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Martin Sheen’s new apocalypse

LINDA PENTZ GUNTER chats with the famed actor about why he’s joined the struggle against climate change

MARTIN SHEEN has seen the apocalypse at close range and has been president of the United States. But all of that was in his acting career.

On Friday, Sheen, 79, showed up in Washington DC to protest against the most apocalyptical event of our times — the climate crisis.

Sheen is best known for his lead role in the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now, and for playing the US president in the popular television series, The West Wing, which ran from 1999-2006. 

On Friday, he joined fellow actors Joaquin Phoenix and Susan Sarandon in handcuffs on the steps of the US Capitol where they were arrested on the last of Jane Fonda’s weekly climate protests in DC. Sheen co-stars in Fonda’s Netflix series, Grace and Frankie.

As we walked together to the rally, Sheen spoke quietly of his commitment to non-violence and civil disobedience that has included more than 80 arrests, mainly in opposition to nuclear weapons and war, although he has embraced numerous causes, including the rights of farm workers, saving the oceans, youth empowerment and immigration. 

But he’s unsure if those decades of protest really make a difference.

“I don’t have any illusions about changing anyone’s mind one way or another, in Congress or anywhere else,” he said. 

“I do it for myself because I cannot not do it and know myself. If anyone else is affected by it, why then that’s a residual effect, but it’s not going to happen here today at this time with this group. 

“It’s a worldwide organised effort that has to demand leadership that first of all recognises the situation and then resolves to attend to it.”

Like the peace and social justice causes he has supported all his life, Sheen sees climate change as a natural extension of that work.

“I’m always challenged to wake up and stand up and become involved in social justice work and peace activism, and I’ve been doing it most of my life so it’s just a natural reaction,” he said.

“To deny climate change is to lead a dishonest life, so that the bottom line is we are called to witness. And that’s what this is. It’s a witness.”

But when Sheen took the stage, the quiet pacifist and devout Catholic transformed into a fulminating orator, delivering a passionate monologue, prefaced with his personal plea, then rising in crescendo as he thundered Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, Where The Mind Is Without Fear, from memory.

“We are called to find something in our lives worth fighting for,” Sheen began, “something that unites the will of the spirit with the work of the flesh, something that can help us lift up this nation and all its people to that place where the heart is without fear, and the head is held high, where knowledge is free, where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls, where words come out from the depths of truth and tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection, where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sands of dead habit, where the mind is led forward by deed into ever widening thought and action, into that heaven of freedom dear Father, let our country awake!”

Phoenix is fresh off his January 5 2020 Golden Globes award for The Joker, which he won for best actor in a motion picture drama and where he made climate change the focus of his acceptance speech. 

“It’s really nice that so many people have come up and sent their well wishes to Australia but we have to do more than that,” he said then, after thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for “recognising and acknowledging the link between animal agriculture and climate change. It is a very bold move making tonight plant-based and it really sends a powerful message.”

In Washington DC, Phoenix, a lifelong vegan, reiterated his commitment to animal welfare.

“Something that isn’t oftentimes talked about in the environmental movement or in the conversation about climate change is that the meat and dairy industry is the third leading cause of climate change,” Phoenix told a rally of about a thousand people.

“I think sometimes we wonder what can we do in this fight against climate change and there’s something you can do today, right now and tomorrow by making a choice about what you consume,” he said. 

“I struggle so much with what I can do at times,” Phoenix said. “There are things that I can’t avoid. I flew a plane out here last night but one thing I can do is change my eating habits. So I just want to urge you to join me in that.”

Linda Pentz Gunter is the curator and editor of Beyond Nuclear International and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear, a Maryland-based non-profit organisation.

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