Q: During a “red alert” climate crisis, speaking for the planet seems like an uphill battle. What inspires you to keep on with the work? What would you tell someone who has lost hope?
Yes, I am tired. I am discouraged. It’s hard to keep going, but it’s morally impossible to quit. At the Oregon coast some time ago, climate writer SueEllen Campbell and I made a list of why we won’t quit the climate fight. Here are the highlights.
All this said, so many people have asked me how to keep on with the work that I have written a book in response. It’s Take Heart: Encouragement for Earth’s Weary Lovers, twenty essays illustrated by the wry artists Bob Haverluck. What it offers is not hope exactly, not another to-do list, but deep, honest reasons why the struggle matters.
Q: In the twenty years that you have advocated for the Earth, have you seen a change or shift that has benefited our planet?
Yes, definitely. There have been several powerful shifts that give me reason to think we might win this one. First is the increase in the number of people who are alarmed and concerned about climate breakdown – in the US alone, an increase of 15% in the past five years. The effects of climate change and the moral culpability of the extractive economy are now front and center in the news and in our lives. When I first started this climate work, my goal was to get people to just turn off Monday Night Football and pay attention. Well, they are paying attention now!
Another shift is an expanded focus on the social as well as the environmental costs of climate breakdown. People understand, in ways they didn’t a decade ago, that human well-being and ecological well-being depend on each other – and both are threatened by climate change. Now people hear both “the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor,” in the words of Pope Francis.
But here’s the change I’m most excited about. A decade ago, people responded to the climate emergency with a sort of passivity that is astonishing in retrospect. Convinced by fossil-fuel industry advertising (“Fifty things you can do to save the planet,” a pamphlet brought to you by ExxonMobil) that the climate crisis was caused by their choices as consumers, rather than the business plans of Big Oil, people changed their lightbulbs, bought recycled paper, and called it good. Gradually people began to realize that they were being made into foot soldiers in Big Oil’s war against the world. At that point, I began to hear a stronger response: “These world-destroying practices are wrong and I won’t participate.” That’s when we had divestment and electrification. What I hear now is “This is wrong, and I won’t allow it.” So people are blocking streets, suing the heck out of Big Oil, stopping pipelines and mines. That is something much more powerful – public action for systemic change, driven by moral outrage. We have come a long way. Unfortunately, it has taken decades we don’t have.
Q: What/who inspired you to focus your work on climate justice?
At a long-ago conference in Aspen, writer and Yale professor Gus Speth said, “All we have to do, to ensure that we leave a ruined world to our children, is to continue to do exactly what we are doing now.” I sat and gaped at him, to realize the terrible danger to my son and daughter and all of Earth’s children. The next spring, my daughter went to jail to protest banks’ complicity in wrecking the world. That was it for me. I quit my position at a university that I believed was wasting time dithering, and dove into full-time writing and speaking about the moral urgency of action.
Q: We love your special project Hazardous2Health, an initiative to post warnings everywhere about the harmful effects of burning fossil fuel. Have you seen success in promoting/implementing this? Do you have other special projects that you are working that we can share with our WOHESC audience?
The Surgeon General’s warnings on cigarette packages inspired me to create a set of analogous warning stickers that I imagined sticking on gas pumps, etc. WARNING: Fossil fuels are addictive. WARNING: Burning fossil fuels during pregnancy can harm unborn babies. You get the idea. That project is waiting for a talented person to take and run with it. If someone reading this interview might be that person, I hope you will contact me.
In the meantime, I am excited about our Climate Action Quiz, a sort of quiz or personality test or decision tree or choose-your-own-adventure (call it whatever you want) that leads people to the climate action best suited to their personality and passions. So many people told me, “I want to help but I don’t know what to do,” that I created, with SueEllen Campbell’s help, this way for them to figure out their true climate calling. It’s a lot of fun, and professors are starting to use it in their classrooms – which is perfect. What can YOU do about climate change? Take this quiz to find out” is published by Yale Climate Connections and is available on-line.
And now, of course, I’m excited about the chance to speak to the wonderfully dedicated people of the WOHESC.