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Kevin Cullen

Standing on principle

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / September 6, 2011

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Sam Novey graduated from Harvard a few months ago, and like most new graduates was determined to make a good impression at his first job, at a foundation in Boston.

And so you could imagine it was more than a little awkward for him to poke his head into his boss’s office and say he needed to take some time off.

So he could travel out of state.

To get arrested.

Sam Novey is 23 years old, had never been in trouble with the law before, and last week he went down to Washington and got arrested on purpose, to make a point.

There is something called the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring oil down from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast. For those who believe we are already too reliant on fossil fuels, that we need to be reducing the carbons released into the atmosphere, not adding to them, this is a line in the tar sands.

Novey listened as Bill McKibben, the great environmentalist, explained why people had to engage in civil disobedience.

“He said we’re up against the richest special interest in the world. We can only win if we fight with a different kind of currency. Our spirits and our bodies,’’ Novey said. “That’s why I did it.’’

His uncle happened to be driving down from vacation in Maine to Washington so Novey hitched a ride. Irene, the hurricane that became a tropical storm, made him miss his original training session. Last Monday, he went to an interfaith service with other protesters at Lafayette Park. Then, as instructed, he stood outside the White House and refused to move when the police asked him.

“They asked three times,’’ he said. “Then they began arresting us.’’

More than 100 others were arrested along with him that day, defying a president for whom most of them voted, a president whose administration approved the pipeline.

Novey found himself in a police van with some Franciscan priests, a rabbi, a software engineer from Ohio, and James Hansen, a scientist and one of the first to sound the alarm on climate change.

“It’s a powerful experience, getting arrested,’’ Novey said. “It was a hard choice for me, as a young person. Who knows what it will mean for me down the road? But there were these gray-haired ladies from Alberta, where the pipeline starts. There were religious leaders from all the traditions in their collars and yarmulkes, and it got me thinking the way that science and morality are connected.

“Twenty years ago, we could say we didn’t know. Now the science is clear. Once we know, to not act is a moral choice.’’

Over the last week, more than 1,000 Americans had done precisely what Sam Novey did, which was to get arrested in front of the White House, on principle, to make a point, to say that our dependence on fossil fuels is killing our planet, poisoning our foreign policy, leaving our kids and grandkids with a mess they will inherit long after the rest of us are dead. You don’t have to agree with them to admire them.

And if you didn’t know more than 1,000 of your fellow citizens got arrested last week, ask yourself why. If more than 1,000 people in the Tea Party had gotten themselves arrested on principle, you would have heard about it.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeCullen.