Bill McKibben: The Question I Get Asked the Most: The most common one by far is also the simplest: What can I do? I bet I’ve been asked it 10,000 times by now and—like a climate scientist predicting the temperature—I’m pretty sure I’m erring on the low side. The question is almost right. It implies an eagerness to act and action is what we need. But my answer to it has changed over the years, as the science of global warming has shifted. I find, in fact, that I’m now saying almost the opposite of what I said three decades ago.
Then—when I was 27 and writing the first book on climate change—I was fairly self-obsessed (perhaps age appropriately). And it looked like we had some time: No climate scientist in the late 1980s thought that by 2016 we’d already be seeing massive Arctic ice melt. So it made sense for everyone to think about the changes they could make in their own lives that, over time, would add up to significant change. Over time, it became clear to me that there’s a problem with the question “What can I do.”
The problem is the word “I.” By ourselves, there’s not much we can do. Yes, my roof is covered with solar panels and I drive a plug-in car that draws its power from those panels, and yes our hot water is heated by the sun, and yes we eat low on the food chain and close to home. I’m glad we do all those things, and I think everyone should do them, and I no longer try to fool myself that they will solve climate change.
Because the science has changed and with it our understanding of the necessary politics and economics of survival. Climate change is coming far faster than people anticipated even a couple of decades ago. 2016 is smashing the temperature records set in 2015 which smashed the records set in 2014; some of the world’s largest physical features (giant coral reefs, vast river deltas) are starting to die off or disappear. Drought does damage daily; hundred-year floods come every other spring. In the last 18 months we’ve seen the highest wind speeds ever recorded in many of the world’s ocean basins. In Basra Iraq—not far from the Garden of Eden—the temperature hit 129 Fahrenheit this summer, the highest reliably recorded temperature ever and right at the limit of human tolerance. July and August were not just the hottest months ever recorded, they were, according to most climatologists, the hottest months in the entire history of human civilization. The most common phrase I hear from scientists is “faster than anticipated.” Sometime in the last few years we left behind the Holocene, the 10,000 year period of benign climatic stability that marked the rise of human civilization. We’re in something new now—something new and frightening.
Against all that, one’s Prius is a gesture. A lovely gesture and one that everyone should emulate, but a gesture. Ditto riding the bike or eating vegan or whatever one’s particular point of pride. North Americans are very used to thinking of themselves as individuals, but as individuals we are powerless to alter the trajectory of climate change in a meaningful manner. The five or ten percent of us who will be moved to really act (and that’s all who ever act on any subject) can’t cut the carbon in the atmosphere by more than five or ten percent by those actions.
No, the right question is “What can we do to make a difference?” (using the full leverage and influence of each of our organizations and networks). Because if individual action can’t alter the momentum of global warming, movements may still do the trick. Movements are how people organize themselves to gain power—enough power, in this case, to perhaps overcome the financial might of the fossil fuel industry. Movements are what can put a price on carbon, force politicians to keep fossil fuel in the ground, demand subsidies so that solar panels go up on almost every roof, not just yours. Movements are what take 5 or 10 percent of people and make them decisive—because in a world where apathy rules, five or ten percent (focused on system change, not individual change or merely lifting voices) is an enormous number.
If you live in a society that has dismantled its train system, then lots of people will need to drive and take the bus, and it will be the most useful gallons they burn in the course of the year. Because that’s what pushes systems to change.
When brave people go to jail, cynics email me to ask how much gas the paddywagon requires. When brave people head out in kayaks to block the biggest drilling rigs on earth, I always know I’ll be reading dozens of tweets from clever and deadened souls asking “don’t you know the plastic for those kayaks require oil?” Yes, we know—and we’ve decided it’s well worth it. We’re not trying to be saints; we’re trying to be effective.
We’re not going to be forced into a monkish retreat from society—we need to engage this fight with all the tools of the moment. We’re trying to change the world we live in and if we succeed then those who come after will have plenty of time to figure out other ways to inhabit it. Along the way those who have shifted their lives can provide inspiration, which is crucial. But they don’t by themselves provide a solution. Naomi Klein once described visiting an “amazing” community farm in Brooklyn’s Red Hook that had been flooded by Hurricane Sandy. “They were doing everything right, when it comes to climate,” she said. “Growing organic, localizing their food system, sequestering carbon, not using fossil-fuel inputs—all the good stuff.” Then came the storm. “They lost their entire fall harvest and they’re pretty sure their soil is now contaminated, because the water that flooded them was so polluted. It’s important to build local alternatives, we have to do it, but unless we are really going after the source of the problem”—namely, the fossil-fuel industry and its lock on Washington—”we are going to get inundated.”
Pope Francis, speaking on 9 Feb to the plenary session of the Congregation for Catholic Education (of Seminaries and Institutes of Study) in the Vatican — a dicastery that has authority over seminaries (except those falling within the jurisdiction of the Congregations for the Evangelization of Peoples and for Oriental Churches) and houses of formation of religious and secular institutes; over all universities, faculties, institutes and higher schools of study, either ecclesial or civil dependent on ecclesial persons; over all schools and educational institutes depending on ecclesiastical authorities. Earlier in the month the Pope also stressed the theme of “beyond individualism” with the Focolare Movement.
“faced with an intrusive individualism, which makes us humanly poor and culturally barren, it is necessary to humanize education…Our world has become a global village with multiple processes of interaction, where every person belongs to humanity and shares in the hope of a better future with the entire family of peoples.” At the same time, he lamented, there are many forms of violence, poverty, exploitation, discrimination, marginalization, and approaches that restrict fundamental freedoms, creating a throwaway culture. In such a context, Francis stressed, Catholic educational institutes are called first to put into “practice the grammar of dialogue.”
Francis’ final expectation was education contributing in sowing hope. “Man cannot live without hope, and education is a generator of hope. “I am convinced that the young of today need above all this life that builds the future.
Pope Francis also spoke to writers of the Civilta Cattolica this past month. The full transcript is at Zenit:
…The first word is RESTLESSNESS. I pose a question: has your heart kept the restlessness of research? Only restlessness gives peace to a Jesuit’s heart. Without restlessness we are sterile. If you want to inhabit bridges and frontiers you must have a restless mind and heart. Sometimes the security of doctrine is confused with mistrust for research. It must not be so for you. Christian values and traditions are not rare pieces to be closed in the cases of a museum. Instead, may the certainty of the faith be the engine of your research. I give you as patron Saint Peter Favre (1506-1546), man of great desires, restless spirit, never satisfied, pioneer of ecumenism. For Favre, it is precisely when difficult things are proposed that the true spirit that moves an action is manifested (cf. Memorial, 301). An authentic faith always implies a profound desire to change the world. See the question that we should pose to ourselves: Do we have great visions and impetus? Are we audacious? Or are we mediocre, and content with laboratory reflections?
May your Review be aware of the wounds of this world and point out therapies. May it be writing that tends to comprehend evil but also that pours oil on open wounds, to heal. Favre walked with his feet and died young of exhaustion, devoured by his desires for the greater glory of God. You must walk with your restless intelligence so that the keyboards of your computers translate into useful reflections to build a better world, the Kingdom of God.
The second word is INCOMPLETENESS. God is the Deus semper maior, the God who always surprises us. Therefore, you must be writers and journalists of the incomplete thought, that is, open and not closed and rigid. May your faith open your thought. Let yourselves be guided by the prophetic spirit of the Gospel to have an original, vital, dynamic, not obvious vision. And this especially today in such a complex world, full of challenges in which the “culture of [seeing] [trainwrecks]” seems to triumph – fuelled by profane messianism, of relativist mediocrity, of mistrust and rigidity – and the “culture of the ‘dumpster,’” where any thing that does not function as one wishes or is even considered useless is now thrown away.
The crisis is global hence it is necessary to turn our gaze to the dominant cultural conventions and to the criteria through which people hold that something is good or bad, desirable or not. Only a truly open thought can address the crisis and understand where the world is going, how the most complex and urgent crises are addressed, the geo-politics, the challenges of the economy and the grave humanitarian crisis linked to the drama of migrations, which is the global political node of our days.
I give you then as a reference figure the Servant of God Father Matteo Ricci (1522-1610).He composed a great Chinese globe depicting the continents and island known up to then. Thus the beloved Chinese people could see depicted in a new way many distant lands that were briefly named and described. The globe also served to introduce the Chinese people better to other civilizations. See, with your articles you are also called to compose a “globe”: show the recent discoveries, give a name to places, make known the meaning of the Catholic “civilization,” but also make Catholics know that God is also at work outside the confines of the Church, in every true “civilization,” with the breath of the Holy Spirit.
The third word is IMAGINATION. This, in the Church and in the world, is the time of discernment. Discernment is always made in the presence of the Lord, looking at the signs, listening to the things that happen, the feeling of people that know the humble way of the daily perseverance, and especially of the poor. The wisdom of discernment compensates for the necessary ambiguity of life. But it is necessary to penetrate the ambiguity, we must enter it, as the Lord Jesus did, assuming our flesh. Rigid thought is not divine because Jesus assumed our flesh, which is not rigid except at the moment of death.
…Yes, life is fluid and is agitated ceaselessly as the air in the sky is agitated and <water> in the sea. The thought of the Church must recover brilliance and understand ever better how man is understood today to develop and deepen one’s teaching. And this brilliance helps to understand that life is not a white and black picture. It is a colored picture. Some colors are clear and others dark, some tenuous and others lively. But in any case the shades prevail. And this is the space of discernment, the area in which the Spirit agitates the sky as the air and the sea as the water. Your task – as Blessed Paul VI requested – is to live the confrontation “the burning needs of man and the perennial message of the Gospel” (Address on the Occasion of the 22nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, December 3, 1974). And those burning needs you already bear in yourselves, and in your spiritual life, give this confrontation the most appropriate forms, also [those that are] new, which the way of communicating today requires, which changes with the passing of time.
I hope that La Civilta Cattolica, thanks also to its versions in other languages, will be able to reach many readers. May the Society of Jesus support this very old and precious work, rather unique for the service to the Apostolic See. May it be generous in gifting it with capable Jesuits and spread it where it is most opportune. I am thinking especially of centers of educational formation and of schools, in particular, for the formation of docents and parents, but also in centers of spiritual formation. I recommend its particular diffusion in seminaries and centers of formation. May Bishops support it; its bond with the Apostolic See makes it a unique review of its kind.