that drove the activists over fifty years ago is the same urgency felt by activists today: “We mean now to speak with the weight of our whole lives.”


About the Author 

Alexis Rizzuto, Contributing Editor: After teaching creative nonfiction for many years, Alexis Rizzuto started in the publishing business at the Kneerim & Williams literary agency, then moved to the editorial side at Da Capo Press before coming to Beacon Press, where she has acquired books about the environment (energy, climate, food, nature, conservation). Titles include: Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks by Michael LanzaHarvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability by Phil Warburg, and Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Vanishing Orcas by Eva Saulitis.