When Hurricane Sandy came to Capitol Hill, there was nobody home. After the hurricane subsided, however, the metaphor of the moment I took the picture persisted. When it comes to North American leadership on climate change, I still wonder whether anyone is home.
In the waves of ink (literal and electronic) that spilled over the pages of various publications in the aftermath of the storm, Sandy was a momentous event with unforeseen consequences. I felt a little like I did after 9/11, marveling how the “official” response could be one of surprise when so many had predicted such events would occur.
Sandy was a Category 1 hurricane, the smallest still able to be called one. Granted, tides and timing affected its severity, but it could easily have been a Category 3, and perhaps the third of the season to hit the same place.
This, after all, is what extreme weather due to climate change looks like. Our collective incapacity to recognize this fact is what makes me wonder whether anyone is home.
For my part, I was in Washington at the end of October for consultations about climate change, a response that tested the stern demeanor of the border agent who screened me as I boarded (literally) the last flight into the city before the airport was closed for two days and everything was cancelled.
The previous few days I had been in Ottawa, participating as workshop leader and panelist in PowerShift 2012 in the midst of more than 1000 participants younger and more energetic than the denizens of either Parliament Hill or Capitol Hill.
It was the Tale of Two Cities, capitals of the wealthiest countries in the forefront of global consumption of everything, especially energy, and I still wondered if anyone was home.
On opening night in Ottawa, under the totems of the Great Hall of the Museum of Civilization, as the crowd chanted “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” I had the uneasy feeling that a sustainable world is merely one among many potential futures — and at present not the most likely.
Later I met and listened to Bill McKibbin, founder of 350.org, as he fired up the crowd – and am still pondering his observation that the real climate extremists are not those rallying in the streets for a change but the political and economic leaders who refuse to heed the planet’s warnings or to do the math about greenhouse gas emissions due to fossil fuel consumption.
Then, later in the evening, as Naomi Klein resorted to rhetoric that relabeled the issues surrounding climate change into ones requiring resistance and struggle, my uneasiness grew.
As an historian, I know too well the rhetoric of war, the polarities of conflict, how easily wars are started and how little control one then has over their direction and outcome.
But when you believe you are contending against the monoliths of corporate power, it is understandable to feel like David fighting against their Goliath. For a sustainable future, however, we cannot afford to engage in that kind of struggle anymore than we can afford to be quiescent and do nothing.
Another world is possible, but it needs to be a world in which power is not misrepresented as force. It must be a world in which subtlety finds a path through obstacles and wears them away, like a trickle of water eroding solid rock that could withstand many hammer blows without effect.
Given our current situation, there are good reasons for cooperative action instead of conflict, quite apart from the usual language of common interest. In a climate-changed world there is nowhere for anyone safely to hide, regardless of wealth, power or geography — and it is even less safe for their children.
Sustainability requires social and cultural change, not more scientific knowledge or new technological developments. We know what needs to be done and we have the tools to do it. We just don’t.
As a global culture, we have lost our stories, our sense of who we are and where we belong, precisely because we have become physically separated from where we live and with whom. We don’t live in a global village – no one could. We don’t live as though people everywhere are our neighbors – how could you be a neighbor to someone you don’t know?
Global ethics are inescapably the product of local ethics, in terms of both our ecological choices and our social relationships. A sustainable future starts with choices close to home and then moves out from that centre, as the choices and the story within which those choices are made are shared.
The story we share needs to be one of persistence and resilience embodied within the local community – a community shaped by compassion, respect and common sense.
This story crosses all boundaries of geography, religion and ethnicity, weaving a common narrative that transcends the language of self-interest and mutes the shrill demands of the marketplace. It is not a new story. Every community aware of its past has a myriad of similar ones, giving it shape and identity, finding hope for the future based in a shared sense of meaning and purpose.
There are also many shades of green in this kind of story, colouring us toward a brighter future in which — out of respect for each other, for the Earth, and for future generations — coercion and domination no longer have a place.
Another world is possible, but we need somebody home in Washington and Ottawa to help us create it — or at least to buy time for the rest of us to do it ourselves.
There will be a struggle, to be sure, but it is a struggle against our uncivilized natures, our baser instincts – the remnants of the Old Savage who has long outlived his usefulness in 21st century society and has no place in a sustainable future.
That those baser instincts are reflected in the behavior of our political and economic leaders simply mirrors the problem we have with ourselves. In the end, the only choices over which we have control are our own.
Is anybody home? There is, at my house – but I can’t speak for you.