Tuesday, 23 September 2014

How Not to Save the World

This past Sunday saw the biggest grassroots mobilization around climate change the world has yet seen. As international leaders began to gather in New York City for this week's UN climate talks, 311, 000 people took to the streets to demonstrate their visions for a better world- three times the number forecast by the event organizers, 350.org.

The march was organized into six massive contingents arranged so as to tell the story of the impacts of climate change, from the front-line indigenous communities and Hurricane Sandy victims at the vanguard, through the youth organizations, energy innovators, corporate whistleblowers, and climate scientists all the way to the neighbourhood, regional, and national civil society institutions bringing up the rear. The marchers filled the entire 2.2 mile route before those at the back had even left the starting point.

Meanwhile, alongside more than 2000 solidarity actions in 166 countries, two hundred of us marched with signs and banners from Waterloo Town Square to the nearby Barrelyard Park and listened to speeches from local environmental organizations. I gave a short speech on behalf of Transition KW, a group I've mentioned before in these writings. TKW is the local chapter of the international Transition Network, a grassroots movement building local responses to peak oil and climate change.

The gist of what I said to the crowd of sitting in front of me on the grass that day was this:

"What we're really engaged in today is a struggle to end the war against nature that each of us was unwillingly born into. Nature is responding to the violence of our reckless carbon burning with the violence of climate change. It is a war we cannot hope to win... Here in Waterloo Region we're not on the front lines of climate violence, but we know enough to say NO to further escalation. We want peace on earth, and we want it NOW."

Judging by the feedback I received after the event, it seemed that this was a fresh take on the issue for a lot of people. That was exactly my intent. The language of peace and conflict is a perspective  I bring from my Mennonite heritage, which has a long tradition of working to de-escalate violent situations. And frankly, I don't like standing around listening to good people reciting bad news. That isn't why I go to marches. I go to marches to get fresh insight and inspiration for the next round of hard work.

From my perspective, climate change is such old news to those engaged with it, and such unsettling gibberish to those otherwise engaged, that unless we find fresh ways of framing the conversation, we're wasting our time. David Suzuki himself made a similar observation in a fantastic blog post two years ago. "Environmentalism has failed," he begins, and proceeds to reflect on the way that fifty years of hard-won victories in the environmental movement haven't fundamentally altered the prevailing myth of our culture: that the Earth is composed of resources which humans must manage, whether responsibly or otherwise.

You see this reflected in the signs carried by little kids at marches like the one on Sunday: "Fix the Climate", "Save the Planet", "It's In Your Hands", to name a few. They're moving slogans, but when I read them I can't help thinking that the concerned kids are articulating exactly the same underlying worldview that the corporate capitalists are. To put it briefly, this is the view that the planet in all its complexity is something we can grasp, something we can lay hands on, something we can manage (in the sense of the Latin root manus, which means 'hand').

Take a look at these two images.

The first is fairly cliché by now, with many variations available on Google Images. I took a few minutes to find one in which the hands weren't obviously white, and which displayed a side of the globe other than the Western Hemisphere (survey the options for yourself if you like). Still, these two images don't seem all that different to me. One represents man handling the planet with care and reverence; the other represents man handling the planet with greed and tyranny; either way, the planet gets manhandled.

David Suzuki knows what he's talking about. But there's a deeper sense in which the way we currently talk about environmental issues is nonsense, one I don't think even Canada's environmental guru has grasped (if you'll pardon my choice of wording), at least not publicly. If I'm right about this, it goes a long way toward explaining why environmentalism has failed to gain traction in popular thought and instead remained just another 'ism'.

The truth is that 'Planet Earth' is an abstraction. It was born in 1972, when the first full-view photograph of the Earth was taken by Apollo 17 astronauts. The image that resulted, and which was published widely under the title "Blue Marble", is the one I've placed at the head of this blog post. It represents a phenomenon seen by only a handful of people (again, pardon my wordplay) in all of time. The rest of us have taken it on faith for the last forty-two years that we do indeed live on a planet, one which can in fact be laid bare and visible to the eye of man.

Not that I'm doubting the scientific reality of Planet Earth. My point is, so what? None of us will ever know or experience the planet, or have any relationship with it apart from vague feelings of guilt and impending disaster. From its very inception, the image of the Earth from space has represented multiple intricate paradoxes, as is the case for any representation of a society's founding myth. It's a serene image produced by means of tremendous chemical violence. It's a vision of what we're told is our one and only home, but which looks utterly alien hanging there in outer space. It's a plea for world peace as well as an excuse for advancing the goal of total global management and control.

That's why I think Suzuki's current project, the Blue Dot Tour, isn't going to gain him the traction he's looking for either. That little blue dot hanging in space doesn't move me one bit, and more than that, it's a symbol of the kind of thinking that has led us away from intimacy with our immediate environments and into the megalomanic abstractions of the environment. Give me soil, give me water, give me air, forests, creatures, mountains, storms, oceans, land, even earth, but get the Earth away from me. It's not my responsibility. I don't care for it. I repeat, as loudly as I dare lest I draw the accusing finger of heresy my way, I don't care about the Earth.

So this week, as the leaders of the free world meet to discuss or dismiss the various means of global control at their disposal, take some time to go outside and meet your neighbours. Your human neighbours, yes, but also the plants, animals, winds, waters, and weathers that are assembling and testing an arsenal of climate weapons to use against you and your kind. Do what you can to make your peace with them. We don't have to be enemies, but as the board is set and the pieces start to move, it will become more and more difficult for your tiny white flag to be spotted, waving amid the rising seas and rolling storms. Do it anyway. Do it alone or with three hundred thousand others, but do it out of hope, because that's the hard work that peace requires. Do it now.


  1. Great post, as usual! I agree that we have an unhealthy relationship with our ecosystem due largely to the way we perceive and conceive of it. But I disagree that abstractions of the Earth are inherently damaging. Consider all of the various traditional cultures around the world that speak of the four sacred elements: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. To me, sometimes thinking about my environs in terms of these 'abstractions' binds me closer to them, makes me feel a part of something larger than myself. When I drink water I can connect to it by being aware of it as it becomes a part of me. But I can also be aware of its history and future, and think of the grand cycles of which I am a part.

    Of course, I'm sure this is largely because of the way I approach these things. I, too, have noticed that people have begun using the phrase 'environment' not to describe their immediate surroundings, but to reference some arcane scale used to indicate whether something is (a)moral, as if we can measure the value or damage of this or that project. And it does drive me nuts.

    However, I think the problem lies not in abstractions but in relations. A person taught the language of ecology, who has no experiential relationship to their ecosystem, will begin to see the environment as an abstraction alone. I do suppose this could fool someone into thinking that a forest could be fairly traded for logs. I absolutely agree that people need an embodied relationship with their neighbours, humans and not.

    But for those who do live with their neighbours, I think abstractions like 'the Earth' can facilitate a deeper and richer relationship with the grasses and bugs and yeasties in the air and the trees and their nuts (I'm currently trying to soak out the tannins from some acorns I picked up on my way home :) ). To know that the air I breathe is some of the same air that comes from the tree next to me, but also that comes from the Amazon forests, makes me feel wholer.

    And as much as I can feel the changing changing of the seasons (farming's been hard the last couple years), I don't think I could attribute that to anthropogenic climate change (and my fossil fuel use) if I couldn't also think of the atmosphere as an 'abstract' system of which I am a part.

  2. Dave, I picked a forgotten book off my shelf this afternoon that reminded me of some of the points you're making. You're right. Understanding the planet as a whole system has indeed helped us to grasp the fact that people on the other side of it are our neighbours as well, since we share the same atmosphere, among other things.

    I'm not against abstractions per se, even abstractions that help us think about ecological processes. They're pretty necessary for thinking at all, I think.

    I suppose it's not the Earth as an abstraction that I'm fed up with, but the Earth as a symbol. There's a big difference, as I see it. Abstractions help us think things through (it would actually be great if more people would think about the Earth as a whole system...) while symbols help us focus emotional power. The Earth on a t-shirt or a demo sign is meant to trigger an emotional response, not a rationale for constructive action. And for me, the Earth symbolizes an alien vastness which I can never approach personally. I'd like to see different symbols displayed at pump-up marches, that's all.

    You're convincing me that this subject deserves another post.

  3. It's an interesting subject, indeed. And I'm glad you've planted its seed in my mind once again :)

    I see what you mean about a symbolic Earth. I get a sinking feeling looking at those pictures of the Earth in someone's hands. Contrarily, one of the most powerful symbols I saw at the New York Climate March was a large banner with a rough stencil of the Great Lakes across it, reading "Great Lakes Resistance". That pumped me up.

    And what is that long forgotten book, might I ask? Or shall I wait until you post again around these ideas?

  4. Dave, "Great Lakes Resistance" does sound like a powerful symbol, for those who have a lived, emotional connection with the Great Lakes.

    I'm reminded of all the organizations in our region that have "Grand River" in their names. I personally don't have a strong relationship with the River, since it's near the edge of my biking radius, but it's right to remember that it represents the lifeblood of our region, as well as the political foundation of white society on this land. Then again, it would be interesting to see how many of these organizations' members visit the Grand on a regular basis, as well as how many have an awareness of the way it was stolen piecemeal from the Haudenosaunee Nations.

    Rather than concentrate on calling out hypocrisy on a public forum though, I'd prefer to open the invitation to build a lived, emotional connection with the River and the Lakes. But again, we'll never be able to do so with the Planet.

    About that book, I'm going to keep you in suspense until next Tuesday.

  5. Your speech was very powerful and fresh, indeed. I wish it could become a worlwide meme!

    In respect to the second part of your post, it seems that Suzuki's project goes against the main promise of the Religion of Progress: the promise that our future is not here in the planet, but in the stars. I guess his point is that there is no such option and that for the better or worse, this is our home and beyond the sky there is only cold dead emptiness. But, yes, I agree with you, it's difficult to be compelled to action by such a symbol.

  6. Angel, thank you. You may be right that Suzuki is taking on a bigger cultural iconography than the one I've called him out on. If I follow you correctly, it seems he's inhabiting and subverting the symbolic language of the progress-to-the-stars narrative by reversing its most popular viewpoint back toward the blue dot whence we came. I hadn't thought of that.

    But I don't talk very much with off-to-the-stars folks, so I don't honestly know how plentiful they are these days, or whether theirs is the view that most needs to be challenged at this point.

  7. Yes. I have a lot of thoughts on this that are hard to articulate. For me it's all tied in with the idea of teaching people, especially kids, to respect nature by teaching them to look at it from afar, without touching it. I've seen lots of beautiful pictures of gorgeous places and animals on the other side of the earth, but none of those becomes part of you the way messing around in your local woods does.

    We talk about the difficulty of building personal relationships in the age of media, but that's incomparably easier, because a significant part of human interaction is mediated by language, which can be conveyed through many media. And even so, we're able to make internet friends only because our minds and hearts already know what friendship is. And our ability to care about 'humans' in the abstract, people we've never personally known, is deeply and fundamentally built upon our experiences as a child, bonding with individual people. It's because we loved and were loved by parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, that we are later able to take that leap of imagination to care about some child we've never met on the other side of the earth (or even the other side of the city). Because we know what a child is, and what it means to love a child, through our real-life first hand experience.

  8. Thanks for your post. But I have to point out that David Suzuki's Blue dot Tour has one focus, which is Right to a healthy environment, including Clear Air to breath, clean water to drink and healthy&natrual food resources.
    And I do believe that this campaign can draw more attention from public for awareness of environment issues.

  9. Basia, beautiful- I think you did a fine job of articulating those thoughts. I don't want to downplay the 'leap of imagination' you mentioned, the one that allows us to care about people on the other side of the earth. Images do help us make that leap.

    But if I follow you correctly, acts of imagination are always rooted in first hand experience. My dream is to get more people to have those first hand experiences.

  10. Alex, having seen the Blue Dot Tour in action since composing this post, I think the David Suzuki Foundation's rights-based approach on this campaign is sensible and strong, and could represent an important frame shift if it turns out to resonate with enough people.

    My critique is mainly with the 'blue dot' imagery, which turned out to be much less a focus of the event than I'd thought. More on that in an upcoming post.

  11. Hmmm...I am thinking about the image of the "violence of climate change". People who have experienced the harshness of nature (in the desert or the arctic or in storms or tsunamis) have always felt that the world is violent. Climate change as a type of violence just extends that. It's a way of personifying nature...is that helpful? Maybe we need to naturize people, instead. Humans, like many other creatures, maybe overrunning our environment...the earth absorbs that and keeps on spinning. Not the same, but still itself. To say "we can destroy the earth" is hubris, I think. We can change it...in ways that will kill us and many other creatures. But the earth is beyond our power. Just some thoughts...

  12. Carol, I like your phrase 'the earth is beyond our power'. That's what I'm trying to articulate about the 'earth in your hands' images.

    As for personifying nature... it's a good question as to whether that's helpful. I hadn't thought of that. Maybe instead of personifying 'nature' we need to think of different natural elements as having volition and a will to revenge- the storms, for example, or the seas.

    Sometimes people of particular faith traditions will find room in their cosmology to acknowledge the local, limited authority of gods or spirits associated with a nearby mountain, for example, or an indigenous trickster known to frequent a nearby forest. Tolkien spun just such a cosmology in his myths of early Middle Earth, where a nature-associated pantheon of deities shaped the world under the authority of a supreme God. That's all in The Silmarillion, one of my favourite books.