UU World talks to Elizabeth Mount about climate justice activism and UU values.
An activist hangs from the St. John's Bridge in Portland, Oregon, during the Greenpeace USA #ShellNo protest on July 30, 2015. (© smallyellowdog (CC BY 2.0))
Dangling 100 feet over the Willamette River in a dramatic protest that temporarily blocked a Shell Oil ship headed for exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean, Unitarian Universalist seminarian Elizabeth Mount had a lot of time to reflect on the nexus between UU values and climate justice activism.
A lifelong UU and a student at Meadville Lombard Theological School, Mount and another UU were among thirteen trained Greenpeace volunteers who used climbing gear to hang for 40 hours from the St. Johns bridge in July, preventing the ice breaker from getting through. Mount tweeted the experience at @chalice_chica. Two other UUs were support personnel for the dramatic protest.
Mount and others say their efforts were a success because they interrupted the time Shell needed for exploratory drilling. It’s “not enough [time] for them to make any statements to their shareholders as to how much oil they think is in the arctic, so they won’t have a successful survey this season. That’s pretty amazing from a direct impact point,” said Mount, who is featured in a video series Greenpeace posted about the protest (tinyurl.com/shellnopdx) explaining how UU values inform Mount’s activism. Mount* also serves on the steering committee of UU Young Adults for Climate Justice.
UU World: How do UU values connect to your commitment to climate justice?
Elizabeth Mount: It’s a covenantal religion, and that, combined with our Principles, means that—especially for people who grew up UU—we see ourselves in relationship with the natural world, and therefore responsible for our interactions with it and for being protective of it.
UU World: Were you scared at any point?
Mount: Yes, honestly. When you’re actually on top of the bridge, which is about 230 feet above the water, there’s definitely that moment when you go, “Am I really going to do this?”
UU World: What was the hardest part of the action?
Mount: [The climbers] were 75 to 80 feet apart all the way along the bridge. . . . I didn’t get within 75 or 80 feet of another human being for 40 hours. It’s an odd sensation to be that physically far from any other human for that amount of time. The adrenaline wears off after the first hour or two, and you get a lot of chances to deal with yourself because there’s not a lot else to do up there. I did a lot of, “Gosh, this is kind of uncomfortable but it’s worth it.”
UU World: Were there any spiritual moments?
Mount: By the time I got my personnel banner and sign and hammock set up, it was maybe 3:30 in the morning. That was the first time I got to stop and look around, and you could see all the little kayaks down in the water. They all had kayak lights, and it was like seeing the stars reflected down below except you knew every one of those little star points was a person supporting this action. It was amazing.
UU World: Were there any amusing moments?
Mount: The Coast Guard boat that came out said, “You are trespassing, and you are unwelcome! Please descend from the bridge.” To which I thought, “Trespassing, I’m not so concerned about. But if I’m unwelcome. . .”
UU World: The event got worldwide media and was noted by presidential candidates and others. What does that say?
Mount: I don’t think we’ll ever get every single thing we ask for when we do a direct action, but when we move into that courageous space and try to do what we think would be the best thing, we get something. It moves the dial, and it’s worth it.
Correction 12.14.15: Due to an editing error, earlier versions of this article, including one in the Winter 2015 print edition, used the pronoun “she” at one point to refer to Elizabeth Mount, although Mount had asked for the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.
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Video statement by Elizabeth Mount released by Greenpeace USA. (YouTube)
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Elizabeth Mount hangs suspended from a bridge during the #ShellNoPDX protest in Portland, Oregon. (Image courtesy Elizabeth Mount)
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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