by Jerilyn Bowen, 9/25/19
What’s the Story?
Decisions, decisions, decisions. On what grounds do we make them, individually and collectively? That’s a big question these days. Many considerations inevitably come into play, but basically most decisions are determined by a dialectic between fear of X and faith in Y. Which prevails depends on the story we tell ourselves.
For a minor example: when Trump came to Rio Rancho on September 16th, the story on the street was that holding a mass protest outside his rally would prove to be dangerous so best to attend the alternate gathering sponsored by the NM Democratic Party in a safe place far from Rio Rancho. No one talked about what we sacrificed in letting ourselves be intimidated out of showing up in large numbers to make our collective voice heard when the national media would be there to record and broadcast our message. No one asked what Martin Luther King might’ve been willing to risk that day in service to the cause of saving our democracy. In short, no one seemed to put the supposed dangers of an on-site protest in context of the larger narrative about what motivates us in our work for a more just and humane world…just X, no Y.
Maybe we were simply worn out by the constant barrage of Trumpian outrages so found ourselves acquiescing to qualms about imagined perils. Maybe, for whatever reason, it just didn’t seem worth the effort.
However that may be, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have long been setting us an example of timidity in their cautiously calculated approach to dealing with the havoc Trump and his Republican allies are wreaking in our nation. Now at last Speaker Pelosi has decided to put aside her fear-based story that impeachment is too politically risky in favor of the more valiant story that duty calls Congress to uphold the rule of law in this land. Let us raise a glass and shout hallelujah, hoping against hope that her discovery of a higher calling is not too little, too late. This new storyline may be only a constrained, rather mumbled and uninspiring legalistic statement of faith in what matters most but at least it leans in that direction rather than buckling to dread of dire consequences if Democrats dare to do the right thing.
Fear and Faith Play Duet
Meanwhile, the Constitutional crisis unfolding in D.C. is taking place against the backdrop of an ever-worsening climate crisis that envelopes the globe. Little Greta Thunberg has put herself on the line to call out world leaders for their lack of commitment to doing what it takes to rescue her generation from a future the power brokers seem oddly disinclined to imagine. This plain spoken 16-year-old Swedish slip of a girl has mustered the inner ballast to tell it like it is in no uncertain terms, confronting our leaders with what they should have the good sense to fear and the good conscience to remedy with every resource at their command. But she does this out of a passionate commitment to life aligned with a faith that she and her cohorts can touch the hearts and minds of these leaders before it’s too late. She holds fast to her belief in their basic humanity, their care for their own children, their commitment to future generations, and their sanity…plenty of X in her story but a deeper, more encompassing Y to keep the collective eye on the what it is we cherish and are willing to fight for.
Bill McKibben is another voice in the wilderness for climate justice, a bespectacled writer turned fierce activist who’s been out there crying the alarm for decades now. In a current Sun Magazine interview, McKibben recounts the sorry history of the awakening now finally underway and documents how dire our situation at this critical juncture actually is. Citing the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he underscores that the planet’s temperature has already risen 1 degree Celsius (= 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and, at present rates of CO2 and other pollutants pouring into the atmosphere, could reach the tipping point of no return–2 degrees Celsius–sooner than formerly anticipated. If drastic measures are taken immediately, the IPCC predicts that we can hold the increase by 2030 to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius–as McKibben puts it, not “a good solution” but “the best solution that’s still within the realm of possibility.”
The bad news is that massive damage has already been done, much of it irreversible. Worldwide, every year millions of people die of drought-related famine and fatal levels of summer heat while others are being swamped by rising seas and multitudes suffer catastrophic weather events–hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, tsunamis, you-name-it. In the past 40 years half the polar icecaps have melted into the ocean; they continue to thaw at an alarming rate, releasing methane and other deadly gases into the already overburdened atmosphere and condemning to terrible ends the creatures who are adapted to an arctic environment. Vast tracts of the Amazon rain forest are going up in flames, destroying the homeland of indigenous peoples and the habitat of untold numbers of animals while turning the lungs of Mother Earth into a worsening case of emphysema. On our continent, we’ve lost nearly three billion birds since 1970; that’s 29 percent fewer birds in the U.S. and Canada today than during the Vietnam era. Heartrending mass extinction of species large and small is well underway all over the planet. Though it’s unlikely that human life itself will vanish from the face of the earth, in a worse case scenario the conditions of human survival would become at best draconian.
The 2030 IPCC target date is little over ten years away. As McKibben reminds us, This is the last presidential election, the last Congressional cycle, where we’re going to have a chance to meet that deadline.
Dreaming the Dream in Real Time
So what story are we going to tell ourselves and our people? It can’t be some escapist fantasy, some pipe dream of technological ingenuity saving the day, some irrational belief that the markets will magically make things right, or some witless concatenation of half measures that won’t alienate corporate donors OR the Trump base OR other “low information” voters. Time is of the essence. We can’t afford to play any of those games. We have to speak the truth, and the truth is scary.
In what then can we ourselves find the commitment, the stamina, and the courage to take on what must be taken on? In what do we put our faith? And how can we transmit that faith to others who haven’t yet joined our ranks?
In her book The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age Bina Venkataraman talks about “the monopoly of the visible” that leads us to focus on what’s right in front of us at the expense of its larger context and long term implications. This of course if how we got into such deep trouble with climate disruption. She advises that, to use our innate power wisely, we need to put pressing kitchen table issues into a perspective that reveals what produces these issues and show how our proposals for addressing them can lead to a better future. Along with that, she recommends that, when, for instance, the high price of saving the planet is invoked as prohibitive, we zero in on the much higher price of inaction already being paid in this balloon mortgage to the devil we’ve taken out, a mortgage that will just keep costing more as our home goes under water.
To put it another way, it’s how we frame our message that matters most and, as I see it anyway, that frame needs above all to identify what we’re putting our faith in. The frame shapes the story. It tells us what the story means. As we take on the powers-that-be at this pivotal point in history, we need an “I have a dream” narrative that links our struggle to its fundamental reason for being, a vision of what can be that fortifies and inspires, an invocation that arises from our deepest knowing, an imagined future that bespeaks our primal commitment to the values that make life worth living.
In this envisioning we need to maintain cognitive clarity and attention to down home detail. We need to keep our feet on terra firma as we summon up our most eloquent powers of language to express our truth in a way that reaches beyond the mundane into the hearts of those we seek to enlist for this perilous voyage we’ve undertaken because someone has to do it.
What we have to fear is not fear itself. Our collective forebodings need, rather, to be acknowledged and honored, then invited to come aboard the Good Ship Faith, all together now in close companionship on our way to the Promised Land of XY and Z.
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Links to material referenced in article
–McKibben interview: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/526/tipping-point
—Vanishing birds: https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2019/09/19/north-america-has-lost-billion-birds-years
—Venkataraman book: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/558006/the-optimists-telescope-by-bina-venkataraman/