Presenting a short dialogue between two characters I know quite well, ME and I.
ME represents me when I really think about climate change and what it means
I represents me when I want to convince myself that it will be okay, or when I don’t want to think about it because it is too upsetting, or because thinking about it should naturally lead to doing something about it, and how hard is that? I mean, I have a life to live and blogs to write and a family to care for and places to go and things to do, and Christmas presents to buy. I’m too busy to pay attention to this.
ME: Climate change is real. There is almost universal agreement about this now. Climate change has the possibility of drastically changing our environment and our way of life.
I: Don’t worry, things will be okay. After all, the 20th UN Climate Change Conference is being held in Warsaw right now. That’s a relief, right?
ME: Depends on how optimistic you are. Things are deteriorating rapidly. Yesterday delegates from 132 poor and developing countries walked out of the talks.
I: Yea, but those things happen. It’s how they negotiate. No worries. They managed to come up with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and that had a legally binding plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 6% to 8% below what they had been in 1990 during 2008 -2012.
ME: Wow, I’m surprised you knew that.
I: Everyone has heard of the Kyoto Protocol.
ME: Did you know that Congress wouldn’t ratify the treaty after Clinton signed it, and Bush completely rejected it in 2001?
I: No, I didn’t know that, but I’m sure Bush had a good reason. Anyway, that was in the past. Now, good things are going to happen in Warsaw. Hey, do you want to have a snack?
ME: I think it might be a case of too little, too late. If they manage to get an agreement, it won’t actually be signed until they meet again in Paris in 2015, and it won’t go into effect until 2020.
I: WTF? 2020? That’s more than 6 years from now. Seems like a long time if things are really at a tipping point for carbon in the atmosphere. Those experts must know that the situation isn’t really that serious. Thank goodness. Let’s try that new pastry shop.
ME: Don’t be so sure. It is more about diplomacy and politics and funding than how serious the need is.
I: Well, some good will happen. Since the Cophenhagen talks in 2009, developed countries have invested more than $10 billion per year towards international climate actions.
ME: Yes, that is true and they agreed to get it up to $100 billion a year by 2020, but no one really thinks they will.
I: Well, no wonder! $100 billion a year is an awful lot.
Me:You should see how much we spend on fossil fuel subsidies.
I: I’m getting bored with this. Can’t we talk about something else? Anyway, that pastry shop closes soon. We’ll have to drive to get there before it closes.
I find myself having these inner dialogues more often than I like to admit. I feel the sense of urgency and I know in my heart, in my soul and in my mind, that we must all contribute to solving this problem now. We really don’t have time to wait. We must cut our worldwide carbon emissions. Yet, rich countries spend 5 times more on fossil fuel subsidies than on aid to developing nations to cut their emissions. In other words, we are spending more on ADDING carbon emissions to the environment.
My head actually hurts when I think of how complex the problem is. I know it is not simple. But, I also know we must not become paralyzed by the complexity. I saw Wendell Berry (poet, farmer, environmental activist) being interviewed by Bill Moyers and he spoke of our need to take care of the earth in simple terms.
He framed the question in terms of our relationship to the earth and our separation from nature; about how we don’t really know and love the very land we live on, the little plot of earth that is underneath our homes and the land that surrounds it. No matter where you live, the building is grounded on a piece of land. The water that comes into your home started flowing from an actual source in the earth. Berry says we can’t really take care of it until we are connected to it.
In his words:
“Because we have not made our lives to fit our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded, the streams polluted, the mountains, overturned. Hope then to belong to your place by your own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by caring for it as you care for no other place…Be still and listen to the voices that belong to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields… Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet. Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot… The world is no better than its places. Its places at last are no better than their people while their people continue on them. When the people make dark the light within them, the world darkens.”
Berry’s sense of the earth’s places is interesting to me. He expresses how we have harmed them, but he also urges us to care for them and to find hope in the ground underneath our feet. So what does that actually mean to us, as individuals living in vastly different places all over this earth? I think he answers that. He does not want us make dark the light within us. Caring for the earth, then, is intimately connected to keeping the light of hope shining inside us.
Do I think that this is the whole answer to healing the earth? No. But I think he gives us a pretty concrete suggestion when he says:
“The only question we have the right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does the earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it.”
For me, framing the question in terms of what the earth needs us to do in order to allow us to live on it is a helpful way to think about it. The planet earth will be here, with us or without us. If we want to continue to survive here, what does the earth need from us?
That is the question we must ask, and we must dedicate ourselves to finding the answers.
On the first season of West Wing in 1999, President Bartlet asked a question that is never answered:
“What will be the next thing that challenges us? That makes us go farther and work harder? You know that when smallpox was eradicated, it was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of the century? Surely we can do it again, as we did in a time when our eyes looked towards the heavens, and with outstretched fingers, we touched the face of God.”
The answer to that question is clear now. We must heal the earth before it is too late.