People, let’s get our carbon down

2009-09-12 13:46

HERE’S a question the answer to which might surprise you: What American songwriter penned the most-listened-to piece of environmental protest music of all time? The answer almost certainly is Marvin Gaye.

Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) appeared on What’s Going On, the album he released in May 1971, which went straight to the top of the charts even though Motown boss Berry Gordy thought it was too ­political to sell.

“I realised that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world,” Gaye said later.

The Vietnam War, protested in the album’s title song, was part of that story and so was drug abuse and so was “oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas”, and “radiation in the ground and in the sky” and “fish full of mercury”.

“Where did all the blue sky go/ Poison is the wind that blows/ From the north, east, south and sea.”

For a brief moment after the first Earth Day it made perfect sense for the civil rights and environmental movements to sing the same tune.

Tragically those movements soon diverged so far that some people still find it odd that activists like ourselves are working side by side again on issues like global warming and poverty. But it makes perfect sense. There is no threat to social justice greater than the breakdown of our earth’s physical systems and no way to ease that threat without rearranging power – both in the US and around the world.

Think for a minute about ­Hurricane Katrina. Those high winds blew in a lot of truths. For one, we’ve amped up nature in a ­dangerous way. Scientists now ­expect ever-stronger storms to rake our shores.

For another, poverty puts some people at far more risk than others. It’s not that everyone won’t ­eventually be affected by climate change but almost everywhere rich people occupy higher ground and the places that flood belong to those who can’t afford better.

As the oceans rise throughout this century those are the places that will turn wet and swampy first – substandard housing in the 21st century still means lead paint and asthma. But now it also means you better cut a hole in the attic so you can get on the roof and wait for the helicopter. And, of course, there are whole nations built on low ground – places like Bangladesh, which may see a fifth of its land under water.

In this decade we’ve watched ­diseases like dengue fever spread through the poorest parts of the poor world, driven by the mosquitoes that like the warm, wet world we’re building.

We’ve watched blocs of nations?– low-lying islands, for instance?– turn to the UN to demand action to ensure their very survival.

Almost without exception, these endangered places are filled with people of colour and with poor ­people.

That’s why the fight against ­climate change is a very basic fight for people in New Orleans or in ­Oakland or in DC or in Dhaka and Calcutta and Lagos. These are the places that will drive the demographic future here and abroad. The centuries to come belong to black and brown and yellow humans.

But 200 years of burning coal and gas and oil, mostly by Americans and Europeans, threaten to make that future impossible. That’s why right now we’ve got to take a united stand to slow it down.

That’s why 350.org will be holding demonstrations around the planet on October?24 to demand that our leaders pay attention to science and limit carbon concentrations to 350 parts per million. That’s the most important number on the planet though no one knew it 18 months ago.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jim Hansen and his team recently ­reported that concentrations higher than 350 were not compatible with “the planet on which civilisation developed and to which life on earth is adapted”.

Since we’re at 387 and rising right now that’s very bad news. It explains why the Arctic is melting and Australia is drying up and why we watch the hurricane season with more trepidation each year.

It also explains why more than a thousand actions are already planned for October 24 in every corner of the planet.
The earth’s immune system is finally kicking in, people are signing up to march in China and India and churches across the US are pledging to ring their bells 350 times that day.

It may turn out to be the largest global environmental action of all time and the most beautiful and diverse. Some of those protests will be atop lofty mountains or undersea off the Great Barrier Reef or on the lovely organic farms of Vermont. Some will be in grittier places, where the battle is more crucial.

That battle, which began when the Hip Hop Caucus and Green for All announced the Green the Block campaign on August 4 from the West Wing of the White House, is for many things. One of those is a stronger deal at the Copenhagen ­climate conference in December than the weak agreement currently under consideration.

Yvo de Boer, the international diplomat who is chairing those talks, recently pointed out as diplomatically as possible that the numbers on the table were nowhere near what science demands.

“This is not enough to address ­climate change,” he said.

Later he told activists that it would help the process enormously if they would mobilise.

“If you could get your members out on the street before Copenhagen that would be incredibly valuable.”

So we will. And if Copenhagen is to succeed we must move US policy too. The Waxman-Markey legislation on Capitol Hill goes further than any climate legislation in the past but it’s still riddled with loopholes and giveaways because members of Congress still fear the coal industry more than the effects of climate change or voters.

But this environmentalism can’t just be about the dangers we’ll face if we don’t take action. Green the Block means embracing the changes we must make as a way to build inclusive, thriving local economies.

We need to put people to work swinging hammers, not building luxury flats but installing insulation in old homes and solar water-heaters on roofs.

We need urban farming and strong local businesses standing up to the big boxes that suck the life and money from communities.

We believe we will be able to affect the decisions in Copenhagen and in Congress because some of the leaders of this new movement are different from the environmental lobbyists of the past. The old school are still important but their constituencies are also greying, their work too often confined to making cosy arrangements with the powers that be.

The new environmentalism draws everyone from church people to business people. The world’s greatest mountain climbers are busy recruiting their brethren for October 24, urging them to get up high with banners.

Writers Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver are rallying small farmers and food activists; people will rally at many a farmers’ market that day. And b-boys and graffiti artists are busy recruiting their friends to create images of 350.

But most of all, the constituency is young people who understand that they will bear the results of inaction for their whole lives. They understand in a visceral way the hopeful possibilities that come from a newly connected world.

Gaye and the soul era gave voice to the oppressed during the struggle for civil rights. Now young people are singing new freedom songs and identifying with one another under an umbrella known as hip-hop.

The swagger and style that young people and their urban-influenced culture bring to the green movement bear little resemblance to the old tree-hugging brand of environmentalism. But as the caretakers of a “block” on the brink of climate catastrophe they are powerful partners in the green movement.

That’s why the soul of modern environmentalism is right where Gaye left it in 1971, the spot we never should have walked away from: Oh, things ain’t what they used to be/ What about this overcrowded land?/How much more abuse from man can she stand? – The Nation

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