How Do We Act Morally in the Face of Climate Change?

Chuck Collins

As climate change produces more misery and fossil fuel capitalists refuse to stop releasing carbon, we will increasingly confront the question asked by Chuck Collins in his new novel: What does moral action look like against such an immoral status quo?

Writer Chuck Collins gardens at a local plot in Boston, 2016. (John Wilcox / MediaNews Group / Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

Chuck Collins, author of numerous books, including 2021’s The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions, has long been known for his detailed and factual studies of economic inequality. But Collins’s latest effort is a work of fiction. Altar to an Erupting Sun asks us to consider what is morally justified in the face of looming ecological disaster. In its opening pages, protagonist Rae Kelliher — a dying activist in the final weeks of her life — decides to violate her own long-standing commitment to nonviolence to kill a fossil fuel CEO, to the disapproval of those around her. The rest of Collins’ book consists in a journey through Rae’s life, exploring her formation as an activist, her relationships and influences, and the roots of her final, controversial act.

Jacobin’s Luke Savage sat down with Collins to discuss Altar to an Erupting Sun, the provocations offered by its main character, and the decision he made at twenty-one to give away his own substantial inheritance.

Luke Savage

To talk about your own background a bit, you are the great grandson of Oscar Mayer, and as a teenager you came by a substantial inheritance but gave it away in your twenties. Can you tell us about this?

Chuck Collins

It’s all true. Oscar Mayer was a real person and he was my great-grandfather. The family business was in Madison, where I was born. My dad was literally working on the shop floor when I was born, and he thought I needed to go to business school and get my act together. It was a family business that had been founded in the 1880s, but it got bought out by the corporate behemoth General Foods, and then Kraft and Philip Morris, and now Kraft again. When I turned twenty-one, the company sold and the stock was held by family members, so we all basically won the lottery.

I already had a sense that great extremes of concentrated wealth were not a good thing. I didn’t really want to benefit from that system, and I tried not to be ungrateful toward my parents that tried to give me a debt-free college education — something everyone should have. But I gave the money away to a bunch of social change foundations and have very few regrets looking back. Among other things, the experience helped me realize how much other multigenerational advantages flow aside from wealth and cash. There are all kinds of other benefits. So that’s very much shaped who I am and why I think about inequality.

Luke Savage

You’re definitely best known for your work chronicling inequality. This is the first novel you’ve written. Why fiction? What led you to the story of your protagonist Rae Kelliher?

Chuck Collins

I have personally learned a lot from historic fiction. It can be a gateway into history or a particular region or culture. In this case, I have multiple agendas. But one of them was to lift up social movement history to talk about political formation.

There are a lot of coming-of-age stories that concern themselves with the influences on people, but I don’t see social movement formation really treated as a genre. So I wanted to tell a story that involves real people — Juanita Nelson, the war-tax resister; Sam Lovejoy, the tower toppler; or Vietnam vet Brian Willson — and I hope, as people read those stories, they want to learn more about who someone like Willson was and why he put his body in front of a train.

I was also trying to do futurist fiction, to think about the next seven to ten years. Fiction is an opportunity to articulate a vision that’s not just apocalypse. The book really is an attempt to show what it would look like if one community came together to prepare for a disrupted future, knowing that there are these larger systems that we need to be addressing while also figuring out how to take care of one another.

I live in a region [New England] where there are all kinds of interesting innovations around food systems and localized economy, mutual aid, and thinking differently about death and dying. What would it look like if we started to get our act together a little bit? That lent itself to fiction.

Luke Savage

We spend a lot of time with Rae, though there are also several other major characters. There’s Reggie, her partner. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of her brother Toby, who for a time drifts away and has his brain rotted by talk radio. But Altar to an Erupting Sun revolves around a decision she makes toward the end of her life, as she’s suffering from a terminal illness, to take the life of a fossil fuel CEO. That’s how your novel opens, then the bulk of it is spent traveling through time with Rae as she comes of age and develops her perspective on the world.

Before we talk about the decision that is the narrative fulcrum of your book, perhaps we can talk about Rae. She’s someone who has no time for college or formal education but is very much an autodidact. She throws herself immersively into things and lives life with tremendous urgency and commitment to the people around her and whatever she does. How would you characterize Rae as a person? Where exactly does she come from?

Chuck Collins

She’s the life of the party. She’s the person who remembers your birthday. She’s the one who dresses up in silly costumes. She did not go to college but is very much an intellectual. She thinks about ideas and history. She’s curious. In a sense, this is a formation story. Her thinking is shaped by these elders and others who are very steeped in nonviolent practice and direct action. That’s what forms her. And part of the tension is, why does she do what she does?

I’ve heard a number of people say things that resemble what Rae says — i.e. “If I become terminally ill, I’m not just going to go out quietly.” I was hiking in the woods just yesterday with a bunch of cousins — a dozen little kids and two older women. And one of the women asked what we would do if we encountered a bear. I replied that we would try to get the kids to safety, but the other woman said, without blinking, that she would go straight at the bear.

I was moved to hear her say that, because she’s in her late sixties and understands that her job is to stand up for the next generation. There’s this group, Third Act, that was started by Bill McKibben, Akaya Windwood, and a bunch of others who believe we shouldn’t be depending on young people to step up on climate change, and that we elders, who have been burning fossil fuel and benefiting from a fossil fuel–dependent society, need to step up and take the risks.

Rae is like that. She’s in the generative stage of her life. And there are people who feel this way: “If I’m called to do this, this is what I’ll do.” So it wasn’t entirely fanciful to imagine Rae would come to the same conclusion. I’ve heard many express a similar feeling about the need for an escalation of tactics in this moment.

Luke Savage

The decision Rae ultimately makes not only transgresses what has otherwise been her lifelong commitment to nonviolence but is also strongly disrupted by the people around her — even though no one is quite sure exactly what she’s going to do. Toward the end of the book, when Rae’s friends and family are gathered at an occasion to celebrate her life seven years after her death, it’s clear they still disagree with what she did. It also has a number of unintended consequences: three people die in total; a dear friend of hers is scapegoated and spends several years in jail.

So Altar to an Erupting Sun does not have an uncomplicated relationship to its central character or how she chooses to end her life. How would you situate Rae’s decision? What does it mean to you?

Chuck Collins

Since I’ve heard people saying these kinds of things, it was interesting to — in a fictional way — try and spin out what the implications would be: tremendous political blowback, the criminalization of dissent, repression of legitimate protest, an acceleration of the stuff that we’re already seeing in reaction to even slightly escalated tactics.

My personal view is that what Rae decides to do is both tactically and morally wrong and that it would have tremendous negative consequences, both politically and for the people around her. We know that’s not what someone like Rae would have wanted, notwithstanding her laser focus on the responsibility of the fossil fuel industry and some of the less negative things that happen in the years following her death.

If there’s anything I hope people will talk about in relation to the book, it’s what bold action looks like when you have a rogue industry that’s as politically powerful as fossil fuels, that has done so much to create distracted chatter about who’s responsible. “Aren’t we all responsible for climate change, especially those of us in the affluent middle classes?” “Geez, I should have bought that electric vehicle!” Or “I should have ridden my bike and walked rather than driven to the store.” The fossil fuel industry is happy to have us all feel like we are all responsible for this dilemma.

And in the end, when faced with these realities, Rae comes to the very personal conclusion as she’s dying that she wants to make an impact at the end of her life. So to me, her act is an invitation for everybody to ask, whatever they feel about what Rae does, what does a bold response to climate change look like, and what does it look like to actually address the fossil fuel industry and the power that they’ve used to deny climate change and block alternatives?”

Luke Savage

The altar appears a lot in this book. What does the altar signify to you? What does it signify in the book?

Chuck Collins

In a sense, the book is an altar. It’s an altar in the kind of global tradition of remembrance and honoring ancestors. It’s an altar to social movements and people who’ve come before who are lifelong activists. Not people who showed up at one demonstration but the lifers — the people who have devoted their whole life to economic and racial justice, to addressing inequality and to environmental issues.

Then there’s also the role of the altars that Rae gets exposed to: Brian Willson in Vietnam going into a hut and finding Norman, an American Quaker on this Vietnamese altar. Or Norman Morrison, who self-immolated. There’s a spiritual part of Rae that’s interested in honoring and drawing strength from ancestors. Through her experiences, she also comes to believe we need to rethink our attitudes about death and dying, and what it is we want to say with our lives.