how to talk about a deteriorating planet in an election year
Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning
I don’t know. I wish I could tell you… Ha! I don’t mean that completely, but obviously we are not going to have a meaningful national conversation anytime soon about the fact that we now require 1.5 earths to continue living as humans do right now, or the fact that millions of species are facing extinction this century, or that the warmth we’ve been experiencing and the extreme weather is only going to get worse because we insist on tweaking an industrial growth economy as if it can be modified here and there and then we will go on our merry way.
So, how do we talk about it? because we must, must talk about it.
One of the essential cultural divides in this country – with lots of nuances in the middle of those divides – is between a view that sees the planet as resource for economic growth, to be manipulated and exploited for human pleasure, convenience, and wealth generation (really, it is not for survival or well-being because if those were the priorities, we would be taking much better care of this place we call ‘home’), and a view that sees the human species in the context of an evolutionary unfolding in which we are utterly dependent upon the natural dynamisms and eco-communities of which we are only a part and a participant, not separate or above, not more ingenious and entitled than other species. In the latter view we observe that the destruction of those dynamisms and communities means the destruction of us.
Sadly, our planetary crisis and this divide are occurring at the same time that corporate-dominated capitalism is voraciously gobbling up the dwindling resources of the planet – from land and water to financial wealth (which is also limited, despite what economists might say) and investment to rights to pollute as they ramp up production of dirty industries all across the planet. And this form of capitalism, with far more cultural clout and power than we have over the national conversation and discourse, has a stranglehold over our politics, dominating both political parties, most legislators, the White House, most state houses, the media, and increasing numbers of our judges, including the Supreme Court. They may even be able at this point to control election outcomes by controlling the computers that spew out voting results.
To keep perspective on this troubling, depressing, even despairing scenario, it is important to remember that this problem is unique to dominant Western economies, and especially the United States (Canada, too, dominated as its economy and politics are right now by the fossil fuel industries that are destroying so much of its natural beauty and essential eco-systems). In other parts of the world, this is playing out differently. Rebellions against this monstrous corporate culture are going on all over the place, as we know. But we have a special challenge here because this view of the world – that industrial growth can continue indefinitely providing us more and more comfort, convenience, and pleasure, that all that is needed is to defeat Obama, or to not defeat him, or to recall Scott Walker, or not recall him – this view is deeply entrenched in our brains, in our DNA. Most of this culture cannot imagine another way of being or another framework of meaning for their lives.
So imagine how threatening it feels when that framework is crumbling, breaking apart, under the stresses of a planet and living communities undergoing vast changes that are beyond our imagining!
I was just reading in the paper today about the new wall built around New Orleans to protect it from the next Katrinas, and used the story as a great example of human folly – as if more powerful walls can keep out the storms that are coming to wreck our lives.
Japan never imagined quakes and waves so powerful that it could overtop the walls, crumble them in pieces, rip apart a nuclear energy facility, and end up with the worst nuclear accident in the history of humanity – one that over the next decades will kill hundreds of thousands of people from the radioactivity that has entered our living systems – water, soil, air, which means food and other products. And the government is trying to convince its people to allow it to turn the power plants back on rather than use this as a moment to reconsider the whole industrial makeup of the country and what brought about this catastrophe – human hubris.
Pres Obama and many of our pols want to start pouring more money into expanding the nuclear energy industry, and even some notable environmental scientists (like James Lovelock and Mark Lynas) are now pushing for this as a way to save the planet.
Save the planet? The thing about the Chernobyl and Fukushima radioactivity is that it will never go away, not in the time scales in which we can even imagine human history. We’re having a big debate in the country right now with what to do with all the spent fuel at our nuclear power plants. Hard to believe – oh, friends, it is so hard to believe – that we could be creating all this nuclear waste without a plan for what to do with it. And even if we had one, a thousand years from now, even 500 years from now, who will be enforcing, overseeing, following those plans?
How do we talk about this in an election year? One aspect of all of this that has growing resonance among our people is the damage industrial growth is causing. Here in my state, sand-mining to provide millions of tons of the stuff for the fracking industry is beginning to cause monumental environmental damage, is destroying farming communities, is fouling the air and water, and is now beginning to make people sick. A very heated argument is going on between those who see ‘jobs’ and those who are seeing sick children and the end of their way of life.
The fracking industry is beginning to really feel the impact of the studies showing that it cannot be done without ecological damage, especially to groundwater, and restrictions are finally being considered all over the place. New York State is considering strict limits to where fracking in the Marcellus Shale can take place.
The coal industry has taken so much grief from the exposure of its mountaintop removal (MTR) practices and its dirty reputation that we are beginning to see a decline in the industry, less coal being used, being replaced with natural gas, much of which comes, of course, from fracking.
This country is becoming one big factory for the production of energy, as is western Canada, and the pushback is getting stronger and louder. It’s not like we are winning this struggle – we are not – but what we are seeing is the beginning of a re-education of human beings about their connections to the eco-communities in which they live, to the living systems of the planet. We are getting that education through loss, destruction, disease, extreme weather events, and more. It’s sad it had to come to this, but at least it has come.
It is our job to talk this through with people, to lay out what is happening and why, and then begin imaging as concretely as we can what another way of life might look like.
This work is also going on all over the place, even in this seemingly intransigent culture. The point now is to start joining more of these voices and efforts together to create a more coherent alternative to the energy factory we are becoming to continue fueling the consumer culture we have already become. Our politicians and many corporate people see this kind of movement as a grave threat to their future – because it is. They want to make us as invisible and seemingly without credibility as they possibly can.
And we have to be more determined than they are in their lies to tell the truth.
How we talk about this, how we present it, begins, I believe, in the places where people live their lives, where their air is poisoned, their food and water contaminated, where sicknesses like cancer, diabetes, and autism abound, where the quality of life is deteriorating because the quality of the environment in which we live is deteriorating. When air, food, and water become too dangerous to take into our bodies, something in our consciousness begins to give; we begin to see our world in a whole new way.
Think of the communities of unemployed coal miners and other poor and struggling people in the coal country of Appalachia who have become fervent and dedicated activists in the struggle to stop MTR, or the people in Pennsylvania who have come to regret the leases they gave to gas companies to do fracking on their land. Part of our job is to open more and more spaces within the culture for these people to tell their stories.
Our political candidates may not want to talk about climate change or carving an economic path back towards sustainability for all the planet’s beings, but we ought to be able to make them pay attention to the stories of these voters who are being harmed by economic growth models based upon the endless extraction of energy sources from deep inside the earth where they belong into the environments in which we breathe, eat, drink, swim, find beauty, raise our kids – in which we live the whole of our lives.
These are real, practical, immediate threats of toxic contamination of all we need in order to live. That ought to be an issue that grabs a little attention, don’t you think?