Fay Milton.

Photo of Fay Milton by ​Sarah Piantadosi.

Fay Milton is a filmmaker as well as the drummer of the band Savages. Her Very Important Things documentary series is a collection of interviews with various climate change activists, including Aji Piper. Aji is a high school junior who is suing the U.S. federal government in a climate change lawsuit. Despite that being a scary thing to do, it seems obvious to Aji that protecting the environment is truly as important as it gets.

Today Aji and 20 other youth plaintiffs make their oral arguments in an Oregon court and their case will move toward trial or appeal. In this clip from Fay’s documentary, Aji explains the case and why climate change activism is such an urgent issue:

Last week, I called Fay to talk about the process of making Very Important Things, and caring for the environment with “no guilt, just positive action.”

MADELINE KEYES-LEVINE: Could you give us a rundown of Aji’s case and the possible outcomes of his trial?

FAY MILTON: Basically, 21 youth plaintiffs, all under 20 years old, filed a lawsuit to sue the federal government. They are asserting that in causing climate change, the federal government violated the younger generations’ right to life, liberty, and property, as well as fighting to protect essential resources like clean water and land. [The plaintiffs] came up against not only the federal government but also [hundreds of] large, mainly oil, corporations. They got together and stood against these 21 young people but failed to stop them from being allowed to have their case heard. So there’s already a major victory in this. [The plaintiffs] already won the first part of the trial, so that’s massive.

What’s happening [today] is they’re going to give their evidence; they’re going to speak. And the case will be heard. If the judge rules in their favor, it would mean that legally the U.S. government has to stop the degradation of the water. They have to abate climate change. [A ruling in their favor] would force the government to actually change the policy. Also, it would mean that young people all around the world could look at that case and say, “This case was won in America, we can do this in our country.” They can look at these huge corporations, that they feel powerless against, and say, “We can take you to court now because you’re harming our future.”

For me, the fact that it’s happening is already a huge thing. It seems so simple, like it’s undeniably in the right. It will be beautiful if it was ruled in their favor. The result could be huge, and even if it’s not in their favor, they’ve already made a victory in being taken seriously.

Yeah, totally. I like the video series because it broadens what it means to be an activist. What would you say to someone who cares about the environment but feels intimidated by the concept?

One of the interviews that’s online already is with Chris McKay from NASA. What I found to be really optimistic was him talking about how with every problem that’s been solved that humans have come up against, we’ve solved it mainly by enough people knowing about it and then the solution just emerging naturally. It’s kind of how it always happens, and it will continue to happen with this problem.

The speed at which information travels has gotten so insanely fast now that it is very easy for people to find out, share, and pay attention to information. The first step is to learn about things. Then the passion and drive to do something comes from knowing about how genuinely heavy the situation is, but also understanding that some of what can be described as answers to the problem are also answers to some major issues in society, things like oppression and inequality. […] If you’re fighting for animal rights causes, for example, that’s also part of the climate change issue. So you can pick something that you find easy to attach to, then “get smart on the issues” to quote Chris McKay from NASA.

Everyone has their own way they can contribute. It’s not helpful if every person is doing the exact same thing, you have to tackle [climate change] from every angle.

Absolutely. I’ve interviewed nine people so far. And even within those nine people who are experts in climate change they didn’t necessarily know about things that are happening in each other’s areas. It’s just such a huge thing. You don’t have to take it all on. I don’t think you have to be 100 percent green to start taking action. You can take action in one [issue] and don’t feel guilty about the other things, like, Oh, I like to do this one thing, I’d be a hypocrite if I started caring about the environment. No, just one thing at a time. No guilt, just positive action.

Being so overwhelmed and guilty is just counterproductive.

Exactly. And enjoy [activism] as well. It can be fun.

I get really passionate about the environment. But then, I go through spirals and I’m like, Everything is bad. Then I just need to calm down.

And everything isn’t bad, you know? There’s been bad stuff throughout the whole of history it’s not going to stop now. It hasn’t just started in the last year; that’s life, each generation faces it. Each has a major issue and this is ours. Previous generations faced huge problems, like with the civil rights era, but they kind of won. You don’t have to take on everything but be the positive part of history, you know?

Along that same line, is there anything specific you do, especially on tour, to keep from getting overwhelmed or depressed about that stuff?

Touring is like the absolute least-good-for-the-environment activity of all time. So that’s one thing to come to terms with. But there are some simple things you could do. Like, you don’t have to drink bottled water. You can drink tap water. It’s free. It’s so basic but the ocean is full of plastic. Also you can be vegan. That massively reduces your carbon footprint and impact on the environment. But everyone has their own thing; there are some people that would never go vegan but are huge climate change activists. Not everyone has to do that same thing.

Yeah, just do what you can.

Yeah, do one thing and then you feel good about it. And then you’ll be like, Maybe I’ll do another thing because that one thing made me feel good and proud of myself.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from doing this series?

The thing that shocked me a lot was just the fact that coastal cities—major cities like London, New York, Shanghai, tons of other cities—they’re going to be flooding really fucking soon. Like it could be flooded in 10 years from now. And that’s really not very long. When you think of basements going to be full of water, it’s insane. It was always this future thing, but it’s not now. It’s like a current history thing. That’s mind boggling. ♦