The Elephant in the Room

“People are suffering.  People are dying.  Entire ecosystems are collapsing.  We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.  How dare you…You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.”

The words are passionate, emotional, the words of an adolescent in pain.   They are also an incisive, concise and accurate statement of the ominous crisis in which we find ourselves, like it or not.    Sixteen-year-old climate champion Greta Thunberg spoke them to the United Nations and the world at the Climate Action Summit in September.

A quick search of the Internet will confirm, from various sources, the accuracy of her claims.  Many of us, especially those in power, prefer to not look at these facts.  We may peek at them occasionally; some offer excuses or soothing hopes that technology will take care of everything while our lives continue unchanged.  Then public attention shifts, and discussion continues on issues of economy, politics or gossip about celebrities.  We have yet to create a tipping point which can place the focus on money, convenience and comfort second in importance to the preservation of our planet.  Dangerously, we are not yet willing to look directly at and believe in what is uncomfortable, inconvenient and scary.  Meanwhile, the threat to our ways of life, if not our lives themselves, continues to grow as we hide our heads in the sand.

Climate change has begun.  Doomsayers predict the extinction of mankind and the end of life on Earth.  Sadly, that could happen if we continue to hide from what is happening and do essentially nothing but talk.  It doesn’t, however, have to be that way.  People have choices, and it is time for us to wake up.

Greta’s indictment of adults at the UN focuses on the power structures that bind us to the status quo.  She includes both those in the politics and leadership of the world, and those who make enormous amounts of money from consuming our common home.  Both are motivated by the common addiction to money.    I do not refer to money as a tool for exchange fairly used to reward labor and creativity.  It is the use of money to evaluate a person, and the addiction to amassing fortunes at the expense of others’ unpaid or inadequately paid labor or creativity that leads to blindness to the subsequent devastation.  We as ordinary people must, all of us, unceasingly shine the light of awareness upon that devastation if we are to counter the effects of destructive corporate action and the refusal of governing powers to effectively challenge those actions.  It is said that a lie told often enough becomes truth in the minds of those who hear it.  Truth spoken unerringly and unceasingly has greater power.   If we value our planetary home, we must not be silent.

The very rich and powerful must change the basic premises of their existence or be removed from power.  Certainly, they may not be allowed to continue those actions which increase the warming of our atmosphere, the changes in our climate and the extinction of many of our species.  We do not need more oil and gas, more factory farmed grains to burn and feed large herds of cattle (which emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas), more mines, more bombs and weapons of war, more anything which destroys or fatally alters the systems with which nature balances, protects and nurtures our world.  The excuse that these things maintain the economy and GNP is irrelevant.  That which is inimical to life must cease if we are to survive.  However, it is not only the wealthy and influential that bear the burden of change.

The example of drops of water together creating the powerful ocean or waterfall is not new.  It is, however, an excellent example of how great the power of individuals, united and consistent, can be.   We need such power to mitigate what has begun and adapt to what we cannot stop.  What, then, can each of us do?  After all, each of us is only one person.  Here are a few ideas, in addition to being persistently vocal in whatever ways we can. 

Most of us are familiar with the idea of recycling.  Public emphasis on recycling has been diluted in an attempt to make it convenient to recycle.  We now have single stream recycling in most urban areas, so that people no longer must sort their trash; they have only to separate compostable and non-recyclable garbage from recyclables.  Convenient, yes?  Someone else is doing the sorting.  Sadly, that means that many follow the path of least resistance and throw into the recycling bin things which are not recyclable.  In addition, in some communities, the recycling truck will collect the trash, but will simply dump it in a landfill along with other garbage; people are often unaware of that occurrence.  Here are some things people can do:  people can be aware of what happens to collected recyclables.   People can reduce the use of things that are purportedly recyclable, such as excess packaging, plastics, single use bags, straws and other items.  People can become aware and advocate for markets for recycled items, so that those items can be turned into new items without the use of precious natural resources.  People, especially in rural areas, can compost garbage, turning it into useful enrichment for the soil – as opposed to toxic sewage sludge.

We can learn how to grow urban gardens, from converting empty lots to garden use to doing container gardening to doing rooftop gardening.  This is a step towards eliminating the factory farms which pollute our Earth, destroy the soil for our farms, and create toxic runoff which desecrates our waters.  Small, organic farms can feed us all, and growing some of our own food and eating locally grown food can go a long way towards reducing the carbon we put in the air and also towards pulling some of the carbon out of the atmosphere and locking it in the plants and soil.    We do not need to truck in food from factory farms; this brings us foods which are less fresh and increases the carbon emissions through trucking.

We can learn to create our own electricity from the sun, or, in some cases, from wind.  We can learn passive solar building (using nature for heat) and install solar panels on our roofs.  Energy we create in excess can be sold back to the grid; eventually, there might not be complete reliance on a grid.  It would be wonderful to have energy after a storm, when the grid is down; solar energy can give us this.  Generators emit pollution into the air from burning fossil fuels.  We can also buy sustainable energy when it is available and lobby our utility companies to stop using fossil fuel.

We can push for the creation of reliable public transportation, powered by electricity.  Hopefully, the electricity will come from sustainable sources.  We can be vocal about the need for battery recharging stations for vehicles, as available as pumping stations for fossil fuel, and eventually replacing those pumping stations.  We can by increasing use make it fashionable to use bicycles as often as possible.    We can learn to slow down and walk to nearby places.

We can pay attention to our parks and advocate for their creation and preservation.  We can volunteer to help maintain them.   We can plant trees; trees pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen into it.  They are called the lungs of the world for that.  We can raise our voices against deforestation, decry the removal of any healthy tree, and refuse to buy products which have been made available through deforestation (cattle production and palm oil production are two of these).  In our cities, we can learn to build vertically; we can decrease sprawl into the suburbs and build parks with trees in areas which are freed.   We can stop building proliferating shopping areas; many of these are built when there is not a population to support them.  Many of those businesses fail, but the structures are left, using space which could be forested.

We can paint white every roof which is not taken by solar panels or gardens.  When glaciers and snowpacks melt, their function of reflecting heat away from the earth also disappears, increasing the rate of global warming.  White roofs en masse would shoulder some of that function.  We can also learn to cooperate in community, working with our neighbors.  There are many kinds of community – extended family, neighborhoods, co-housing, ecovillages, intentional communities; there are so many kinds that it is highly unlikely that a given individual would not be able to find one that suits.  However, we need to learn to cooperate with others in order to do this.  We need to act cooperatively in order to create the changes we need to preserve the planet.

These are only a few ways in which we can act.   Each of us has his or her own talents and gifts to offer, and there are many ways to contribute.  The bottom line is that each of us must act.   Relying on the next person to do it will not work.  The confluence of our voices and our actions will create the changes that we need.  In times of crisis, voices are raised to awaken us.  Sometimes those voices are children.  In the case of climate change, Greta Thunberg is one.  It is the function of youth to speak up when they see need or discrepancy.   It is the function of adults to listen and guide.   Greta has found the courage to speak.  Let us each respond by thinking about and acting with the contributions we can make to avert the worst of the impending events which threaten our lives.

Peace, Diane