Attention humanity: wake up and innovate, or face annihilation

I am going to Washington DC this weekend to stand up for the planet.

I have never been much of a protest person.  I didn’t even go down to New York for the Occupy protests, although I followed them avidly on Livestream.

First of all, I hate crowds.  My element is alone, among the trees, or out on a deserted beach somewhere.

And I always had the feeling that one small body more or less could not possibly make a difference to whatever cause was being advocated.

I thought I’d be more useful as an active observer on the sidelines, using my writing and teaching to amplify the message.

But this time is different.

This week I watched Bill McKibben lead a group of about 50 people—not grubby hippies, but distinguished professionals like NASA scientist James Hansen and Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune—to  protest at the White House, submitting to arrest in a desperate bid to get some airtime for their pro-Earth movement.


This week I watched with relief as President Obama acknowledged in his State of the Union address that it is time to “do more to combat climate change,” and then was amazed and appalled to find the mainstream media pretending he had never even said anything about it, focusing their attention exclusively on the parts of his State of the Union speech dealing with the economy, jobs, and minimum wage.

In the mirrored echo chamber of the mediasphere, unless it’s a natural disaster, the environment doesn’t merit a second thought.  I had to search deep into the bowels of the New York Times site to find any mention of McKibben’s arrest and the upcoming climate rally.

UnknownIn a week when a Carnival cruise liner the size of four football fields, filled with 4,000 people, found itself adrift without power in the Gulf of Mexico and it took four days to rescue the passengers and get them off the stinking, sweltering, rancid ship, I find the old Titanic coming back to me insistently as an emblem of where we are at as a human civilization.

The media is down in the ballroom frantically snapping photos and grabbing interviews with the rich celebrities as the inept captain and crew sail the ship straight into an iceberg.

When that crash comes, the glitter and glitz of the ballroom will go down just as surely as the shabby steerage quarters.

But this time there will be no safety net, no welcoming shelter from the good people of Halifax.  Or, to take the Carnival cruise as an example, no sturdy tug to tow the disabled ship to safety.

How many storms is it going to take before people wake up to the reality that we truly are at an environmental breaking point?

It is past time to focus on the fact that we face a planetary tipping point at which the concerns that most occupy our thoughts—jobs, romance, social justice, vacations, children, whatever—are going to fade away like morning dreams before the nightmare that it will be to live through the end of the Anthropocene, the human epoch.

No one wants to hear this.  No one wants to imagine that it could really happen.  But take a look at the latest charts just released by that terribly radical organization, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and you will see what should be dominating the headlines this week.

Please don’t take my word for it—go and see the data yourself.

Screen shot 2013-02-15 at 6.46.49 AM

I especially recommend the interactive graphic chart of global surface temperatures between 1884 and 2012.  If the glaring red swirling over the planet in 2010 doesn’t wake you up to the slow-motion nightmare we’re living through, well, see you on the other side.

I don’t honestly know if anything any of us can do right now will make a difference.

The poles are melting, and the methane being released from under centuries-old ice is going to dramatically speed up the warming trend over the foreseeable future.

At best, we’ve got to ADAPT to our new warmer environment, and quickly!

We need our government to stop bickering and sweating the small stuff and start focusing on the real challenge at hand: reengineering human civilization to survive a drastic change in our planetary climate.

There will be collapses of biodiversity, accompanied by population surges of some less savory species, like ticks, jellyfish, and bacteria.  There will be food shortages as croplands dry up or are flooded out.  Our 20th century electrical grid will be battered over and over by intense storms, which will also wipe out roads and bridges and eat away relentlessly at the coastlines.  There will be violence, as people start hoarding and fighting each other for increasingly scarce resources.

We need our government to start putting its might, muscle and treasure into the greatest battle of our time: surviving climate change.

President Obama tried to cast the challenge of adaptation in economic terms, talking about the potential sweet deals that could be made as we pivot to a green economy.

Sure, we need our engineers and inventors to get to work creating the tools we’ll need to survive.  We need our venture capitalists to get behind them, along with our research universities and labs.

But let’s be honest with ourselves about the situation we’re in.  We don’t have a choice between business as usual and innovation.

Our choice is between innovation or annihilation.

So I’m finally overcoming my own inertia and getting myself down to Washington DC this Sunday to stand with Bill McKibben and thousands of other protestors to insist that our President and Congress stop fiddling while the planet burns; stop sending up the smoke and mirrors to distract the populace; stop investing in fossil fuels and outdated technology; and start doing the work our generation must do to provide a livable future for the generations to come.

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  1. Good on you Jennifer!

  2. I am going to Washington DC this weekend to stand up for the planet.

    I’m cheering you on from across the Pond! Huzzah!

  3. I applaud you and feel with you in your desperation, though, as you already know since long, I consider your response as inadequate.

    If I would be impolite and daring, I would tell you that you are behind the curve and should rather invest all your energy in drastic and visible changes of your life to minimize your carbon footprint and to show your friends and pupils how it can be done.

    It is not up to me to lecture you or anybody else, so please ignore the second paragraph and don’t take the first paragraph too seriously.

    Why do US-Americans still use nearly double the amount of resources than the average European and eight to ten times as much as the rest of humanity? Could it be, that you addressed this essential fact in one of your blog posts and I did overlook it?

    May I ask, which means of transport you are using to reach Washington DC?

    What is more revolutionary?

    Not buying any new stuff
Growing ones own food

    Never using air travel and exchanging the car for a bicycle

    Taking all money out of the bank

    Not having any debt or alternatively going bankrupt

    Not paying taxis to fuel the war machine (like Cindy Sheehan)


    Signing petitions
Writing blog posts
Joining protest gatherings

    You write:

    “We need our venture capitalists to get behind them.”

    Good luck!

    You write:

    “Our choice is between innovation or annihilation.”


    What do you think about the various attempts (permaculture, subsistence gardening/farming, barter, counter-currencies, buying local, going vegan (or at least vegetarian), co-ops, reusing/recycling/upcycling), to innovate our personal life?

  4. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  February 15, 2013

    Absolutely, Mato, I agree that we have to “innovate our personal life.” But I don’t believe that individual efforts to change our carbon consumption habits will make a big enough difference. We need government policies to subsidize, incentivize and if necessary coerce individual change. European governments have been much better about this than the US, with demonstrable results. By no means am I self-congratulatory on my efforts so far. But I do think the more noise and visibility an alert populace can create, the better the chance that the President’s rhetoric can be made real. Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts–

    • You are right that some European countries have made a little headway. Incandescent lightbulbs are not offered anymore here and compact fluorescents only when remaining stocks are sold off.

      Everybody has at least two waste containers, one for paper and one for residual waste. Citizens are obliged to separate all materials that can be recycled (plastic, metal, wood, compostable organic material) and put them into communal waste containers, bring them to the transfer station, or compost them. The garbage truck comes once a month and the waste collectors look into every waste bin and don’t empty the bin if it contains recyclable materials.

      There are hefty fines for illegal waste disposal though that doesn’t deter the diehard pigs. When the municipalities call the population for a collective cleaning operation in early spring the participants always discover lot of garbage littered outside the village boundaries and illegal waste dumps at the edge of the forests, at river banks, hidden in the underbrush. People drive to remote places in the middle of the night to dump garbage bags, TV-sets, computers.

      Time banks and farmers markets are commonplace here now. I get half of my food from neighbors. Still a long way to go till complete subsistence. Interestingly the strict implementation of ecological principles has reduced my expenses by a third and there is still room for a few more cuts.

      We started thirty years ago to work for these changes, we didn’t go to the capital, we didn’t address federal politicians, we went to the major again and again, we visited teachers, local business owners, priests, everybody who had some clout. We organized private initiatives, founded action groups, went out into the frosts to clean waste away. We collected waste from illegal dumps and from illegal but tolerated industrial landfills and dumped it in front of the town hall. We went to the offices of the local newspapers and argued with the journalists and tried to persuade them to support our cause.

      I founded an environmental fanzine which soon became a magazine and it had after six years 2,500 subscribers. I gave it up because I was burned out and completely exhausted at that time and my first marriage was breaking apart because I was always away investigating, organizing, or taking part in panel discussions.

      In retrospective, we (the environmentalists, the ilk like me) made a little difference but we had to sacrifice a lot. Compared to my former activities, the little blogging that I do now is easy and kind of a soft finale to my former environmental activities.

      The subsistence gardening is fun!

      Please tell me, why a comparable ecological movement did not happen in the USA?
      Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” in 1962.
      The great Marvin Gaye sang “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).” That was in 1971, about the same time that we here in Europe started our activities in earnest.

      Wooah, mercy mercy me
      Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no
      Where did all the blue skies go?
      Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east
      Woo mercy, mercy me, mercy father
      Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no
      Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury
      Ah oh mercy, mercy me
      Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no
      Radiation under ground and in the sky
      Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
      Oh mercy, mercy me
      Ah things ain’t what they used to be
      What about this overcrowded land
      How much more abuse from man can she stand?

      • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

         /  February 15, 2013

        I love that song, Mato, but never actually listened closely to the words–did not realize it was about ecology!

        Yes to permaculture and subsistence farming, you don’t have to convince me of that! I have a garden that gives me a lot of pleasure and a good amount of produce all summer, though I have not done much of late with canning and freezing for the winter–I used to do that more when I was young and had more time.

        We also recycle here, though not nearly as well as we do in my summer haunt of Nova Scotia, where they collect the trash every 2 weeks and just as you say, won’t take it unless it is all properly sorted. I especially love the compostable “plastic” trash bags they use for food waste there. There is no question but that we are wasteful and profligate consumers in the USA. It will take GOVERNMENT ACTION to make us change, and it will take a lot of pushing from ordinary citizens to convince the government that it must step up to take the lead.

        I say, work from the grassroots up and the political institutions down–both are important! But also–let’s see if we can figure out how to do this work without the burn-out you’re describing. In an ideal world, marriages would thrive on shared goals, not founder….

  5. I support your trip to Washington, and I find the either/or gut-checking politics of Mato48 tiresome. We are probably well beyond saving life as we know it on our planet, and I think every effort counts… although tragically none of those put forward by individuals will make enough of a difference. It’s like asking us to hold bake sales for peace when the big boys continue to get their war machines funded 1000%. Unfortunately, only when the corporations and governments change their policies, will viable progress be made. And it doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon. I do take exception, though, with you stipulating “not grubby hippies, but distinguished professionals like NASA scientist James Hansen and Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.” Remember that a lot of “grubby hippies” took a stand when others wouldn’t.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  February 15, 2013

      Yes, I meant that in a tongue-in-cheek way, Margaret–I was a tie-dye hippie myself in my day, you know–at least, in a late 1970s, nostalgic kind of way. Your metaphor of bake sales is right on target. All the household recycling in the world is not going to save us now. I do hear Mato when he talks about exhaustion, though…full dedication to resistance is exhausting, though also exhilarating I am sure. I know you could tell us more about that….

      To answer Mato’s question about why there hasn’t been a big grassroots, localized environmental movement in the US…well, we are just so totally brainwashed into consumerism, it is quite amazing. Even I, who know better, sometimes feel the pull to shop for something new just to make myself feel a little less depressed. I think the TV has been the single most successful tool of capitalism, and now it has gotten even more insidious as so many Americans stay plugged in to the Internet almost all their waking hours. It’s addictive, and though it can be used in the service of resistance (witness the Arab Spring) most Americans seem to use it for entertainment, distraction, and stupor.

      We are a deeply disturbed, distressed population, indoctrinated to pledge allegiance to the flag and not rock the boat. If the Republicans get what they want and pull the social safety net away from the bottom 50% of the country, well, then we may suddenly see some revolutionary action. Or our faltering privatized prisons may suddenly get a whole lot of new “customers.” It seems that as long as people are more or less comfortable with the status quo, the status quo it will be.

      Even if the status quo is an inexorable slide into the collapse of human civilization.

  6. leavergirl

     /  February 16, 2013

    Jennifer, you know that I see things more Mato’s way, but at the same time I salute you for starting to put your “money where your mouth is.” I will be looking forward to your tales of the gathering!

    And maybe some day, we get to discuss whether governments/politicians still have the power to make significant changes nowadays, or whether the real power in the world, and the US, is really in other people’s hands.

    Margaret, I feel a bit defensive for Mato’s sake vis-a-vis your words, and so I am going to say that I myself find the endless “we are doomed” repetitions very tiresome… A little less certainty might be just what the doctor ordered?

  7. Anna

     /  February 18, 2013

    I lived in Italy for four years as a young child and often think about the differences between Europe and the US.

    Mato raised an excellent question — why hasn’t a progressive ecological movement happened in the USA?

    One difference is, European scientists receive accolades and awards for their research. This level of respect makes them celebrities in their own right. As a result, many Europeans are much more interested and informed about scientific news than Americans — especially how scientific facts relate to the health of citizens and ecosystems. Unfortunately, many Americans lack this connection to the natural world.

  1. Attention humanity: wake up and innovate, or face annihilation « Transition Times | Continental Divide

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