Weathering the Storms, Planting the Seeds

plant-in-handThe recent mass marches for climate justice in New York City and around the world were truly historic. It’s no small feat to inspire 400,0000+ Americans to take to the streets for anything these days, much less global climate change. Spearheaded by 350.org and an incredibly diverse range of environmental activists, labor organizers, indigenous peoples, and social justice advocates, these actions represented a watershed moment for the climate protection movement.

For social change artist and CultureStrike co-founder Favianna Rodriguez, the People’s Climate March was unprecedented in the ways that immigrants, youth of color, and women took on leadership roles in shaping the message and connecting social justice issues to the growing call for climate sanity. “Climate change is inextricable from social issues like feminism and immigration policy,” she recently told Time Magazine. It’s deeply heartening to witness this evolution of climate change activism. Indeed, it offers real hope for a more promising future.

And yet, a haunting question remains: “Isn’t it too little, too late?” Despite the momentum that organizers have built in recent years, it’s not yet strong enough to win the grand prize: binding commitments by the largest polluting nations to make the deep emissions cuts needed to stop global warming — at least 80% by 2050 — let alone slow its predicted impacts. Despite the massive demonstrations worldwide, the current round of climate talks scheduled to yield a new global pact in Paris next year have thus far shown little prospect of curbing emissions enough to stabilize the climate. Indeed, the much-talked-about position of the European Union to reduce emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 is still, in the end, woefully inadequate. “The EU 2030 target is 10 years too little and too late,” said Claudia Salerno, chief climate negotiator for Venezuela.

What’s more troubling is that few funds are materializing to help our economies transition from fossil fuels to clean energy or to protect people in harm’s way from the worst climate impacts. Of the $10 billion promised by the end of 2014 for the Green Climate Fund, a UN bank to finance efforts by developing countries to address climate change, only $2.3 billion has been pledged. What’s really needed is more like hundreds of billions annually.

Let’s be real: climate instability is already here with a vengeance in the form of ferocious storms, extreme droughts, rising sea levels, supercharged diseases, mass migrations, and drowning communities. Of course, we can and must build on growing popular momentum to help stave off even worse conditions, but the reality is that we’re simply going to have to weather the storms. Those storms are gathering strength on the horizon just now.

Gathering Storms on the Horizon

The situation in Iraq and Syria has become particularly precarious, as Islamic State forces terrorize local communities, seize control of northern oil fields, and advance ever-closer to Baghdad (frequently, with U.S.-made vehicles and weaponry). President Obama has been forced to ramp up military involvement yet again, exposing the oft-repeated lie that the U.S.-led invasion there has done anything to stabilize the region. Indeed, the real goal of ensuring long-term control over the planet’s second largest proven oil reserves remains as elusive as ever.

Here in California, the state’s punishing drought is entering its third consecutive year (see NASA satellite imagery of worsening conditions), prompting massive cutbacks in water use by agriculture, municipalities, and industry. Some Central Valley communities are now literally running out of water, resorting to portable toilet service and relying on subsidies for bottled water just to survive. State officials warn that even if significant rainfall returns this winter, drought conditions would remain for most of the state. A high-pressure ridge off the West Coast is preventing most rain from making landfall, the same phenomenon that occurred during an even worse regional drought in 1934, according to atmospheric scientists.

As if these challenges weren’t enough, the specter of ebola spreading far and wide now haunts the modern world, with near-panic conditions setting in among some American cities. And while the average Westerner’s chances of contracting the disease are currently slim to none, the virus in its present form nonetheless has a gruesomely impressive death rate, killing around 70% of those who contract it. According to the World Health Organization, there could be as many as 10,000 new cases per week in west Africa as early as December. It doesn’t help that the virus is constantly mutating and adapting, or that nearby war-torn landscapes are suffering from inadequate sanitation infrastructure and broken health systems. Some countries, most notably Nigeria, have made impressive progress against ebola’s trajectory, but if it spreads to Egypt or other major international population epicenters, the prospect remains that the current outbreak could very well become a global pandemic.

Hospicing the Old World, Planting Seeds for the New

“How do you stay positive with all that’s going on?” asked a close friend of mine recently. We were sharing some quality time with our giddy toddlers after dinner in a local park by the lake, painfully aware that the serenity we now take for granted is by no means guaranteed in our sons’ futures, much less our own. Both of us are long-time environmental and social justice activists, so we’re no strangers to the horrific devastation being wrought against our planet’s life support systems or the violence and gross inequities still plaguing our world.

Still, it’s a fundamental question, and one for which I have no easy answer. My friend and I both know the old, fossil-fueled industrial world is dying, but that there are critical things worth saving along the path to laying it to rest. As she so eloquently puts it, we have to “hospice what’s left of the system we’re leaving behind, while planting the seeds for the future we’re building.” For me, it’s the planting part that holds the most promise.

By planting seeds, I mean far more than gardening — though that act alone can be a profound act of resistance to the buy-consume-discard economy that’s severed our once-sacred relationship to land’s natural rhythms. Even in the face of knowing that much trauma awaits us — personally, socioeconomically, ecologically, and yes, civilizationally — there is still so much we can do to create joy, justice, and possibility in our world.

I used to think that activism wasn’t worth doing if it wasn’t focused on making large-scale impacts. Now that I see macro-level challenges bearing down upon us faster than we can effect, I actually take strange comfort in knowing that the smallest, most localized actions may now be the most vital. From lessening your dependence on fossil-powered machines, learning new permaculture skills, to even something as simple as meeting your neighbors, there are innumerable changes we can all make in our day-to-day lives that will help prepare us for the turbulence ahead. In their own right, such changes can also have a powerful effect on our outlook, our health, and our fundamental happiness.

Coupled with a commitment to working with others toward common cause, possibilities abound for building a more resilient, hopeful future. In the short time that I’ve lived in my diverse, economically distressed neighborhood in Oakland, I’ve witnessed incredible commitment to strengthening neighbor-to-neighbor ties and improving community life. Local parents have formed vibrant learning and activity centers and daycare coops for their children. Each of the corner medians that border my block are now spiritual sanctuaries adorned with ornate Buddhist shrines, flowers, and altars — creating a sense of calm, respect, and beauty in an otherwise drab sea of concrete. Several entrepreneurs have tapped into their own culinary skill sets to start up delightful new establishments specializing in Filipino comfort food, Burmese cuisine, and delicious baked goods. Groups have formed to organize community picnics, launch greening projects, plan neighborhood cleanup days, host public forums on local elections, and run workshops on rainwater harvesting and installing greywater systems.

Will such efforts be enough to meet the combined impacts of an unforgiving climate, a dying empire, and a viciously unequal economy? Not even close. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll allow us the space to reconnect, to reimagine, and to rebuild the kind of communities we truly yearn for in our hearts. In the end, those that can let go of fear and face the future with honesty and poise will be the most able to weather the storms — and best positioned to plant the seeds for a new world. That’s easier said than done, of course. But it’s a path that keeps me positive, each and every day.

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