How do we change the world? Part I: Florida’s Flooding isn’t Funny / reuters

In the last few weeks, my Facebook wall has been inundated with photographs of a Tampa underwater. Drowning under days and days of rain, Tampa’s drainage system seemed to fall short of its function, and friends of mine described being stranded, being re-routed, and being more than minorly inconvenienced. And a hurricane wasn’t even in sight.

Not dissimilarly, seven months ago, my Facebook newsfeed was plastered in Boston snow memes. Our city was experiencing some of the strangest weather most of us had ever known. School was interrupted. Transportation was interrupted. It was crazy: we had one mound of snow in Boston that lasted until the end of July. Four more months and it would have been a glacier.

Facebook has a way of making entertainment out of almost anything. But the value of a punch line sometimes lets us miss the crucial story: Boston and Tampa are both coastal cities, experiencing drastically abnormal weather that threatens the livelihood of their residents. We can’t continue to ignore the fact that Climate Change is becoming tangible. I’m starting to think that we’ve all been afraid of actually looking at climate change head-on, that we’ve stayed in denial because we can; that we haven’t done anything about it because we feel like there is nothing we can do, or maybe that it’s not that big a deal. It affects the polar bears; not us.

This sense of helplessness and disinterest is going to be our downfall. We need to look. It’s time.

I traveled all summer long, on three different continents. And everywhere I went, the story was the same:

In Slovenia, I spoke to people who had grown up with cold alpine winters. They shook their heads as they told me how in the last ten years the winters were just getting less consistent and less cold. Skiing is harder now, things are different. As they said this, the air conditioner rattled and groaned, trying to pump enough cool air into the room to mask the absurd 98 degree temperatures outside. A massive, brutal heat wave…  in the Alps?

I also traveled out west, where Montana remains, at this moment, at the whim of a set of terrifying wildfires. Over 700 firemen are working round the clock to keep the fires in check. As my friends and I rafted down an uncannily still and shallow river, the guide said, “Yeah, this is supposed to be a pretty wet season, but it’s barely rained since the spring. It’s strange. It’s like we lost two months– you can see the leaves are already starting to change. Nature thinks it’s fall now, even though it’s only July.”

And then I traveled to India, which is admittedly, already a hot place. But this year, thousands of people died in a heat wave all across India. My friends there shook their heads and told and re-told the details, making sure I knew about it. “Even here, the heat this year was too much.”

The crazy thing? Everywhere but America, the same two words come across people’s lips. Global Warming.

Journalism about Global Warming is limited. The New Yorker published a piece in its recent issue about the secretariat of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), Christiana Figueres, who tries to negotiate with every country and manage the process of limiting emissions, but I haven’t read any other pieces in the last few weeks. Maybe only 2 others in the last few months. It’s an easy topic to miss, to stay silent about, or to ignore.

In fact, the conversation about Climate Change in the states is pretty marginalized– a few people here and there, mostly people who work in activism or technology, talk about it with more than just a despairing shrug. Too few of us actually alter our lifestyles, and those who do are often seen as a little too ‘out there:’ don’t worry, it’s just those prius-driving, biking, walking, turning-off-the-A/C, eating-fresh-veggies types.

Such an attitude defeats the cause in two major ways:

  1. We are still vastly too ignorant as a populace about which of our actions impacts global warming, why, and how much.
  2. We are drastically underestimating how climate change is already and will continue to be changing the world over the course of the next several decades… which for most of us will be our children’s lives.

As a high school english teacher, I admittedly spend far too much time in imagined dystopian realities, since every other teen book that comes out these days is set in a strange future world. But I actually think there is a lot of power in imagination. Can we imagine the beautiful ecosystems of our national parks wilting, then slowly dying out? Hundreds of square miles of forests and grassland and countless species of wildlife, susceptible to disease or invasion? Can we imagine a world where it is too hot to step outside in the summers and all buildings require massive air conditioners, which only hurt the cause? Can we imagine vast swathes of the poorest of the poor, having to live at the mercy of nature’s conditions, dying of heat stroke, not able to find water? Can we imagine bidding wars for water or oil or other natural resources? Can we imagine unmanageable weather patterns– hurricanes, snow storms, droughts– without mercy or advance warning? Can we imagine our coastal cities and beaches, abandoned and hauntingly empty buildings that have fallen into disuse, because the water is slowly taking over and the flooding is too common? Can we imagine the people who can’t afford to move, staying and trying to make a living in that place, because they’ve lost all their investment in properties that are no longer worth anything? Can we imagine an earth completely depleted of resources, with only bugs and worms left to prove that there was once biodiversity here? That there was once beauty here?

I’m not sure what changed it for me. I’m not sure when it occurred to me that there was not only great urgency to the problems of the world that face us, but also that we each have great personal responsibility. I’m done blaming everything on corporations and banks and throwing up my hands.

Maybe that’s what changed: it’s the moment I realized that there is still hope. We didn’t give up when the catholic church didn’t want to change, back in the 1500s. We didn’t give up when people were losing their lives to defend scientific advances in the 1600s. We didn’t give up when it seemed like Britain was going to take over and enslave the whole world in the 1700s. We didn’t give up when it seemed like slavery was an institution that would stay forever in the 1800s. We didn’t give up when it was hard to get women the vote in the 1900s. We didn’t give up when we realized CFCs were a huge issue in the 1960s.

So why are we giving up now? Why are we assuming that nothing can be done about the deregulation of banks? Why are we assuming that the economy, education, and wars are only going to get worse? Why are we assuming that the fight for sustainability is already lost? Why are we assuming the world is over?

These fights require our efforts, and our hope. Now is the time to give it our all.

And there is plenty I can do:

  • I can choose my job. What company will I work for? What will I do with my day to day life?
  • I can pursue leadership in my job. How will I lead? What will I work for? What do I want my company to do for the world? Can I help provide for and protect other people’s jobs? Can I nurture and support the people who depend on me?
  • I can choose how I spend my money. What companies will I support? What production processes will I support? Will I buy things made by slaves? Will I buy things that damage the environment? Will I support local business? Will I support wasteful packaging?
  • I can give companies feedback. I am constantly being asked about my experience and my preferences- I can give them ideas, publicly or privately, about what matters to me.
  • I can choose whom to vote for to lead my government. Who will fight for the things I want my government to do?
  • I can choose to run for office. Will I participate in local politics? Will I be a member of my state legislature? Will I work for the government in a public service position of any kind?
  • I can choose what to do with my spare money. Will I invest in certain stocks? Will I open a 401K? With whom? Will I invest in microfinance? Will I donate the money to a cause? Which cause?
  • I can make myself a better person and the lives of people around me better. I can be honest, kind, and good. I can bring joy and good will to my community. I can be a model there. I can bring new conversations that change hearts and minds.

There are so many ways to change the world these days, so many ways to vote with our time, money, and effort. We may have our eyes and ears full of Donald Trump and our own frustrations, but if we blinked a few times, we might see just how much power we have to shift things.