“If it’s not ferocious, it’s not love.” – Kathleen Dean Moore
“Warrior up!” -Tsleil Waututh Sundance Chief Rueben George’s mother (hearing him hesitate to abandon his comfortable life to fight tar sands development and other environmental degradation).
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Fighting the roots of climate change, like fighting the roots of many – perhaps all – degradations, sometimes involves making people uncomfortable. As Bill McKibben has pointed out, asking Americans to fight climate change is a bit like asking slaveholders to fight for abolition. While we all know who the worst actors are – the ones throwing (our!) money around to make sure our options are limited, the ones lying about the problem, the ones creating toxic waste ponds so large they’re visible from space – the truth is that we benefit from the system they’ve created every day, and most of us could choose to withhold our participation far more often than we do. We’ve fed the beast, and it’s just about big enough to devour us whole.
I’ve lately clashed a little with people – allies – who believe that because talking about climate makes people uncomfortable, we need to reframe the issue, as one about love. By getting them to focus on what they love – and how it’s at risk – the thinking goes, then we can touch their hearts without making them feel bad.
But I feel bad, and I think you should too.
I’m kidding, mostly – the truth is, I think many or most people already feel bad, in an inchoate, proto-accountability way, and it’s true that this does no one any good. But I think our job is not to make people feel better, but to help them understand, contextualize, and use our guilt, our actual accountability, as fuel. People too often forget the difference between shame (I am a bad person) and guilt (I have done bad things). Shame is usually a show-stopper, because the person feeling it doesn’t feel like he or she can make changes. Guilt, on the other hand, is an essential step in the process of change, an acknowledgment that (in this case) willfully or not, we have fed the beast: We have contributed meaningfully to a problem whose scope is almost unimaginable and whose effects are being felt first by great numbers who are blameless (or at least, least responsible). My right to throw a punch ends at your face; my right to buy a T-shirt ends well shy of the poisoned watersheds of cotton fields in Pakistan or India; my right to buy stuff and drive and fly and otherwise live a freely chosen developed-world life does not include the right not to feel bad that these things have, in the aggregate, profound repercussions.
The important thing about guilt is that it implies agency – and indeed, if we choose to use it, we have tremendous power. Without us, Rex Tillerson is nothing. Without us, Keystone XL cannot be built.
I was at a conference last weekend where I had a conversation with Kathleen Dean Moore, in which she uttered the words above, soothing my troubled heart. And in her speech to all of us, she in turn used a quote from Gus Speth: “All we have to do to leave a ruined world to children is just keep doing what we’re doing today – the same emissions of pollutants, the same destruction of ecosystems, same toxification of the environment – and we’ll ruin the planet in the latter part of this century.”
In the latter part of this century.
So . . . love ain’t all we need.
It is the root, though. What must its fruits be? An honesty and integrity fueled in part by fury and that same accountability, I’d say. Fury that the lies and irresponsibility of the richest companies in history have kept us from making real changes to the system so far – despite the meteoric growth of solar and wind power, and their plummeting prices. Fury that they’re willing to posit the options as oil by rail or oil in new pipelines, or as coal or gas, rather than acknowledging that sanity requires us to be done with oil, done with gas and coal, done with fuels that we know beyond any shadow of a doubt are threatening to make large swaths of the planet unlivable for human beings and to make countless species extinct. And accountability, because as powerless as we feel sometimes, no one on earth has the same power to change the rules of the game as we do.
There is no way to prettify the probabilities, now, and to my mind it is insane to think that we can be honest with people – as we must, because our only hope is for us all to learn what it means to act like grownups on this planet – and keep them from feeling bad.
So let me say it directly: To know that you can change your habits and not do so is a moral abdication. To be aware that people near you are doing hard work to resist the genocidal behavior of the fossil fuel companies, and not support their efforts, is a moral abdication. To think about the issue and say, I can’t do anything about it, is a moral abdication. To not think about it – while living in a world where your every choice has repercussions for the lives and livelihoods of people (and others) struggling all over the world – is the greatest abdication of all. I say “abdication” because all of these things are within our power, even if “saving the world” is not.
There will be tragedy, no matter what we do now. Hope will be measured largely in disasters averted, species not lost, prospective victims – as another conference speaker pointed out – not made into actual victims. They are the ones to whom we owe our allegiance and our labors – those who are most vulnerable. There will be much to be grateful for and little to be jubilant about – at least, not for long (I’ll be among the first to break out the champagne when we finally, truly defeat Keystone XL – and we will). We have to learn how to hope differently, because we’re in a fight for our lives that will not end in our lifetimes.
So what do we say, then, when gazes shut down; when people see the signs and walk away; when they say “oh, it’s not that bad,” – or, conversely, “I know it’s terrible, but it’s gone way too far for me to be able to do anything about it”?
Many things; it’s probably fantasy to think we can reach everyone in the same way. But I think the epigraphs point the way: If it’s not ferocious, it’s not love and Warrior up! Because this is about love, in the most primal way; it’s about defending all that’s precious. And there isn’t a soul among us (not an obscenely paid CEO nor a shop-till-you-drop SUV driver and certainly not a struggling single parent nor an unemployed construction worker) who won’t fiercely defend what they love most deeply. Only the weakest of addicts are beyond that kind of fight: Are we those weakest of addicts, just looking for the next fix from our dealers? Do we really want to stay numb as the world disappears around us? Because that’s what will happen, and it’s a world – even still – full of magic.
Part of our job is to help people move beyond the defensive oh-I-can’t-do-anything-about-it and into the defending Warrior up! Our only options are the death of all we love, or profound change that we ourselves help make now. All of us. Passivity is death. Delay, even, is death.
So here, I think, is what I might ask:
What do you love? How will you fight for it? Are you going to keep feeding the beast? Are you going to keep saying the system is too powerful and you can’t change it?
Maybe, like me, you love all of it – every blade of grass, every child, every rustle of leaves outside your window. Maybe, like me, the thought of losing a double-digit percentage of the world’s species makes you want to curl up in a ball and die, some days, rather than be part of that process, or even witness to it.
Good, then. That’s a start. Sleep as well as you can tonight – if that’s not very well, that’s all right; open your window to smell the air of this precious kingdom, and use the time to think about all that’s worth defending, and how crazy it is that we’ve somehow gotten to this point, and how the responsibility for that is mostly (but not entirely) down to the profiteers and the liars, and how amazing it is that we have begun to make great strides despite all their money and imagined power (which we granted them and can withdraw). Know that some of the finest, strongest people in the world are also up in the wee hours, worrying about these things. You are not alone.
And in the morning, you know what to do. Because as Benjamin Franta, a Harvard physics student fighting for divestment, said in his letter to Harvard President Drew Faust, our children and grandchildren will not care about our “clever excuses” for inaction – “they will care about what was actually true and what we actually did on their behalf.”