Civility and Climate Change:  What Is Required of Us? by Terry Tempest Williams

Moral Ground – Ethical Action 

On 8 March 2003, approximately two weeks before the United States invaded Iraq, thousands of individuals, largely women and children, gathered in Washington, DC, for a Code Pink rally in the name of peace. It was also the International Day of Women.

We walked from Martin Luther King Park through the streets of the nation’s capital to Lafayette Park, located directly in front of the White House. When we arrived, we were met by a wall of Washington police outfitted with black combat gear, bulletproof vests, and rifles. We were not allowed to proceed on to the public park.

Medea Benjamin, one of the organizers of Code pink, began to negotiate with the police captain. While these negotiations were under way, Rachel Bagby, an African American poet and musician, stood directly across from a policeman and focused her attention on one officer in particular, also African American. She began singing, with all the power of her God-given voice, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” Over and over she kept singing, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

Other women began to join her. She never took her eyes off that man, but just kept singing to him in her low, dignified voice. In that moment, it was clear neither one of them would be who they are, or where they are, without the voices of dissent uttered by their parents, without the literal acts of civil disobedience practiced by their parents’ parents and their parents’ parents before them. 

The African American policeman quietly stepped aside, creating the opening we walked through. 

This is what the Open Space of Democracy looks like. 

Disobedience to be civil has to be open and nonviolent…Disobedience to be civil implies discipline, thought, care, attention…Disobedience that is wholly civil should never provoke retaliation…but love.” So speaks Gandhi.

Henry David Thoreau understood this when he chose to spend a night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican-American war.

“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence,” wrote Thoreau in his essay “Civil Disobedience.”

Martin Luther King Jr. understood this when he chose to spend time in the Birmingham jail and write:  “I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

“For years now I have heard the word “Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait!’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see…that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

We have a history of bravery in this nation, and we must call it forward now. Our future is guaranteed only by the degree of our personal involvement and commitment to an inclusive justice.

To engage in responsive citizenship, we must become citizens who respond. Passionately. This is how we can make a difference.

This is, ultimately, about climate change:  Climate Change as the heating up of the planet; Climate Change as a change of minds and hearts, inspiring direct action, both politically and personally.

Thomas Jefferson said, “I believe in perilous liberty over quiet servitude.”

May we commit ourselves to “perilous servitude.”

Call it a “peaceful uprising.” Call it the open space of democracy.

It is easy to believe that we the people have no say, that the powers in Washington will roll over our local, on-the-ground concerns with their corporate energy ties and thumper trucks. It is easy to believe that the American will is focused only on how to get rich, how to be entertained, and how to distract itself from the hard choices we have before us as a nation.

I refuse to believe this. The only space I see truly capable of being closed is not the land or our civil liberties but our own hearts.

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up-ever-trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?

The heart is the house of empathy whole door opens when we receive the pain of others. This is where bravery lives, where we find our mettle to give and receive, to love and be loved, to stand in the center of uncertainly with strength, not fear, understanding this is all there is. The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of power. Our power lies in our love of our homelands.

It is time to ask, when will our national culture of self-interest stop cutting the bonds of community to shore up individual gain and instead begin to nourish communal life through acts of giving, not taking? It is time to acknowledge the violence rendered to our souls each time a mountaintop is removed to expose a coal vein in Appalachia or when a wetland is drained, dredged, and filled for a strip mall. And the time has come to demand an end to the wholesale dismissal of the sacredness of life in all its variety and forms, as we witness the repeated breaking of laws, the relaxing of laws in the sole name of growth and greed.

A wild salmon is not the same as a salmon raised in a hatchery. And a prairie dog colony is not a shooting gallery for rifle recreationists, but a culture that has evolved with the prairie since the Pleistocene. At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?

Twelve thousand students gathered together in Washington in March 2009 to say, “Enough!” We marched together, physically, symbolically, to ask the United States Congress to think about alternatives to coal-fired power plants, to mountaintop removal, to exploiting our fragile wildlands for oil and gas development that omits us to a future that is based on shortsighted energy retrieval, not a vision toward energy renewal.

Climate Change. What is required is to create a climate of consciousness.

We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt. It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships. A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honoring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical, and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few.

Climate Change. What is required is a change of consciousness.

I do not believe we can look for leadership beyond ourselves. I do not believe we can wait for someone or something to save us from our global predicaments and obligations. I need to look in the mirror and ask this of myself:  If I am committed to seeing the direction of our country change, how must I change myself?

We are in need of a reflective activism born out of humility, not arrogance. Reflection, with deep time spent in the consideration of others, opens the door to becoming a compassionate participant in the world.

“To care is neither conservative nor radical,” writes John Ralston Saul. “It is a form of consciousness.”

Climate Change.

Are we ready for the next evolutionary, revolutionary step? May we act on behalf of the restoration of justice for all species, not just our own. And may our collective acts of disobedience be civil and spirited and beautiful. This is the Open Space of Democracy.


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