20 January 2019

“Take It and Run” — Navigating Earth in Decline

Today, we welcome Salt Spring Island (British Columbia, Canada) teacher, writer and activist extraordinaire, Jan Slakov, as our guest blogger. Enjoy!

In his unforgettable commencement address, activist, entrepreneur, author Paul Hawken stated, “Class of 2009, you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on Earth at a time when every living system is declining. […] if you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this Earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

Ten years later, and I could feel myself losing hope. When asked what news story from 2018 made him angry, Tim Fontaine of Walking Eagle News replied, "Uh, that the world was gonna end in 20 years and everybody just promptly ignored it.” He referred to the IPCC's special 1.5ºC report on climate change that “was so laid out, it was both a road map to the end of the world and a road map to how to save it and we were more concerned with [anything else, from the royal wedding to flossing].” It’s all the more difficult when solutions, such as those outlined by Project Drawdown, which Hawken is now involved in, would make the world a happier, healthier place.

I know of people who ended up alienating those close to them with their gloom. Feeling myself sinking towards despair, I decided to look for help. I read Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. Climate activist and healer Christine Penner-Polle offered to include me in her “Climate of Love” energy healing work, I spent more time outside in the garden and woods I love. I read Think No Evil about how an Amish community responded to a mass shooting in one of their schools with radical love and forgiveness. I started making time to focus on sharing loving kindness, for myself and those I love, yes, but also for those whose actions are causing great pain, who I find hard to love.

And then, once again, I went up Burnaby Mountain, this time for an Earth Witness worship meeting. We sat just outside the Kwekwecnewtxw or sacred Watch House, our circle including people of differing faith backgrounds or no religious affiliation at all. It felt like our sharing of silence, gratitude, sorrows, song, followed by warm tea and snacks, was helping to strengthen the spiritual power of that place. No doubt it was also being in community with others who are doing their utmost to protect the world we love.

Romilly Cavanaugh, the environmental engineer who used to work for TransMountain pipeline and then went up Burnaby Mountain last March 20, uncertain if her career would be damaged by getting arrested, was there too. That day in March, she knew she was doing what she was meant to do, as the welcome from indigenous leaders brought tears to her eyes. To this incredibly diverse group of people in which she found herself, they said, “If you come here with an open heart, we welcome you.”

After our Earth Witness circle, Romilly got a text from Stephanie, a doctor who also has been drawn to help land defenders at Burnaby Mountain. The text was an invitation to come down to an Unist’ot’en/Wet’suwet’en solidarity rally at Victory Square, in Vancouver’s downtown east side. By the time we got there, the rally was at Hastings and Main, completely blocking traffic.

Gradually I came to see what a privilege it was to be there. I’m sure many of the people in that space have survived abuse and pain beyond anything I’ve ever known, personally. One woman in the inner circle was crying. I suspect those were tears of joy, to see her people rising up.

I tend to get anxious about inconveniencing others, so I went up to a truck driver who was stuck with a “front row seat” he never asked for: “I’m sorry; I hope you understand.” He didn’t roll down his window but I could tell that, at some level, yes, he did understand. When three police officers made their way through the crowd towards that inner circle, I followed, hoping to be able to help de-escalate confrontation, if need be. One of them embraced a man in that circle; I went back to reassure my friends — these police officers are here to help, no need to worry.

Not long after that we started to move, heading towards the entrance to the Vancouver Port, and occupying the eastbound lanes of Hastings. Two indigenous women were leading; now and then one lowered the megaphone to a girl who was her daughter, I think. Her tiny voice called out: “The people united will never be defeated.” The call back was not tiny. There were hundreds of us slowly heading east, serenaded now and then by westbound vehicles honking their support.

I know some people see Extinction Rebellion tactics of blocking traffic as counter-productive. Often, at rallies, I find myself wishing for something more beautiful and inspiring than tired slogans. But I’ve come to see how we need everyone, doing what they can. As the RAVEN indigenous solidarity group puts it, this is a time to “pulltogether.”

We need Romilly getting arrested, but also her paid work, through offsetters.ca. We need the inspiration and vision of policies elaborated in the Leap Manifesto, policies congruent with those of the Green Party’s “Vision Green.” The policies would result in economic transformation, not economic ruin. (In 2011, Canada's federal Green Party made a special effort to get its platform reviewed by the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) at the time, who judged the platform favourably. With new legislation giving the PBO a mandate to review party platforms, hopefully Canadians will have a useful tool to better understand the fiscal implications of various proposals.)

It is hard to work for change in a system that feels stacked against us. And maybe we are indeed doomed. But let’s look at how people have faced terminal cancer or killer despots in the past. Some give up the desire to live, knowing death is stalking them and those they love. Some see, in a heightened way, that all that really matters is love.

And for some, there are many would be called miracles. Somehow they live on, defying diseases, abuse or attacks that have been, for others, deadly.

As he ended his commencement address, Hawken spoke of the generations before who had failed. “They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. […] This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.” 

— Jan Slakov

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?