This catalogue of devastating worldwide effects of ACD (Anthropogenic Climate Disruption) was enough to knock the wind out of the sails of any optimist, for the implications of this report are grim indeed: we have set in motion a juggernaut of successive, mutually reinforcing, climate-related catastrophes--droughts, floods, rising sea levels, mass extinctions, killer heat waves, disappearing aquifers, tropical diseases--many already well underway, and all on an accelerating, irreversible trajectory to get steadily and incrementally worse, promising a horrific future--one that I would not wish upon my worst enemy--for all young people today, and any subsequent generations.
Such ghastly news creates, for me, a recurrent ethical dilemma: how do I share this soul-wrenching information with my students, without leaving them feeling hopeless, embittered, and demoralized? Or do I simply let them persist in the illusion, officially cultivated by my college and in fact reinforced throughout the educational establishment, as well as through all commercial media, that the future will simply be a continuation of the past, an arena of boundless opportunity where, if they apply themselves, they can launch a satisfying career and realize the American Dream of comfortable affluence and suburban contentment for themselves and their children? Who are we kidding?
It seems to me that a middle way between the false optimism of business as usual on a dying planet and simply succumbing to despair is to follow a threefold path in reaching out to others:: (1) the wake-up call--awakening people to he scope and urgency of the problem, even if they are shocked and horrified by the evidence presented; (2) profile one or more visionaries, who are already addressing this issue courageously and constructively and/or forging whole new paths toward ecological sanity; and (3) providing small steps that your audience can take, starting today, to follow the path of these visionaries.
I have chosen the path of one of my icons, Wangari Maathai of Kenya, whose life work, for which she won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, was the Green Belt Movement--a magnificent grassroots movement she inaugurated among rural women in Kenya in 1977 to plant millions of trees in order to restore their watersheds from the devastation of many years of deforestation and soil erosion. The effect of this movement was to mobilize women politically as well, and as a consequence, she became a political force, and ended up causing the downfall of the oligarchic dictator, Daniel Arap Moi, and restoring democracy to Kenya. (Her story is chronicled in her autobiography, Unbowed, as well as in a documentary, "Taking Root," which is available in segments on YouTube.)
Wangari was no naive optimist; she was keenly aware of the formidable, overwhelming challenges that face Africa in particular, and the planet in general. But she never gave in to despair, but remained ebullient, resilient, and courageous right up to her untimely death from cancer in 2011.
She left us an inspiring, though paradoxical message--especially geared toward young children--in her famous and charming Hummingbird parable: a hummingbird learns that a forest fire is raging, and all the other animals are fleeing in despair. So the hummingbird flies to a river, takes a drop of water in its tiny beak, and flies back to deposit it on the fire, then repeats the procedure, ad infinitum. The lesson in her parable? "I am a hummingbird. I will do what I can."
The parable is paradoxical, of course, because the hummingbird's tiny efforts to put out a massive forest fire are so obviously futile. But Wangari's own wonderful smile, her own indefatigable courage and love, are an essential part of this parable--she embodies what she speaks; a determination never to give up, to do what needs to be done, even if the entire planet is on fire.