Today, thousands, I hope millions, of people are gathered in Washington, D.C. demonstrating that a passionate and vocal and powerful percentage of the American populace wants a future that does not include the Keystone XL pipeline. We—and I include myself in satellite solidarity—want better than the same dirty and unsustainable systems of the power industries, including government.
Part of me wishes that I were there. It’s the same part that sees pictures of Kiev and Crimea and wishes a bit to be present, involved, in the romance of a physically active moral resistance against a corrupt and dangerous regime. My imagination loves the idea of secret codes and darting messages through barricades and disguises and all the fun tidy bits I picked up from reading Number the Stars and watching Casablanca, and Inglorious Bastards.
Mostly, though, I wish for the mass moral outrage that other places on the map seem to have thinner-skinned access to. I don't want National Guard troops swarming down on citizens demonstrating today in Washington for renewable and efficient energy sources. What I do want is people, average people, to care deeply and act accordingly about the threats to our lives that come with the increasingly erratic climate. And I want those in power, particularly, to need to pay as much attention as if their barricades were being stormed by revolting peasants, pitchforks and torches and battering rams and righteous indignation and all.
I want people to wake up and care—powerful officials and powerful citizens alike. Half the time we’re told that individual actions don’t really matter, that for all the canvas bags and bike shares and light bulbs, the real way to bring about substantive action on climate change is to work for policy changes, to work on a societal scale. And then we’re conversely told that people drive policy, so if we make personal changes, policy will also change. Or that the market will sort everything out, that we need to implement better market-based solutions and provide consumers with the ability to chose better products. We need to buy more to be sustainable? This never makes sense to me. I sat through a frustrating sustainability committee meeting recently where we were told, essentially, that we wouldn’t really have any power to implement changes at the school until we had implemented some changes. In all contexts, this time-wasting game of chicken over who blinks first, who has the real power—the individual or society—is maddening.
I don’t want to be mad any more. It’s bad for my heart.
Trot yourself down to the local public library and find Wangari Maathai’s memoir, Unbowed. Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, encouraging rural women to plant local trees to restore their homeland ecosystems and to provide firewood and thereby stave off malnutrition. She did this with active resistance from a criminally repressive regime, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Maathai is amazing, and in her book, she owns her humanity, her struggles and failures and choices with a warmth that is often missing from the revolution. And, just as Maathai refuses to shy away from her own choices, she doesn’t let anyone else off the hook either. When her Green Belt ladies would blame the government for all their problems, Maathai responded, “Even though you blame the government, you really should also blame yourselves. You need to do something about your situation. Do whatever is within your power.”
Here, our government, our policies and culture are actively—and more insidiously, passively—leading us towards a lifestyle that is inherently incompatible with life on this planet. We complain about it, protest about it, feel hemmed in and stymied by “them” not doing enough to ameliorate the situation we each find so personally distasteful. We need to do something about our situation. We need to do a lot of things about our situation.
Considering Maathai’s advice, then, what is within our own power?
Simply, how we live our daily lives. Doing so, trying in everything we do and choose, to live as we wish the world were, rather than how it is, seems the best way to make it so. We have power to make the aspirational the actual.
Resources and opportunities are not equally distributed in this world. Neither are adaptability, imagination, intelligence, courage, empathy and moral fortitude. Obviously, in some practical ways the question of how you’d like to live and how you are able to live are different animals. But, in many ways, more ways, how we live is always within our own power.
Personally, I wish people to be thoughtful and kind, so I try to be. I wish people to speak their opinions proudly and listen to others respectfully, so I try to. I wish people to live lives that bring them joy, and so I try to hold the good and beautiful closer than the bleak and be happy. I wish people to be aware of the grim parts of reality, so I don’t shy away from the bleak entirely. I wish people to be flexible, so I try to keep my own semi-static ideals open to dynamic possibility. I wish biking and public transportation to thrive, so I try to limit my car use. I wish elected official to represent their constituents, so I remind them of this whenever the opportunity arises or inspiration strikes.
I certainly don’t succeed at all that I hope at all times, but these ideas of what could be guide what is. The closer I hew to what I wish things to be, the wider the gulf between myself and the allegedly powerful seems, the less power they have over me, over my life. I regain the power of how I live, what shape my life grows into.
I choose no Keystone XL pipeline, and increasing our distance from fossil fuels. I choose this with my letters to the government, with writing here and elsewhere, with remembering to look for my favorite shade of orange in the sunset, with everything that makes a life.
My thanks to those who are in Washington today, using your power on a grand scale. My thanks to those who are living private lives of joy today, using your power on a quiet scale.