by James Long
This post and my last one are about a journey that has changed my view of myself as a climate activist. That journey took me to two climate conferences in a month. I found new friends, a new awareness of how active the climate movement has become, and a lot of ideas about the issues that call for action and how I can respond to them. Last time, I wrote about the first part of that journey, the Pando Populus conference in Claremont, California. Now I want to share the second part with you.
Two weeks after Pando Populus, I left for Portland,Oregon to attend climate workshops at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Assembly. What does the UUA have to do with climate? Well, Unitarian Universalists have long committed themselves to climate action. It flows from one of UU’s seven principles, that we “affirm [our] respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” In 2006, the UUA enacted a Statement of Conscience on Climate Change, declaring, “we will not acquiesce to the ongoing degradation and destruction of life that human actions are leaving to our children and grandchildren.” I feel the UUA’s call to act for climate justice is exactly what faith groups need to do to help protect the planet.
In Portland, we experienced a sign of the times with a heat wave reaching triple digits. The weather put an exclamation point on all of our climate workshops.
The first climate workshop that I want to tell you about featured young UU activists. These UU Young Adults for Climate Justice shared their sit-ins on oil pipelines in Texas, research on plastic garbage gyres in the Pacific Ocean, and actions to stop coal trains resulting in getting arrested. They gave specific advice about how to support them: delivering food and supplies to their sit-ins, contacting media and writing letters to editors, and raising bail funds to get them out of jail after they get arrested. A particularly striking example of activism came from Elizabeth Mount: suspending herself from a bridge for nearly forty hours to block the passage of a ship involved in Shell’s drilling in the Arctic. For me, after two weeks of discussing philosophy and theory at the Pando Climate Conference, this was an inspirational change, to hear the passion of the millennial generation laying their bodies on the line to stop the fossil fuel industry.
The Young Adults presented another workshop called “Moving Capitalism Towards an Ecological Economy.” Aly Tharp and Matthew McHale echoed themes from the Pando Climate Conference, suggesting that economics based on unchecked “growth” values profit blindly, even at the cost of destroying life sustaining ecological systems. Aly showed the short video, “The Story of Stuff,” which illustrates the problems created by a consumer economy very simply. Matthew described his action “Occupy the Farm” at Berkeley, which shows how urban farming is the type of solution that creates an ecological economy. I felt these young adults presented effective activism and direct action protest from a deep understanding of what we need to do to move toward an ecological society.
Direct action is a powerful way to advance the climate movement. I think witnessing and learning from our indigenous partners struggling to defend their land can be just as powerful. The UUA invited the Lummi Nation to speak at the “Public Witness” for social action. The Lummi Nation is fighting the largest coal port on the West Coast at Cherry Point in Puget Sound. Elder Jewell Praying Wolf James and his daughter Shamania James shared their story of totem pole making, and rallying people to protect their land from trains and coal supertankers. Elder James carves 19-foot totem poles as a symbol of protest against the fossil fuel industry, and conducts ceremonies across the country. What a powerful way to bring ancient teachings to thousands of people! Elder James spoke of fossil fuel companies entering their ancestral land without permission, and bulldozing their sacred wetlands.
For me, the greatest wisdom came from a visibly nervous young Shamania, who said, “I have pretty severe anxiety, but I just want to tie the video to the message. To learn what fulfills your heart, and to pursue it bravely, even if it scares you a little bit. My hands go up to you.” Shamania showed her music video, “This is My Life.”
Some of the most powerful ideas I heard were presented at the next workshop, “A Moral Response to Climate Change.” Kathleen Dean Moore, editor of Moral Ground, Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, explained how moral arguments operate in the public debate. Moral arguments must have two dimensions. First, they must be grounded in fact. Second, however, they must also look at those facts in terms of right or wrong, good or bad. As Moore puts it, “Not only is causing climate change destructive and incredibly stupid; it is wrong.”
I think the Pope’s encyclical turns the debate on climate change to “what we ought to do,” and not “whether it is scientifically proven or not.” Moore gave us the ultimate analogy about the moral dimensions of climate change: She called the fossil fuel economy’s exploitation of the planet and the species that inhabit it the moral equivalent of a slave economy.
Right after Moore’s talk, I received a pleasant surprise showing connections between the two climate conferences. I asked a question at the microphone, and I looked to my right. Sitting a few rows over I found a fellow climate conference junkie! Christina Conklin is an artist and ecological thinker in the Bay Area, who sat next to me at most of the workshops at the Pando conference. We talked and agreed that we had a lot to share with others from the two conferences. Another connection between conferences was author David Korten who wrote “When Corporations Rule the World.” Korten spoke at both conferences, and his message reinforced the need to move to ecological economics. Finding others like me who attended climate conferences back-to-back shows me how climate change motivates people; I’m glad I’m not the only conference junkie.
As the final days of the UUA climate conference approached, I wondered how the concluding keynote address would wrap things up. I must say, I was blown away by the dynamism of the General Assembly keynote speaker Cornel West. In the tradition of Martin Luther King, West lifted oratory to an art form. I felt transported back to the sixties with West’s style and energy. I suggest that anyone participating in a social movement listen carefully to Dr. West’s speech. He identifies four key elements that a successful movement must have: integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue. A movement, no matter how just, will fail to engage public imagination if it lacks these elements. The civil rights movement was first a spiritual and moral movement that touched our humanity. West criticizes today’s market-driven culture that emphasizes smartness and dollars over wisdom. West says, “Let the phones be smart, we have to be wise and aspire to integrity.” In struggles for justice, West adds that the “condition for truth is to allow suffering to speak.” Thrilled by Cornel West’s message, I bought his book and waited an hour-and-half in line for the signing and personal greeting.
Well, I’ve shared the highlights of my trek through two climate conferences. These experiences of the climate movement inspired me on many levels. The best part was spending time with fellow SanDiego350 friends, but also connecting with so many other organizations. I got to see so many people working to save the climate: Pete Seeger in his last video message; Bill McKibben telling us about the breadth and successes of the global climate movement; Vandana Shiva and Wes Jackson showing us how to grow food sustainably; John Cobb and Kathleen Dean Moore reminding us that climate is a moral issue; young activists like Elizabeth Mount putting their bodies on the line; native people like Shamania and Praying Wolf James standing up to the coal industry; Cornel West’s thundering call for social movements with integrity.
I learned a lot about what we can do, as well. It really comes down to the old saying, “Think globally, act locally.” We need global solutions like re-shaping economics and agriculture. We also need local activism to stop the fossil fuel companies. We need to partner with allies like the Lummi Nation. SanDiego350 is right on track with our efforts in public policy, planet-based diet, fracking, and raising public awareness.
These climate conferences enabled me to imagine change for the future. I’m an idealist, so I feel like the future generations are cheering all of us at SanDiego350 to work together and find out what energizes us. I’m eager to continue to grow the movement right here in San Diego!!
Guest blogger James Long is an accountant for the City of San Diego. He lives in El Cajon with his wife, and looks forward to traveling more when he retires. James joined SD350 to do something for a future that is threatened by climate change. Working together with others is the way for him to have hope for that future.