The People’s Climate March in New York City was the biggest march in history, demonstrating that more people than ever are now saying that concern about climate change should be a priority.
But what exactly are all these people protesting? How much do they really understand what’s going on? And what are they prepared to do beyond taking a feel-good Sunday morning walk along Central Park?
The Protestors: While there were plenty of real diehards there, you couldn’t help noticing the hundreds of people, maybe thousands, who were lined up at food stands buying hot dogs, chicken nuggets, ice cream and other animal products.
Do these folks really not know that factory farming puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than, for example, the entire global transportation system?
To the extent that you’re protesting climate change while still consuming animal products, you’re protesting primarily against yourself!
And thousands more were strolling along with their favorite name-brand plastic bottles of water in hand. As one marcher noted:
To see so many people purportedly concerned about environmental degradation so unabashedly brandishing one of its most talked-about accessories baffled me. Do they not realize the paradox, or do they not care?
Sure, none of us can live a totally emissions-free life. But much of this protest event was a classic case of slacktivism – i.e. “making a difference” by going for a walk or signing a petition.
The Organizers: How about the organizers? What’s their understanding of the peril we face?
Bill McKibben, one of the chief organizers of the march, is the founder of one of the largest global activist organizations – 350.org.
Several years ago, McKibben and other scientists figured out that 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere was the point of no return – the tipping point beyond which the climate starts descending into irretrievable chaos.
Last year, we topped 400 ppm.
In a subsection of the “About” section, the organization acknowledges that “unless we are able to rapidly turn that around and return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk triggering tipping points and irreversible impacts that could send climate change spinning truly beyond our control.” But there’s no mention of the fact that we’ve actually gone over a critical tipping point. And if you don’t understand this, you can’t possibly relate in a meaningful way to what’s happening.
It’s hard to tell your hundreds of thousands of followers that we’ve already gone off the cliff.You can appreciate McKibben’s dilemma. It’s hard to tell hundreds of thousands of followers that we’ve already gone off the cliff. He wants to keep hope alive and do what he can. But we need to know exactly where we stand, what’s realistic and what isn’t, before we can plan any meaningful action. And if our leaders aren’t giving us full and accurate information, we’re just being deceived.
We also need to understand that this is not just about the big oil and coal company devils. It’s about entire nations, and it’s about all of us. Just for starters, while urgent climate meetings are on the agenda for this week’s gathering of world leaders at the United Nations in New York, the world’s two biggest polluters, China and India, have decided to not even show up.
Self-interest always comes first, whether it’s a corporation, a nation, or the people at the march who were lined up at an ice cream stand and with their favorite plastic bottle of water in hand.
So where does this all leave us? What’s changed? What hasn’t? And what’s next?
What’s Changed: More people are growing anxious about the coming impact of climate change on their lives, and they want it to be known that they’re worried.
What Hasn’t Changed: Human nature. We’re still in denial, as we always have been. We humans can’t even deal with the prospect of our own personal mortality, let alone the prospect of mass extinction and the death of our entire species – not to mention millions of other species.
What’s Next? Expect more protests and more blame all round. Expect more token gestures and technological fixes. And then, as catastrophe takes hold, expect mass panic and its inevitable consequences.
What Could We Do? We like to think of ourselves as an intelligent, self-aware, altruistic and altogether exceptional species. So, what we could do is actually become those things. That would be the game changer.
What would it involve?
We would need to stop thinking about me, myself and I and ourselves, and, instead, for the first time ever, focus our energies on what we can do to ease the suffering we’ve brought on all the other living beings of the planet.
If we did that, everything else would fall into place. It’s time to focus our energies, for the first time ever, on what we can do to ease the suffering we’ve brought on all the other living beings of the planet.
It would not necessarily result in saving ourselves. It may already be too late for that. But just as people often undergo a change of attitude when faced with the approach of their personal demise, we would, as a species, and for the first time in our history, be looking beyond ourselves and acting out of true altruism.
It would also be our redemption in the sense that in these final years we’d have lived up to our potential as fully conscious humans – as humans with a conscience.
We could not know in advance what that would lead to. And it wouldn’t matter. What would matter would be that we’d finally, if only in the very last days of our life as a species, done the right thing.
Anything less is simply more of the same-old same-old. And all it can possibly result in is more of the same-old same-old.