“Climate change is just dealt with as if it were any other discrete environmental issue.... But what we’re talking about is the end of the conditions that make civilization possible—happening, right now, on our watch,” says Ken Ward. As he talks, he’s rowing a boat up the Willamette, preparing to protest against the Fennica—the Shell Oil icebreaker that, in 2015, inspired Greenpeace protesters to suspend themselves from the St. Johns Bridge.
“If anybody is around to write the history of how we did such a foolish thing to ourselves, I think that they’re gonna pick this point as being a single act of insanity,” Ward continues. “We’ve just warmed the earth enough to melt the arctic, and what do we do? We don’t stop doing that. We go up and use the fact that it’s ice-free to drill for more. It’s just insane.”
Ward is the focus of The Reluctant Radical, which follows the Oregon activist as he stages contentious protest after contentious protest—sometimes alone, sometimes with others, sometimes supported by his family, sometimes dressed as Santa, sometimes ending up in jail. He doesn’t see his decades-long, single-minded determination as a choice: “I’m doing this because the world as I know it is ending,” he says. “It’s the only thing I can see that might work. I don’t want to be doing this, but when I start thinking up excuses, the thing that I end up thinking about is my boy. Then it just makes it easier to go, ‘Well, I’m obligated to do what I can.’”
“We need moral clarity and sides to be drawn. Either you’re for burning fossil fuels and ending the world, or you’re against it. Which is it?”
The Reluctant Radical—which uses, as a sort of framework, Ward’s 2016 decision to forcibly shut down pipelines that bring oil from Canadian tar sands into the US, and the resulting trial—also checks in with the activists and supporters around Ward (like his very patient physician wife, who, with only a slight sense of weariness, notes that she needs to get a better grasp on bail laws considering how often her husband gets arrested). It’s really about larger issues, though: How much should one person fight for what’s right? How much can one person do?
As the centerpiece of the Portland EcoFilm Festival’s “Earth Day Film Weekend” at the Hollywood Theatre, The Reluctant Radical will screen with its filmmakers and Ward in attendance (Sat April 21). EcoFilm’s other offerings shake things up a bit: Two short films, Chandalar and Earthbound, will screen as part of “Reel Talk—Beyond the Big Fish” (Sun April 22), a discussion about the intersections of environmentalism and social justice, with panelists including hip-hop artist Mic Crenshaw and social justice advocate Sharon Gary Smith. There’s also Five Seasons, a documentary about landscape designer Piet Oudolf (Sun April 22), and Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio’s trippy 1982 experimental feature that chooses pretty much the entirety of human life on Earth as its humble subject. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the visually stunning Koyaanisqatsi is screening on April 20. Prepare accordingly.)
But the focus of the weekend remains The Reluctant Radical, which tackles global issues by turning its lens on one Oregon man. Not everyone agrees with Ward—hell, environmentalists don’t always agree with him. But if nothing else, his actions spur a conversation that’s more necessary, and more urgent, than ever—particularly as Trump appointees like Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt slash environmental regulations, slice up national monuments for fossil fuel exploitation, and brush off charges of corruption.
“Direct action creates points of moral clarity in conflict. It forces people to take sides, one way or the other,” says Ward in The Reluctant Radical. “We need moral clarity and sides to be drawn. Either you’re for burning fossil fuels and ending the world, or you’re against it. Which is it?”