When my husband was in college, he was on the phone with his mom when he and she heard a little pop on the line. His mother said there was a big storm and she got off the phone. She then saw smoke from behind the couch and pulled it from the wall. Flames erupted. She called her husband upstairs who was already running down to get her. Lightening had hit the electrical system and every wall was on fire. They ran out of the house. It was engulfed in flame within minutes. Fire trucks were there before they’d even had the thought to call and neighbors ran from their houses to stand with the stunned couple.
Everyone who saw what was happening, reacted. They moved quickly, responding to the crisis in front of them. Emergency mode- we all have it. There’s no time to debate, no time to wonder about alternative options; there is only immediate action.
Today, we are also in crisis, but because the emergency is slower than lightening hitting the electric system, we aren’t responding. We’re in a climate emergency. We have very little time left to address it. The experts told us we had12 years after which there’s no reversing the worst effects. It’s the planetary equivalent to the house in flames. We’re already experiencing what they call the mild effects, the storms, the floods, the draughts, the disappearing of entire species. That 12 year warning, that was a year ago. A year has passed and nothing has happened. We now have 11 years.
This ancient planet was formed slowly, creating an unusual mixture of oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane which encouraged wild, diverse, immense life. Earth formed as a living system that promotes life in water, on land, in the air, all part of a balanced and astounding ecosystem on which generations of countless species have depended. Now this balance is radically threatened largely as a result of the mining and burning of fossil fuels used in transportation, and the mass clearing of trees for cattle, palm oil and soy production.
We lose about 40 football fields of forest every minute. 58,000 wildfires burned millions of acres of land last year. Half the world’s wetlands are gone, half of the corals are dead and three quarters of the oceans are fished to capacity with a warning that there will be no more fish in the sea in 30 years; there are more than 400 dead zones in the ocean; plants and animals are disappearing a thousand times faster than ever before leaving nearly one million species on the brink of extinction while Earth’s ice fields are melting and the world of nature is disappearing at our own hand.
How is it possible that we have created a crisis of such magnificent proportions? Our economic system, requiring growth every quarter failed to recognize that we live on a finite planet, that infinite growth is impossible. The political and financial systems on which our nation rests, the Industrial Growth Society, guaranteed this outcome as soon as it was created. And yet, here we are, taken by surprise as we teeter on the edge of ecological collapse.
We are in crisis. Our house is on fire. It’s is an almost incomprehensible emergency and for the sake of planetary survival, environmental action has to become the hallmark of this next decade. Much of the public discourse focuses on the small picture, on instrumental remedies that don’t begin to recognize the urgency of our reality, that lack acknowledgment of the massive crisis we’re facing. Earth cannot wait. Our planet, our mother Gaia, who has for millennia sustained the life of incalculable species, has been so violated and exhausted by her most recent offspring that her own survival is now in our hands, we, her youngest and most reckless child.
The tectonic plates of unsustainable commerce and insatiable consumption are shifting dangerously beneath us. It’s not just an empire falling, but the platform of creation itself, falling under the weight of our wants, our greed, our ignorance and arrogance, our waste, our need, our mechanization, our militarization, our exponentially increasing population that stands at the top of a food chain on the verge of depletion. Our planet, once the support of all life, now herself needs life-support, and for the most part, until this moment, the generational cohorts of modernity—particularly our captains of industry and government—have been clueless, callous or obstructionist. Now we face ecocide and find ourselves bereft of even the moral, theological and legal categories to address it.
This might all sound extreme. Unnecessarily alarming. Maybe hyperbolic. I wish it were. Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old climate activist who is in NY this week to address the United Nations told world leaders recently:
“Our house is on fire… We are facing a disaster of unspoken sufferings for enormous amounts of people. And now is not the time for speaking politely or focusing on what we can or cannot say. Now is the time to speak clearly… You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival …Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act like your house is on fire because it is.”
Our house is on fire. This isn’t time for long discussions. This is time for massive mobilization, a World War Two level effort to transform the systems that have brought us here. We need to get out of coal immediately. We have no need for it and its use is killing us and our planet. We need to drop all unconventional fossil fuel sources like fracking and tar sands and mountaintop removal and stop drilling for oil reserves. We need to impose a massive carbon tax on corporations, tax right at the source, and return that money to households who reduce their fossil fuel consumption. These things need to be done now. If we grasped the concept that our house is on fire, this could be accomplished in 6 months.
Stage two is the phasing out of oil and gas. We don’t need to drill any more. We have enough in store to burn the planet to ash several times over. Drilling should stop immediately. We then burn what have over the course of the next few years while we make the massive move to renewable energy.
These things can be done now. Everything we need to survive this crisis is at our disposal. We have access to free power. Wind and solar can provide for all our basic needs. The cost of solar panels is dropping exponentially, creating accessible options for walking away from fossil fuels permanently.
Will the world be different if we stop burning oil? Yes! Yes, the world will be different. We’re going to have to stop thinking about our convenience as the top priority. We won’t be able to jump on a plane to spend a long weekend in Santa Monica or Paris. It’s not that we can’t get there. California is a 4 day train and Paris is a 2 week boat ride. But the current assumption that everything is available to us all the time whenever we want it has to be tempered with our physical realities. We’ve designed a fantasy world in which we eat bananas in New York year round and pay less than a quarter each. Yes, things will change.
The paradigm shift we need is frightening. The honest consideration of our reality, of the ecological collapse we’re facing is overwhelming. The anxiety is debilitating. We need to have the courage to let our hearts break, to face into our terrifying reality, to feel our vulnerability and our overwhelming sadness at all that’s lost. We pretend this isn’t happening, that those telling us the stories are exaggerating or aren’t concerned with things that really matter, but most of that is just a protection from grief. Our situation is real and it’s horrible and if we’re going to survive, we need to feel it.
I do everything I think one person can do. I recycle and eat locally and drive a hybrid. But I feel powerless in the face of the massive crisis we’re facing. If my house were on fire, I’d grab the family and run out. But the house on fire is the entire planet and putting it out requires an overhaul of all our systems and there’s simply nothing I can do, no real impact I can make, whether or not I stop using disposable straws.
So, if I let my heart break, where does that get me? Now I’m just powerless and heartbroken.
But… we aren’t powerless. The two greatest technologies of the 20th century are solar panels and civil disobedience. This isn’t out of our hands. In fact, our salvation is at our fingertips. And, if it’s not in our hands, then no one’s got it because the people with the political power are doing nothing or not doing enough or are stopping people from doing what needs to be done. This is where we become absolutely necessary. Without us, there’s nothing. We the People are going to exercise our right to force change and we’re doing it on Friday.
I’m calling on you – every person who can hear my voice – you have now been called to action. We are joining a global climate strike. This Friday, people from nearly every nation on this planet will say Enough. The house is on fire! We have no choice but to run out screaming.
You might remember a global climate strike by students in March. Millions of students around the world walked out of school in a mass demonstration of power. They said learning is irrelevant if we don’t stop the planet from burning. There is no future for them if the platform for that future is on fire.
And now they’re asking the adults to join them. On Friday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is meeting across town and people in nearly every country are acting to get their attention. Students are walking out of school, adults are walking out of work and retired people are taking to the streets to amplify the urgency of this situation and our commitment to real change. On Friday, we are shutting it all down. We are getting the attention of every world leader telling them we are done with their negotiations and want action now. We are disrupting business as usual to dismantle the system that will disrupt life permanently.
There are many signs of hope even as our house burns. Ethiopia is planting 4 billion trees before fall to combat deforestation. 350 million trees were planted in a single day this summer by citizens who have a vision of a new world. Major cities like New York, London and Sydney have declared climate emergencies allowing them to respond in appropriately. The UK declared its intention to be carbon neutral by 2050 and all estimations say they’ll hit that target before that. Costa Rica will be fossil fuel free by 2021. In the face of the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, most of the other countries defiantly showed their meddle in keeping and increasing their promises at a recent climate meeting, demonstrating that even without the US, the rest of the world will move forward. That defiance is found closer to home, too, with more than 100 cities and counties across the country transitioning to 100 percent clean energy. Germany produced enough renewable energy in the first half of 2018 to power every household in the country for the entire year.
The massive mobilization is possible. I’m calling on you to step into your power this Friday. Use your body as I’ll use mine to be counted among the people who are not going to allow our leaders to fiddle…on a golf course…while Earth burns. Walk out of work. Organize your school. Take to the streets. Take to social media. Raise your voice with the millions of other people who are raising their voices to be heard by the handful of people who can turn this crisis around.
Our house is in fire and we are the firefighters. Let’s get to work.