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Rebecca Solnit: 2013 as Year Zero for Us -- and Our Planet

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

In weather terms, 2012 in New York City began for me with crocuses.  On an early February day in a week in which the temperature hit 60 degrees, I spotted their green shoots pushing up through the bare ground of a local park on a morning walk -- just as if it were spring.  The year was ending last weekend as I wandered with a friend past a communal garden in the same park and noticed that, in a December week in which the temperatures were in the mid-50s, the last few roses were still in bloom. 

In between, in that park on a dark night in late October I watched a white-capped Hudson River roiling like some enraged beast, preparing for a storm surge that would flood lower Manhattan, plunging it into darkness and so turning it into "little North Korea," briefly making true islanders out of New Yorkers and flooding out whole communities.  That, of course, was Hurricane Sandy, the Frankenstorm surprise of New York's year (though anything but a worst case scenario).  And then, there was the American 2012 in which heat eternally set records and we experienced something close to an "endless summer."

If climate change had a personality in this year of so many grim records -- wildfires, drought, heat, carbon dioxide emissions -- it would definitely be saying: "I'm not the thing your grandchildren will have to deal with, I'm yours!" 

In such a new world of upheaval, tradition matters.  And there is one inviolable tradition at TomDispatch: Rebecca Solnit has the last word -- as she has for years, peering into the future, sizing up the past, weighing alternatives to what is, and last year considering a season of being Occupied.  Now, for the first time in a long while, weather and climate change are a growing American preoccupation.  Of course, climate change is an area long occupied by the giant energy companies whose compassion extends no further than their bottom lines (which, like the heat, continue to set historical records).  Solnit in her year-ending, TomDispatch-closing piece suggests that it's time for us to occupy the topic ourselves, and do our best to ensure that this planet, 2013 and beyond, remains a habitable place for us, our children, and our grandchildren.  There could be no more powerful New Year's wish. Tom

The Sky's the Limit
The Demanding Gifts of 2012
By Rebecca Solnit

As this wild year comes to an end, we return to the season of gifts. Here's the gift you're not going to get soon: any conventional version of Paradise. You know, the place where nothing much happens and nothing is demanded of you. The gifts you've already been given in 2012 include a struggle over the fate of the Earth. This is probably not exactly what you asked for, and I wish it were otherwise -- but to do good work, to be necessary, to have something to give: these are the true gifts. And at least there's still a struggle ahead of us, not just doom and despair.

Think of 2013 as the Year Zero in the battle over climate change, one in which we are going to have to win big, or lose bigger.  This is a terrible thing to say, but not as terrible as the reality that you can see in footage of glaciers vanishing, images of the entire surface of the Greenland Ice Shield melting this summer, maps of Europe's future in which just being in southern Europe when the heat hits will be catastrophic, let alone in more equatorial realms.

For millions of years, this world has been a great gift to nearly everything living on it, a planet whose atmosphere, temperature, air, water, seasons, and weather were precisely calibrated to allow us -- the big us, including forests and oceans, species large and small -- to flourish. (Or rather, it was we who were calibrated to its generous, even bounteous, terms.) And that gift is now being destroyed for the benefit of a few members of a single species.

The Earth we evolved to inhabit is turning into something more turbulent and unreliable at a pace too fast for most living things to adapt to. This means we are losing crucial aspects of our most irreplaceable, sublime gift, and some of us are suffering the loss now -- from sea snails whose shells are dissolving in acidified oceans to Hurricane Sandy survivors facing black mold and bad bureaucracy to horses starving nationwide because a devastating drought has pushed the cost of hay so high to Bolivian farmers failing because the glaciers that watered their valleys have largely melted.

This is not just an issue for environmentalists who love rare species and remote places: if you care about children, health, poverty, farmers, food, hunger, or the economy, you really have no choice but to care about climate change.  

The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope, your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of victories also to come.  But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole new scale as the news worsens.

Unwrapping the Victories

"Unhappy is the land that needs a hero," Galileo famously says in Bertold Brecht's play about that renegade scientist, but at least, the hero has the possibility of doing something about that unhappiness, as, for instance, the Sierra Club has. It's led the fight against big coal, helping prevent 168 coal-powered plants from opening and retiring 125 dirty coal plants.  The aim of its Beyond Coal campaign is to retire all 522 such plants in the United States, which would be a colossal triumph.

Its victories also capture what a lot of our greenest gifts look like: nothing. The regions that weren't fracked, the coal plants that didn't open, the mountaintops that weren't blasted by mining corporations, the children who didn't get asthma or mercury poisoning from coal emissions, the carbon that stayed in the Earth and never made it into the atmosphere.  The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline bringing the dirtiest of dirty energy from Canada to the Gulf Coast might have already opened without the activists who ringed the White House and committed themselves across the continent.

In eastern Texas, for instance, extraordinary acts of civil disobedience have been going on continuously since August, including three blockaders who this month crawled inside a length of the three-foot-in-diameter pipeline and refused to leave. People have been using their bodies, getting in the way of heavy equipment, and going to jail in an effort to prevent the pipeline from being built. A lot of them are the same kind of robust young people who kept the Occupy encampments going earlier in 2012, but great-grandmothers, old men, and middle-aged people like me have been crucial players, too.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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