Capitalism is a Cancer: Extended Interview with Actor James Cromwell Before His Jail Sentence
Watch our extended interview with Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell before he reports to jail at 4 p.m. Friday in upstate New York for taking part in a nonviolent protest against a natural gas-fired power plant. Cromwell says he’ll also launch a hunger strike. He was one of six activists arrested for blocking traffic at the sit-in outside the construction site of the 650-megawatt plant in Wawayanda, New York, in December of 2015. The activists say the plant would promote natural gas fracking in neighboring states and contribute to climate change.
James Cromwell is known for his roles in some 50 Hollywood films, including "Babe," "The Artist," "The Green Mile" and "L.A. Confidential," as well as many television series, including "Six Feet Under." Democracy Now! spoke to him Thursday along with one of his co-defendants, Pramilla Malik. She is the founder of Protect Orange County, a community organization leading the opposition of the fracked gas power plant. She ran in 2016 for the New York state Senate.
See more at Protect Orange County.
AMY GOODMAN: Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell is reporting to jail at 4:00 p.m. Eastern time today in upstate New York, after he was sentenced to a week behind bars for taking part in a nonviolent protest against a natural gas-fired power plant. Cromwell says he’ll also launch a hunger strike. He’s one of six activists arrested for blocking traffic at the sit-in outside the construction site of the 650-megawatt plant in Wawayanda, New York, upstate, December 2015. The activists say the plant would promote natural gas fracking in neighboring states and contribute to climate change.
James Cromwell is well known for his roles in some 50 Hollywood films, nominated for an Oscar in Babe, as well as a number of TV series, including Six Feet Under. I spoke to him Thursday along with one of his co-defendants who’s going to jail today, as well, Pramilla Malick, founder of Protect Orange County, a community group leading the opposition to the fracked gas power plant. She ran in 2016 for New York state Senate. I began by asking James Cromwell about why he’s going to jail today.
JAMES CROMWELL: We are, all of us, engaged in a struggle, not to protect a way of life, but to protect life itself. Our institutions are bankrupt. Our leaders are complicit. And the public is basically disillusioned and disenchanted with the entire process. There is a direct connection between the plant in Minisink—
AMY GOODMAN: Where is Minisink?
JAMES CROMWELL: In Wawayanda. It’s in upstate New York. They call it upstate. It’s not too far above the New Jersey border. Between that plant and the Middle East. We’re at war not only with Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and Yemen. We’re at war with Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the gas comes from, with Wawayanda, that uses the gas, with Seneca Lake, where it was to be stored, and with Standing Rock.
And it is time, actually, to name the disease. Most people can’t put their finger on the cause of it, but everybody perceives the threat. Capitalism is a cancer. And the only way to defeat this cancer is to completely, radically transform our way of living and our way of thinking about ourselves. And I call that radical transformation revolutionary. So this is the revolution.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, explain what the link is. Capitalism, you say, is the cause of what’s happening, the U.S. is doing, in the Middle East, and what is happening in upstate New York and Standing Rock and so on.
JAMES CROMWELL: This plant is built by a company whose only interest is to create profit. There is no need for the electricity, and the way the energy is produced is inimicable to life in the community. And now, that is a far-reaching community, because it will have an effect even on the people of New York. All the ultrafine particulate matter that comes out of these smokestacks ultimately winds up in New York City. So everybody is affected.
Now, that is done because we are trying to have energy independence. That energy we’re trying to be independent from was the gas and oil that came from the Middle East. When the Middle East began to move towards more democratic governments, the United states government and other governments, Britain, France, all the colonial powers, said, "No, no, no. You’re not moving toward democracy, because if you move towards democracy, you threaten our access to your energy." And so, they corrupted, in their own nefarious ways.
And ultimately, that led to the—we created ISIS. We, the Americans, created ISIS, in order to battle something else—the same mistake we made with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. And that is to protect our vested interests. If you look at Mr. Tillerson, Mr. Tillerson is sitting on half a trillion dollars’ worth of deals with the Russians. And so, he has—
AMY GOODMAN: When he was CEO of ExxonMobil.
JAMES CROMWELL: When he was CEO, which is still pending. It can still affect his company. He can affect his company, as soon as the ban is lifted. So, I’m saying there is connection, when you talk about energy. Energy is needed all over the world and is produced in only certain places. We now produce energy by blowing up the earth and getting trapped methane gas, which is inimicable to health. And we ship that through pipes. The main purpose of it, however, is not to power the power plant. It is to send to Canada to liquefy, where they can make six times more profit from the sale of that gas than they can in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you what happened almost exactly two years ago. I mean, you’re going to jail now, but the action you engaged in was June 2015. Tell us where you went and what you did.
JAMES CROMWELL: We have been having a protest to picket in front of this plant that has been—is being built for the last two-and-a-half years. And it got to the point—a lot of people who pass honk their horns in support, but nothing happened. We tried—
AMY GOODMAN: And this is a plant—
JAMES CROMWELL: It is a plant, a fracked gas-powered power plant, which means they import the gas from Pennsylvania.
AMY GOODMAN: And they are?
JAMES CROMWELL: Well, that’s—this is the—
AMY GOODMAN: The company is?
JAMES CROMWELL: Competitive Power Ventures is building the plant.
AMY GOODMAN: CPV.
JAMES CROMWELL: But there is Millennium Pipeline, which Pramilla knows a great deal more about, who owns this. It is actually owned by three large corporations: Mitsubishi, GE and Credit Suisse. Now, what would those three large multinationals be interested in this plant, medium-sized plant, although devastating? What they’re basically interested, it is the precursor of 300 similar plants. If this plant is built and gets online, there is no justification for not building more of these plants. We believe this one needs to be stopped, if you want to stop the entire the buildout of the hydrofracking infrastructure and its effect on our environment.
AMY GOODMAN: So what did you do?
JAMES CROMWELL: We basically came up with an idea to chain ourselves together. We chained ourselves together with bicycle locks, and we blocked the entrance to the plant for about—according to the prosecution, about 27 minutes. And the judge and the prosecution seemed to imply that it made absolutely no difference to what happened with this plant. But it does make a difference. What we’re trying to get out is the message that this is one instance, but it is happening all around this country and all around the world. They’re fighting it in England. They’re fighting it all over the world.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Pramilla, can you talk about what this plant is, how you were involved in the protests, what this plant is designed to do and what you think the public health impacts would be, if it is built?
PRAMILLA MALICK: So, this is a 650-megawatt fracked gas power plant. It will depend on a hundred to 150 fracking wells per year. So we know that, in Pennsylvania, there’s—infant mortality rates are increasing. Cancer rates are increasing. Aquifers are getting contaminated. But along with that, the health impacts travel all along the infrastructure network. So I live near a compressor station, and we have already documented health impacts in my community, in Minisink, of nosebleeds, headaches, rashes, neurological symptoms.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is as a result of?
PRAMILLA MALICK: Exposure to a fracked gas compressor station, the Minisink compressor station. And this was documented by a team of scientists. So, you know, the technology is relatively new, and people are just beginning—scientists are racing to try to understand what’s happening. But front-line communities, like ours, we feel it. We see it. We know that there’s a health impact. And—
AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did you get involved with this June 2015 protest, and what exactly did you do?
PRAMILLA MALICK: Well, I also locked myself down, with James Cromwell and with Madeline Shaw.
AMY GOODMAN: And Madeline Shaw is?
PRAMILLA MALICK: She is an elderly person who lives in the community. She’s very worried because she feels she’s going to have to leave the home that she lived in since 1949, if this plant is built.
AMY GOODMAN: James mentioned Seneca Lake. Now, wasn’t there a recent victory of environmentalists who stopped the storage facility there?
PRAMILLA MALICK: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does this relate to what you’re trying to stop?
PRAMILLA MALICK: Well, they were in a very similar position as we were, in the sense that they engaged the regulatory process, lobbied, litigated, appealed to all of their elected officials, and they didn’t get anywhere. And so they began engaging in civil disobedience. And I think that created enough pressure on the company that the company eventually withdrew their application for that storage facility. But when you approve a 650-megawatt fracked gas power plant—and I remind people that this is—this was approved by the state of New York, by our own Governor Cuomo, who banned fracking, citing adverse health impacts, yet approved this plant that will induce and depend on thousands of new fracking wells over its lifetime. We do not need this power plant at all. But it’s being built anyway.
And, you know, it’s a billion-dollar project. But it will cost us, according to the scientists—and this is why we engaged in civil disobedience, and we had a trial in which we were able to bring scientists to testify. It will cost society $940 million per year in healthcare costs and infrastructure costs and other economic costs. And it will increase our state’s greenhouse gas emissions by in excess of 10 percent for the entire power sector of the state of New York.
AMY GOODMAN: James Cromwell, you could have just paid a fine, but you’re choosing to go to jail. How long will you go to jail for? And why are you doing this?
JAMES CROMWELL: We were sentenced for seven days. It’s up to the discretion of the facility as to how long we serve. Sometimes you get off for good behavior. I have no idea. I’m preparing for seven days. The reason I did it was, I can’t justify the injustice of what I think was a completely wrongheaded and simplistic judgment. And so, I think going to jail is a statement about how we have to lift our game. It’s no more good enough just to picket and to petition, because nobody is listening. The way people get the message out is you do an act of civil disobedience. It’s what Tim DeChristopher did, many—all the people in Standing Rock. That was the purpose of Standing Rock. The clarity of Standing Rock was the elders—because I was there—the elders saying, "This is a prayer camp." In other words, it comes from our inner spirit. We have to change this inner spirit. We have to change our relationship both to the planet and to the people who live on this planet, including the people who are opposing us. So, I believe that, in our small way, that’s the statement that we are making. This is the time to up the game. This is the time to address the basic cause of our disease.
AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about your comment about people having trouble naming capitalism as a cancer.
JAMES CROMWELL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: It sounds like an Edward Abbey quote: "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell."
JAMES CROMWELL: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Through your environmentalism, you’re taking on capitalism.
JAMES CROMWELL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Not all environmentalists do. Can you comment on that?
JAMES CROMWELL: I can’t speak for all environmentalists. I think all issues—all the things that bedevil us basically start it. We are a death-oriented culture, by "death" meaning that what is put—what is primary—what is the language with which we speak is the language of the market. Everything is for sale. Everything is commodified. And what that does is—and then, of course, you have to create the greatest amount of profit, which means you have to suppress labor. You have to suppress the cost of your natural materials. You have to control your areas of influence, so that China doesn’t wind up with all Iran’s or Iraq’s oil. And so, right away, this kind of thinking leads to the kind of confrontations that we experience everywhere.
If we look at a more—if we accept that we are—our addiction to this energy, our addiction to our way of life, what we take for granted in this country, is in some way—we are responsible. If we accept that responsibility, which is not the same as blame—if we accept that responsibility, then we can change this by recognizing what we have to change is the way we relate to the natural world, to other sentient beings, to the planet. We look at it now as a trough that we can—we can rape and accumulate. And it is not so. There is a balance to nature, and we have violated that balance. And that’s what shows in Antarctica today. It shows all over the world. The planet is re-establishing the balance at our cost.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about commodification. You come from an industry, from Hollywood—
JAMES CROMWELL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —that certainly specializes in that.
JAMES CROMWELL: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: And I was wondering, as I’m sure while you’re in jail you’ll be reflecting on your life, if you could reflect on your career here. When I asked you about Babe, which you were nominated for an Oscar for, you said it was much more than just about a pig. You say that about a lot of things: It’s much more than just about this particular thing. So, talk about what you’ve learned through your craft, through your artistry, acting, what you regret, what you’re proud of.
JAMES CROMWELL: I’ve been very fortunate to be a middle-class character actor, sort of ungainly. I came into the game of Hollywood fairly late in my career. I had worked in the theater. I had my own theater. I always wanted to direct. I sort of became an actor by default, because I couldn’t get jobs as a director. I went to Hollywood. I luckily got the first television show I auditioned for, which was All in the Family. I got the first movie I auditioned for, which was Neil Simon’s Murder by Death. I got my first commercial, and almost my last commercial, because I can’t sell product very well. I seem to always flub the line. So I’m the guy who goes, "Huh?" And that’s it. That’s all I basically can do.
But I have been very fortunate also in the material that has come my way. I don’t get to pick and choose. I’m not an A-lister. So, the fact that I have gotten to do L.A. Confidential and Babe and The Artist and The Queen and little films like, well, Education of Little Tree and Still Mine, which I think are really important films—what we do as artists is hold the mirror up to nature—that’s what Shakespeare said—"to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."
Now, it has been corrupted by a market sensibility, which does not look at innovation, only looks at repeating what has been successful before, and lowering the purpose of what they’re doing to appeal to 10-year-olds, who will bring their parents and come back repeatedly. And so, what you have, fewer and fewer picture addressing the issues that bedevil us. I think we need to change that. There need to be more independent films. I hope to be part of that. And I have no regrets.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: OK, I want to go back to what we were speaking of earlier and what you mentioned—the environment and climate change—to ask you about President Trump’s position on this. Here, he’s announcing that he will withdraw the U.S. from the landmark Paris climate accord that was signed by nearly 200 nations in 2015.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the nonbinding Paris accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country. This includes ending the implementation of the nationally determined contribution and, very importantly, the Green Climate Fund, which is costing the United States a vast fortune.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s Donald Trump announcing that he intends to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord. So, James, could you comment on that? And also, earlier, you spoke of the U.S., and, no doubt, now other nations, too, having to change their way of life or relationship to the environment in order to reverse the trends of the last several decades. In 1992, in the—at the Rio Summit, Earth Summit, at that time, President George Bush Sr. had said in negotiations that the American way of life is not up for negotiation. So, your comments?
JAMES CROMWELL: Gee, that’s a big one. First of all, to me, the importance of the Paris accords were that they were nonbinding. So, basically, you had—you had an agreement between nations—now, many of those nations’, hundreds of those nations’ survival depend on the industrial nations, the G20, actually living up to their commitment try to reduce greenhouse gases and try to address what is happening to our climate. But they—the idea of keeping it below 1.5 is completely voluntary. And I don’t believe that those countries are doing very much. Now, some are. Germany is. Now Canada. But I think, for the—we are—we have a behemoth, which has a certain amount of inertia, movement. And that is to develop these resources and to extract as much money until, obviously, they hit it, come up against the wall of survival, and then we’ll just throw up our hands and come up with another technology. I don’t think this is workable.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to you on a week of—well, in the cable networks, it’s all breaking news, breaking news, flashes across the screen, every few minutes. Well, this week is another kind of breaking news. It’s ice-breaking news. And it’s the time of Antarctica, an iceberg breaking off the size of the state of Delaware. At the same time, in California, there are scores of fires that are leading to thousands of residents having to leave their homes. Record-breaking temperatures in Arizona—in Phoenix, it’s like 110 degrees. Planes are being stopped from going because of the heat. Pramilla, I was wondering if you could talk about what motivated you to get involved with this action that leads to you going to jail.
PRAMILLA MALICK: Well, ultimately, I’m a mom. And so, I’m concerned about my children, their health and safety. But when you become a mom, there’s a kind of maternal mandate that makes you really concerned about all children everywhere. And so, I don’t believe—I think our children deserve better. They don’t deserve this type of cataclysmic future of misery and hardship and food scarcity and, you know, flooding and ecosystems collapsing. And that’s what we have happening. It’s manifesting on the bodies of our children right now in Minisink.
It is manifesting on the body of Earth. And, you know, global methane concentrations have increased 60 percent just in the last decade. Scientists believe that half of that is coming from North America entirely due to fracking. This is what the scientists who came to our trial testified to. And he also—Dr. Robert Howarth also testified that we are expected to cross 2 degrees in six to eight years. There’s a new article in Nature—
AMY GOODMAN: Two degrees Celsius.
PRAMILLA MALICK: Yes, warming. And there’s a new article in Nature that says, actually, it might be three years. And so, we’re accelerating beyond what climate scientists are predicting and modeling. And this is anthropogenic. This is because of human behavior. There’s no mystery about it. So the harm is imminent. The harm is more than imminent: It’s present. And the judge who ruled against us ruled that we did not prove imminence, which is absurd when you’re talking about 10,000 years of irreversible climate events. Two years is nothing. I mean, I think he was basically saying, "Well, you should have blocked the entranceway, you know, when it’s about to—you know, when they’re about to switch the light on that facility."
AMY GOODMAN: Because it hasn’t opened yet.
PRAMILLA MALICK: It hasn’t opened. And this is the whole thing. We actually can stop this. There’s one permit left. The company put the cart before the horse. They don’t have the permit for the lateral pipeline. And we are calling on everybody to demand of our governor, Governor Cuomo, to be a real climate leader and reject the permit for that last pipeline, the lateral pipeline, and to pull the plug on this plant. We want him to halt construction. And certainly, because of the corruption charges, there’s enough reason to halt construction immediately. You know, pick a reason: corruption, climate change, health impacts. There are hundreds of reasons. But he needs to step up. It’s the obligation of public officials to protect public health and safety and to safeguard our children’s future. It’s the public trust. And we believe that the policies right now are violating that public trust. And, you know, this project is really a failure, colossal failure, of public policy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: James, I want to go back to what you were saying earlier, the question of what the U.S. position was in 1992, what I’d mentioned, the—George Bush Sr. saying that the American way of life is not up for negotiation. And then, more than 20 years later, almost 30 years later, Obama’s administration signing on to this Paris climate accord, which, as you said, is nonbinding, but nevertheless. Do you think that that marks a shift in American policy, in U.S. government policy, on the issue of climate change?
JAMES CROMWELL: I think what Trump has done represents the furthest advance of our intransigence to deal with the issue of changing our lifestyle. We are in a—we have this addiction to fossil fuels and to the extraction industry and to the profit to be made from those industries. And I believe that what Trump has done, actually, is gotten the majority of people now to realize that if they want to address this, everybody around this country and around the world is going to have to do the same thing that we did. Trump has awoken in us a sense of the empowerment of the public, where the power resides. It resides in we, the people. So it doesn’t matter what Mr. Bush says is non-negotiable. It is what we determine, as people, the kind of life we want to lead and the policies that have to be put into effect to protect and guarantee that way of life for our children and our children’s children, for the seventh generation. All the things that we know to be true, they now—so we’re now at loggerheads. We’re right at the tipping point between this destructive, death-oriented culture and the awakening in all of us of a sense of empowerment and enlightenment.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell and Pramilla Malick head to jail on Friday, after they were sentenced to a week behind bars for taking part in a nonviolent protest against a natural gas-fired power plant. Six people were arrested for blocking traffic at a sit-in outside the construction site of the 650-megawatt plant in Wawayanda, New York, in December of 2015. The activists say the plant will promote natural gas fracking. It is the largest fracked gas power plant in New York state, if in fact it goes online. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.