Guest Note: Emily Johnston
A sincere thanks to Emily Johnston for helping us kick off Cusco Running Club's Guest Notes, a series of posts highlighting voices and perspectives other than our own. Send us a note -- a policy analysis, personal account, philosophical statement, diatribe, photo essay...whatever you like.
Jeff & Cassie asked me to write about the challenges of “motivating well-informed, sympathetic people to change behaviors and take a stand” on climate change. In truth, the topic strikes fear in my heart; it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about (and some time writing about), but it feels like restraining a horse that really, really wants to run. Because I’d like to keep my friends; I’d like not to alienate them. But with every passing day I understand less and less how goodhearted, intelligent, and green-leaning people can simply stand aside and let cataclysm approach.
One of these days I’m going to forget both my manners and my sensible caution—yes, I know that no one responds well to being accused, essentially, of being party to genocide—and then god only knows where this horse will take me.
But I also know that this is the defining moral issue of our time. I also know that climate change will radically affect the lives of every one of us. I know, finally, that what we do over the course of the next decades, starting now, will determine the fate of life on earth—for humanity, and for vast numbers of species that don’t need to vanish. It’s clear to me that some species (let’s toss out a modest but terrible number, and call it 10%) will vanish, whatever we do now; there are too many lag effects built into the system. The same is true of people: millions or tens of millions, at least, will be victims of droughts (and associated famines), floods, and wars sparked by these crises. Vast numbers more than that will be refugees. But if we don’t act now, radically changing our system and our lives, that first percentage is more like 80%, and the human victims will number in the billions. Without those changes, we’re headed for 5-6° C increase by the end of this century—and that way, madness lies. (In that article, please note the modest line: "how different the climate looks at the end of the 21st century will depend largely on how humans respond." They mean you and me, and they mean now.)
So, no: I don’t think we get to live “normal” American lives, not if we care about anything at all on this ravishing planet. The difference between those who are lost regardless of what we do now, and those who will be lost if we fail to act, is indubitably billions of people, and countless species (many of whom we aren’t even yet aware of, but upon whom our ecosystems depend): these are the prospective victims, and they are the ones we are accountable to. It’s our mistakes (unknowing, till reasonably recently) that have put them in that position; it’s our responsibility to do all we can to get them out alive.
For the honor of saving them—and all the beauty they’re part of—changing our lives is a very, very small price.
One of the tricky parts of untangling all this, of course, is that while consumer choices (flying, driving, buying, and—perhaps most surprisingly—eating) are the most obvious way that each of us interacts with this suicidal dynamic on a daily basis, the truth is that those choices are in many ways a distraction. As long as some of us think we need to fly weekly for work, it’s a little foolish for others of us to be anxious about the choice to, say, fly home for Christmas (which doesn’t mean I don’t grimace internally at a long commute, an SUV, or regular beach vacations). It’s easy to point fingers, but even if there were no competing necessities, weakness, or hypocrisy in the world—if every green-leaning soul in Seattle and elsewhere could and did walk and bike to work, go vegan, and stop buying more than was strictly necessary—well, it wouldn’t be anything like enough. Even the best-intentioned people in the world can’t be expected to understand and properly mitigate their impacts in every given moment, so this has to be a matter not of constant moral vigilance, but of changing the system so that it no longer subsidizes and rewards the wrong choices (fossil fuels, grain-fed cattle, sprawl, etc.), and instead subsidizes and rewards the right ones (conservation, renewables, soil-supporting agriculture, etc.). What we need is for people to wake to their responsibilities as citizens and human beings, in an unprecedented way.
Because the alternative is utter devastation.
Asking for this unprecedented civic awakening is, of course, a much greater demand on people’s lives than asking them to compost or buy a hybrid. But it’s also, potentially, greatly more inspiring. We’re trying, after all, to save what’s precious to us—and no matter what your fears are, it’s not too late to save at least some of it; it would be insane to abandon that part because we’re brokenhearted about the rest.
Knowing what we know, what will you do, to look a hurricane victim, a struggling Peruvian farmer, or even just a child in the eye? I’m guessing that thirty years from now, explaining to your grandchildren that, well, you just weren’t really the sort of person to get involved….won’t be a comfortable conversation.
Some people are born leaders, and inspired by it. I’m not—I’m a private person and an introvert; I don’t like crowds; I dislike public speaking (this is progress; it used to terrify me); I find inspiration in art, nature, solitude, and small groups; and, as a writer, I’m more or less allergic to sound bites and slogans (though I’ve learned to fire them when necessary). I’m not a natural activist. But for about two years now, I’ve spent between ten and forty hours a week in this fight—sometimes using my temperament & skills in ways that come easily (writing, framing, strategizing), but more often simply being another body, another set of hands, and another mind for whatever needs doing (sometimes, things I have little faith in—what do I know, really?). Because of what I’ve done, and because there have been thousands of us willing to do these things, I’d bet a lot of my very scarce money that Keystone XL will never be completed; I’d bet only a somewhat smaller amount that the Northwest will not become a coal export hub; I’d bet the same amount that the massive Vancouver Tesoro oil-by-rail terminal will be defeated. All of these things, when proposed, were considered done deals, and industry has spent vast sums of money to counteract the weight of the truths that my companions and I have wielded. Resistance is the first essential act, because nobody builds terminals and pipelines that cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and then decides “oh, heck, this stuff is really bad news: let’s not use them.” Meanwhile, people I like and admire are working on solutions: a carbon tax, more support for solar and wind power, etc.
There are also people (sometimes I’m one) who approach the issue through research, through art, through essays, through public speaking. What unites all of these things is that they are part of a vast joint project that attempts to honestly understand where we are and set us on a livable path forward as a species, rather than about people feeling good because they have a small personal footprint, or are otherwise personally virtuous.
But if you are not doing one of these things—and you are someone with a reasonably comfortable life (which almost by definition means “enabled by the use of cheap fossil fuels”, which further means “enabled by the devastation of lives other than your own”)—then I think you need to do some hard thinking. Do you have children whose lives you’d rather not devastate? Do you care about inflicting pain and death on other people, and on animals? Would you rather not wipe out most other species? Because those things are precisely what we are doing.
This is long for a blog post, and I’m not sure it’s what Jeff & Cassie had in mind, but when I think about the frustrations of climate work, this is what I think of, the occasional panic and alienation of talking to people I love or like and thinking how could you not be doing anything about this? I’m not so much worried about people who don’t “believe in” climate change; I’m worried about those who know very well what it has in store for us, but can’t bring themselves to change their lives as a result. I don’t think there’s a single cause for this—I suspect it’s a toxic brew of fear, denial, hopelessness, passivity, and entitlement. Perhaps also a pure sort of unfamiliarity, an ignorance of where to begin. But I do know that if this describes you—if you’re a decent person who tries to live a life that causes little harm to others, and you’re not actively engaging with the largest harm that humanity has ever come up against…..well, we need you. That’s the only polite way I can say it. There are many ways to engage, but not engaging is not a moral option, and it doesn’t matter if it’s awkward or painful or you’re not sure where to start: just start, and keep at it till you’ve found a reasonably good fit.
Everything you love is at stake. Warrior up.
She doesn’t think that what she does matters.
She loves her daughter very much.
The long commute
the flying each summer
the private days at the edge
working, cooking, tinkering: not fighting
not stripping herself, habit by habit,
bare of illusion—
clemency, continuity, tomorrow:
these days bear no relation—so small
her life—to the coming cataclysm. So
large the forces. So small her life.
She is tenacious to modest pleasures.
She is but
She knows what’s coming—
she fears it in her bones.
But the butterflies at her country acres—
who can resist
them, or the dusty pleasures
of picking cherries, building fences, walking the dog?
Yet she can’t—she says—give up her job
or find one closer or live closer
or well, she could but: therefore
the commute & the lack of time
to devote—even to life
on earth which means of course her daughter.
She lives modestly. She’s a kind
person, quick to help others. What’s reasonable
(I would like to be reasonable.)
Her wants—& those of nearly everyone else, 7 billion
and counting counting counting counting counting—
do not seem excessive.
So like most people each morning she wakes
she starts the engine again.
in the mossy perfection
of this jewelbox world
she starts the engine
she hopes the hose is long enough
that cataclysm takes awhile.
She loves her daughter very much.
She loves her daughter very much.