Our political system may fail us. We may be disillusioned. But everything that we care about circles back to politics. Every day my mantra is: We can't stop fighting for what we love.
Many people turn to the natural world for a sense of peace and inspiration. For Maine state Representative Chloe Maxmin, the natural world provides a sense of personal purpose and a professional mission. “[W]e must do everything in our power to protect what we love the most,” she says.
When Maxmin, a native of Nobleboro, Maine, was 12 she fell in love with the Maine woods. Great expanses of this wilderness had been targeted for development. Maxmin began working with others to protect what she loved. Through this work, Maxmin learned about the threat that climate change presented to the woodlands of Maine and to the whole planet. When she started high school, she founded the Climate Action Club. With that organization Maxmin rallied “‘[l]ocal business owners, community organizations, farmers, teachers and parents…[and] sparked a movement.” Maxmin also established an online network - First Here, Then Everywhere - to connect young people interested in environmental issues.
In 2010 Maxmin received the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes in recognition of her work on climate issues. Upon receiving the award, Maxmin said, “I want the environment to remain sacred, animals to remain in their natural habitats, and humans to thrive in a harmonious relationship with nature.” The following year, Maxmin graduated from Lincoln Academy and entered Harvard College.
During her first year at Harvard Maxmin learned about a project proposed by the Portland Pipeline Company (ExxonMobil is the majority stakeholder) to transport tar sands oil through Maine. Her research revealed “the coercive power of the fossil fuel companies in Maine.” She says that this “awakening coincided with the birth of the fossil fuel divestment movement. [The] fossil fuel divestment movement seeks to have institutions divest funds from fossil fuel companies because of the harm those companies [are] causing to the environment. I returned to Harvard as a sophomore to co-found Divest Harvard because I could not stand the idea that Harvard was profiting from ExxonMobil. Divest Harvard sought to have the university divest its $36.4 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry.”
Beginning with a first meeting of three people, by its second year Divest Harvard had mobilized 70,000. The organization engaged in civil disobedience, leading to the university’s first civil disobedience related arrest since the Vietnam War era.
Maxmin was recognized by Rolling Stone Magazine in 2013 for her divestment advocacy. She told the magazine that “[t]he fossil fuel industry has a stranglehold on the system, so we’re going to bypass it.” She also received a Brower Youth Award from the Earth Island Institute that same year, recognizing her environmental and social justice activism.
Despite her commitment to environmental activism, Maxmin strove to live a well-rounded life. In a 2014 backstage interview with Bill Maher, Maxmin offered the following advice to all activists: “I think it’s important...to be a full person, not feel guilted into doing this work all the time, and to explore other parts of your identity. Because, if you’re one dimensional…, then you’re gonna create a one dimensional movement, and that’s not what we need.”
Though the university has not yet divested from the fossil fuel industry, the organization Chloe started continues that fight.
After graduating from Harvard in 2015, Maxim returned to Nobleboro to figure out how she could link the climate change movement with grassroots political power. As a Fellow with The Nation magazine, she reported on her exploration of the climate change/political power nexus. She also worked on political campaigns, including a local mayoral race and Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential run.
In 2018 Maxmin decided to run for office herself. She saw an “opportunity to create a new model for electoral campaigns, campaign culture, and -- most importantly-- rural politics” and “a deep need for a political moment that prioritized rural America, rooted young people in their hometown rural communities, and created political campaigns filled with self-care, hope, and inspiration instead of agony, exhaustion, and monotony.”
With the help of college friend and fellow activist Canyon Woodard, Maxmin won 80% of the vote in the primary and was able to flip her state legislative district from Republican to Democratic in the general election. She was the only Democrat to win in her district. Going into her race Maxmin made the argument that voters were tired of electing “experienced” politicians who never seemed capable of bringing about actual change. In an interview with Friends of the Earth, Maxmin said that “[m]aybe the key is to elect people who have been on the outside of the system and have been disenfranchised by the system. Young people, people of color, women. They bring a new perspective to politics.”
Now in the Maine legislature, Maxmin has introduced a bill that would bring the Green New Deal to Maine. This is a comprehensive, progressive idea that would push the United States to tackle climate change through aggressive policy prescriptions and the rapid expansion of the green energy and green technology industries. Maxmin’s bill has been tailored specifically to meet the needs of Mainers and has won support from the state’s chapter of the AFL-CIO. Maxmin is clear about the need to move boldly in addressing climate change, while also addressing the economic challenges of rural communities. “Here in my district,” she observes, “so much of our livelihoods and our well-being centers around a healthy planet... [I]t’s part of our world in a really profound and beautiful way. But it’s also hard because we are in a community that has very deep financial struggles…. Emphasizing the social justice impact of environmentalism is so important - especially in rural communities whose livelihoods depend on the environment but who are struggling in other real ways, too.”
The future of the planet depends on individuals like Chloe Maxmin whose advocacy is rooted in a deep love of the natural world. We will need more legislators who, like Maxmin, boldly address the existential threat of climate change. As she told the Portland Press Herald, regarding her Green New Deal bill, “I know it’s a very ambitious goal, but climate change threatens to undermine our entire economy and culture…. [T]he cost of ignoring this crisis is far greater than what we need to do to protect Maine and our way of life.”