The Canaries in Our Coal Mine


Put another way, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on.

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

On the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, environmental activists dumped oil-coated ducks at the Department of the Interior and dragged a net full of dead fish through downtown New York. Looking back from the perspective of a half century, such protests can seem almost quaint, but they did help to promote change — by the end of the year, the U.S. had an Environmental Protection Agency, and Earth Day is now observed in over 200 countries worldwide. What didn’t change, say Klein and most others in the forefront of the environmental movement today, is the underlying everything that must change — the still-escalating rates of resource depletion, consumption, and carbon emissions that now have the planet in a stranglehold.

The passage above is from Klein’s last chapter, in which she argues that only a global, grassroots social movement, something on the level of the nineteenth-century campaign to abolish slavery, can now trigger the changes necessary to avert disaster. Klein serves on the Board of Directors at, the climate action group that is working to reduce carbon emissions to below 350 parts per million. Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, a 1989 classic on global warming, started in 2008 when he realized that the fight for political and cultural change was going to require not just books but boots on the ground, and in the frontline of corporate boardrooms. In his more recent Oil and Honey, McKibben tells the story of his own mobilization — how and why he took on Big Oil, requiring him to travel the world when he’d rather be in Vermont, checking on his beehives:

It’s been the most satisfying work of my life, endlessly difficult and endlessly interesting. But asleep in some Days Inn or Courtyard by Marriott, I dreamed of the Champlain Valley, with the Adirondacks towering to the west and its growing web organic dairies and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms; I woke up to eat at the breakfast bar (non-Vermont non-maple syrup) and do rhetorical battle with retrograde congressman. But I did that battle in the name of my place, remembering what it felt like. I can try to imagine “unborn generations” and the “suffering poor” and the other huge reasons to fight climate change, but I never have the slightest trouble conjuring up the tang of the first frosty morning in the Adirondack fall, the evening breeze that stirs as the sun drops below the ridge.

Like Klein’s “Capitalism vs. Climate” discussion, Oil and Honey directs us to a choice. To emphasize that this choice must be an informed one, Earth Day, 2017 will feature a March for Science, in Washington and at over 500 international locations; April 22nd will be a day of speeches, displays, and teach-ins, because “threats to science are pervasive throughout governments around the world.” In the U.S., the Earth Day Network points to cutbacks at the EPA, to the loss or suppression of data at government websites and other issues.

In The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, Oliver Morton tackles the most contentious frontier of climate science, wondering if the current experimental tinkering with the atmosphere could or should be intensified. Given the scale of our environmental problems and the speed of the change required, Morton is skeptical that either the politicians or the protesters we will be able to move the planet away from fossil fuels and a consumer mind-set in time. Although he is also skeptical of geoengineering, which brings visions of some uncontrollable “Frankenstein planet” — teams of scientists creating miracle climate solutions that turn out to be uncontrollable climate problems — he wants to fund rather than flee the geoscientists:

And yet: when I mentioned the possibility of reviving the green Sahara of the early Holocene — of streams and savannah where now there is barren sand, of animals grazing where today they would die, of rock paintings that might once again reflect the reality of life — was your response one of straightforward disgust? Did you not at least entertain the thought that more life, restored life, could be a boon to the desert sands? If you did, are you sure that reviving desert waters is necessarily a sin? There are undoubtedly ways that it could go wrong. But there are ways that it could go right, too.

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