Where do we go from here, chaos or community? -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
My last night in Paris I am huddled with friends in the kitchen of our rented apartment. The apartment is dark except for candle light. I have lit the menorah for the final night of Hanukah, all eight candles are burning bright. Hanukkah is for savoring the darkness and planting seeds of light – a needed teaching for me at the end of my time in Paris, which at times felt like a blur of train rides, meetings, actions, and arguments.
We are huddled around the candles, my two friends holding their formal UN badges in their just above the flame. They were accredited Observers to the United Nations process, the badges gave them access into the official “Blue Zone” space. And they are about to burn their badges.
As I turn on the overhead vent in the kitchen to remove the smoke and odor of melting plastic, a deep silence settled over us. For the first time in weeks, I can hear my breath and see my thoughts moving slowly. Time was slowing down and becoming more real.
Why were my friends burning their accreditation? Why burn away these passes which give access to power and privilege? This moment contains a powerful truth about where our movement is at today, and where we need to go. This is a love letter to our movement, which I feel needs to grow and evolve now in order to be powerful and strong in the times ahead.
I believe that our movement has been attempting to solve global environmental and climate problems with the same level of thinking that created them. As has famously been said, this does not and cannot ever work. By burning these access cards to the corridors of global political power, my friends are saying no to the forms of structural privilege where some voices are valued and others ignored. We were burning away the egoic, rigid, hierarchal nature of the climate talks, saying no to a space where the only valued intelligence is cold, politically calculating rationalism, devoid of the understanding of the interconnectedness nature of ecology. Devoid of space for connection and empathy. Even with badges, they were removed from the closed door negotiation meetings where text was finalized – including stripping out human rights, indigenous people’s rights, protection for oceans and watersheds, adequate funding for losses and damage, and legally binding targets.
We are saying no to an agreement which embodies the same thinking that created climate change. An example of this is the false solution of carbon trading mechanisms like REDD. The Indigenous Environmental Network describes REDD as “a carbon offset mechanism which privatizes the air that we breathe and uses forests, agriculture and water ecosystems in the Global South as sponges for industrialized countries pollution, instead of cutting emissions at source. REDD brings trees, soil, and nature into a commodity trading system that may result in the largest land grab in history…. and is a new form of colonialism.” This false solution is indicative of of the problems with the UN mindset to address climate change. It might make things worse.
The global political process does not give me hope for our world. We need a revolution of our thinking. Climate change is a symptom of a deeper crisis. It is a sign of the unraveling of our world, it is a result of the way modern people have been living for 500 years which is not in alignment with nature. At the roots of the climate crisis is a mechanistic way of thinking, a worldview of separation which says that our actions do not affect the whole.
I came here to participate in a social movement pushing for change within a system that has immense limitations. The COP process is dominated by wealthy, colonial nation states and professional elite negotiator. It is an embodiment of the paradigm of mechanical thinking which sees the world as a big machine you can assemble and disassemble with the mind, where all the parts are separate from each other. This paradigm of separation has alienated us from our indigenous history, from the earth, and from each other. This thinking gave rise to the economic system which only values profit and growth but does not take into its calculations pollution or effects on health and ecosystems. This thinking gave rise to seeing ourselves as separate races, some inferior and some superior, which led to colonialism, slavery and systemic racism. Indeed race was made up by slave traders to divide, control and oppress people. This way of thinking gave rise to our fossil fuel powered age, and now, global climate change is a result of this mechanical, separation based thinking.
Our movement cannot solve this crisis with that thinking, we must turn away top-down global politicking and turn towards solutions rooted in a different worldview, a different level of thinking. When my friends burned their badges, it was an empowering experience because we were also saying yes to something. Yes to people – powered change, yes to local community organizing, yes to changing themselves as a way of changing the world. Yes to embodying the world we want in our actions and choices. Yes to doing the work to shift the cultural stories and worldview we swim in.
So this moment of badge burning shows us a way forward. We need a movement which creates the conditions for real solutions. Real solutions are organic, emergent, community-based, rooted in the knowledge of the fundamental interconnected nature of reality. In Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr writes “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
These words reflect a worldview of the the interconnection and ecology of all things. This worldview of interconnection is found in spiritual traditions around the world, and is emerging in scientific and secular communities as well. The chorus of my favorite song from Nahko and Medicine For the People is “Aloha Ke Akua, Aloha Kuleana.” In the Hawaiian tradition, Ke Akua is the breath of god or the love of god, which is connected to everything. Kuleana is one’s sacred responsibility to the web of life, it is the call to fulfill one’s responsibility and to hold stewardship of community and the earth as a privilege and an honor. My interpretation of this mantra is “because I am connected to everything, I am responsible for protecting and serving the world.”
Real solutions are rooted in this ecological, interconnected thinking. As a movement, we must embody this way of thinking in every aspect of our lives. Only then can we join with front-line and indigenous communities to collaboratively solve problems at every level. We must burn away the colonial mindset which says only formally educated, white people in positions of power can solve climate change.
Real solutions leave room for the mystery of life. The Paris Agreement is full of answers, it does not leave room for questioning. It does not leave space for the mysteries of life to inform and inspire us. Paris was a gateway for us. A space and time to move through to learn lessons and form relationships. As we scatter around the world and move forward together, my call to the climate movement is this: let us pledge to work towards a reality where our movement leaves room for the mysteries and the unknown, so that we can be our fullest, most embodied, powerful, and creative selves. Let us create space for true connection and empathy, which are the building blocks of peace and solidarity. May we be unified by our commitment to restoring what has been lost, even in ourselves.