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Common Dreams Mourns Passing of Longtime Contributor and Climate Activist John Atcheson

"We can leave a legacy of a world in which hope flourishes and dreams prosper, or we can leave a legacy in which hopes are diminished and most dreams are nightmares," Atcheson once wrote. "Those are now our choices. Our only choices."

John Atcheson, a former official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was a novelist, climate activist, and longtime contributor to Common Dreams. Atcheson was killed earlier this week in a car accident in California. He was 71. (Photo: Courtesy of the family)

John Atcheson (1948-2020) was a novelist, climate activist, and longtime contributor to Common Dreams. Atcheson was killed earlier this week in a car accident in California. He was 71. (Photo: Courtesy of the family)

It is with deep sadness and heartache that Common Dreams announces the tragic death earlier this week of longtime contributor and devoted environmental and political activist John Atcheson.

Atcheson's family shared with sorrow that John was killed in a car accident in San Diego, California on Monday evening, not far from his home. He was 71 years old.

"We know that John touched many lives and was beloved by those who knew him. While our grief is indescribable, celebrating his life is a way to share our favorite memories, his favorite songs, and build our sense of gratitude for each moment we shared with him," his wife, Linda Pratt, said in a statement on behalf of the family. "He is a shining star and will remain in our hearts forever."

"John Atcheson has been one of Common Dreams' smartest, most inspiring voices over the past 15 years. A great writer. Politically astute. Unapologetically progressive. His death is a huge loss to Common Dreams and the whole progressive community."
—Craig Brown, Common Dreams
A passionate voice on these pages for over a decade and a half, John's untimely death was a shock to staff and we collectively send our deepest condolences to his family and friends as well as the countless readers who were informed, challenged, and inspired by his writing and political critique.

"John Atcheson has been one of Common Dreams' smartest, most inspiring voices over the past 15 years," said Craig Brown, co-founder and executive director. "A great writer. Politically astute. Unapologetically progressive. His death is a huge loss to Common Dreams and the whole progressive community."

Born on Dec. 13, 1948 in New Jersey, Atcheson—who leaves behind two children, two stepchildren, and three grandchildren—was revered by his family as a dedicated father and grandfather.

After growing up mostly in Pompton Plains, New Jersey and later Bethesda, Maryland where attended high school. John served in the U.S. Army and later received his degree in geology. Professionally, John served a long and successful career in environmental protection, first at the Environmental Protection Agency and later at the Department of Energy, where he focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy. He was a lifelong lover of nature who hiked and explored the great wild spaces of North America and elsewhere throughout his life. John authored two published books. The first, a novel, titled, A Being Darkly Wise, and the second a work of non-fiction titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track.

In a eulogy shared with Common Dreams by high school friend Taki Alexis, Atcheson is described as "a man of warmth, humor and a spirit of generosity that lifted us all." Known as Atchee by his childhood pals, John's personality was known to be infectious. "One cold winter day John and I rode a pair of quiet, competent motorcycles over a rise and onto a snow driven field where a herd of deer were grazing," he wrote. "As we were calm they didn't scatter and we romped along together for a long while... even the deer wanted to pal around with Atchee."

After retiring in 2009 and moving to California to be with Linda, whom he married in 2010, he dedicated more time to both his writing and activism.

"He lived fully, touched the hearts and minds of so many, and embodied thoughtfulness and compassion," the family said in their remembrance of him. "We can only cover tiny fractions of his journey, which ended much too soon."

Atcheson's life will be celebrated with a private memorial service with family and close friends next week. His family members request anyone wishing to honor John's life and spirit make a contribution to any nonprofit aligned with his strong commitment to environmental protection and climate justice. One example, an organization in which he was actively engaged, is the San Diego-based Stay Cool for Grandkids.

What We Do or Don't Do

Reading through the digital archive that includes hundreds of John's columns dating from 2004 to late 2019, readers can witness the breadth of his knowledge and his unwavering commitment to social justice, a more equal society, and the essential need to fight like hell for a better future for the world's people and natural systems.

It was in a 2004 column when John declared with urgency that "we have to act now" on the climate crisis. This was well into the Bush era but prior to Hurricane Katrina. That devastating event opened many people's eyes in the U.S. to the intensifying dangers of a warming planet, but it was no surprise to those who had already been paying attention to, and taking seriously, the scientific warnings. Before there was 350.org or Green New Deals or global climate strikes, there were people like John sounding the alarm as best and as loud as they could.

And John was not afraid to put his body on the line. In 2011, as the growing climate justice movement targeted President Barack Obama for his refusal to deny a construction permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, Atcheson was among 46 others who—on a hot August day in Washington, D.C. and as part of a larger wave that summer—risked arrest outside the White House.

What made him do it? It wasn't optimism, he confessed.

"The truth is, I am not optimistic that our actions will change the direction of this particular fossil fueled juggernaut," he wrote at the time. So then what was his reason? "The plain fact is, in an age filled with cynicism," he explained, "I needed to feel hopeful."

But it was not a branded, unearned hope. It was the feeling of hopefulness that only the witnessing of bravery and solidarity in extraordinary times can inspire. With humanity facing down the threat of pending climate catastrophe, "now is a time that cries out for the power of hope," John wrote. "Never before in the short history of humans, has there been such a time."

He continued:

What we do—or don't do—in the next few years will quite literally influence the kind of planet our progeny live on. Indeed, it will shape the world for hundreds of generations to come.

What an awesome responsibility for a once puny species to possess.

What a challenge to face, without hope.

A few short years. That's all we have to choose the kind of future we bequeath the planet for geologic ages to come.

We can leave a legacy of a world in which hope flourishes and dreams prosper, or we can leave a legacy in which hopes are diminished and most dreams are nightmares.

Those are now our choices. Our only choices. We cannot kick the can down the road—we've run out of road. We've run out of time.

Hyperbole? Radical enviro propaganda? Liberal hysteria?

Hardly.

And he never stopped calling for action and detailing for readers the perils—whether under Bush, Obama, or the current president—of business-as-usual energy policies or center-of-the-road politics.

The Establishment's Failure and the Need for Progressive Rebellion

John was relentless in his effort to expose the failure of a Democratic Party establishment that consistently strays from the promises made to working-class people and the progressive mantle the party claims in word but repeatedly fails in deed.

"When neoliberals and centrists defend 'the system' or warn against upending it, they're more likely expressing concerns about their losing their personal power base than they are about the party winning elections," he wrote last fall.

"The time to follow polls is long gone," John asserted. "If we are to restore our freedoms, we must shape polls, not follow them. Fortunately, leading a progressive rebellion against the oligarchy is not only the moral thing to do; it's smart politics, too."

So while he suffered fools not lightly, he never wavered from a commitment to talk sense to them.

"What we do—or don't do—in the next few years will quite literally influence the kind of planet our progeny live on. Indeed, it will shape the world for hundreds of generations to come.  What an awesome responsibility for a once puny species to possess.  What a challenge to face, without hope."
—John Atcheson, 2011

For those who missed it, Atcheson in 2017 wrote, "What They Say vs. What They Mean: An Inside-the-Beltway Glossary"—an indispensable resource if you're an upstart (or aging) progressive looking to get a grip on the insanity of mainstream politics.

"Given the absurdity of our political process and the media's malfeasance, our national well of stupidity is deep and wide," Atcheson lamented in 2013 while he railed against one of his favorite targets, the corporate news industry.

"Without a press devoted to honesty and accuracy," he wrote in 2012, "our ship of state runs on yarns, myths, and the modern day equivalent of 'bread and circuses,' and we are at the mercy of the evil, the foolish, and the ignorant."

Frequently forced to denounce the corporate media's obsession with balance—"making it puke out nonsense as if it were news"—Atcheson did so with gusto. "One can achieve balance by putting a ton of bullshit on one side of the scale, and a ton of gold on the other," he explained in a column last November, "but that doesn't make them equivalent."

He understood better than most why Hillary Clinton likely lost in 2016 and how President Donald Trump won, but never lost sight of the "long game" needed to attain true progressive victories.

Ends as Beginnings and What Hope Feels Like

Atcheson made his dedication to future generations clear in his climate activism, and that also brings us back to that day outside the White House in 2012. Before being handcuffed and dragged away for trying to stop a pipeline that he believed would likely be built anyway (but notably has not been)—what did it feel like to a person like John who never gave up on the effort to change minds or influence readers even though he was wide-eyed about the intense realities of this troubled yet beautiful world?

It felt like hope, he wrote.

Not optimism, but hope.

And as Robert Kennedy said, "Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Hope begets action, but action also begets hope. And who knows. Perhaps the tiny ripples of some 2,000 citizens willing to risk arrest are the beginning of a vast tide; a tsunami of change that will sweep away the foolishness that now dominates our country.

One can always hope.

In this writer's final correspondence with John last month he commented, "Interesting times, eh?" In response, I wrote dryly, "The End Times are always interesting."

Though it's certain he got the joke, he didn't let it slide.

"Every ending is a beginning," he wrote back. "Trite, but true."

He then added, "I do believe in history's dialectic"—and left it at that.

Like so many other writers and activists who toil for justice with no offer of reward and little reason to believe victory will be won, John proved—in a manner uniquely his own and one that we who hold common dreams will never forget—that our objections to injustice we voice and the political battles we wage do matter. They matter profoundly and he knew it.

In one of his most-read and widely shared articles of 2019, he concluded in a way that was not subtle: "What's needed is a people's revolution and a radical insurgency that restores government to the governed," he wrote. "Nothing short of that will prevent future Trumps, or solve our very real problems."

We owe you much and we thank you and we will miss you, John Atcheson.

So we mourn.

And—because "hope begets action, but action also begets hope," and because "every ending is a beginning"—together we fight on.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

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