I’ve been working with 350 Madison since January 2019, when a friend asked if I’d go with her to the annual potluck to learn about the group. I initially got involved with the Communication Action Team (CAT) through the Letters to the Editor project, which brings key climate issues to public attention via letters to the editor and op-eds. The supportive people on the CAT team really helped me get acquainted with the organization!
I also got involved with the Divest and Defund Chase Out of Tar Sands campaign when I attended a leafletting. I became an active participant in the Chase actions and was excited to be part of the sit-in at Chase Bank, which was my first experience with nonviolent civil disobedience. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to work with, and I was thankful for other volunteers’ years of experience with protest and direct action. I felt that their experience and our extensive planning meetings made the protest experience as safe as possible.
I grew up in Boise, Idaho, and attended Washington University in St. Louis, where I double-majored in Earth Science and Environmental Studies. Before coming to Madison in 2015, I lived and worked in Cleveland doing industry research reports on water treatment, air filtration, and chemical industries. I’ve continued that work remotely from Madison, although someday I would love to be employed in a job related to environmental advocacy or public policy.
I’ve been excited to work with 350 Madison because 350.org‘s founder, Bill MicKibben, has been a major inspiration for me since college, when I read many of his works for classes. His book The End of Nature was particularly impactful for me. I’m also so inspired and impressed by the courageous youth activists around the world, including Greta Thunberg, who have so much motivation and persistence. Knowing the very short time frame we have to minimize the impacts of climate catastrophe has really compelled me to take a more active role in the fight, and I’m glad I’ve been able to work with 350 Madison.
When considering myself a “big loser” in terms of energy consumption, it dawns on me that in the end, I am a big winner, not only for myself but for my community and the planet.
I have been a concerned energy consumer since living in “developing” countries as a young adult and noting firsthand the people’s struggle for survival. This included the enormous output of physical energy and time they devoted to supporting and being supported by family and community members. All this took place with very little expenditure of fossil fuels. In the U.S. we were already talking about ways to cut back on fossil fuel energy; meanwhile, these folks had no choice. They took public transport, walked nearly everywhere, hauled water, and used little or no electricity. Of course these were “primitive” people in Africa and Asia, to be treated as objects of pity, given handouts, and taught life lessons by those from “developed” countries. How ironic! The lessons I gleaned from living among them are the things I have valued most in my life.
Over the years, I’ve worked at steadily cutting back my fossil fuel use. Given that I don’t have solar panels or on-demand hot water, my footprint is still remarkably small. Of course, in decreasing my fossil fuel use, I’ve increased the amount of time it takes to do things, the physical energy I must expend, and the need to connect with others. These aspects could be viewed both positively and negatively; in my life right now, I view them in a positive light.
Ten years ago I donated my dryer to a friend with small children. It took up lots of room in my basement, and we hardly used it anyway. At first my son was not pleased, though in the end he became quite self-sufficient in doing his laundry in a timely manner and hanging it on the line to dry. I was usually willing to hang it up with him in a pinch, a task that, although it required more time and physical energy, served to bond us. Or course, we saved electricity in the process.
In terms of motorized vehicles and equipment, I shared a car with my ex-partner for more than four years, but I’ve now stopped using it completely and go nearly everywhere by bike, on foot, or by public transport. These methods likewise take more time and physical energy, and require some advance planning, but I’ve found I’ve connected more with my neighbors and other community members in the process. When you blast around in a car, you don’t stop to chat with the woman walking her dog or the man on the bus. Nor can you catch up with someone on the bike path and chat, like you can while biking along. I use a push mower, which also takes more time and energy, but uses no gasoline or battery power, and wow, is it a great workout!
Regarding long-distance travel, I haven’t flown since 2013 and am hoping that I never need to fly domestically again. If I can go to the same places on buses or trains, I’ll do it, since these methods are far greener. Of course, they take more time, but what adventures I’ve had! I have met some of the most fascinating people ever on Amtrak, and last spring I took a Greyhound bus from South Carolina to Chicago and had one of the most intense cultural experiences in recent years. I would highly recommend these forms of travel to anyone who considers him or herself an environmentalist, as well as anyone who enjoys meeting folks of different backgrounds and cultures.
In terms of services, I do not own a computer or have Internet or Wi-Fi in my house. I use the computers at the library and of course have to walk or bike there and can only use them during their hours of operation (which are generally quite adequate). I’ve gotten to know the librarians and even some of the other regular patrons. This “loss” of my own personal Internet service has certainly been a way to gain more: more physical exercise, more connection with the public, and a renewed sense of appreciation for what my community has to offer.
Arguably, the most exhausting aspect of my “loser” lifestyle is the hauling of water from either my rain barrel or my basement to the second-floor bathroom in order to create my own “gray water” system for flushing the toilet. (I also use bathwater and shower water.) Hauling three to four full buckets of water up two flights of stairs daily helps keep me in good shape, so as I tell my body-building son, I wouldn’t even consider joining a gym. It also serves as a great conversation piece when I have visitors!
There are a few caveats to my energy reduction. I live alone now and thus don’t have a partner, children, or roommate(s) whom I’d have to persuade to get on board with my unconventional lifestyle. When I did live with my family, however, we adhered to many of these lifestyle choices, and it didn’t take much to get used to them. What better way to instill one’s ecological values in the next generation than to incorporate some of them into daily family life? Although I am currently in good health, which facilitates my lifestyle, I would argue that the things I do actually keep me in good health, so it’s a positive cycle, a win-win, if you will.
Our First World society is forever expanding, adding and gaining more, while most agree that the future of our planet is in dire jeopardy. This huge contradiction is terribly troubling to me. I frankly would have a tough time tolerating life in the U.S. if I couldn’t be part of some form of solution, even in a small way. Using less continues to provide my life with so much more in so many complex and fascinating ways.
My name is Koffi Dogbevi, and I am originally from Togo, a West African country. My journey with the climate movement started back in 2009 on the eve of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference held in Copenhagen. The main goal of this international gathering was the establishment of a binding agreement, in replacement of the Kyoto protocol, to hold all big polluters accountable and, at the same time, provide mitigation and adaptation measures to developing countries with regard to climate change hardships.
When the Copenhagen conference ended up as another failure for the international community, I decided to join with friends and colleagues to act locally on issues affecting the climate and to provide awareness to people in the region. We then created Young Green Togo (Jeunes Verts Togo), which I led in the capacity of president. We received support from the Goethe Institute (German technical and cultural representation in Togo), Oceanium Senegal (reforestation, marine exploration, and other environment-centered actions), and others. Our actions were focused on producing visual material on climate change impacts (for example, we organized many climate film festivals); expanding awareness of sea level rise, flooding, and rising temperatures; and contributing to reforestation efforts.
In 2011 I immigrated to the United States and joined 350 Madison the following year. I participated in many grassroots events—among them, the 2012 NoKXL demonstration in Washington, DC; the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City; and the 2015 Tar Sands Resistance March in the Twin Cities. At the same time, I was dedicating my energy to End Ecocide on Earth, a European citizen initiative aimed at gaining recognition for ecocide as the fifth crime within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. I joined the legal experts of the group, and we drafted 17 amendments to the Rome Statute (the treaty that created the International Criminal Court) to add the crime of ecocide to the list of existing international crimes (crimes against humanity, the crime of genocide, war crimes, and the crime of aggression).
Our understanding is that:
Currently, I am involved in many ongoing lobbying actions, and I have participated in many people’s tribunals in Europe (e.g., the International Rights of Nature Tribunal, Paris, 2015; the International Monsanto Tribunal, The Hague, 2016) to show the necessity of establishing the crime of ecocide in the international criminal law framework.
The average US citizen produces 4.4 pounds of trash per day. I, unlike many US citizens, have spent approximately a year of my life producing almost no waste.
For the past two years, I have been doing an increasingly long zero-waste challenge. In 2015, I spent three months producing almost no waste, and this past year, I did this challenge for four months. While I didn’t weigh my trash and instead collected it in a jar, I’m sure that I produced only around four pounds of trash in those seven months combined.
To many people—even in environmentalist crowds—a waste-free life seems very extreme. So where did this idea come from?
Early on my environmental journey, I stumbled across an article about Lauren Singer, who has been living waste-free for some years. She can fit all of her trash from those years into one Mason jar. Her rationale? She cares about the environment a lot. One day in a college course, as she was eating a salad out of a disposable container from the dining hall, she looked up and saw a classmate with a single-use plastic water bottle. She (internally) was judging this person, but then realized that she herself was doing a similar thing: creating trash. This compelled her to put her actions where her ideals were.
I was moved by this story and have a history of taking on challenges to try to check my perspective of the world. I decided I wanted to see just how hard it would be to live waste-free.
So how’d I do it?
First, I learned about waste reduction, largely through blogs and social media. I learned about the cradle-to-cradle ideal: optimizing all items so nothing goes to waste—everything is either decomposed, reused, or recycled. I used this approach to inform just what exactly I considered “waste”: anything that I was disposing of that wasn’t composted, reused, or glass/paper recycling (plastic recycling is less efficient).
Second, I took a month to really pay attention to where my waste was coming from. When I lived in a dorm room, the largest sources were food and bathroom products. Now that I live in an apartment and have adjusted a lot of my habits, cleaning supplies are the largest contributor.
Third, I found a support system for my first challenge. I had two friends commit to being zero-waste with me for three months in 2015.
Then, I started my “transition” for the challenge. Transition is in quotes because the two challenges I’ve done have been for only a few months, which means that a lot of what I did then I didn’t continue for the long term. That’s something that I’m working on now and includes using up all of the Bath and Body Works lotion—even the scents that I don’t love—that I’ve gotten as stocking stuffers during the holidays for the past 10 years. Just one example.
These challenges have affected me in very long-term ways. Being waste-free drastically changed my diet. I was already vegetarian, so meat didn’t present a challenge. However, most of my diet depended on to-go options from the dining halls, microwaveable meals, chips, bread, dairy, and more that came in packages.
My first change was to shift to produce-based eating. In Madison, especially in the summer, local and fresh produce is pretty readily accessible, which allows for a lot more variety than the only unpackaged produce options at the dining halls: oranges and bananas.
Beyond shifting to a lot of unpackaged whole fruits and veggies, I also purchased bread baked locally. I’d bring in a bag made out of an upcycled T-shirt and stuff it with breads, bagels, and other baked goods. Eventually I learned to bake my own.
I purchase milk in reusable glass bottles at the co-op now, but before I lived near a co-op, I would make homemade almond milk, which takes a very long time and is a very messy process in a dorm room. Other dairy was even harder to find, so I wound up using coconut oil in most recipes rather than a vegetable oil or butter. I brought my own container to the deli counter and purchased cheese sliced off of a cheese wheel… which got me a lot of weird looks at the Whitewater Sentry grocery store.
I also had to change my shopping habits pretty drastically—always bringing reusable bags (many handmade out of upcycled old T-shirts) and containers to shop in bulk sections of grocery stores. I learned to pack my meals the day before so that I didn’t have to worry about finding a place with unpackaged food. I have become pretty comfortable with creative solutions—like a scrap of cloth substituting for a coffee filter because reusable coffee filters are near impossible to find in Small-Town, Wisconsin.
The biggest challenges are:
Overall, I think that taking on a zero-waste challenge is worth a try to learn a lot about yourself, our throwaway consumer culture, and the long-term changes that you can implement.
I know that it’s easy for those of us who have made a lot of personal changes to look at those who haven’t and critique them for that, but those who are environmentally minded are often doing the best they can. As Bill McKibben wrote in his 2016 op-ed, “’Hypocrisy’ is the price of admission in this battle.”
Because ultimately, personal change is not enough, and it is not a radical political act. If everyone in the US made all of the changes suggested in An Inconvenient Truth, stopped consuming water other than what was collected in our personal rain buckets and then returned to the earth clean, stopped consuming energy altogether, and stopped producing any waste, carbon emissions would only decrease about 22%, water consumption about 10%, energy consumption about 25%, and waste only 3%.
If we truly want to save our planet, we cannot only focus on our own actions. We must do so much more. It is irresponsible for us to blame individuals for failures of our system and of industry. We must solve our planetary problem as citizens working collectively and not as individual consumers.
So yes, work to minimize your waste or to be more energy efficient or to bike everywhere, but recognize that that alone is not enough. It’s not a radical political act, and it’s not enough to stop climate change. For a long time, I thought that if I changed my behavior and educated others to do the same, there would be a ripple effect, and consumer demands would change enough to take down dirty industry. But I now know this isn’t how things work.
Here’s how I know: When I told people about undertaking waste-free challenges, they were fascinated. They asked a lot of questions; I was featured in our school’s paper. I got much less pushback telling people I was throwing out virtually nothing for three months of the year than I did when I tried to educate people about a pipeline that was expanding near my college campus. I truly think that’s because people don’t see how my throwing out less impacts them at all. But when it comes to my advocating against oil infrastructure like a pipeline? That’s threatening. That’s threatening norms and systems and the political status quo. And that’s exactly what we need to be doing.
The power of organizations like the Sierra Club, with whom I’m employed, and 350 is that they bring concerned individuals together to act collectively. Now more than ever, we must change our industry and our default choices and shift our systems of power and politics if we ever want to stop climate change. Keep doing what you’re doing, show some empathy to one another, and understand that we, as 350 members, are all working towards the same goal. And together, we can win.
We all want to live in a safe, just, and happy world. We spend our lives in pursuit of this goal, trying to figure out what will get us there. Yet we now live with the most radical insecurity humanity has ever faced. How do we manage not to turn away? How do we see clearly, act wisely, while cultivating equanimity?
My own search for answers has taken many twists and turns, but what hasn’t changed is a fundamental inability to accept the greed, hatred, and blindness of humans in our relationships with other humans, nonhuman animals, and the Earth. In early adulthood, I raged against injustice with the self-righteousness and impatience of youth. As I got older, I came to a reluctant understanding that except in rare, magical circumstances, change comes slowly to the human community. I left behind what my graduate advisor called “finger-in-the-dike” thinking, recognizing the complex dialectics, unpredictability, and even mystery of change.
So when I began to really take in the catastrophic threat of climate change, what first grabbed my heart was the recognition that soon we would no longer have the luxury of change at human speed. Climate change, if unaddressed, would render moot all the struggles for justice, equality, and peace. Time would run out.
For those of us immersed in the climate cause, life seems increasingly surreal, surrounded as we are by a culture clinging to the belief that what we take to be reality will go on indefinitely, with ever more high-tech toys, more comfort, more… everything.
But time is running out, and that confronts us with a paradox: If we are to have the human-scale time we need to realize the potential of the human spirit for peace and kindness and compassion, we somehow have to move at light-speed NOW to stop climate change.
I’ve been a meditator for close to 20 years, and these days, I keep coming back to two foundational tenets of Buddhism: one, that life is fundamentally insecure; the other, that we spend our lives chasing after false refuges and that true refuge is found in standing still and seeing the truth of the way things are.
At this point in history, seeing the truth of the way things are requires awakening to radical insecurity, and awakening to its roots in our addiction to an ever-expanding array of false refuges.
What is true refuge at this moment? It seems to me it’s what we have in the climate justice movement: friendship and solidarity as we meet the truth of our time; as we find community and comfort in each other even as we metabolize the grief and anger of our predicament; as we join hands to fight for a livable future, for the gift of time in which to build a world offering safety, justice, and happiness for all beings.
As for myself, I’m embracing hope as an act of will, hope no matter what, hope because it’s all we’ve got. I’m grateful for friends along the path.
Barbara Schlachter—Episcopal priest, tireless activist, founder of 100 Grannies for a Livable Future, and mother of 350 Madison’s Jake Schlachter—died February 17, 2016, after a battle with ovarian cancer. 350 Madison Co-Coordinator Laura Hanson Schlachter wrote of her mother-in-law: “She was one special lady. In her farewell letter, she wrote that her only regret was that she hadn’t yet stopped climate change!” Here’s what Barbara shared at the first meeting of 100 Grannies in 2012:
In times such as these
are called upon to do
the grandchildren of the world
(who may be the ones calling)
will have a livable future.
We are called to
We resolve to reconcile
the human species with Mother Earth
and to create the Clean Energy Revolution.
We will no longer sit idly by and allow
air, water, and land to be exploited
and global temperatures to rise.
We and the Earth have had enough.
We are ready to live simply and
be thankful to have enough
hoping that round the world
future generations can simply live.
To do this there need to be many of us.
How could you not join us?
—Barbara Schlachter (8/10/45–2/17/16)
To learn more about Barbara, see A “Grannie” To Be Reckoned With: Iowans Pay Tribute to Rev. Barbara Schlachter, Climate Action Leader,” Huffington Post, 2/18/16.
I work as a hospital chaplain. My job, at its most basic level, is just to be present with people. To offer a listening ear, some empathy, someone to talk things through with—often in times of crisis, grief, fear, loneliness, and death. In my current job, I cover the neonatal ICU, the birthing units, adult psychology, a general medical unit, and often the emergency room. Sometimes I get to see the span of human life, from birth to death and many of the stages in between, all in one shift.
Every day, I have the privilege of pulling up a chair and being present in the love and loss and pain and joy that are fundamental to the human condition. And here is what I have learned:
We are both so very fragile and so very resilient.
We have this one life, and this one body, and it can be taken down so easily. One infection, one car accident, one blood clot, one drug addiction, one genetic mutation. We are so very fragile.
But we are also so very resilient. I have seen babies born months premature, tiny little things, grow up and grow strong enough to leave the hospital. I have seen patients who have waited years and years to receive a transplant finally receive one, and live to tell me about it afterwards. I have seen people go through months of treatment and fight, finally to walk out the hospital doors cancer-free.
We, as humans, live in this tension of being both so very fragile and so very resilient.
And that, that is why climate change is so important to me. Because I know both these things to be true.
I know that we are fragile. That climate change will hurt people, will kill people. We depend on the earth, on the ecosystem, on the soil, and on the strength of our communities, and when those systems are thrown off balance, we cannot survive. Humans depend on the earth.
But I also know that we are resilient. That when we band together and support each other, we can get through incredible hardship. That we are not easily taken down. That we can cause change. I know that we are stronger, tougher, and more able than we often think.
So that’s why I’m dedicated to fighting climate change. Because I actually believe humanity is resilient enough and strong enough to get through this. Not only to survive, but to heal and to thrive.
We met in 1973 while traveling in Greece and went on together to travel across the Middle East overland to India. The travel was significant in that it was a grand start to our 40+-year relationship and we saw a large part of the world that functioned much differently than the United States. Upon returning home, within three years we had married, had our first daughter and were in Marion County, Kansas, on a small farm. We were a part of a “back to the land” movement that embraced organic farming, building community and adopting a lifestyle that was gentler to the environment.
We have always been active in political and environmental movements. In the 1970s and 80s it was organized opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants with marches and demonstrations. In the 1990s we led a grassroots effort in our rural county against the building of a mega-landfill for imported solid waste and were successful in blocking the project.
In 2002 we joined the United States Peace Corps and served in a Mayan Village in southern Belize. Margie was in an environmental education/rural community development project, and Harry was in a sustainable agriculture/rural community development project. The two years of Peace Corps service in a tropical rain forest agrarian village showed us how impacted the indigenous farmers will be by the changing climate. A grave environmental justice issue was presented every day by the fact that, with no electricity, no cars and non-mechanized food production, the Maya have a very small “carbon footprint” but most likely will be among the first to suffer the most dramatic effects of climate change.
We returned to our farm in Kansas in 2004, and in 2007 we were informed by TransCanada, LLC, that an easement across our land would be required for the Keystone Cushing Extension pipeline. We were surprised to find out some months later that TransCanada had decided to move the pipeline just to the west of our farm, thus avoiding having the pipeline on our land. We were not spared the impacts, however, when the pipeline was built in the summer of 2010: the washout of a temporary construction bridge scattered large wooden mats in our woods; we had large amounts of water drained across our land, heavy traffic, and dust and noise from an industrial construction project; and the riparian area upstream was compromised forever by the pipeline stream crossing. We became educated on the issue of tar sands extraction in Canada and joined with others in Kansas and Oklahoma opposing the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Our story was made part of a Sierra Club campaign publication, Toxic Tar Sands: Profiles from the Frontlines.
In 2011 we moved to Madison to be near our daughter, son-in-law, and grandson and got in on the formation of 350 Madison later that year. Since moving to Madison, our other two daughters have also moved here, and we now have a total of four grandchildren: Orion, Zettie, Lucia and Nikos. Our children and grandchildren are the prime motive behind our continued activism to bring awareness and action to the issue of mitigating climate change so that everyone’s children and grandchildren can have a livable planet in the future.
My story might be different from many of yours. I didn’t grow up on a farm or in a small town or even anywhere in the Midwest. I grew up in New Jersey. The county I’m from is one of the most densely populated in the country, with about 4,000 people per square mile. On the street where I lived, there have always been as many houses as there are now, but there used to be more trees. It’s easy to find my parents’ house on Google Earth. It’s the only one on the block you can’t see.
In my lifetime climate has always been a crisis, but it’s been getting worse. I can’t remember a hurricane hitting New York until I was in high school. Now it seems like they happen almost every year.
It was about 115 degrees the day a friend sent me Epic’s website and suggested I consider moving to Wisconsin. The last time I had seen temperatures like that, I was in Arizona. My friend promised me that in Madison it rarely gets above 90.
My first two summers here, it definitely got above 90. It also didn’t rain. In between we had a couple of polar vortexes. There is no normal weather anymore.
I started learning a lot about what’s going on with the environment. While working at Epic I also learned a lot about health, which is kind of a popular topic there. It turns out these things are connected, in a lot of ways that not enough people know about. Since I like tackling root causes, I quit my job and started a master’s in Environmental Health Communications at UW. I have a tendency to make major life changes in a somewhat sudden way.
It tends to work out for me. Within a few weeks after classes started, I found 350 tabling at a university event. Since then I’ve been coming to meetings every month. You are my people.
But my story is different from yours. Unlike many of you, I have no stake in the future. I’m not going to be around at the end of the century, when all these dire predictions are supposed to come true, and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to suddenly decide to have kids. I come to these meetings, and I marched in Minnesota, because I don’t want to be the generation that sat around watching YouTube videos while our planet became uninhabitable. I think we can do better than that. On any given day I’m only about 50% sure that we will do better. But here, in this room, at least we’re trying. That’s a part of our story we all have in common.
I could say it was seeing “An Inconvenient Truth,” participating in group discussions authored by the Northwest Institute, co-facilitating a program on climate change at my church, participating in the Pax Christi Global Restoration team, seeing “Awakening the Dreamer,” or being truly inspired by all the great people I volunteer with at 350.org and Citizen’s Climate Lobby.
All of these feed my passion for saving our planet, but when my soul speaks, it’s really all about trees and grandchildren and the beauty of God’s creation.
As a child I loved my surroundings—from the daffodils in our backyard, to the tomatoes picked from our small vegetable garden, to the trees outside our windows, to the woods a few blocks away where we played in a clear spring-fed stream.
I grew up in Pennsylvania—Penn’s woods. Woods, indeed! Whenever I visit my sisters who still live in Pennsylvania I travel from Pittsburgh to Lewisburg (a 3–4 hour drive or train ride). I marvel at the trees. Surrounded on all sides by their majesty I feel enveloped, safe, secure and blessed. This year as I traveled on the train they stood as mighty, yet fragile, sculptures set against the solid gray backdrop of dense fog.
When I first came to the Midwest I lived in Chicago. While I loved the excitement of the city, I longed for opportunities to get away to walk in the woods. When I finally moved to Evanston I discovered that I no longer longed to get away because I lived on tree-lined streets.
A few summers ago when it was so hot and dry, I panicked thinking that the oaks in my yard would not survive. I sought advice from an arborist and watered them to the point that the water utility called me wondering if there was some leak in my system causing the unusual spike in my water usage. I mourned, thinking of what my life would be like without the trees in my yard, in the arboretum so close by or along the roads as I traveled through Wisconsin.
That same summer I was with my son and grandsons on Lake Koshkonong. My oldest grandson was 14 at the time. He has been hooked (excuse the pun) on fishing since he was three. As we crossed the waters to a place where we could set anchor we saw LOTS of dead fish due to the excessive heat. All I could think of that day and for many days afterward was: What kind of future does my grandson face? What opportunities will he have to fish? What fish will remain? Will he be able to teach his children to fish?
My faith calls me to care for creation. I love Genesis—so poetically written. At the end of each day of the creation story, we hear the refrain “And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning….” In 2001, Pope Benedict XVI said “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.” This past May, Pope Francis said, “If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us!” I ask myself, “What am I doing to protect the Earth?”
When I completed the Peoples’ Climate March this past September I stopped to participate in the Ribbon Project. I selected a ribbon that carried the message: “For the world I want to leave behind for generations to come.” This is what motivates me to work to mitigate climate change. I want future generations to experience the peace of being enveloped by trees, the joy of teaching children to fish, and the beauty of God’s creation as I have experienced it in my lifetime.
The reasons for my deep concern about climate change are that I love animals, and I am very concerned about people who have few resources. Both will be horrifically affected by climate change.
I grew up in a poverty-stricken environment in Texas, but we had nice birds, including boat-tailed grackles and mockingbirds. Unfortunately, as a really little kid, I tried to catch and pick up a huge white duck, and boy, do their claws hurt!
Every time the ditches in our front yard were flooded in a heavy rain, they would fill with crawdads—now called crayfish—but it never did occur to us to eat them. We had tons of beautiful chameleons that we would change from brown to green and back in a few seconds—did this all the time—and there were lots of teeny frogs that would pee in your hand as soon as you gently picked them up. As an adult, I’ve had many shelter or stray cats who have lived a long time—the longest, 22 years. In Tanzania, my favorites were hippos, superb starlings, flamingos, and blue-balled monkeys. I spent a couple of years in New Zealand, which has no native deciduous trees, only evergreens, and no native mammals, but is home to wonderful creatures found nowhere else, among them, the bellbird, the fantail, the tui, the New Zealand wood pigeon, and the kea.
I am an animal lover; a long-time vegetarian; a donor to the ASPCA, Humane Society, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and 350.org; a WWF Partner in Conservation. I keep my bird feeders filled. I’ve even had indigo buntings visit our balcony in Madison, along with rose-breasted grosbeaks, hummingbirds, tufted titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers.
The second source of my concern about climate change is that its worst wrath will be visited upon people who have nowhere to go, who are not rich enough to move elsewhere when their home areas are under water or on fire. I was in Australia in 2009 on Black Saturday, when horrible fires raged, going through towns at unbelievable speeds, killing 173 people. People huddled in their homes, calling parents or children on cell phones to say goodbye just before fire surrounded them. I am afraid because my daughter and son-in-law live in Arizona near recent big fires, and I know my daughter, a physician, would stay behind with her patients if they could not all be evacuated in time.
We all have reasons to care about climate change. That is my story, and I encourage us all to think about and write down why we care so much.
I spent my early years on a wild stretch of the Southern California coast. One early winter morning when I was six or seven, my mother woke me to say she had a surprise for me. Without further explanation I was bundled into the car and driven down a fog-damp highway near the outskirts of Ventura. The mist was just beginning to burn off as we pulled over at the edge of a large eucalyptus grove. Walking into the stillness among the towering trees, my mother steered me along with a hand on each of my small shoulders until we’d arrived at the heart of the grove. “Look up,” she whispered.
Raising my head, I could see the early sunlight beginning to catch the edges of the eucalyptus leaves, turning them a fiery orange. My mother was always pointing out such things, and it wasn’t beyond her to travel some distance to take in such a view. But then something truly remarkable began to happen: A few at a time those leaves began to open, and then close, and then—I discovered that what I had taken to be leaves were in fact a million roosting monarch butterflies, waking and stretching in the pale morning light. As we stood watching silently in this sheltered resting place along their migratory route, they began to take wing by the hundreds of thousands, fluttering and circling in our little clearing among the trees.
My mother died when I was fifteen. Every year since she passed, I have been gently reminded of her spirit when a monarch has sailed past my shoulder. I see a graceful fluttering of orange, and I say to my boys, “That reminds me of your grandmother; let me tell you a story about her.”
It was several years ago when I first began to notice fewer and fewer occasions for these stories, and I found myself actively looking for monarchs on my walks. Over time, the wild milkweed that is their larvae’s only food has been crowded out by endless fields of homogeneous crops . . . and meanwhile, the weather has turned strange. We have altered both the landscape and the atmosphere in ways that creatures like the monarch cannot long survive. The ravages of climate change have begun to take their toll on our most vulnerable species as seasons have lost their predictable seasonality, and the creatures of the earth have begun slipping in their battle to adapt.
Our scientists say the monarch butterfly will likely soon be gone forever, a fact I simply cannot accept. As memories of my mother grew to be linked to a silent fluttering of orange, it never occurred to me that the entire species might someday vanish. It never occurred to me that we could be so foolish as to accidentally destroy them all.
All my life, those bright orange wings had been little messages, a way to keep alive important thoughts and stories, and so I took special note of them. How many other species, less colorful but equally vital, are slipping away without notice? How many times will we fail to recognize a fellow traveler, carelessly disregarded until it too has joined the ranks of what is no longer there.
I want my great-great-grandchildren to be able to observe slender leaves unfurling from the tips of their branches in early spring, because spring has come at her proper time and stayed her season. I want them to stand under the dripping elms after a rain and smell the richness of the earth. I want them to watch in awe as patches of sunlight and shadow chase one another over the brow of a hill on a windy day. I want them to see a monarch butterfly. I want those who will follow us to have the opportunity to love this earth as we have loved it, not to feel the inconsolable sorrow of having been left something lesser, a shining world we broke before they could inherit it.
Like a child who has nothing more to offer, I’ve begun to carry milkweed pods in my pockets. My boys and I scatter their floating seeds in back lots and along uncultivated strips of land, hoping that doing so may offer some tired monarch something to eat.
I’ve also become active in educating myself and others on climate change. We have no choice but to find our way forward, to establish a new relationship with the earth and repair what damage we can. We have both the knowledge and the means to do so. May we find the courage, the wisdom, and the will.
Two years ago, on a beautiful spring day, I attended a regional Unitarian Universalist workshop on endowments. The workshop was led by Terry Wiggins from Milwaukee, who had led a fossil fuel divestment campaign for her own church’s endowment fund. That workshop was where I first heard about Bill McKibben, global warming’s “terrifying new math,” and fossil fuel divestment.
My husband Derek and I were aware of climate change. We had seen An Inconvenient Truth, switched to cloth bags and compact fluorescent lights, and bought a Prius. We also had had many discussions about whether we should have children and about what climate change might mean for future generations. Derek is always a bit more optimistic than I am and believed our society would overcome the challenge of climate change.
Fast-forward a few years from those “children or no children” conversations, and here we were, the parents of two young children, Miles and Ila. How many times had we talked about climate change in our household since having kids? Maybe a handful. Between lack of sleep, diapers, and enjoyment of these two little people in our home, we did not have much energy left to discuss climate change, and honestly, it was just too scary to think about, now that the potential children we used to discuss were very real, with very real futures in front of them.
But on that beautiful, clear, spring day two years ago after I first heard about Bill McKibben, I couldn’t ignore climate change any longer. The numbers were in front of me, and the real crisis of climate change hit me head-on. At first I was overwhelmed, then I had some denial. If this crisis was really as bad as it sounded, then why wasn’t more being done about it, and why wasn’t everyone talking about it?
So I had a choice, do I go home and try to pretend everything is normal or that someone else will take care of fixing this little climate change problem? Or do I overcome my fear and get involved? My fear wasn’t just about not knowing what I could do or what my children’s future would be like, although there was a lot of fear in that, of course. My fear was also about disrupting life in my family. You see, I was raised on coal. My Dad worked at a coal power plant for over 20 years before his retirement, and my brother-in-law, Dave, who recently passed away, was working there too. I knew how much the “war on coal” could hurt real people. The plant my Dad and Dave worked at is scheduled to close at the end of 2015. My sister, Dave, and their family were facing either the loss of a good, family-supporting job or a transfer to another plant several hours away from their home and the extended family they love.
It hurts me to know that my sister and Dave and my entire small hometown face this loss of an employer that has provided family-supporting jobs, and it is a very sobering reminder that real lives have been and will continue to be affected as we transition to a fossil-free future. So two years ago, as I thought about my kids and my sister and Dave, it became quite clear to me that I must be involved in this work of climate change activism because I dream of a time when a family-supporting job, the health of our planet, and our children’s futures are not at odds with each other. I want to be part of the solution and of what Joanna Macy calls the “Great Turning.”