Last week I started a review of Wen Stephenson’s book of the title above and promised tie-ins with Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. The author views climate change as more than an environmental issue: it is an existential crisis (in the sense that our very existence is at stake) that demands a broader conception of what is going on.
Stephenson lived near Walden Pond and, in the midst of personal crisis about 15 years ago, started walking the routes of Thoreau and studying his writings. At the same time, he was becoming increasingly aware of how we are causing climate disruption. He discovered that Thoreau was not just a nature writer – he was a radical abolitionist working for the end of slavery. “Civil Disobedience” was not just the title of one of his most famous writings: it was how he lived his conscience. Stephenson began to ask “… the question Thoreau had asked himself and all of us: What will we do with the time we’re given.”
Recounting the catastrophic impacts of climate change already here and the expected (and even worse, unexpected) more extreme ravages to be visited upon us and our future generations due to our inability to act on what we have known for a quarter century, Stephenson wonders: “What is the proper response? Remain calm, we’re told. No “scare tactics’ or “hysterics,” please. Cooler heads will prevail. Enjoy your Earth Day Festivities.” I’m sorry” he continues “… the cooler heads have failed. If you want sweet cool-headed reason, try this: masses of people – most of them young, a generation with little or nothing to lose – physically, non-violently disrupting the fossil fuel industry and the institutions that support and abet it.”
“Isn’t that a bit extreme?” you might ask. “Really? Extreme?” he counters. “Business as usual is extreme. Just ask a climate scientist. The building is burning. The innocents – the poor, the oppressed, the children, your own children – are inside. And the American petro state … is spraying fuel, not water, on the flames. That’s more than extreme. It’s homicidal. It’s psychopathic. It’s f___ing insane.”
And so we come back to Thoreau’s question. What will we do with the time we are given? The author turns to Martin Luther King Jr. In his final book and speeches King talked about how in life and history sometimes it is too late. “Is it too late?” asks Stephenson. “We know what the science says. What does your conscience say? What does ‘too late’ even mean? Too late for what? In the face of all we know, will it ever be too late for some kind of faith in human decency; or to hold on to some kind of hope, however irrational it may seem, in our fellow human beings; or to love our brothers and sisters on this earth?
“As Dr. King knew, these things – faith, hope, and love – are the very stuff movements are made of: real movements, the kind of radical, transformative movements that have changed the course of history in the past and maybe, just maybe, might change it again. If enough of us are willing to fight, and to fight hard enough, and to fight lovingly enough, and never give up. If we’re willing to engage in this struggle – this radical and loving struggle – for each other.”
And so, we compete as a community in the Georgetown University Energy Prize. We change our light bulbs and carpool. We teach our families and friends and coworkers, and vote, and write letters to the editor. And for some, who have not only the time and the financial freedom but also the moral courage, we blockade giant coal freighters in our tiny boats and we gather by the hundreds of thousands to tell our leaders we must change course. We are all part of the climate justice movement – what will you do with the time that you are given?