Remarks delivered under the title “Climate Change and Health” at the Dialog on Sustainability, Kansas State University, July 22, 2017
I'm going to start with 3 suppositions:
The first thing is that the system is broken. I have always considered myself to be in the hope business, but I'm finding it hard to find the way through right now. A joke president, the EPA in the hands of the James Inhofe gang, with a stolen Supreme Court seat, even the modest gains made by the Obama administration rolled back...
It's pretty clear at this stage that climate change is not going to be dealt with on anything like the scale necessary on anything like the timeframe necessary. I don't see away that out current economic and political system is going to, for instance, force Exxon to take billions of gigatons of proven oil reserves off its books. I don't see a way that we're going to justly treat those in other countries who will be made refugees due to flooding, or loss of water or habitat. Any of us could name 10 policies that make perfect sense and that would address the issue but we can't even get the least of them into legislation because opposition from corporations and bought politicians.
The flaw in sustainability thinking is that it's based on the capitalist mindset. Our framing is always, we can have our cake and eat it too: we can continue 3% growth per year but we do it with wind turbines and solar panels! But no, we can't. The earth can't continue to sustain growth at these levels, no matter how we power it. We need to strive not for “sustainable development”, but for de-growth. This is what eco-activist and Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy calls “the great turning” - from the Industrial Growth Society to Life-Sustaining Society. It's revolutionary, and we have to think of it as such.
But we're reaching a point where it takes too great an act of will to think that everything's all right, or presently may be. Because it's starting to affect us. Jay Antle went to a conference where the city planners of Tuscon Arizona told them they're planning for 20 days of over 120 degrees per year within 20 years.
I'm sure you all saw the kerfuffle about the New York Magazine article about climate's worst case scenario. The biggest blowback came from climate scientists like Michael Mann, who said a) the science behind worst case scenario isn't proven and b) messaging studies show us that dooms-saying doesn't motivate people. But you know what? Screw that. It's not like 20 years of “We can fix this!” messaging has led us anywhere. In 12-step programs it is said that we're only willing to change when we run out of other options. It's called “the gift of desperation.” I think we're at that place in America.
So if corporations aren't going to help us, and government can't help us, and half the country would basically rather see the world destroyed for the sake of their political story, than what do we do? We can either start stocking weaponry and canned goods, or we can develop ways to sustain ourselves, and each other. And the way we do that is through what Joanna Macy calls “the three dimensions of the great turning,” which I'm going to frame as resistance, resilience, and love.
Resistance is addressing and holding back further destruction or that help people thru. It could be anything from soup kitchens to mass demonstrations to the camp at Standing Rock. Actually, a lot of what KIFA does is in this category – we're always trying to stop things from getting worse. Gandhi called this kind of thing “obstructive action.”
This is where a lot of us are right now, and have been for some time, but it's not enough. As Jung put it, “What we resist, persists.” If all we're doing is opposing, then we're not getting anywhere.
Building resilience is our growing edge. It is what Gandhi called “constructive action,” and it's building the ability to care for ourselves and our communities outside of the corporate system. Examples of this are many: community gardens, cooperative businesses, community level energy generation, collaborative living situations, tool libraries – all kinds of things that grow the alternative. We should be spending at least as much time on resilience, on constructive action, as we do on resistance.
You know that during the WWI and WWII there were so-called victory gardens all over the country. There are pictures of state capitols with the lawns under cultivation. That's what we need. Community gardens can't be seen as a hobby, they have to be seen as a necessary part of resilience. Everybody should be taking part in them, and they should basically be everywhere.
Local energy, locally developed transportation options, tool libraries, community level health care
This is also where we educate – about the harms of industrial society, about the necessity of degrowth.
So think of it this way. If our consumption level is here (hand held above head), and our “needs” are met by centralized, industrial, corporate providers, then we're toast. If our consumption levels are here (hand held chest high) and we build local and regional ways to address them, then the amount we have to get from our corporate masters is less, and that builds resilience. That means that limiting consumption, what used to be called “voluntary simplicity,” is a core element of what we're need to accomplish. The less we consume, the less we need to produce, and if making that change on a mass level is really vital if we hope to build a sustainable future.
I want to recommend to you a book called “Building a Healthy Economy From the Bottom Up” by AnthonyFlaccavento. He enumerates 6 transitions that are necessary to make transformative economic change:
- on the household level, from dependence to resilience;
- on the local level, from trickle-down to bottom up;
- from concentrated wealth to community capital;
- regional and national networks bringing together localized efforts into larger-scale efforts;
- developing community supported arts and media;
- and finally, reshaping public policy by engaging people already mobilized by the prior transitions to reclaim and re-energize our democracy.
We don't have the time to explore these in depth here, but this is the kind of thing that I think we need to do in order to build a future that works for more than the top 10%.
By building these economic alternatives we not only build resilience but we build a constituency for the kind of public policy changes that will enable these transitions to take place. Because of course we're always going to live in a globalized world and if we want to carve out our place in it we're going to have to engage a lot of people. This is the role that advocacy of the type KIFA does – there are many laws which limit our ability to build economic alternatives – everything from the restrictions on third-party power purchasing to banking and investment regulations that privilege institutional investors. Our role is to try to make sure there's room legally to do what we need to do.
And the third category of the Great Turning. Joanna Macy calls it “shift in consciousness.” I'm calling it “love.” Love isn't a feeling – it's an action, a spiritual practice that changes our perception of reality.
What we need is a recognition, not just intellectually but spiritually, in our deepest selves, that we are all in this together, that to use the phrase of Thich Naht Hanh, we inter-are, that not only can't I succeed without you but in fact there is literally no me without you. That means our family, our fellowship, our town, the “stranger”, the people who seem other, and even the earth itself – they not only are entitled to all the same rights and privileges that we are, but they are us. This is not, or not solely, a political path – this is a spiritual path. That element of the work cannot be overlooked.
We live in a reality that's based on an imperative of competition, hyper-individualism and GDP growth that is damaging not only the planet, but us as well. I should probably mention health here: the increased in obesity, in diabetes, in use of psychological medications, in cancer rates, in resistant infections, are all a product of the same dynamics that produce climate change. Our consumer society is sick, we ourselves are physically, mentally, and spiritually sick. Stepping out of consumer capitalism is, in my opinion, the first and best step we can take for renewed health, both of ourselves and of those around us. When people build local resilience and relationships, when we work in cooperation, that's not only a strategy against climate disruption, it's a spiritual path as well. It's the only way to move from climate despair to action that has a chance of making a difference.
What is required is no less than a revolution of values, where we not only change lightbulbs but we change ourselves and our way of seeing the world and each other.
It's a revolution in our minds, in our hearts, in our values, in our communities, in our lives.
At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality... We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force. - Che Guevara