Now this is what I’m talking about — the youngest among us speaking truth to power. I loved this article, and this action. Blessings on all of these wise young people, fighting for their future.
Now this is what I’m talking about — the youngest among us speaking truth to power. I loved this article, and this action. Blessings on all of these wise young people, fighting for their future.
Everything that is already hard is going to get harder. Ecological zones will be reshuffled. With many species already in danger of extinction and conservation efforts focused on preserving habitat, lots of that hard-won habitat is going to be irrelevant—too warm, too dry, too something—as suitable habitat shifts faster than species can travel. Fisheries, already stressed by pollution and over-harvesting, will now confront warming and acidification. Droughts and food shocks may intensify political and military conflict: more resource wars, more grain-price revolutions.
Being poor, in particular, gets worse as climate changes. Nature has always been hardest on the poor, because infrastructure, transport, medicine, and the rest of our capital-intensive technologies are the key ways we tame her violence. To be poor—for an individual, and even more for a country—is to be vulnerable to the whims of the natural world. Recall the very worst of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the poorest parts of New Orleans in 2005 and then project those onto Bangladesh, a country of 155 million—almost half as large as the population of the US.
There’s lots of uncertainty about details—as the Report itself painstakingly documents; but most people not in denial have known the broad outlines of this picture for well over a decade. It was 1989—when the Berlin Wall came down—writer Bill McKibben was already announcing “the end of nature” in the era of climate change. But with every IPCC report, the optimistic scenario, where “the world” slashes greenhouse gases and stabilizes climate change, feels more like a weak deus ex machina. Meanwhile, the drastic scenario—where everything accelerates, the Greenland ice cap melts sometime in the next century, sea levels rise 20 feet or more in our grandchildren’s lifetimes, and the Gulf Stream and the Amazonian forests both consider giving up the ghost—that scenario feels more and more like a weather forecast: unseasonably warm this weekend with a growing chance of apocalypse by Sunday evening.
But “apocalypse” is probably exactly wrong, even though floods, droughts, and storms are just the kind of thing that one might expect would presage an apocalypse. Instead, living in a climate-changed world is becoming a post-normal normal, a chronic crisis.
The IPCC Report reflects this, spending four chapters on “adaptation” to climate change. Already, commentators are celebrating the move to adaptation as a win for gritty practicality over empty idealism, local and private efforts over “grand international declarations.” Of course it’s true that we need adaptation, especially for the poor regions that are the most vulnerable and can’t wait while the waters rise. But pretending that giving up on big climate action means a victory is nothing but rationalizing defeat.
This passivity is tempting because political action has done so little and doesn’t seem likely to do much about climate, and doesn’t exactly look poised to do more that is more than symbolic. Because climate change is distributed around the world and has a very long lag time, whatever we do about it here and now mostly helps faraway and future people. So it’s very tempting to come up with excuses for doing nothing, or just enough to feel righteous about what you’ve done.
Sure enough, in international negotiations, the U.S. has long refused to do anything meaningful until China and India “did their share,” while those countries answered that the U.S. had added more than its share to the problem and needed to lead in paying for the solution. At all scales, down to the nation and even the individual, the same puffed-up hemming and hawing works out nicely for the living—who enjoy our energy-intensive lives now—and badly for the future.
Ordinary politics, with its self-interested deal-making just barely hidden under high talk, is a lousy tool for global problems that play out over centuries and would require the living generation to do something costly and inconvenient. And there is not much that is more costly and inconvenient than retooling your infrastructure, from energy to transport to manufacturing, when that infrastructure is where we all live.
That leaves us with, basically, two ways out. One is extraordinary technology: either a silver bullet to produce cheap, renewable energy, or a reliable geo-engineering technique to adjust the global atmosphere-temperature-weather system directly. Either might happen—the first likely will, maybe too late to prevent permanent crisis; but waiting on clean energy is a very big risk, and geo-engineering brings huge risks of its own, from getting only half the problem to ending up making the system even more unstable. The “simplest” geo-engineering proposal is to bounce a bunch of earth-warming sunlight back into space by launching mirrors or particles into the upper atmosphere; but (1) it’s a half-measure, since the oceans would continue acidifying, stressing and maybe destroying many marine life forms and disrupting other global processes; and (2) if anything ever happened to the mirrors, sunlight would pour in and our carbon-enriched atmosphere would start to warm up like an oven.
The other way out is extraordinary politics: politics that goes beyond the usual interest-swapping and sets new commitments for the country and the world. This, admittedly, is a desperate measure. It is the last thing you want to rely on—other than, possibly, launching mirrors into space to adjust the planet’s atmosphere. These, however, are desperate times, at least where the global climate is concerned.
One reason for hopefulness, even for measured optimism, is something our hyper-knowing, reflexively cynical political culture trains us to forget: extraordinary politics is a real thing, not just an idle wish.
Consider the end of slavery—not in the U.S., but in the British Empire, which abolished the practice thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, by an act of Parliament, with compensation to slaveholders. The economic cost was huge. For decades, historians assumed it must have been a subterfuge for someone’s economic benefit—otherwise, how would such a thing be possible? But the historians’ view these days is that British emancipation was, in fact, a wildly expensive and disruptive moral commitment, executed through extraordinary politics. The powerful thing about this example is its scale: the global economy of the British Empire was nearly as entwined with slavery as ours is with the fossil-fuel economy. The change wasn’t just costly: it pulled some institutions up by their roots. If that never happened, we’d really be out of reasons for hope on climate change. But sometimes it does.
We should learn to look at climate change simultaneously through two very different lenses. Keep one eye on the scientists’ reports, with their steady accumulation of reasons to worry, and the Silicon Valley technologists’ innovations, with their promise of landing on an extraordinary technology. But cast the other on the activist kids who don’t know enough to realize they can’t win—the ones getting arrested outside the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and pressing universities and pension funds to divest from fossil fuels, as if Exxon were R.J. Reynolds, or Apartheid South Africa. And don’t forget the people who are experimenting with low-carbon living in their “transition town” projects, trying to recast energy sources and other infrastructure in a less carbon-intensive form.
It’s easy—ridiculously easy—to show that the activists shouldn’t expect to win, and that whatever they did succeed in doing wouldn’t be enough to stop this massive global problem. But that is true at the beginning of every episode of extraordinary politics. That why histories of abolition, the civil rights movement, even environmentalism, don’t begin with people who are powerful, realistic, or even normal. They begin with people who don’t know better, and who find the world they are born into intolerable.
That is key, because if we end up tolerating a climate-changed world as the new normal, then it probably will last forever—or as long as anyone is around to care about it.
Our current normal is built out of principles that used to be considered impossible—gender equality, racial equality, democracy—and became common sense long after some people were too unrealistic to give up on them. Once they win, these principles get absorbed into common sense—and, of course, get betrayed left and right, like any civic piety. But a world where they are elements of common sense is still vastly different from one where most people accept that they are impossible.
We sort of know this about human freedom and equality, even if we tend to forget it in practice. But environmental issues tend to get cast as technical problems for scientists and bureaucrats, or as hopelessly politically divided between liberal greens and conservative climate-skeptics. But that is only half the picture. Historically, environmental attitudes have changed almost as dramatically as attitudes around gender and sexuality: Americans used to hate wilderness, love to see a forest burn, and wage war on wolves and other large predators. Even more basically, they had no conception of the global web of life that we call ecology, or just “the environment,.” A series of political movements and cultural revolutions changed this, beginning as far back as the nineteenth century. Today’s climate activists are aiming at the same kind of change: to help see, and feel, a disrupted and dangerous world as their problem, their responsibility, something they love enough not to give up on it.
So the age of climate change doesn’t just need climate scientists, or even technologists, and adaptation engineers. They are essential, but if we just rely on them, we’re likely to drift further into passivity and pessimism. We also need, in incremental and experimental ways, to keep building up a real politics of climate change. That politics will be both environmentalist and human-oriented, because there’s no separating the two in the age of climate change. It will have to ask how the peoples of the world are going to live together and share its benefits and dangers, and also how we are going to use, preserve, and transform the world itself. Braiding together human rights and distributive justice with environmental ethics and the human relation to the natural world isn’t just a nice-sounding, if daunting idea. It’s quite simply the only way forward.
Any answers that we succeed in giving these questions will transform us as earlier extraordinary politics changed people: those who ask the question are no longer the same once they givereach an answer. That transformation, to a culture and economy that could change the trajectory of climate change, is exactly what seems impossible now. And that is why everyone should be paying respectful attention to the activists who refuse to believe in impossibility, and even more to the parts of ourselves that refuse to believe it, too. This isn’t idealism. It’s a higher realism, and should be scheming a little impossibility of our own.
Isaac Cordal’s “Follow the leaders.” Berlin, Germany, April 2011.
“Politicians discussing global warming” — that’s what social media users have dubbed this tiny puddle sculpture by Spanish street artist Isaac Cordal. With sea levels projected to rise up to three feet by the end of the century, it’s a stark reminder of our collective failure to act on climate change.
Or maybe not.
As it turns out, Cordal’s sculpture is actually called “electoral campaign” and it’s part of a larger street art installation called “Follow the Leaders.” The tiny cement figures, arranged in bleak scenes of urban disintegration, represent the faceless businessmen who run our capitalist global order.
“These pieces reflect our own decline,” says Cordal. “We live immersed in the collapse of a system that needs change.”
I had the opportunity to write an article for Taproot Magazine www.taproot.com, a beautiful, full color, ad-free, paper magazine put out by homesteaders living in the Northeast. This magazine has no significant on-line presence: they really want you to get the object, live with it, read it, love it.
I suggested one piece about water and one about “eco-somatics”, my personal blend of ecological and body-based consciousness (a favorite theme), and was surprised when they went for the latter.
Here’s how it starts:
Living with Roses
Walking up my neighborhood hill this morning, it is brisk, nearly November. The trees are turning yellow and red. My hands are cold. It feels good. Footstep after footstep, I join in the ascent. I walk this hill to get my dose of daily perspective—as I turn and face the down slope I see my little city coming to life for the day. I am aware of cars and people, houses, trees, the noise of the freeway, a red-tailed hawk circling overhead, how long it’s been since it last rained.
Burdened with a demonic and persistent awareness of the rapidly advancing depredations of climate change, questions run freely through my mind on my walks: How can we adapt to the changes of the 21st century? What is a resilient response? What do I know that is relevant to the world that is coming into a being—a harsher, more dangerous world, a world with different opportunities and limits? What actions make a difference? Am I prepared? Will we survive?
That’s me, always sweating the small stuff.
On a bad morning, the broken world lies in front of me, unfixable. It’s too late, the damage is done, our goose is cooked. I count every tree that’s been cut down, every extra car in the fast lane, every corporate-sponsored attack on the earth: another Target! another CostCo! another outlet mall! I am so tiny in the face of this juggernaut. I forget my connection to everything, that how I think and feel and act matters. Crouched in this stance, I am a cog in the wheel of the culture of despair.
On a good morning, I remember the daily practices that connect me to the world. I remember that as an ordinary mom living a local life, I have some power, but not much, to affect the dominant cultural mudslide, i.e., “doing the best I can” really is doing the best I can. I know that the small acts we take toward the healing of the world are the only steps we can take, and that the way change happens in this country is from the grassroots, a rhizomatic, perpetual motion, like the beautiful, pernicious bindweed in the garden. In this stance, I am a solutionary dedicated to the culture of life.
This week, gardener divine Wendy Krupnick and I penned a letter (to anyone who would listen) about the scarcity of water in our county. The Press Democrat picked it up, and hopefully a few others will as well. County Supervisors are responding as well. Here is the Press Democrat link for the letter: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20131231/opinion/131239969 and here is the letter printed in full:
To: Sonoma County Supervisors and Water Agency
Re: Drought leadership needed
The driest year in California’s recorded history is about to come to a close, and there is no promise that the drought will end any time soon. Even if there was substantial rainfall in the next few months, will it be sufficient to replenish severely depleted groundwater reserves? What if that rain does not come? Too many human, animal, biological and economic lives are dependent on this scarce resource for us not to take immediate measures to preserve what we have.
The specter of extended drought is as scary as the “super storms” which have been happening in other parts of the world. Equally frightening is the deafening silence of our public officials, who have so far failed to acknowledge this crisis and call for mandatory conservation measures. Climate change is clearly happening here and now.
We know that:
In spite of the information above, we are told that our county does not need to worry about this unprecedented lack of rain, because there is still water in Lake Sonoma. As we can see, Lake Sonoma water is completely irrelevant to a very significant part of our population. And what if Lake Sonoma does not refill this winter?
In the 1970s California experienced a drought that was not as severe as the current one, but there were mandatory conservation measures enacted in many communities. Lawn watering and washing sidewalks and cars with hoses were prohibited, and low flow water devices were distributed. We learned to let “yellow mellow” and took short showers. These measures made a big difference and we found that we could do just fine using much less water. There are additional water conservation measures that could be actively supported by the agencies now, including grey water systems.
Why have such measures not been called for now? Are we afraid to scare off developers? Of the political battles that will ensue if we recognize the drought for what it is? It’s insanity to continue with business as usual when it comes to water–one of life’s true essentials.
Some of the cities have good water conservation policies “on the books”, yet dozens of acres of lawns adjacent to commercial enterprises waste thousands of gallons of water every month. And in many unincorporated areas water use is still extravagant. As long as private water districts like the Country Club neighborhood are allowed unlimited access to “their” water at nominal cost to their residents, water will continue to flow down those streets into the storm drains daily.
We the undersigned residents of Sonoma County call on our Supervisors, the Sonoma County Water Agency and its municipal clients to enact mandatory water conservations measures immediately. In addition to appropriate prohibitions and fees, there should be incentives for businesses to convert their landscapes to low water use plantings. Independent water districts and home owners associations should be required to provide water conservation information to their residents and to change their fee structures.
And we ask every resident of our county to count every drop of water as the precious, scarce resource that it is, and to do their part to adapt to our changing world.
Sometimes when I find myself thinking about climate change all the time, and the many things we can all do to mitigate disaster, and I see how small my actions are and how the major power players–corporations, governments, and the mass of most people–are just going on with business as usual, I feel insane. I am always searching for ways to motivate, rather than terrify, and this was a big issue when I wrote the book. It was clear to me that hitting people over the head with facts and dire predictions would do to them what it did to me–freak them out and make it impossible to take action.
And yet, the time for action is way past NOW. We have to figure out how to inspire and lead individuals, families, communities, regions, etc… toward a more ecologically possible future.
This article written by Susan Strong of the Metaphor Project, www.metaphorproject.org, was really inspiring and motivating in this regard and I reprint it here in full.
Framing Climate Change Action Now
by Susan C. Strong
There is evidence that a number of American citizens know we have a climate change problem. But many of them experience it as something we can’t fix technically, socially or politically. So they ignore it to keep going day by day. Among the already convinced, that’s where the issue is stuck. But we also have fellow citizens who haven’t heard or thought much about the issue, and of course, we’ve got the fossil fuel gang still funding denial. Recent research shows that the public is primarily focused on jobs, the economy, and D.C. gridlock instead.
So, to make any headway on this issue, we will have to get a lot smarter about framing climate change problems and their solutions. For too long climate change activists and professionals have been talking to each other and to the sympathetic. It’s time to get serious about framing the issue in a way that reaches mainstream America.
Let’s start with educating the convinced about possible fixes. Years of research have shown that trying to motivate people on this issue by scaring them fails. Up-to-date framing research proves that people respond better to a “prevent damage” message than to an “avoid risk” one.(2) So, the real focus of our framing on this issue should be action to prevent more damage to our economy: who can do what, who is doing what, what is working now.(3) Americans are pragmatic, action-oriented optimists. We need to pose the climate change problem as a challenge we can all meet.
Along these lines, some language picks I’d make from the Metaphor Project’s “American Story” lists include these: being prosperous, saving money, being clean, safe, and healthy, being free, and doing it ourselves. Big political change in this country always starts with the grassroots. That bottom-up path calls on our most prized national traits –doing things in our own communities, being part of a grassroots groundswell, being innovative, pragmatic, showing can-do, rolling-up-our sleeves, helping to reinvent a new, healthier economy from the ground up. “
So much for educating the convinced about solutions. What about convincing more of our fellow citizens that the problem is real? First, we need to bear in mind the fact that most Americans are primarily extroverted sensing types—they require proof about the reality of a problem from their five senses. Climate change is a bit like cancer—it’s silent, and it’s been happening somewhere else. The warning signs are easy to miss for the average American. So be understanding of anyone who honestly seems to be unaware or incredulous. Start by talking about how much we all want a prosperous new economy. Then describe climate change as the “growing climate crisis that threatens our economy and our way of life,” because for some it may not seem like a full-fledged “crisis” yet. When we get to the moment for going into detail, we need to use stories about what’s already been happening to other Americans lately: increasing drought, mega-storms, floods, fire storms beyond anything we’ve seen before, rising sea levels, bad changes in local weather patterns and their costs. Once you get people’s ear this way, you can quickly move on to talking about suggestions for positive action. (If you encounter a Fox News denial fan, just laugh, and say, “Oh, you’ve been watching Fox News!” and then walk away laughing. Don’t stay to argue. Especially don’t argue about what the majority of scientists say. Don’t waste your energy on hardcore deniers.)
If you need to give a cause for the climate change problem, describe it as the result of too much carbon getting into our air. (To learn more about natural ways to get carbon back where it belongs in plants and in the soil, see Note 4.) Pollution is something everyone knows is dirty and bad for your health And please avoid talking about “greenhouse gases.” To the general public, greenhouses are good things that help you grow more food! (It would be nice if even the experts stopped saying “greenhouse gases” to each other too. That unfortunate metaphor inevitably slips out in public and harms the cause of reform. I like “hothouse gases” better, because it sounds more like the real thing and nasty too. Also please avoid using any evidence that relies on pictures of or references to the fate of the “environment,” or of other species of all kinds such as polar bears, penguins, etc. Avoid talking about polar and glacier melts, using charts or graphs, and talking about CO2!” Everyone who can be convinced by the means I’m criticizing here is already on board.
Now it’s time to consider our third task, which is actually quite separate from the two previous ones above. As Bill McKibben and others have pointed out, we do have to hold the carbon crooks and climate crisis deniers up for public shaming. But even when your project is shaming the fossil fuel gang, it’s vital to start and conclude with a positive vision of the clean energy world and prosperous economy we could have instead. In between these two positive notes there are a number of classic American negatives you can sound: the deniers are “telling lies and betraying the public trust.” They are on the take, they are stealing subsidy money from the taxpayers, they are sabotaging our clean energy future, they are blocking progress, they are holding our country and our economy back or hostage, and they are profiting from damaging our health, our economy, and our country. Their CEOs are blocking the dawn of a new energy age, they are criminal cons, they have gone too far, they are corrupt, and as for their ‘wait and see” strategy—do you wait until your house burns down to buy insurance? They are costing us too much. You can also warn people that everyone will soon be selling their fossil fuel stocks and moving their money into alternative energy investments, because “the carbon bubble is going to burst.” (For more about this “divestment” strategy, see www.350.org.)
So much for going negative. Always, whatever our messages or audiences might be, we must always start and end by returning to the positive: “We can do it, it will be good for us, it will prevent new damage, it will save and make money and jobs, save our health, our economy, our communities. We can improve our economy by meeting the climate change challenge!“
Let’s put powerful new American Story energy into all of our campaigns now and get the massive liftoff we so desperately need!
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, http://www.metaphorproject.org, and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997.
1.This fact has recently been noted in “U.S. Energy Policy: A Bridge to Nowhere,” by Bob Burnett, on Huffington Post: http://huff.to/1dxyhwA.
2. The following links provide details about the new research on framing climate change action: http://climateshiftproject.org/winning-the-conversation-framing-and-moral-messaging-in-environmental-campaigns/; http://talkingclimate.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Language-Words-and-Phrases.pdf; http://valuesandframes.org/blue-valuing-green/;
4. Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, by Judith D. Schwartz, (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.)
Come join us on September 26 at 5:0 pm at Aqus Cafe to begin a Petaluma City Repair project.
Intersection Repair is a multi-layered process where citizens foster active, engaged relationships to the spaces they inhabit, and shape those spaces to create a sense of communal stewardship and connection.
Inspired by Mark Lakeman’s awesome work with City Repair, in Portland, Oregon, cityrepair.org Check it out – gorgeous!
In the face of climate change and disruptions to the environment due to corporate predation, what’s a girl to do?
“It is time to talk about important things. Why have we come so close to the brink of extinction so carelessly and casually? Why do we still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert? How can humankind reclaim the commons of atmosphere, seas, biological diversity, mineral resources, and lands as the heritage of all, not the private possessions of a few? How much can we fairly and sustainably take from Earth, and for what purposes? Why is wealth so concentrated and poverty so pervasive? Are there better ways to earn our livelihoods than by maximizing consumption, a word that once signified a fatal disease? Can we organize governance at all levels around the doctrine of public trust rather than through fear and competition? And, finally, how might Homo sapiens, with a violent and bloody past, be redeemed in the long arc of time?”
Is Urban Homesteading enough? OF COURSE NOT. But is it one of a series of solutions that help us rise to the challenges of our time? OF COURSE IT IS.
Check out this article for more thoughts on conducting ourselves in the years ahead:
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