Now that the amount of carbon in our atmosphere has officially reached 400 parts per million (a level only previously experienced on earth 3 million years ago), what now? Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at Columbia University told the New York Times: It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster. No doubt, she is not the only one feeling this way.
We’ve got to keep believing that we can turn things around because if we don’t, there’s no justification for our continued existence. Finding the power to turn things around depends on what might be very hard to find right now: hope.
Last week, George Monbiot reminded me that there is always hope to be found, you just have to pay attention. He quoted the final paragraph in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a very dark, disturbing, post-apocalyptic story that concludes with, what I have decided sums up the world, and why we need to advocate (with all our might) for its continued existence:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not to be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
Monbiot’s hope-story is about the revitalization of Britain’s polluted waterways. Looking into my own front-yard (almost) is a very clear example of how thoughtful action can make a big impact: volunteers have worked for years now to prevent herring-eggs from being poisoned, and with that they have brought renewed life in the form of dolphins, sea-lions and whales to Howe Sound - and that is just what I can see from my favourite rock.
Back in 1935, Aldo Leopold, known to some as the godfather of the conservation movement, bought 80 acres with a cabin near the Wisconsin River. In the documentary about his life, Green Fire, his daughter described the excitement of hearing about the purchase, and imagining an idyllic piece of land alongside a river. As it happened, the river was not in their backyard and the land was devastated from overuse. The family’s first job was to shovel the manure out of the rickety old chicken-coop that would become their cottage, but it was the first step in the family’s decades-long land-restoration project which included the planting of 50 thousand Pine trees. According to his daughter, the Leopold children were willing participants project. In 1943, Aldo Leopold reflected on the experience in writing:
Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel.” Pines Above the Snow
The best part about such stories is that there are no restrictions on who can participate. And as much as these actions can be diminished with a dose of cynicism, they make it hard to deny that positive change is possible. As Pablo Solomon recalled his memories of Earth Day 1970 to National Geographic: "I can actually remember many people of my parents' generation remarking that [sweeping up] was the only act of Earth Day that resulted in anything. People of that generation would comment, If those hippies got a haircut and clean clothes, the world would be better."
The first Earth Day, in 1970, was marked by the presence of some 20 million bodies in the streets, twelve thousand events, and more than thirty-five thousand speakers. I wasn’t there, but it seems that alongside all of the street-sweeping, learning and protesting, there was a whole lot of celebrating. The next few years brought reason to celebrate with creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.
In the April 15th edition of The New Yorker, Nicholas Leman points to the death of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (better known as the Climate Bill) in 2010 as a defeat to the environmental movement as unexpected as the success of Earth Day had been. Hundreds of millions of dollars were devoted to making sure the bill passed, and environmentalists felt they were playing the “big-game,” he writes, by making alliances with major corporations and looking for market solutions.
A year following the announcement that the climate bill would not pass through the Senate, a few thousand protestors encircled the White House with an inflatable black tube representing an oil pipeline. They wanted President Obama to block the Keystone XL project, and after several forced deadlines to make a decision on it, he rejected the application to start construction it.
This could be seen as a small, fleeting victory - because the battle over Keystone is far from over, and as Leman writes, “once you get past the cheering that President Obama aroused by mentioning climate change in his Inaugural Address (as he scarcely did during his re-election campaign), it becomes clear that his approach to climate change, in his second term, is to move still further in the same direction.” That direction being a conservative one, unlikely to make much change. However, as Bill McKibben writes in Rolling Stone, “the center of gravity has also shifted from big, established groups to local, distributed efforts. In the Internet age, you don't need direct mail and big headquarters; you need Twitter.” In January, he notes, the Sierra Club dropped a 120 year ban on civil disobedience, and a month later its director was led away from the White House in handcuffs.
The movement to fight fossil fuel interests and stand-up for our planet’s climate is real and growing, and as McKibben says, you need to do more than change your lightbulbs to say you are a part of it. Van Jones and Joe Romm have echoed his call to action by invoking the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:
There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
As they say, it makes sense that the fossil fuel industry works to block Congressional action and fund disinformation campaigns, but the fact that millions of people who accept the science of climate change but feel no urgency is simply bewildering.
I figured they’d make good decisions for me, since they had money on the line and wanted to see their investment appreciate. - Kenneth Michael Merrill, “KmikeyM”
In February, 2008, Kenneth Michael Merrill sold shares in his life to investors, offering them the opportunity to reap the rewards of his successes, and have a say in the process. Merrill’s story, and a number of the key decisions made by investor votes since the initial public offering (and their impact) are well outlined by Joshua Davis in Wired Magazine. The story provides a unique perspective on profit-driven decision-making and its outcomes. It proves that the market is neither “bad,” nor “wrong,” nor, “infallible”. Shares continue to be bought and sold in the publicly traded individual, KmikeyM, which would seem to indicate that Merrill believes his fundraising scheme, which has become his lifestyle, is worth continuing, and people continue to invest in him. One shareholder wrote about his experience in the comments following the article:
Also, as a shareholder, I get access to him for "free" consulting. Even if he doesn't have a direct vote in my personal decisions, his argument for why he could/should have gotten a vasectomy (something I hope he puts before the shareholders again for a new vote)... it got me thinking more seriously about doing it myself, which I did shortly after turning 33. I've also found myself making new friends with other shareholders...
That’s right, shareholders got to vote on Merrill’s decision about whether or not to get a vasectomy. The outcome of the decision doesn’t matter, I don’t think. The real question is the rationality, the rightness, maybe of letting a bunch of for-profit stakeholders make that kind of decision. Really?
I think just about any emotionally mature person, regardless of political leanings, would share my unease with this. Given that, why is it so acceptable to leave big decisions regarding, say, the earth’s climate, in the hands of people looking to make a buck? (Economic) growth-oriented publications like The Economist and the Financial Times point to the fallibility of human-designed policies to push alternative energies to justify letting the market decide. However, both of these publications at least acknowledge that it is human-beings who decide the shape of markets, and given that, offer a carbon-tax as an appropriate solution.
There’s also the perspective offered by the Neo-environmentalist. Paul Kingsnorth describes this philosophy in his fantastic article “Dark Ecology.” As Kingsnorth explains, the neo-environmentalist looks at saving the planet in purely utilitarian terms, with:
an excitable enthusiasm for markets. They like to put a price on things like trees, lakes, mist, crocodiles, rainforests, and watersheds, all of which can deliver “ecosystem services,” which can be bought and sold, measured and totted up. Tied in with this is an almost religious attitude toward the scientific method. Everything that matters can be measured by science and priced by markets, and any claims without numbers attached can be easily dismissed. This is presented as “pragmatism” but is actually something rather different: an attempt to exclude from the green debate any interventions based on morality, emotion, intuition, spiritual connection, or simple human feeling.
It is all too clear that this perspective is in fact dominant in our society. The fact that a young man’s willingness to leave his reproductive fate up to profit-makers is basically considered acceptable, if not a bit quirky, is proof that we’ve accepted the same deal. KmikeyM’s bargain is in fact very similar to the bargains we strike every day when it comes to the big decisions that shape all of our lives and futures. The more I think about it, the more the story seems to be a sign of illness, not so much in one person or all the people buying into him, but in our society as a whole.
Until two weeks ago, I had never heard of Mount Milligan, but I have not been able to stop thinking about it since the day I did. I’ve even dreamt about it, and I’ve been wondering if it is actually possible for me to make all the complicated arrangements necessary to make the twelve-hour road-trip with my car-seat-hating baby to this place I’ve never been. I’ve also wondered whether it is possible for me to not make the trip, and acknowledge the sacred value of the place before it is destroyed in the name of resource extraction.
Such is the power of story.
The Stonehouse Institute brought together some 150 amazing people to participate in the Leaning Forward, Leading Change: Storytelling & Community Organizing Training at VanDusen Gardens in Vancouver, on the weekend of March 21st. Based on the framework developed by Marshall Ganz, the over-arching idea presented at the training was that if we can tell better stories, public narratives, to be precise, we can move people to join us and step-up themselves to press for change.
By the end of day two, the training had proven that stories can divide people as easily as they can unite them. Occasionally, people would publicly wonder, “What am I doing here?” Others came out and clarified, I’m not an environmentalist, or, I’m not Left-wing. But at a certain point, in the void of scratched-out labels, commonality emerged. We’re all human-beings, breathing air, drinking water (sometime copious amounts of coffee), suffering, loving, dreaming and working hard to hold on to whatever hope we can find. We found a way to work together. We told our stories.
It’s Anne Marie Sam’s story, told near the end of day three, that grabbed a hold of me and won’t let go. I won’t re-tell it here, because I don’t think that would do the story justice, but its about “Mount Milligan,” and the importance of the land not just because of her people’s history on it, or because of its intrinsic value, but because what happens there will impact the kind of future her daughters can look forward to.
I can say for sure that Anne’s story changed me. I would venture to guess (although I will only be able to tell you, for sure, in about a months’ time) that it started a movement of people who will head north to the mountain she calls Shus Nadloh.
For more on telling powerful, effective stories, check-out the resources available on Marshall Ganz’s Leading Change Network website.
In his call for localized and culturally sensitive stories on climate change, M Sanjayan brought forward the example of restoring a local water shed to deal with Santiago’s climate-related tap water shortages. While I am all for cultural sensitivity, I can’t help but think that such actions fall short - taking appropriate short-term action to a long-term problem. Similarly I can’t knock local action, or local stories - both are necessary - but if we want to tackle a global problem it seems necessary to address it as such. Making connections between localized events and actions seems to me like a sound approach.
A recently released study by The Center For Climate and Security might serve as an example. The Arab Spring and Climate Change argues that climate change created the environment that nurtured the tensions and inequality that led to the revolutions across the Arab world in 2010 and 2011.
Here’s how the story goes (or one of them, at least): in 2010 and 2011, the world’s major wheat producers experienced major droughts and floods. This led to a global wheat shortage and price-spike from $157 to $326 per metric tonne. The world’s top nine wheat importing countries are in the Middle East, seven of those experienced social unrest during the time of the global wheat shortage. The ramifications of that unrest are global.
The editors of the report recommend a shifting of the frame through which conflict and security are viewed. From the study:
Beyond individual countries, if we accept the conclusions of the authors collected here, then we must expect a continuing and increasing interplay between climate, land, water, food, migration, urbanization, and economic, social, and political stress. Yet almost none of those issues shows up in a traditional course on international relations, which focuses far more on the traditional geopolitics of interstate relations, particularly the distribution of military and economic power among a handful of the most important states. Insecurity in this world is defined largely in terms of military threats posed by rising or declining powers; security dilemmas between rival states, which must assume worst-case motivations on one another’s part; physical and virtual terrorist attacks; and denial of access to any of the world’s common spaces—ocean, air, outer space, and, increasingly, cyberspace.
I’d love to see this kind of shift, and think that if academia were willing to take it on, the news media might just follow - or at least report on it.