Sunday, November 29, 2015

Progress is a Humble Rebellion

(My dad's stonewall, Dimond Hill Farm, Concord, NH)

When the climate talks were in Copenhagen, my graduate department was incredibly generous in funding several students to attend. My application for a slot was an enthusiastic medley of Humanities-based, qualitative musings about why I—an Environmental Studies writing student—would be as appropriate a candidate for a ticket to Denmark as students of environmental policy, international law and energy science.
As tends to happen when quick academic decisions are necessary, more scientific and quantitatively focused students were selected. I don’t doubt that they were excellent and good choices, that their presence in Copenhagen has honed their outlook and driven many actions since that time. However, I remain impatient with the pervasive idea that numbers are some how more valuable than words. Yes, it is hard to determine if a heart has been spoken to, awakened, and what that newly beating tempo may set the body and brain off to do, but precisely because of that immeasurable potential power, the Humanities earn their name.
What I wanted to do for Copenhagen, what I have always wanted to do and sometimes I’ve gotten closer than others is to help people to fold humbly inwards to act boldly outwards. This is harder to explain than a policy paper or an emissions report.
What I mean like this—with my apologies to any Danish historians and I may have lost some facts in the poetry: Geographically small Denmark was disproportionably a world leader for several hundreds of years. Then, their navy was beaten soundly in 1801. This shifted not only the world order, but also Denmark’s ethos and national identity. There was some internal reckoning and identity crisis on a national level, and the result was the country uniting behind the idea that, if not the most powerful country in the world, they would certainly be the greatest Denmark in the world.
And now they are a leader in environmentalism and have a largely peaceful and functioning society. While there have been undeniable violent racist issues within Denmark in the last few years—relating to cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad—we are in no position in the United States, with our guns and racism, to discount the larger lessons of Denmark’s ethos.
When my father began to struggle with the idea of retirement, with who he would be if not the “large and in charge” charismatic and effective bully of a community re-organizer, I talked with him about the history of Denmark, that they too had to humble, revision, and came out slightly reinvented, but changed only for the better.
In semi-retirement, my father built a stonewall at a nearby farm. He—envious of the craftsmen at a wooden boat show—had determined that in this next phase, he wanted to work with his hands. The farmers, wonderful women, encouraged him that it was good for his soul to get in touch with the earth. And he was fantastically happy, and even a little healthier drinking water and walking to work.
It was all too brief a retirement, but I’ll be forever proud of how my dad tried to be something new, yet was still building something for a community, albeit on in different dimension and different scale.
I’m sure that there are other nations who have, when faced with collapse, folded inward and re-birthed a more feasible ethos, but I have yet to find any country that has done it on the scale and with the ethics that makes Denmark an environmentally progressive leader. I hoped, when the climate talks were in Copenhagen, that something of this progressive humbling would rub off on the delegates, on the press and the scientists, that people would come streaming home with the seed in their hearts that things need not be as they always have been, that there are other ways of being than bygone identities.
To me, it was as significant and promising that the 2009 talks were in Denmark as it was that there were talks at all. In the disappointing aftermath of Copenhagen, where nations who must poured out their hearts and the policies of the powerful did not change, I clung to the comfort that, at least the world was talking about the climate. At least what I know to be as true as my bones, at least there is a sense that this is a global struggle, that we are not just a few crazy people watching tides rise and songbirds disappear and crops dry up and forests burn.
To know how many people do care is at once comforting and galvanizing. Who, we might ask, are so selfishly scared of change that they do not listen to this beautiful assembled symphony?
Who is it that ignores such vociferous passion?
Answer that, and it becomes clear that this struggle for a better world does have real adversary, villains with corporate stationary and billion dollar investments in the status quo.
Of course, with our phones and computers and cars and televisions and microwaves and jet-fuel heavy passports and plastic disposable everything that runs off dirty power plants and pipelines, we are each also part of what ignores the passion, part of what must pause to examine our own lives and choices, part of what must be humbled towards greatness.
And now, again, what parts of the world who can out of luxuriant responsibility and/or who must direst need are converging in Paris to again discuss the scourge of climate change. And, of course, each time there is a summit or major decision or action about climate change, the dramatic hype makes it seem as if the world hangs fully in the balance, that we will all drown, burn, starve, freeze or live on what happens with that single event.
This is absurd. The drama is chronic, the moment is every single one we have on this sweet earth with each other. The world is always in the balance, always teetering, and the fires, floods and famines are already here. We are living in the time of greatest crisis—climate change does not watch the news and get better or worse because some people sit down together and try to cap emissions or create public transportation. One climate conference, two, three…these will not alone turn the tide. We must do that, in between the headlines, in all our acts and actions.
I am at least as spotty on France’s history as I am on Denmark’s. But, even in what I have gleaned from Joan of Arc, Dumas and Dickens, Casablanca, Les Mis and St├ęphane Hessel there is an invigorating lot of revolutionary resistance to and takedown of over-gilded and corrupt systems.
Also—and this may be the strongest piece—what has come out about French culture since the terrorist attacks of November 13th is that, simply, French love life. That rooted, determined joie de vive, this is something that the climate movement too often overlooks. We are full of facts, of statistics, predictions, carbon counts, horror stories, and fear. All of those have some place, but what we forget—at our own peril—is why we go about this business in the first place.
Why? Because the world is beautiful, because we love each other, because it would be simply rude to not protect all that is wonderful for all who have yet to come to fall in love with as well.
If I hoped that Copenhagen’s turn at the climate talks could bring humility, then it is my even deeper hope that Paris will teach us to bring joy to this work, to be brave and fierce.
These brighter tools, I believe, are sharper and stronger than any other for all that lies ahead.

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