While Sylvie and Alex have reported here on the New York and Waterloo versions, respectively, of last week’s international People’s Climate March, I thought it would be fitting to write a more personal reflection on the meaning of it all. What, after all, are we marching around shouting about?
To my mind, the power of last week’s march in New York was that it told a story, one in which we ourselves are characters. The march was organized into six massive contingents arranged so as to tell the story of the impacts of climate change, from the front-line indigenous communities and Hurricane Sandy victims at the vanguard, through the youth organizations, energy innovators, corporate whistleblowers, and climate scientists all the way to the neighbourhood, regional, and national civil society institutions bringing up the rear. The marchers filled the entire 2.2 mile route before those at the back had even left the starting point.
I spoke at the Waterloo march on behalf of Transition KW, and what I was trying to do was shift the story from the narrative we’re usually told. You can read the text of what I said that day in Alex’s report on the event, but the gist of it was that I re-framed climate change as an exchange of violence between humans and nature. None of us asked to be enlisted in this war, but in our lifetimes nature has begun to respond to the violence of our carbon burning with the violence of climate change. What’s more, it’s becoming apparent that she means to win. Our hope as I see it is in a worldwide movement toward peace, disarmament, and reconciliation.
From my perspective, climate change is such old news to those engaged with it, and such unsettling gibberish to those otherwise engaged, that unless we find fresh ways of framing the conversation, we’re wasting our time. And frankly, I don’t like standing around listening to good people recite bad news. That isn’t why I go to marches. I go to marches to get fresh insight and inspiration for the next round of hard work.
David Suzuki himself made a similar observation in a fantastic blog post two years ago. “Environmentalism has failed,” he begins, and proceeds to reflect on the way that fifty years of hard-won victories in the environmental movement haven’t fundamentally altered the prevailing myth of our culture: that the Earth is composed of resources which humans must manage, whether responsibly or otherwise.
You see this reflected in the signs carried by little kids at marches like the one on Sunday: “Fix the Climate”, “Save Our Planet”, “It’s In Your Hands”, to name a few. They’re moving slogans, but when I read them I can’t help thinking that the concerned kids are articulating exactly the same underlying worldview that the corporate capitalists are. To put it briefly, this is the view that the planet in all its complexity is something we can grasp, something we can lay hands on, something we can manage (in the sense of the Latin root manus, which means ‘hand’).
Take a look at these two images.
The first is fairly cliché by now, with many variations available on Google Images. I took a few minutes to find one in which the hands weren’t obviously white, and which displayed a side of the globe other than the Western Hemisphere (survey the options for yourself if you like). Still, these two images don’t seem all that different to me. One represents man handling the planet with care and reverence; the other represents man handling the planet with greed and tyranny; either way, the planet gets manhandled.
David Suzuki knows what he’s talking about. But there’s a deeper sense in which the way we currently talk about environmental issues is nonsense, one I don’t think even Canada’s environmental guru has grasped (if you’ll pardon my choice of wording), at least not publicly. If I’m right about this, it goes a long way toward explaining why environmentalism has failed to gain traction in popular thought and instead remained just another ‘ism’.
The truth is that ‘Planet Earth’ is an abstraction. It was born in 1972, when the first full-view photograph of the Earth was taken by Apollo 17 astronauts. The image that resulted, and which was published widely under the title “Blue Marble”, is the one I’ve placed at the head of this blog post. It represents a phenomenon seen by only a handful of people (again, pardon my wordplay) in all of time. The rest of us have taken it on faith for the last forty-two years that we do indeed live on a planet, one which can in fact be laid bare and visible to the eye of man.
Not that I’m doubting the scientific reality of Planet Earth. My point is, so what? None of us will ever know or experience the planet, or have any relationship with it apart from vague feelings of guilt and impending disaster. From its very inception, the image of the Earth from space has represented multiple intricate paradoxes, as is the case for any representation of a society’s founding myth. It’s a serene image produced by means of tremendous chemical violence. It’s a vision of what we’re told is our one and only home, but which looks utterly alien hanging there in outer space. It’s a plea for world peace as well as an excuse for advancing the goal of total global management and control.
That little blue dot hanging in space doesn’t move me or inspire me to create change. More than that, it’s a symbol of the kind of thinking that has led us away from intimacy with our immediate environments and into the megalomanic abstractions of the environment. Give me soil, give me water, give me air, forests, creatures, mountains, storms, oceans, land, even earth, but get the Earth away from me. It’s not my responsibility. I don’t care for it. I repeat, as loudly as I dare lest I draw the accusing finger of heresy my way, I don’t care about the Earth.
So as the leaders of the free world meet to discuss or dismiss the various means of global control at their disposal, take some time to go outside and meet your neighbours. Your human neighbours, yes, but also the plants, animals, winds, waters, and weathers that are assembling and testing an arsenal of climate weapons to use against you and your kind. Do what you can to make your peace with them. We don’t have to be enemies, but as the board is set and the pieces start to move, it will become more and more difficult for your tiny white flag to be spotted, waving amid the rising seas and rolling storms. Do it anyway. Do it alone or with three hundred thousand others, but do it out of hope, because that’s the hard work that peace requires. Do it now.
This essay was originally posted on A Wizard of Earth.