My three-year-old son’s favorite book is Out of the Blue. It has large color photographs of sea animals, from plankton to clownfish to orcas. I often find my son, dressed in his pajamas, on the floor of his bedroom in the morning carefully turning the pages of the book. And every time I hear him naming out the magnificent creatures before him, my heart breaks. Within my son’s lifetime, if there is not a radical reversal in human behavior, the oceans of the world, and the life systems they support, will die.
I fight for my children. It is not about me. It is about them. The deep despair I feel over our collective inability to acknowledge, much less confront, the catastrophic dislocations ahead of us is offset by a fierce desire as a father to make sure I have summoned all my energy and resilience to defy the corporate systems of death that are exploiting human beings and the natural world until their exhaustion or collapse. At least, I hope, my children will look back and see that their father did not remain passive as the ecosystem was destroyed in the name of profit, and the world was reconfigured by corporations into a terrifying neofeudalism, a kind of totalitarian capitalism. At least they will see, I hope, pictures of their father being hauled off to jail in defiance. I resist not out of hate but out of love, a love for all the things the deformed culture of corporate profit finds meaningless and sentimental – children, lakes, mountains, trees and the song of a wood thrush deep in the forest.
The consequences of severe climate change are unavoidable. The freak weather patterns, the wild fires and tornadoes sweeping across Midwestern states, along with the droughts and severe flooding in China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Australia, along with the soaring temperatures across the Earth, are upon us. And this is only the start. But what is most frightening is that the rapid and terrifying acceleration of global warming, which is disfiguring the ecosystem at a swifter pace than even the gloomiest scientific studies predicted a few years ago, have been met with collective denial and self-delusion. Global temperatures have already gone up one degree and begun the rapid melting of the Arctic. Every rise of one degree Celsius means a ten percent reduction in grain yields. If we stopped all carbon emissions today temperatures would continue to rise by at least a degree, perhaps more. A sudden epiphany would not save us from drastic climate change, large scale human migrations, rising sea levels, famine and endemic food shortages. Welcome to our brave new world.
The only viable option to save the human species from self-immolation – ending our dependence on fossil fuels – is ignored by the industrialized world’s power brokers, who have shredded the tepid climate agreement made at Kyoto. The last thin hope for reform and reversal will come through sustained acts of civil disobedience and open defiance of the formal systems of power. It means getting arrested. This is the conclusion drawn by many of our most prescient and important voices, including Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben.
Working within the system to reform it has failed. Working outside the system to defy it may also fail. Let’s be honest about this. The corporate structures of power are indifferent to the needs, rights or desires of the ordinary citizen – not to mention the planet – and have hijacked all systems of power from mass communications to electoral politics to the courts.
It is understandable that a realist would despair. And if I was to retreat into self-absorption I would find a small plot of land where I would never have to hear another leaf blower, and find what comfort I could in my family, my books and the whispers and beauty of the natural world. But to give up is not morally permissible. It is to condemn, as Sitting Bull reminded us, the born and the unborn, as well as the flora and fauna, which Sitting Bull also considered sacred, to misery and death. We have no right to do that. We must stand and fight for life.
We must fight for those who come after us, for those who at this moment are too small, too weak and too disempowered to fight, for the born and the unborn, for those who, like my son, have not yet lost the capacity for wonder and awe before the natural world. We owe our children that. The hardest moral stance and the greatest act of courage will be to see clearly, like Sitting Bull, the darkness and the power of the forces of death arrayed against us and yet find the fortitude to resist. Sitting Bull’s greatest fear at the end of his life was that he had not fought hard enough for his people and that they might revile him.
Resistance preserves our personal dignity as autonomous human beings. It means we have not allowed ourselves to be classified as objects. It is a way to defy our obscurity. Life is short. We all die. Nearly all battles for justice will long outlive us. I find my solace in faith. It is not the faith of any orthodox creed or religion but the faith that we are called to do the good, or at least the good in so far as we can best determine it, and then to let it go. We do not know where this good goes or if it goes anywhere. The Buddhists call this good karma. But faith means that acts of resistance – for true spirituality is always about resistance – are never meaningless, although all tangible signs may point toward failure and defeat. This faith gives me great comfort.
It is the faith that Cyrano de Bergerac expressed as he lashed out in his final battle, a battle he knew he could not win. Mortally wounded and facing Death, he suddenly rises. “Not here! Not lying down!”
His friends spring forward to help him. “Let no one help me,” he tells them as he props himself against a tree. “Only the tree … Let the old fellow come now! He shall find me on my feet, sword in hand … ”
“What’s that you say?” Cyrano calls out to the darkness. “Hopeless? Why, very well! But a man does not fight merely to win! No! No, better to know one fights in vain! … You there, who are you? A hundred against one. I know them now, my ancient enemies: Falsehood! There! There! Prejudice, Compromise, Cowardice!”
He swings with his sword. “What’s that? No! Surrender? No! Never, never! Ah, you too, Vanity! I knew you would overthrow me in the end. No! I fight on! I fight on! I fight on!”
He stops, breathless and dying. “Yes, all my laurels you have riven away And all my roses; yet in spite of you, There is one crown I bear away with me, And tonight, when I enter before God, My salute shall sweep all the stars away From the blue threshold! One thing without stain, unspotted from the world, in spite of doom. Mine own!”
He springs forward, his sword aloft.
“And that is … ”
The sword falls from his hands. He totters and falls into the arms of Roxane and his friends.
“That is … my panache.”