Responding to Global Weirdness & Local Brightness

Jon Quitslund

“We are gripped by multiple scleroses, unable to get our arms around any of the problems staring us in the face….Will a catastrophe shake us from our slumber?”  (part of an online comment by ‘Cassandra’ from Colorado)

I’ll begin this post as an aggregator of other people’s opinions, urging my readers to seek out for themselves some reading that I’ve found compelling. Then I’ll come around to some comments on the recent showing of Fixing the Future, co-sponsored by Sustainable Bainbridge, at the Bainbridge Cinemas in Winslow.

An email from my friend Cheryl Hunter prompted me to read a column in the New York Times by Mark Bittman, “The Endless Summer.”  (You’ll find it at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/18/the-endless-summer/.)

Unlike the classic movie of the same name, Bittman’s piece is not about surfing, although it is, in part, about oceans – and rising sea levels, as an inevitable consequence of rising temperatures.

Bittman starts with the tender topic of ‘American exceptionalism,’ with this comment on what it means now: “on a per-capita basis, we either lead or come close to leading the world in consumption of resources, production of pollutants and a profound unwillingness to do anything about it.”

Which of these three items troubles you the most?  I’ll pick the third.  At the individual level we aren’t all unwilling, of course, but like ‘Cassandra,’ quoted above, we feel handicapped and powerless.  And to make matters worse, many in positions of power (including our well-informed and conscientious President) have been unwilling to speak the truth to their powerful opponents.

It is so dangerous, these days, to lay oneself open to the charge of being ‘un-American,’ and that accusation is semi-automatic when anyone in public office proposes regulation or taxation that might limit the production and consumption of fossil fuels.

If you consult his column, Bittman will lead you to something more weighty than his own words: a long article by Bill McKibben in the current issue of Rolling Stone.  “The Reckoning” is a fact-based, passionate piece, connecting all the dots you need on climate change and its consequences, and the dangers posed by the world’s out-of-control dependence on carbon-based fuels.

If you can’t find a copy of Rolling Stone, go to 350.org for a link to McKibben’s piece, along with much more information on global warming.  And you could also google ‘Climate Central’ for information on Global Weirdness (another tip from Mark Bittman): the book has now been published.

It has become critically important to reduce – drastically – the rate at which carbon is being loaded into our atmosphere.  Bill McKibben explains why, and he stresses the importance of getting beyond apathy, and also beyond aimless anger at self-serving corporations and feckless politicians.

I can report, gratefully, that the crowd on Wednesday night, July 18th, gathered in one of the Pavilion’s theaters to watch David Brancaccio’s film, Fixing the Future, had gotten beyond apathy and reactionary attitudes.  The theater’s seats were filled and there were people standing and sitting in the aisles.  And most of them moved upstairs afterwards into OfficeXpats’ spacious rooms, to enjoy refreshments and share their experience with other local ‘fixers.’

Fixing the Future dealt only in passing with climate change and its consequences, although Bill McKibben was one of the three panelists who discussed Brancaccio’s odyssey in a coda to the film (I’ll come back to that in my conclusion).  Appropriately for its audience, the focus of the evening’s program was not on stopping the sky from falling, but on small-scale fixes and opportunities for local activism.

As in any issue of Yes! Magazine, or on any visit to the magazine’s constantly changing website, the crowd on Wednesday night was enabled to imagine a positive future by encounters with people and projects that already exist, achieving successes that are spreading virally.

The kinds of fixes celebrated in the film have already been undertaken here on Bainbridge: a local currency, a time bank, permaculture, farming on public land, chicken coops to supply families and friends, teamwork to promote energy conservation and recycling of waste, and business alliances that make cooperation more important than competition – I could go on.

All of the initiatives of Sustainable Bainbridge and allied organizations welcome more participants.

Back in 2007, Bill McKibben published a great book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.  The developments celebrated in Fixing the Future were already proving their value back then, and McKibben offered a comprehensive account of the health, happiness, and security to be found, not through the pursuit of wealth and consumer goods, but through hard work and simple pleasures within friendly communities.

It was in 2008, I believe, that I went to Town Hall in Seattle to receive Bill McKibben’s message in person.  He was serious and modest; he was filled to the brim with an infectious energy.  The prospects for a durable, enjoyable future seemed clear to him.

Seeing him on the screen in the panel discussion at the end of Fixing the Future, I was struck by a dramatic change in McKibben’s outlook and tone of voice.  He was grave and terse.  He spoke not of crisp apples from a farm near his home, or of canning a bumper crop of tomatoes to make sauce through the winter, but of the compelling reasons for imposing a tax on carbon pollution.

The gravitas that I heard in McKibben’s voice, a quality that’s more emphatic in his Rolling Stone piece, is not all new.  Here are two sentences from the last paragraph of Deep Economy: “It’s extremely hard to imagine a world substantially different from the one we know. But our current economies are changing the physical world in horrifying ways.”

Those horrifying ways should be more familiar to us now, and more objectionable, than they were a few years ago.  The progressive orientation and the communitarian initiatives celebrated in Fixing the Future are necessary, but not sufficient.  It will take more than locally based activism to confront the big dragons whose profits depend on slowly, inexorably, ruining the physical world.

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