I was recently sent a photo of Kate Fulbright chained to something with the suggestion, ‘Maybe you should interview her.’ That was really all it took. She was chained to something, and I was already impressed. Besides being a major mover and shaker of environmental justice campaigns in Charlotte, North Carolina, she and her brother made an incredibly moving documentary film called Shift that puts faces to the issue of Climate Change. I Skyped with her a couple of weeks ago and almost forgot to press record. What can I say? She’s a good storyteller.
Z: Tell me about Shift. What was the impetus to make it?
K: My brother Sam and I have always been really close. He’s eighteen months younger than me, and everyone thinks we’re twins. We’ve always just been, well, best buds. I went to college at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana, and you can ask anybody, I was not a very good student in high school, but in college that one-hundred-and-eighty-degree-changed. I became super nerdy.
[at this point, our Skype connection froze]
Are we back? Am I back?
Z: I lost you at you were a super-nerd.
K: Right. So, I started studying the history of science, which is kind of bizarre, but also really cool. I’m no good at Math or Chemistry, but I’ve always been interested in Biology, and it was kind of a way for me to study Biology from a different point of view. My last year there I got a grant to do a little bit of work in the science archives at the Smithsonian. I wrote a paper on the history of meteorology and atmospheric science, and how that became climate science as we now know it. So, it’s interesting looking back because I was reading James Hansen’s and Bill McKibben’s books, and all that, but from such a different angle than I’m reading them now. I was reading them academically — dissecting their arguments — rather than thinking, these are heroes!
I graduated in December of 2011, which was when the Occupy Movement was just wrapping up. I had been so inspired by Occupy, and so had my brother, and I said, when I graduate we should go up to New York and join them. But, by the time I graduated it had dissipated. We had always talked about what we needed to do to fit into this new wave of socially conscious living. We talked about that a lot. I think with Occupy being gone, Shift was our attempt at figuring out how we fit into that. About my brother: so, he went to high school for a couple of years and then went to a traveling, kayaking high school; he’s a big whitewater kayaker. He’s ridiculous. That’s where he got all of his film and video and photography skills, from doing adventure sports. He runs his own media company called Pilot Collective Media, and Shift grew out of that. That’s how we got started, and then more immediately we just started planning.
It’s kind of hard to do something before you know about it. We were winging it. We have some friends that make films called Untamed Science, and Sam had never made a feature film before, so they were helping us at the outset. They were like, you guys should probably have more of a plan. And we were like, nah.
Z: What exactly was the jump from Occupy to climate change?
K: What Sam and I both learned on our trip to make the film is that there’s a huge difference between environmentalism and environmental justice. I would say that the reason Occupy was so inspiring to me was because climate change is directly linked to the fossil fuel industry and corporations and their sway over politicians and government. The corporate power we see lodged in the one percent is dictating the way in which we are handling climate change.
Z: I see the link. Did the film inspire you to do more? Was it a jumping off point for other things?
K: We’ve been showing the film in some places around town and in Asheville, NC, which is really fun, and we’ve been working really closely with the Charlotte Environmental Action Group. Most of my energy now is being put towards that. It’s been around for several years, and it grew out of the Occupy Movement. RAN, the Rainforest Action Network, moved to Charlotte to start a campaign against Bank of America, who is the largest funder of mountaintop removal coal mining.
RAN just pulled out of Charlotte last year, which catalyzed the Charlotte Environmental Action Group to come together. We have no big, green overhead; we just work on whatever projects we want to work on. We’re like an affinity group of a handful of twenty-thirty somethings and a handful of sixty-seventy somethings. They’re inspired by us and we’re inspired by then. It’s really cool. Some of my best friends are sixty-five year old gardeners these days.
Recently we’ve been running a campaign against Duke Energy. They have a ton of coal ash ponds in North Carolina. Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal, and they store the coal ash in unlined pits, upstream from our water intake. We’re talking arsenic, mercury, lead, selenium; mad heavy metals that you do not want to be drinking. At the beginning of February, right after the West Virginia spill, storm drainage under one of these unlined pits ruptured and the coal ash started going into the Dan River. We have a coal ash pond just north of Charlotte. You’ve got to take the good with the bad, and the good is that this event was huge, and we’re getting so much media attention for the coal ash ponds that Duke is going to have to clean them up. Yes, it’s terrible that the water of Eden, North Carolina is ruined, but, sadly, that’s what it takes for the media to respond.
Z: Did these lead to the photos of you chained to things?
K: That was back in November! It’s funny that that was months before the spill happened. Our group does these soft actions — we haven’t done any civil disobedience, yet. Duke energy’s headquarters are right here in Charlotte, so we go out and stage these street theater performances right out front. It’s pretty funny. Ken and Sally, two of the sixty-five-ish-ers of CEA, were like, We should make a papier-mache faucet and have dirty water coming out of it and we can chain ourselves to it, and we can have a sign that says, Duke Energy Stop Chaining Us to Dirty Water…
Z: …And you said, Excellent. I will do it.
Z: That’s probably one of their stock images now. Ah, fame.
K: A couple weeks ago, maybe two, we held a big rally two days after the spill happened, and a lot of people came. And we’ve got another one coming up. If we have a hundred people show up, I’ll be really stoked, but I think its going to be more than that.
Z: Get ready. Get your scream-face on.
K: We’ll be back in front of Duke Energy. We’re really lucky. Like I said, we don’t have any overhead, but we do have a big Greenpeace presence here in Charlotte.
We have one of five full-time Greenpeace organizers in the country. Her name is Monica and she is intense. She can break down walls. She’s awesome. She helps Charlotte Environmental Action in whatever way she can, while keeping us separate from Greenpeace. We really wanted to keep this rally as a CEA rally, and she was like, awesome, but I’m going to write a press release and she just helped us with all this stuff that we just don’t know how to do.
Z: What is press release. I can haz press release.
K: Exactly. It’s great having her here because it helps us be more legit.
Z: That sounds like a great group to be a part of. Is Sam involved in that, too?
K: He is, but he’s actually been in Chile kayaking for a long time now. He’s been gone since November. He’ll be back right in time for the rally, which is great because we’ll have all this great energy and momentum and he’ll be able to jump right in.
Z: I don’t know if your group has a party line on this or if you do, but if you were able to enact or propose or enforce some sort of policy change or mandated lifestyle change, what would your suggestions be? If power people were like, Kate, help us! We saw your picture in the newspaper!
K: We saw how wide your mouth opens! That’s what they’d say.
I have a couple things: first, we’ve gotten on this train of saying lifestyle changes are not enough, which is true, absolutely, but I also think those changes are really important. Every time we do a rally in front of Duke someone walks by and says, “Pffft, I bet they all drove here!” And they’re kind of missing the point, but they do also have a little bit of a point. I don’t know. In order to not be a hypocrite, consume less. Lifestyle choices are not going to change the world and solve our problems, but you need to live according to your beliefs.
This is a hard question. I think renewables are coming, and I think it’ll be how they come that I would focus on. I think they should be localized, we should have local economies, with a little federal oversight, or maybe no government at all!
Z: Local government!
K: I mean, not really. I say only local government, and then I see things like that Duke and North Carolina Department of Energy and Natural Resources are getting subpoenaed because they’re in cahoots! If we don’t have somebody saying, “Hey, you shouldn’t do that,” then who knows what will happen.
Z: Maybe you should mandate that we just be better people.
K: Well, I think that’s kind of where the environmental justice comes into play, rather than environmentalism. This isn’t just about the ecosystems, this is about people. This is about people getting cancer and dying because they live next to a coal plant…
Z: … and they can’t afford to live anywhere else…
K: …and they think that we are trying to get rid of jobs, and it’s not that. We want you to have good jobs. These aren’t good jobs. They pay you okay, but when you die at forty-five of lung cancer, that’s not okay. Or when the company you work for pulls your insurance because they’re going to file for bankruptcy, that’s not okay. Corporate power is so out of control. I feel so silly saying that…
Z: …because its cliche…?
K: …but its true!
Z: I’ll send those suggestions up the wires, and see what happens.
K: You can put a speech bubble next to my wide open mouth saying, “Bring down corporate power!”
Z: I’ll get my computer person right on that.
Z: Despite the leviathan of corporate power affecting so many industries (food, energy, transportation), are you optimistic?
K: When we first got back from our trip, I really struggled. It was almost a feeling of guilt where these people that we met and talked to are living in these extraction communities and I get to stay there for three days and feel bad for them and then come home and flip my lightswitch and drink my tap water. So, not only an overwhelming feeling of guilt, but almost like I’m helpless. This is the system we live in and I don’t know how to live another way. We have to have electricity, so now I feel like I’ve gotten a grip on that, and I’m trying to build a better world, but there are days when I just sit on my couch and cry. I have a little garden outside. When it’s springtime and I can work out there, it’s okay. I think, I’m okay. It’s hard in the wintertime. It’s definitely one of those things that’s just an ebb and flow.
Z: Did you have a mentor who pushed you to do the film or to keep going?
K: My professor who helped me with my climate science grant is the one who narrowed my focus in the environmental movement. But, other than that, Sam and I pushed each other. We both felt this need to do something more, and just having mad brainstorming sessions, we decided to use our skill sets. You (Sam) can make videos, I can write and draw and…help you…
Z: …I’m here…
K: …I’m a body…. so, I think it was us pushing each other. Not that I didn’t have outside inspiration. Our parents think we’re out there. I mean, they are very encouraging. I read Bill McKibbens and the professor that helped me told me that I needed to think really critically about his work, and I really struggled with that. I told him what I thought he wanted to hear about McKibbens saying that all technology is bad (it’s more complicated than that), but really, I was thinking, I agree with everything he is saying! That’s when I realized that I was more than just an academic who wanted to study the history of climate science. This is where my heart lies.
Z: At one point were you thinking of going further into academia? Was that a fork in the road for you?
Z: Close one!
K: When I was in college I was like, Yep, I’m going to grad school, that’ll be awesome, but then I got out… and I don’t think so. I’m actually… a waitress. I’m, like, that joke, you know, when I say, “I’m an activist,” and some guy is like, “Get a job!”
Z: Sometimes there are just things you have to do to be able to do the things you want to do.
K: And it does allow me to do whatever I need. That day when we had a rally, I had someone cover my shift because there was so much to do, so while they helped me out I ran a rally and made it into The Washington Post.
Z: The elusive flexible schedule. Many illustrious women of our time have been waitresses at some point. Getting back to the film, can you break down your Shift trip logistically?
K: The film does not include all the places we went. Our vision of the film was, and this changed, that we would go to extraction communities and places affected by Hurricane Sandy (which I link to climate change).
We went to West Virginia and worked with Coal River Mountain Watch and The Keeper of the Mountains, which is Larry Gibson’s organization. He was a super outspoken straight-up West Virginian. And he owned some land on top of a mountain surrounded by removal sites. He was offered millions of dollars for it, but he would never sell out. That is where Sam and I realized what environmental justice really meant. We stayed there with a group of younger people at their volunteer house.
One of their members is extremely ill because he’s been drinking the water there his whole life, and it’s had a huge, terrible effect. We realized we wanted to make it about people — people being affected. We were shocked at what we found. We realized we didn’t have to try to make it about people. It is about people.
So from West Virginia we went to New York. We worked with 350.org — we didn’t get to meet Bill McKibben! But we got to meet so many great people.
We were supposed to meet with Occupy Sandy the next day, when that blizzard came. That blizzard! We had to get out while we still could. It was a bummer. From there, we drove to Michigan. The pipeline spill there two or three years ago brought this whole movement to that area. We met with so many women! Women everywhere! It was awesome. They showed us the spill. They were so welcoming and knowledgeable.
From there we got a Facebook message from a friend from college who knew someone who worked in the oil and fracking fields in North Dakota. She introduced us, and we almost nixed it. It was going to be 24 hours in the car. We were already exhausted from so much driving. But, I called him, and asked, Hey, is this going to be worth our time, and he said, Yes. Definitely. It was hard to portray how crazy what we saw was on film. But I’m so glad we went because it was totally insane. When we rolled in the sun was just coming up and it was just frack well, frack well, frack well, just everywhere. Everywhere! I am in no way exaggerating.
We met up with this man and for ten hours we drive around with him, and he showed us spills, he showed us what crude looked like, he showed us how everything can mess up, and the social implications of having that boom there. Lots of drugs, lots of prostitution, lots of crime. This town was not ready. There is no infrastructure. People live in shipping containers, and, in five-six years, they’re going to all leave.
Z: It’ll be like the moon.
K: Ghost town. And we couldn’t show the man on film because he was worried about losing his job. The whole thing was just crazy. We left and drove down to Colorado (which also did not make the film) and met with this Forest Service worker who showed us acres and acres of the scarring left by a huge fire a few years ago that they attribute to climate change.
Z: How long were you gone in total?
K: Twenty days. We would literally drive through the night, then film, then drive through the night, then film. It was really dumb. Anyways, from Colorado we went to Nacogdoches, Texas, which was awesome. Nacogdoches, first of all, is just really cool. I had no idea. We met with people that are fighting the Keystone XL, which is an incredibly iconic thing for the environmental movement.
Those kids there, doing that, are really intense, in a good way. They travel to wherever needs help and live off the land.
We met with a church group there that houses and feeds those activist kids. It was really cool to meet with these older church people who have been told if they help these activists they’re ecoterrorists, and yet they continue to help each other.
Z: That’s not a very often portrayed partnership.
K: It’s happening more and more; churches are jumping on board and it’s cool. Its really interesting.
Z: That seems to break down some political boundaries.
K: Gerald Richardson, who is in the film, an older man, said that I am being told that this is an illegal thing to do, but my morals are telling me that I have to. It’s amazing. We also met with Mike Bishop there, who is everybody’s favorite guy in the film. He’s hilarious and really crazy and he’s in court with KXL. He’s kind of the last standing hope. In the film, a TransCanada helicopter flies over and he just flicks it off. The whole time we were there, everyone was like, Oh, you’re meeting with Mike? He’s a character. Everybody said that.
Z: And the suspense was killing you…
K: …and when we met him he was such a character. So, from there we went to Louisiana, which also didn’t make the film. New Orleans is so interesting. They have a lot of coal export there and a lot of oil wells, and Katrina, so it embodies what is going on. The people trapped by all of this.
Z: I feel like you need to make a B sides film, or a Shift 2, for all of this extra footage.
K: I know! We’ve talked about it. So, finally, we drove from Louisiana to Washington, DC and participated in the Forward on Climate Rally.
It was so cold. When we came into the trip we were naive in that we thought, oh we’re all in this together; it’s one giant movement! And that is not the case. There is definitely a lot of animosity between grassroots groups, groups living in extraction communities, and big greens. I think its safe to say that big greens funnel money away from grassroots groups and people in extraction communities. You’re more likely to donate to 350.org than those women we met in Michigan because who are those people? It’s definitely a push and pull. There were people we met on our trip that we met back up with there. Part of me wants to be like, there’s room for everybody in this movement, but part of me also knows about the tension among these groups.
Z: That was the trip.
K: Then we got home and hibernated.
Z: And woke up and edited for one million hours.
What’s the next step for Shift?
K: I want to grow more vegetables in my backyard.
In all this whirlwind of travel and the exhaustion of the long battle, I wondered if it was hard to keep it up, to keep caring. I didn’t ask Kate about this, but as a kind of answer, she told me about a special moment, of stillness, that she felt during one of the long stretches of highway during the making of the film. She was driving through Colorado at night, and there was a snowstorm, and in a moment when the snow let up, she felt her body relax and move away from the wheel and she looked up at tall, dark pines and the darkness beyond them, and then she stopped the car. She didn’t wake Sam up, or get the camera, but she just saw how beautiful it was and said, Yes, we’re doing this.
Watch the film in its entirety online: