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Integrity in a time of climate unraveling

The way out of this dilemma is to move the question of climate change out of our heads and into our hearts

Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and author of Resilience and Resistance: Building Sustainable Communities for a Post Oil Age (2015, Green Writers Press).


On the same day this past August when President Obama was in Baton Rouge offering condolences to victims of a disastrous 1,000-year, climate-powered storm, his Department of the Interior was a few miles away in New Orleans accepting bids at an auction for new oil-drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

As part of that auction, British Petroleum — whose Deepwater Horizon drilling platform had exploded only four years earlier, killing 11 workers and causing more than 200 million gallons of oil to spew into the Gulf — was awarded 24 new leases there.

Obama has wanted to be known as the “climate president,” but he has often been an all-of-the-above enabler of continued fossil-fuel drilling and extraction.

It is tempting to dismiss this egregious disconnect as just another instance of the hypocrisy that unfortunately has often characterized the Obama administration around climate change.

While valid, to leave it at that would be to overlook something that is important for all of us to understand, not only about our president, but also — and more importantly — about ourselves.

* * *

Like Mr. Obama, many of us know about climate change and are concerned (worried, scared) about it. Beyond the dire information that the scientists are telling us almost daily, it’s what we can see for ourselves, as well.

We know about West Virginia, Louisiana, and California. We know that the two hottest months ever recorded on our planet were this past July and August.

We know that if we’re serious about preventing catastrophic warming, “we can’t dig any new coal mines, drill any new fields, build any more pipelines. Not a single one,” as Bill McKibben wrote in the Sept. 22 issue of the New Republic.

If nothing else, we know about the growing drought in our own backyard.

But so many of us — like our president — are not willing to do what we need to do to avoid societal collapse and species extinction.

* * *

The denial of climate change that characterizes so much of the body politic is not solely a matter of ignorance, nor does it advance a corporate bottom line.

No, our denial of climate change is because we don’t act on what we know.

Like the mythical frog in the slowly boiling pot of water, we behave as if what is happening is not happening. We continue with business as usual while the planet is burning.

It’s not that we lack moral values, either.

Like our president, we are generally good people, attending to the care and well-being of our children, our partners, and other members of our family.

We are usually good neighbors and fellow workers and, in general, decent, law-abiding citizens. We sincerely want a world of peace, compassion, and social justice, which is precisely the world we require if we are to survive in any kind of sane, habitable post oil world.

Rather, our denial is because of our unwillingness to act as if we are in the midst of the emergency we see unfolding all around us — to act, in fact, as we often have when confronted with other life-threatening events.

This is when we rise to the occasion, beyond conventional decency, to behaviors and interactions that are one with the values we profess to believe in. This integrity allows us to be true to ourselves, to be real about our situation, and not just when it is convenient for us.

It is doing the right thing because it is the right thing.

* * *

When we do the right thing, there is no longer a split between the values we say we believe in and how we then conduct ourselves. At that point we cease to suffer the chronic condition of our kind: of living lives that we don’t want while wanting lives that we don’t live.

The way out of this dilemma is to move the question of climate change out of our heads and into our hearts.

Beyond knowing intellectually what is happening, we must allow our hearts to be touched with — to grieve — the irreparable loss that has already occurred to our special world and to many of its precious expressions. This process can move us to take action. To grieve is to become unblocked.

No question, doing so is painful and difficult. Grieving is facing the loss of something that — initially, anyway — we do not want to accept.

But by going through this process, and coming to accept climate change for what it is, our inherent moral values surface, no longer suppressed by fear, anger, hatred, or any of the other defenses we use to protect ourselves from both accepting and acting proactively on the truth of our lives.

Beyond denial, we are no longer stuck in being unreal. We can now do what we need to be doing, to live wholeheartedly and with integrity in a world of imminent climate catastrophe. Grieving will do that for you.

When we properly grieve the loss that has already taken place and continues every day, we will be true to our children and partners and other members of our family, to our friends and neighbors, to our work- and schoolmates and, of course, to ourselves.

We will engage with climate change in life-affirming ways, acting as if it is the here-and-now life-threatening emergency that it is.

Unlike the frog, we will cease waiting to act until it is too late. We will do something now.

* * *

The hidden gem of this heartfelt acceptance of our situation rests in the fact that it provides each of us with the integrity we require to be the morals-based, values-acting human being that we really are — the person we need to be now more than ever in order to survive in a world that is so clearly unraveling.

With denial no longer necessary, acceptance allows for constancy in the way we behave, so that our best is an everyday practice and not just an occasional one.

Mistakes are made, for sure, as part of being a human being, and of learning to live in this brave new world.

But perfection is not the issue here; steadfastness and reliability are.

What counts in the end is our consistent integrity in the performance of heart values.

This is the foundation of any sustainable society known for peace, compassion, and social justice.

It is also the realistic basis for hope.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #384 (Wednesday, November 23, 2016). This story appeared on page E3.

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