I first became aware that humanity was confronting an ecological emergency two decades ago. For me, the trigger point was visiting the Amazon in Ecuador in the late 1990s. We passed through areas where huge tracts of jungle had been clear-cut and burnt-out —millions of acres of rainforest devastated so oil companies could reach their prospects, fulfilling US demand for oil for two or three days at the most. I couldn’t fathom the insanity of this. I became fixated on wanting to help salvage the planet and stop this exploitation.
Looking back, I suspect that focusing on the ecological crisis fanatically for so many years drove me a bit crazy. I was a researcher collecting all the data and evidence that I could to present in my talks and writing; I was marinating in that data, saturating myself with it.
I wrote a book about the prophecies that many indigenous cultures possess about the time we are in now. Many of these prophecies offer dire warnings about the path that modern civilization has chosen. They tell us that time is running out if we want to make a change. I couldn’t believe that most people didn’t see the urgency of this and didn’t make it a primary focus of their lives.
Over the past year, we have seen a profound shift in public awareness about the ecological cataclysm facing our species.
This is reflected in the birth of new movements, among them Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement. These initiatives employ the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience used by Gandhi’s satyagraha campaign in India and the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s to compel governments to act faster on climate change. New leaders have emerged who speak with moral clarity, including Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish high school student, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US.
A 31-year-old Congresswoman from the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez has focused public awareness on the prospect of instituting a Green New Deal. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt launched a series of massive public work programs and financial reforms that helped jumpstart the US economy and put millions of people back to work. Taking ideas from many think tanks and nonprofits, Ocasio-Cortez and her allies in Congress propose we undertake a similar initiative now, using public funds to make a large-scale transition on a national scale.
Near the end of March, the resolution recognizing the duty of the federal government to create a Green New Deal was introduced on the floor of the Senate by Ed Markey (D-Mass.), where it was rejected by a 57-0 vote, with many Democrats abstaining. President Trump mocked it in a tweet: “I think it is very important for the Democrats to press forward with their Green New Deal. It would be great for the so-called “Carbon Footprint” to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas &; the Military – even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!”
The Green New Deal calls for a “10-year national mobilization,” mandating a comprehensive redirection of America’s social, technical and financial resources to move toward an ecologically sustainable and socially just society. Many of its proposals are great, but the resolution goes beyond environmental issues. The Green New Deal will “promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this resolution as ‘‘frontline and vulnerable communities).’’
These are all valiant and laudable goals which I support. However, by lumping all of them together in one resolution, the proponents of the Green New Deal overplay their hand. They have squandered some of their social capital and invited ridicule, rather than engendering broad-based support. By seeking to address all forms of social injustice within one environmental call-to-arms, they impede the possibility of forming legitimate political alliances with moderates or making progress toward desperately needed environmental initiatives.
One could argue that the situation is so dire that we no longer have time for half-measures. We might as well shoot for the moon.
The truth is that many well-informed journalists and scientists believe it is probably too late to stop a catastrophe that brings about a collapse of civilization and potentially humanity’s extinction. Jem Bendell, a UK Professor of Sustainability, recently garnered attention for his paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy where he proposes “there will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers.” Dahr Jamail has explored the dangers of “runaway anthropogenic climate disruption” for Truthout.
New York Magazine writer David Wallace-Wells just published The Uninhabitable Earth, a breakthrough book on climate change and the near-future. He writes, “The story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is the story of a single lifetime – the planet brought from apparent stability to the brink of catastrophe in the years between a baptism or bar mitzvah and a funeral.” Wallace-Wells, like many commentators, acknowledges that we might still avert the worst consequences through coordinated global action, but the political and social will for that action still seem to be lacking.
Facing all the drastic evidence, and recognizing the tremendous social inertia we need to overcome in order to establish something like a Green New Deal and spark worldwide climate mobilization, each of us must make a personal choice. It is a difficult one: is it worth sacrificing ourselves, causing a ruckus, fighting for the sake of what is, at best, an uncertain future.
And another question, perhaps one particularly suited for MOZAIC, is this: how can we integrate our individual quest for spiritual or mystical insight, self-development, and even just the ongoing enjoyment of our existence with our awareness of these vast, terrible processes occurring on a planetary scale?
I ask these questions of myself almost daily, and I admit am not sure of the answers. Last year, the United Nations issued a new report from the International Committee on Climate Change (IPCC) which stated we have less than a decade remaining to prevent a catastrophic rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius, which will cause devastating feedback loops. This would require a substantial change in our lifestyles with a massive reduction in resource use. Even my most ecologically conscious friends—myself included—still fly around the world constantly, even though we know that air travel is one of the worst contributors to CO2 emissions.
We would truly need something like a collective call to arms on a level we can’t quite imagine to rally humanity to make this deadline.
Although I also spent a decade working on a book defining the radical changes we need to make in our technological and social systems, I don’t find it probable that we will mobilize in time. At this point, we can still try—or we can pin our hopes on some improbable technological or mystical intervention arriving at the last second. Perhaps super-intelligent Artificial Intelligence will figure it out. Or we can simply surrender to witness the destruction of our fragile, arrogant civilization, like a Tibetan sand mandala thrown back into the wind.