On Friday, 4 million people in 140 countries took to the streets to participate in the Global Climate Strike, making it the largest climate protest in history.
• 400,000 people across Australia
• 1.4 million in Germany, including 270,000 in Berlin alone
• 100,000 in London
• 250,000 in NYC
• 40,000 in San Francisco
All of them gathering force before the United Nations Climate Action Summit which begins tomorrow. All led by youth, and inspired by 16-year old Greta Thunberg
Greta started learning about climate change when she was 8 years old. She read the predictions made by scientists. She figured out how old she and her peers would be when the most dire predictions were predicted to come true.
But it wasn’t all bad news that she uncovered. She also learned that if we were to dramatically reduce carbon emissions very quickly, we could avoid the worst effects. And then she wondered why no one was doing anything about it, why everyone was just going about their lives the way they always had.
To her mind, the world was on fire and none of the adults were doing anything to put the fire out.
Greta became understandably very depressed. She was also eventually diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, which is part of why the cognitive dissonance between what scientists were saying and how people were or were not responding was so difficult to take. To help alleviate some of her anxiety, she and her family made some significant changes in their lifestyle, their diet, their travel. But she knew that if climate change were to be slowed and the worst impacts avoided, it was going to take more than individual lifestyle changes
So last year, at age 15, she went on strike. She started skipping school every Friday and sitting outside the Swedish parliament building with a sign that read “School Strike for the Climate.” At first, she was all alone. Overtime, she started getting press attention and other students and some adults started to join her. She was invited to speak at climate rallies and then at UN climate conferences and before world leaders.
This summer she sailed to the New York in order to participate in Friday’s strike and in the UN Climate Action Summit this week. And on Friday, she was one of 4 the million. She inspired a movement – a world-wide, youth-led movement of other students who have also been striking on Fridays for the last 12 months. And this past Friday’s global strike was part of that ongoing student strike. I would say the “culmination,” except it’s not over. There will be another strike this coming Friday, and every Friday, until the strikers demands are met.
In her book, On Fire, Naomi Klein refers to Greta as “the patron saint of pissed-off kids everywhere.” She has certainly inspired me with her moral clarity. I think many of us can relate to Greta, especially to that 8-year old version of her whose hopes and expectations for a “normal” future were crushed by what she learned about climate change.
As a parent, I’ve really struggled with how to talk to my daughter about climate change. There was a time when we thought the world would continue on the way it seemingly always had, that seasonal patterns would continue unchanged. There was a time when we assumed that our children’s and grandchildren’s lives might unfold in predictable ways just as ours did. And many of us, as we’ve learned more and more about climate change, have experienced some of what Greta experienced: sadness, despair, depression, a sense of disempowerment.
Some of us have gotten stuck there, at least for a time. Some of us have tried to make small changes in our lifestyles, and sometimes we have felt guilty for not doing more. But we haven’t been sure what else we can do.
And here we are. I confess that I honestly don’t know what to expect from the future anymore. When I try to imagine it, it doesn’t always look promising. I should say that I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction. I have been since I was a teenager. My daughter likes dystopian novels, too. She’s 11. She started early.
I’ve always figured it’s good to be able to imagine the worst-case scenarios, and to know that bad things can happen and that people can behave very inhumanely to one another. That way you won’t be as surprised when they do. There is little doubt that my love of dystopian fiction has shaped the direction of my imagination.
That sounds pessimistic, I know. And of course, the down side of pessimism is that you can begin to feel hopeless and despairing. You can begin to catastrophize and to feel disempowered to do anything to make it better.
But recently I read an article in the Atlantic called “The Upside of Pessimism” (Olga Khazan, September 12, 2014), and I learned that what I do naturally is actually a thing. It’s called “defensive pessimism.”
According to the author, Olga Khazan, “defensive pessimism [is] a phenomenon in which people imagine worst-case scenarios in order to manage their anxiety. But what defensive pessimists to next is key: they come up with strategies to avoid having all of those bad things happen, thus ending up better-prepared and less anxious in the long-run.”
As Naomi Klein writes,
“…the point of dystopian art is not to act as a temporal GPS, showing us where we are inevitably headed. The point is to warn us, to wake us – so that, seeing where this perilous road leads, we can decide to swerve.”
So when it comes to your expectations for the future, you can practice defensive pessimism; or you can be an optimist, if your optimism leads you to make some productive effort. Or…you can be an “apocaloptimist,” which I’ve heard described as one who believes the “crap” is going to hit the fan, but everything we turn out alright in the end.
But in any case, I urge you to keep your hearts open, for what we require most is a new fresh vision of how the future could unfold. For as Naomi Klein has also written:
“We have collectively imagined this extreme winners-and-losers ending for our species so many times that one of our most pressing tasks is learning to imagine other possible ends to the human story, ones in which we come together in crisis rather than split apart, take down borders rather than erect more of them.”
And as she goes on to say,
“The breakthroughs won for workers and their families after the Civil War and during the Great Depression, as well as for civil rights and the environment in the sixties and early seventies, were not just responses to crises. They were responses to crises that unfolded in times when people dared to dream big, out loud, in public – explosions of utopian imagination.”
Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement by casting a vision of an imagined future – his dream that one day…… on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. His dream that one day…even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. “It is this imaginative capacity,” says Klein, “the ability to envision a world radically different from the past, that has been largely missing….”
Naomi Klein has been writing about this for a few years now, this idea that…
“As the world warms, the ideology so threatened by climate science – the one that tells us it’s everyone for themselves, that victims deserve their fate, that we can master nature — will take us to a very cold place indeed…
“The only wild card is whether some countervailing popular movement will step up to provide a viable alternative to this grim future. That means not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – this time, embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance and cooperation rather than hierarchy.
And every time I read it I think, this is something that we, as Unitarian Universalists, have to offer – our vision, as expressed in our Principles, of a world that is just and equitable and compassionate, a world in which the worth and dignity of all is affirmed and our interconnectedness is acknowledged and valued.
The Austrian-born New Zealand artist, Hundertwasser once said, “When one dreams alone, it is only a dream. When many dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality.”
A number of years ago I came across an old Native American prophecy says that…
“When the earth is ravaged and the animals are dying, a new tribe of people shall come unto the earth from many colors, classes, creeds and who by their actions and deeds shall make the earth green again. They will be known as the warriors of the rainbow.”
A vision like this – about a rainbow people – exists across many different indigenous cultures. There are similar prophecies among the Navajo/Hopi people, the Maya, Ojibway, Cherokee, Indigenous Hawaiian, Lakota, Aboriginal Australian, and others. They all speak of people of different colors and cultures from all over the world coming together and relearning the ancient wisdom that can heal the earth.
“If the New People remain strong in their quest,” says Grandfather William Commanda, Chief of the Indians of the Americas, “the sacred drum will again sound its voice. There will be an awakening of the people, and the sacred fire will again be lit.”
At this time, the light-skinned race will be given a choice between two roads. One road is the road of greed and technology without wisdom or respect for life. This road represents a rush to destruction. The other road is spirituality, a slower path that includes respect for all living things. If we choose the spiritual path, we can light yet another fire…and begin an extended period of Peace and healthy growth.
This is what we need now. And this is what the youth-led climate strikers are imagining and demanding. A new world that is both cleaner and more fair. A world that has moved away from the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. A world in which we “redress the terrible wrongs done to indigenous people;” eliminate ecomomic, racial, and gender inequalities; create justice for workers; practice mercy for immigrants. A world in which our kids are healthier and our elders are better cared for and less isolated.
A world in which, as Naomi Klein says, “we could spend less time stuck in traffic, working long hours, and more time with our friends and families. A happier, more balanced society, in other words, with the definition of happiness liberated from the endless cycle of ever-escalating consumption…”
Do you see how this all connects?
Climate Change is not just about loss of birds, rainforests, fish and polar bears. Climate change is also about justice issues, the disproportionate impact upon poor communities and communities of color. So if you care about anti-racism work, or immigration, or poverty or peace, climate change is your issue, too.
As Klein says, “So many of the crises we are facing are symptoms of the same underlying sickness: a dominance-based logic that treats so many people, and the earth itself, as disposable.” It is precisely that logic, that worldview, that we are called to subvert.
And this is not a one and done, so if you missed it, don’t worry, there’s so much more to do. According to the main website of the climate strikers (strikewithus.org), “September 20 is only the beginning. We must carry this energy to the 2020 election and beyond to ensure real, bold action is taken to address the climate crisis.”
There are many ways to get involved in this fight for our lives. You can start by saying no to the system that is in all the ways you can. Those ways, those lifestyle changes, do add up. You can teach your children and grandchildren to love the earth, the birds, the trees, the ocean and to have a relationship with sand and soil and sun and streams and non-human animals. You can also nag your political leaders, demanding that they follow the lead of the youth.
And you can also develop and share your own vision of a positive future, something to which we can all say “yes.” Talk with neighbors and friends and everyone you meet about the world you want to live in, not just the world you fear. You, with your vision, can help to change the discourse. You can help to change the story, and with it, the future.
So may it be.