From Robert Shetterly’s opening address at the Climate Convergence Conference in Blue Hill, Maine on July 20, 2019.
I begin with Gauguin’s great painting which asks the questions: Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
Dinosaurs lived 200 million years on this planet, and my guess is that they never felt the need – much less had the ability – to ask such questions. And we can be pretty sure they never questioned Nature’s laws. What finally killed them was not arrogance or failure to evolve – they were very good at that – but an enormous asteroid. We humans have existed in our present incarnation for only 100,000 years. We are clever enough, conscious enough and curious enough to ask those mysterious questions. Clever enough, too, to shape shift ourselves into our own asteroid. Previously those questions – Who are we? Where are we going? – were philosophical musings. Now survival demands their answering.
Before proceeding I want us all to honor this land, the Indigenous land of the Wabanaki. Not simply the land of indigenous people but all indigenous species. Which is to say, it is not merely the land stolen from native people but the land inhabited by all other species whose habitats, health, populations, relationships and evolved wisdom have been invaded, disrupted and diminished.
That recognition is crucial. Some people call the genocide of native people this country’s original sin. But implicit in that genocide was the positing of a reality based on white ownership of the land, an implicit right to exploit nature for profit, an assumption that our desire to create an economic reality separate from nature’s was not only possible but good, was ordained by God. Erik Reece, a poet, professor and anti-coal activist from Kentucky says: “Our most modern sin is that we have not loved the world enough. We have exiled the holy from this realm so that we might turn its mountains into money.” A slight of hand causing rain forests and species to disappear then reappear as numbers on spreadsheets, a profusion of dollars for billionaires. That’s easy.
What we can’t do is change nature’s laws. That’s impossible.
So, it’s a mistake to think that original sin was eating an apple God said not to eat.
And those other sins – native genocide and slavery – those were symptoms.
The great philosophical mistake was indulging the appetite to consume the tree, the whole tree, the tree of life, while feeling justified, as well as satisfied.
During the Vietnam War Muhammad Ali chose personal belief and dignity over fighting in that immoral war. He said: “I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”
All of us here today have also have been in jail for four hundred years. The jail of propaganda, the jail of false narrative, the jail of failing to see the most obvious and simplest thing: that we survive on this tiny speck in space at the mercy of the laws of nature and its bounty and in direct proportion to the health of all other species. We have called this jail freedom, the exalting of personal and irresponsible freedom to destroy the common good – not merely the environmental commons but the social, political and moral commons, too. It’s the freedom of Ahab wrapped and bound to the side of the great whale in the tangled ropes of his own harpoon, in a lust for dominance, power and profit. After Ahab attacked the whale, they disappeared into the deep together.
James Baldwin said: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction.” So why are we here today? We’re here to Get Real! We will be real, we will be authentic, to the degree we engage the realities of our time.
Every one of our past 11 presidents – Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush, Obama, Trump – was informed of the looming climate crisis and publicly stated how serious it was. And every one of them expanded fossil fuel exploration and use.
Some might say we adults are acting like indulgent children. But actually, as was made clear by the first few talks today [by youth speakers], the child/adult relationships have been inverted. It’s the children who rightly scold the adults. It’s the children who insist on reality, the children who must rescue adults from their addiction to fairy tale and fantasy. It’s the children who know it’s past time to leave the playroom.
So, like Gauguin, we ask: Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? But we must also ask, Who will save us? Well, we will, of course. No Deus ex Machina is streaking through the cosmos like a shooting star to come to our rescue. No climate superhero will punch the CO2 villain out of the galaxy. The rescue will be Deus in Cardium – the god in our hearts – where we find our courage, our community, our compassion, our love, our humility and our joy in working together and our deepest connection to all life.
Mary Oliver, in her great poem “One or Two Things,” says:
“The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now,
and never once mentioned forever,
which has nevertheless always been,
like a sharp iron hoof,
at the center of my mind.
But to lift the hoof!
For that you need
We have convened today to examine ideas, to lift that iron hoof. We have some good ideas, but none of them good enough by itself to lift it. Archimedes said: “Give me a lever long enough, and a place to stand, and I will move the world.” Together, with us all using our full weight on the long lever of our courage, our ingenuity, our tenacity, and our aspiration for the common good for ourselves and all species, we can move it. We can free ourselves from the centuries of imprisonment of false narrative. We can cut ourselves free from the tangle of our own ropes on the flank of the great whale – freeing both ourselves and the whale.
The hierarchies and patriarchies of habitual leadership have failed us. Our model of military dominance has become an obscene exercise in war promotion for the purpose of war profiteering – generating the largest single-entity CO2 bootprint in the world. Patriarchy and militarism rest on dehumanization. And they have dehumanized us. We have become our own “other.”
Let’s embrace the process of recovering our humanity, while extending that embrace to all people and plants and animals of the world. That’s our mission, that’s our hope, that’s our responsibility. There is only one sure way to free ourselves from anger, fear and despair; that’s to inspire ourselves with our own persistent, courageous commitment to change.