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The Earth we celebrate this year on Earth Day is not the same one we promised to protect in 1970. Not even close. Those of us who gathered on that first Earth Day have changed—but nothing like the planet, which is transforming before our eyes.
Since that first Earth Day, the pollution we can see has sharply gone down. We have made good progress on the stuff we were worried about back then. Our air and water have gotten cleaner. Smog rarely blots out the horizon in the U.S., and rivers no longer catch fire.
But the pollution we can’t see has sharply gone up. We’ve burned immense amounts of coal and gas and oil, so there’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is what drives global warming. As a result, there is half as much ice in the Arctic, our oceans are more acidic, and the atmosphere is a staggering 5 percent wetter, loading the dice for droughts and floods. This trouble is infinitely worse than what we were worried about in 1970.
Another way to say it is this: Sometime in the past 40 years, human beings left behind the Holocene, the roughly 10,000-year period of benign climatic stability that underwrote the rise of human civilization. Now, we are all pioneers on a planet whose ground rules we are constantly rewriting.
What might be the state of things 40 years from now if we don’t get our act together? The changes we’ve seen came from raising the Earth’s temperature a single degree—but the same scientists who told us this would happen, and who predicted its effects, tell us that one degree could turn into three or four degrees by the middle of the century.
If that happens, the thing we call “civilization” will simply become a sputtering mechanism for responding to emergencies. The world’s agronomists, for instance, tell us that for each degree increase in global temperature, we can expect a 10 percent decline in grain yields. Imagine our planet producing 40 percent fewer calories. Forget development and peace and all the other things we devoutly hope and work for; it will just be a chain of chaos.
You can react to that news in two ways, each in some sense appropriate. One is despair—curling in on yourself. I’ve had a bit of that myself. Back in 1989, as a 28-year-old, I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming, and it scared me silly. For the year that followed, I found myself in a sporadic funk, wondering why I would bother to, say, have children.
But that despair didn’t last, thank heaven. My daughter went off to college last fall, a strong and beautiful woman. And, with the wisdom of my 52 years, I figured out that when you’re faced with the worst threat humans have ever faced, the job is simply—to face it.
Over the past two decades, we’ve employed many mitigating tactics, all of them valuable but none of them sufficient. People have made changes in their lifestyles, from switching light bulbs to renouncing meat. All of it helps—a little. But it has become clear that the math of climate change won’t yield, in the time we have, to individual action alone. We need to change not just lives but structures; it’s not about installing a new energy-saving bulb but about installing a new economic paradigm that will turn us away from the brink.
Which means politics—but not necessarily partisan politics. In fact, electing politicians has so far produced precious little change because the power of the fossil fuel industry is so incredibly strong (the oil industry alone spends an average of $400,000 a day lobbying the US Congress). So we have to find some currency other than money with which to take them on.
The good news is that such a currency exists—or many, really. They are the currencies that fuel every movement: passion, spirit, creativity, love. The combined spirit and creative powers of the many thousands of people who care about the Earth and about finding solutions to climate change are potent and may even be a match for that $400,000 a day. Five years ago, seven college undergraduates and I started 350.org, a group that takes its name from the amount of carbon that scientists say is the most the atmosphere can safely hold: 350 parts per million. (Sadly, this is a number we’ve already exceeded—we’re nearing 400 parts per million.) 350.org has grown to be the world’s largest climate campaign, a self-starting, grassroots network that connects people and communities worldwide who care about fighting climate change, and inspires them to organize around the projects they’re passionate about. We’ve hosted 20,000 rallies in 191 countries. CNN called our efforts the most widespread political activity in the planet’s history.
There’s another currency, too, and sometimes we have to spend it. When there’s no other way, we have to put our bodies on the line. In September 2011, for instance, US citizens held the largest civil disobedience action of the last 30 years, with 1,253 people going to jail to protest the proposed Keystone pipeline to Canada’s tar sands. A NASA scientist said tapping the second-largest pool of carbon on Earth would mean “game over” for the climate. We delayed the pipeline’s construction for a year and a half—which was worth the three days in jail. It wasn’t much fun, but it wasn’t the end of the world. The end of the world really is the end of the world, which is why we do what we do.
You don’t have to go to jail; email works, too. Right now environmental activists are in the middle of a great drive to persuade colleges, churches, and other institutions to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies. In the 1970s and 1980s, college students used this strategy to protest apartheid, targeting companies with investments in South Africa. Nelson Mandela credited them with playing a key role in dismantling apartheid. If we can weaken the political power of the fossil fuel companies, we’ll set the stage for real change. Some campuses have sold their stock, and last fall, Harvard students voted 3 to 1 to demand that their trustees divest.
Fostering change in your community is not easy—it means asking good people and good institutions to live up to their rhetoric. That might be uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as the world we’re quickly building. When my courage flags, I think of the farmers who suffered through last summer’s drought when the Mississippi sank to historic lows; or the folks who endured Superstorm Sandy, which may have wrecked $20 billion worth of property; or the 20 million Pakistanis forced from their homes in 2010 when the Indus River flooded like never before.
That’s where our passion, spirit, creativity, and love come in. We’re being forced, at high speed, to redesign our world; to imagine, and then build, a better future. It’s a test of whether humanity’s big brains were really a good adaptation. But, even more than that, it’s a test of whether we, collectively, have a big enough heart.
We have to be able to conceive of the lives of those Pakistanis displaced by flooding as utterly connected to our own, very different, lives. There’s a concrete connection: Our carbon emissions make their lives miserable. But can we connect with them as brothers and sisters, all of us engaged in the same desperate, beautiful struggle? “Hope” isn’t quite the word, perhaps. I honestly don’t know if we will prevail. But I know we have to try. The word is “resolve.”
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Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, and the author of a dozen books about the environment. The End of Nature, written in 1989, is one of the first books written for a general audience on climate change. To learn more, visit 350.org.