Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Skirting the real changes necessary to address climate change

About 3,000, “The biggest crowd ever to address climate change in San Francisco”  according to emcee for event organizers Sierra Club and 350.org,  gathered in Justin Herman Plaza on Sunday, February 17th.
Unlike the 40,000 hardy souls gathered in wintery Washington, DC on the same day for the same demands (no Keystone XL/tar sands; no fracking; cut carbon emissions, divest public money from fossil fuels) sunlight streaming between skyscrapers warmed us in San Francisco.
Marchers gathering on the corner of Steuart and Market Streets
to march around the block that houses the
state department’s regional offices in San Francisco.
(Photo: Susan Galleymore)
Circle dancing to the beat of Native drums warmed us too. Indeed, the presence of descendants of Native people indigenous to the bay area signals a change from the usual political gatherings. So novel is this addition of Native people to predominantly Anglo liberal and progressive local politics that the aroma accompanying the ritual burning of sage is still acceptable. (If the Native presence continues at these events – and I sincerely hope it does – I predict that delicately worded requests will soon circulate requesting organizers ban sage to accommodate the chemically sensitive. How that clash of cultures plays out will speak volumes about inclusion, power, and empowerment.)
On this early spring day, speakers included fresh voices and faces including youth, residents of the city of Richmond, and San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos who described his resolution to divest the San Francisco Employees Retirement System (SFERS) from leading fossil fuel giants Exxon, BP, Shell, and Chevron.
Divestment is a “great idea” but not addressed is how retirement funds make up the losses when an approximately $1 billion investment is pulled from these highly profitable companies.
Justin Herman Plaza on the Embarcadero.
(Photo: Susan Galleymore)

For fewer dollars building up in already strapped retirement funds mean fewer dollars for retirees, while barely affecting fossil fuel giants’ bottom line: $137 billion in profit goes a long way to reduce short-term corporate loss.
Among the questions not addressed by the push for “sustainable living” in the 21st century is what it actually means...and how it effectively addresses climate change.
The romantic view of sustainability predominates: the young and middle-aged, the healthy and able-bodied, the well-off, those living close to work, grocery stores, and shopping malls -- can buy and ride bicycles, grow vegetables, raise backyard chickens, turn down  thermostats, perhaps take buses (if one has the time to wait).
But, even if 25 percent – about 2 million people – of the Bay Area’s population did all of these things (a welcome even vitally necessary but highly unlikely scenario) it would not much diminish climate change.
The American People are woefully unprepared for the changes genuine “sustainable living” will impose on America and the American “lifestyle.” Indeed, “sustainable living” is profoundly un-American for, realistically, it means Americans “divest” from capitalism and that means major changes not only in material wealth but in the American worldview, culture, and identity.

In theory, I’m all for sustainable living and already live as sustainably as I can: I gave up my hurry-hurry, commute-centric, money-making career in favor of a simpler, shopping-free, more humane bike-centric life - despite a much diminished income.
But I’m aware that I can do so because the system of capitalism is still firmly in place and I can eke out a “sustainable” existence in the shadow of the American Way of Life. I cannot nor can any one of us sustain ourselves – never mind our families – on what is grown on condo patios, back yards, community gardens, on tiny amounts of wind- and solar-generated energy, and on bicycling, recycling and reusing.
While I heartily endorse Avalos’ resolution, it behooves him to explain that ritual and symbolism – divestment, political protests and gatherings, even blockading routes to and from tar sands areas – do not address the fundamental conundrum: sustainability versus capitalism...with capitalism requiring endless growth
As much as some well-intentioned people desire to have both, the two are incompatible.

In America, so far, there exists no vernacular to communicate the fundamental and interlocking changes that are required – demanded! – to reduce the perils climate change brings to people all over the planet.
Those who present themselves as leaders during this new moment must not only understand, integrate, and communicate a holistic picture about what sustaining life really means they must also acknowledge that what is necessary is not only divesting from but also doing away with the war, defense and homeland security industries that are the backbone of our economy, and nuclear energy and weaponry, and Wall Street, and the corporate model, and lobbying and lobbyists, and Congressional and corporate corruption....
For, “everything” is connected – and fundamental change includes re-ordering the American psyche.

The lovely spring weather allowed like-minded people and their colorful banners to reconnect after a cool winter and, as we celebrated in the plaza, hundreds of pedestrians and cyclists looked on and cars, trucks, and buses sped along the Embarcadero.
What would it really take to get those drivers and passengers out of their cars and engaged in step one: divesting from fossil fuels...and car culture?

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