5 Reasons to Be Hopeful We Haven't Totally Screwed Ourselves and the Planet ... Yet


Some days my morning tea seems half full, other days half empty. Sometimes I wake up emboldened with hope. Such as when I read about activist and shrimper Diane Wilson taking on BP's Tony "I Want My Life Back" Hayward. Or when I hear about the 10,000 young activists who made a ruckus in DC for Powershift 2011 -- even earning face time with the president.

But on the flip side there are the photos of the lives ruined, the water threatened, the homes devalued by gas drilling. It gets worse hearing Bill McKibben talking about 2010 being the hottest year on record, temperatures hitting a record-breaking 129 degrees in Pakistan, and the U.S. House of Representatives voting 248-174 in favor of a resolution saying global warming isn't real.

What legislative victories we have achieved seem mostly small, and for every inch forward we are bombarded with insanity from the Right and the business press that threaten to throw us back 40 years. It feels like biking into the wind during a nor'easter.

Remember the promise of a possible u-turn on environmental policy after the election of 2008? Even if most of us knew it wouldn't turn out perfectly, we had at least two years of a Democratic-controlled House, Senate and White House. The world was clamoring for real legislation to combat global warming from the US, and we gave them nothing. Even as the environmental news buzzed that Bolivia and Peru's main water source was shrinking, the Maldives were disappearing, Russia was burning and Pakistan was flooding, we still did nothing.

And so here we are, another Earth Day older and I can't help but wonder if we've irreparably screwed ourselves (and the near-term survival prospects of much of life on this planet). We're headed toward a collision of crises -- water, food, energy, soil, climate. The world's scientists warn that we need substantial change: We need to drastically alter our appetite for consumer goods, the structure of our food system, the way we produce energy and how much we consume. But we're inching forward when we need to be leaping. We're buying green cleaning products, stuffing our reusable shopping bags with local food, and voting the lesser of the evils into public office.

But it needs to be bigger and better. We need to be bigger and better. Most of the politicians suck on environmental issues, frankly. But to quote a once-popular phrase from political eras past, "If you think the politicians are bad, you should meet their constituents." That's us. We voted the politicians in there and we either have to get them out or make them step it up. We need people with vision beyond the next election cycle. We need people not beholden to corporate polluters. And equally, we much change our own lifestyles to incorporate environmental sensibilities. It's not enough to just to care anymore, we have to care enough to do everything we possibly can. That is going to mean changing the way we live our lives and not thinking of the Earth as something that is here for us to use up and throw away like so much of our disposable culture.

And while there are no shortage of headlines about the environmental catastrophes knocking on our door or the political ineptitude in Washington or the sell-out businesses or NGOs, there are at least five inspiring reasons to believe that it is not too late and it's possible to save our civilization and rescue the planet from meltdown.

These five reasons are what get me up in the morning and help me believe our cup is indeed half full. These are the folks making waves, rocking the boat of complacency, and they need our help.

Creating a Movement: 350.org and 1Sky just joined forces and are raising the bar on climate activism and art. Their next big event is Moving Planet on September 24 and it involves bikes, my favorite. Bill McKibben explains, "People will be in motion, much of it will be on bicycles, because the bicycle is one of the few tools that rich and poor both use ... We are not going to wait for the politicians to move, we are going to create the future that we need ourselves. But that movement doesn't just need to be bigger -- it needs to be sharper, too, more aggressive." 350.org is also waging a campaign against the Chamber of Commerce, which spent 94 percent of its over $30 million in donations in the 2010 election to support climate deniers.

Frack Off: One of the most amazing developments in the environmental world has been the organizations that emerged and joined forces in protest to the dangerous natural gas drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. While corporate polluters still get a free legal pass to pollute, thanks to Dick Cheney, fierce opposition has arisen to overturn that and to end fracking altogether. Momentum ignited from the film Gasland and grassroots activism around the issue has helped to spark a ban on fracking in Pittsburg and a temporary moratorium in New York. Groups like Food and Water Watch, Democracy for America, Water Defense, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, Earth Justice and others are putting the heat on the drilling industry and any politicians dumb enough to have their back.

Ending Corporate Rule:The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is leading the charge in defeating corporations by helping "communities to draft and adopt legally binding laws in which they asserted their right to self-govern," according to the organization's Web site. Their founder, Thomas Linzey told me, "We think today's contemporary activism is the wrong frame, and in addition it is aimed at the wrong thing. Most of it's federal and state activism. We think those things are pretty much dead. The only place where there is a window to operate is at the local level and then that can be used to upend the state and federal to build a new system of law, which I think our communities are recognizing is needed."

CELDF helps communities fight pollution and corporate control where they live by training them in Democracy Schools to understand the legal loopholes provided for corporations. CELDF then helps communities to draft their own constitutions and ordinances that put the rights of people and nature first.

No More Coal: One of our gravest threats is from coal -- from coal mining and transportation to coal burning. Coal threatens our water, climate, air and our health. An inspiring alliance in Appalachia has been fighting mountaintop removal mining, which is obliterating communities and ecosystems. Appalachian Voices and their coalition partners have brought the fight from the coalfields to the capital, but they need critical mass -- they need the rest of us to get behind their efforts.

And the mining of coal is just the beginning. Groups like the Sierra Club are working to shut down coal-burning power plants and Rainforest Action Network has been targeting the banks that fund polluting projects. We know there are cleaner ways to produce energy and these organizations are trying to end the reign of dirty power and dethrone King Coal.

We Are What We Eat: There is so much going on in the food world, it's hard to know where to start. The local foods movement is gaining steam and the curtain has been pulled back on Big Food -- revealing a broken food system that relies on subsidies for the wrong stuff and and rewards corporations whose products do little else other than spur obesity and fuel climate change. We know we need a different way forward and that path is emerging. Can we get there? If you're overwhelmed by the number of food organizations out there (I am sometimes, there are so many great ones), check out Food Day -- it's a new initiative aiming to make October 24 of this year the biggest organizing day around food, ever. Driven by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Day will highlight local solutions to our food crisis, letting people get involved in this important issue right where they live.

I'm personally excited and inspired by the work being done by these organizations, and there are so many not included on this list that are helping to make a difference. In the face of overwhelming environmental pressure, it's hard to know if this will be enough. Just this week we marked the one-year anniversary of the Gulf disaster and we know the effects of that calamity are still with us and drilling still remains a threat to workers and wildlife alike. We are up against some powerful corporations and in politics money talks. But great social movements have achieved incredible gains in human history and it wasn't done with loads of cash -- it was done with smart organizing, powerful messaging, and by passionate people.

"We have to fight, finally, without any guarantee that we are going to win," Bill McKibben said earlier this week at Powershift where 10,000 young environmental leaders converged. "We have waited late to get started and our adversaries are strong and we do not know how this is going to come out. If you were a betting person you might bet we were going to lose because so far that is what's happened, but that's not a bet you are allowed to make. The only thing that a morally awake person can do when the worst thing that ever happened is happening is try to change those odds."

Right now, the idea of "winning" -- whatever that looks like -- is so far off. I'm most interested in seeing the incredible way our society begins to change, the ripple effect, of just trying. I'm excited to see what this world looks like as we begin to value nature more, to respect all of our communities, to fight for the right to clean water and a sustainable food system, and to hold corporate polluters accountable. Now that we're another Earth Day older, let's also be another one wiser, too.

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