The Environmental Movement HAS failed. Not entirely, of course. Changes have been made. Ideas have been planted and taken root. Species have been protected. Legislation has been passed. Global movements have arisen.
But we have still failed. Because after all the progress, the passion, the tear gas, the signs and chants and songs and sit-ins and books written and Nobel Prizes won and trees planted and ecosystems ‘protected’ and people inspired, the biosphere is still unraveling. Faster than ever. We’re on the brink of, or already past, all of the “tipping points” we’ve been worried about since I was a child and first learned about “the environment”. We are on the brink of extinction within a generation. Or if we’re “lucky,” merely civilizational collapse, in a far, far lonelier world than any sane person wants to live in.
But my message to environmentalists is not “change or die.”
My message is, I love you. I believe in your good hearts. I honour the sacrifices of your visionaries. I weep with you as ecosystems fall apart. The Amazon burns. The Arctic melts. The Great Barrier reef disintegrates. The oceans become a graveyard. Forests turn into grasslands, and grasslands into deserts. Bird song turns into the white noise of traffic. The buzzing and clicking and colourful vibrancy of insect life turns into the empty whisper of barren spaces.
I’ve read most of the major environmental books that have been published in the past half-century. I’ve watched most of the major documentaries. I can quote people from Edward Abbey to John Muir to Rachel Carson to David Suzuki to Jane Goodall to Joanna Macy. I love animals too. I want a green world too. I want peace too. I’ve marched with you. Been arrested with you. Sang and drummed, written and read, meditated and even, occasionally, against my own atheism, prayed with you too. Because while I don’t believe in “God,” I do believe in “Spirit”. In many different ways.
I’ve been talking to people about imminent civilizational collapse for about two decades. I’ve communicated to tens of thousands of people about environmental issues. I’ve spent 30-hour-chunks with at least a thousand people, going over the science of climate change, the psychology of communication and behaviour change. I’ve helped to plan campaigns, some involving hundreds of people, some involving millions. I’ve talked to hundreds of politicians, mayors, city planners, scientists. And I’ve watched some hearts open, some fires light behind some eyes. I’ve seen some people transform their lives profoundly. But even at my most optimistic, I have to admit, these “successes” are the small exception, not the rule. Most people, no matter how much information, how many clever metaphors, how many effective tools I’ve tried to share, have remained on more-or-less the same path as the dominant mainstream of society.
This isn’t ‘virtue signaling.’ It’s saying, I’ve learned a few things from trying a lot of things. I’ve failed, far, far more than I’ve succeeded. And I haven’t had the fortitude, or the stamina maybe, or the confidence maybe, or all of them together, to try nearly as hard as many of my heroes. But, I’ve tried as hard as I knew how to, at the time. And what I learned is this:
“Change or die” does not work. Not reliably enough. Not fast enough. Trying to change things doesn’t work. (Maybe Yoda knew something after all…) But changing, does.
What works is purpose. Not as an idea or a goal or a vision, but as an experience.
You, me, the millionaires and politicians, the 99% AND the 1%, have at least one thing in common —- we all want purpose. We want to feel like life is worth living. We want to “make things better” in some way.
We all want love, not hate. Meaning, not despair. Freedom, not fear. “Kumbaya”, not Mad Max.
Where we differ, is in our beliefs about how to get ‘there’. So don’t start with beliefs. Start with the experience of purpose.
Start, by learning how to talk to each other, truthfully. Listen to each other, authentically. Learn from each other, openly.
I am often not very good at these things. But the experience of doing these things is the experience of purpose.
The unknown is always greater than us. You can’t hide from it forever. You can only approach it with courage and humility. And are they not, in the end, the same thing?
I love you.
Let’s practice getting to know each other in a better way.