The Sky’s the Limit
This article originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
As this wild year comes to an end, we return to the season of gifts. Here’s the gift you’re not going to get soon: any conventional version of Paradise. You know, the place where nothing much happens and nothing is demanded of you. The gifts you’ve already been given in 2012 include a struggle over the fate of the Earth . This is probably not exactly what you asked for, and I wish it were otherwise -- but to do good work, to be necessary, to have something to give: these are the true gifts. And at least there’s still a struggle ahead of us, not just doom and despair.
Think of 2013 as the Year Zero in the battle over climate change, one in which we are going to have to win big, or lose bigger. This is a terrible thing to say, but not as terrible as the reality that you can see in footage of glaciers vanishing, images of the entire surface of the Greenland Ice Shield melting this summer, maps of Europe’s future in which just being in southern Europe when the heat hits will be catastrophic, let alone in more equatorial realms.
For millions of years, this world has been a great gift to nearly everything living on it, a planet whose atmosphere, temperature, air, water, seasons, and weather were precisely calibrated to allow us -- the big us, including forests and oceans, species large and small -- to flourish. (Or rather, it was we who were calibrated to its generous, even bounteous, terms.) And that gift is now being destroyed for the benefit of a few members of a single species.
The Earth we evolved to inhabit is turning into something more turbulent and unreliable at a pace too fast for most living things to adapt to. This means we are losing crucial aspects of our most irreplaceable, sublime gift, and some of us are suffering the loss now -- from sea snails whose shells are dissolving in acidified oceans to Hurricane Sandy survivors facing black mold and bad bureaucracy to horses starving nationwide because a devastating drought has pushed the cost of hay so high to Bolivian farmers failing because the glaciers that watered their valleys have largely melted.
This is not just an issue for environmentalists who love rare species and remote places: if you care about children, health, poverty, farmers, food, hunger, or the economy, you really have no choice but to care about climate change.
The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope, your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of victories also to come. But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole new scale as the news worsens.
Unwrapping the Victories
“Unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” Galileo famously says in Bertold Brecht’s play about that renegade scientist, but at least, the hero has the possibility of doing something about that unhappiness, as, for instance, the Sierra Club has. It’s led the fight against big coal, helping prevent 168 coal-powered plants from opening and retiring 125 dirty coal plants. The aim of its Beyond Coal campaign is to retire all 522 such plants in the United States, which would be a colossal triumph.
Its victories also capture what a lot of our greenest gifts look like: nothing. The regions that weren’t fracked , the coal plants that didn’t open , the mountaintops that weren’t blasted by mining corporations, the children who didn’t get asthma or mercury poisoning from coal emissions, the carbon that stayed in the Earth and never made it into the atmosphere. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline bringing the dirtiest of dirty energy from Canada to the Gulf Coast might have already opened without the activists who ringed the White House and committed themselves across the continent.