In digging through some old files, I found a speech from a vigil organized by 350 Silicon Valley, commemorating the 1st anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. I wrote this almost three years ago, but it still resonates.
Hi everyone. This is going to sound a little like the beginning of an AA meeting - but my name is Vanessa, and I am an optimist.
I’m a filmmaker, I’m a mother, and I’m co-chair of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. I’m also a presenter with the Climate Reality Leadership Corps - and it’s often hard to reconcile that particular job with optimism: every time I give a Climate Reality presentation, I’m reminded of the magnitude of the climate crisis, and the diminishing amount of time we have to turn this ship around. I am sometimes overwhelmed by how much we need to do, and how much is at stake.
But I am an optimist, and I’ll tell you why.
First of all, I’m not someone who likes to run away from problems. I’ve always found that facing a challenge tends to work out better than pretending the problem will go away on its own. But more than that - I see climate change not only as the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, but also as an enormous opportunity to make things better.
The author and activist Naomi Klein wrote a piece for the Nation magazine a couple of years ago, called “Capitalism vs. the Climate”. In it, she wrote that: “...climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books.”
Those words have stayed with me. Climate change supercharges the change we so desperately need, on so many fronts. It supercharges the case for clean energy - and in my optimism, I imagine a future in which that clean energy is so prevalent that we no longer blow the tops off mountains in Appalachia, and instead start planting them with trees. In this future, we no longer poison our water with fracking wells in our neighborhoods. We no longer bleed oil into the rainforests and onto our fragile coastlines. We do not have to choose between power and clean air, jobs and clean water. I see a future in which we do not pay for lighting our cities with the lungs of our children.
Climate change supercharges our need for better transportation too, and transit-based urban planning - and I can see a future in which we spend less time trapped in our cars, and more time out on our bikes, in our communities, and with our families.
Climate change supercharges our need for healthier agriculture - and I see a future in which the fields that feed us are no longer empty toxic blankets, barren of all but a single species, but instead exhuberant fields of life, providing not only carbon sinks and oxygen but fresh food - as my grandmother used to say at every meal - “to nourish our bodies, and feed our souls on the bread of life.”
And Climate change supercharges our need for disaster-resilient communities, where we know our neighbors, and feel a common purpose with them, where we forge friendships and connections that make us all safer and more at peace in our own homes.
I am optimistic because everywhere, with the power of this supercharged timeline, groups are forming - and local resilience is becoming a movement of its own. And this movement brings with it much more than the ability to survive when disaster strikes.
Through my work, and the magic of Twitter, I’ve discovered people doing amazing things in the unlikeliest of places. There are green bike lane systems going into cities like Chicago, and Memphis, and Washington, DC. There are bikeshare programs in New York, and San Francisco, and right here in Palo Alto. Community gardens are taking over vacant lots in Denver, locally-owned wind farms are bringing revenue to farmers in Minnesota, and independent local grocery stores are rising out of food deserts in places like West Oakland and Philadelphia.
And I am optimistic because California, yesterday, joined Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in signing the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy. 53 million people, living in what would be the world’s fifth-largest economy, will now be participating in what they are calling a far-reaching strategic alignment to combat climate change and promote clean energy. Yes, we still have a long way to go - but this is good news, and we are going in the right direction.
To use a permaculture term, there is a micorrhyzal movement happening - micorrhyzae is a symbiotic relationship, between a fungus and a plant - and most of it happens underground. It’s under everything, even if you can’t see it, it’s there working in mysterious ways, nourishing everything. We are building that movement, we are building that network, and every single one of us matters.
I am optimistic, because I recently learned that research shows that each of us has huge social influence - way more than just the people we meet. There is a tremendous contagion that happens - because we are fundamentally social animals, and we learn from each other - so whether it’s smoking, or obesity, or happiness, or climate action - your influence goes through 3 degrees of separation, and you might inspire as many as 1,000 other people to action. Every time you get on your bike, or drive an EV, or ride the bus, or walk instead of drive, you are changing social norms. Every time you think to yourself, why bother - it won’t make a difference - I’m just one person - think again. It does make a difference. We are making a difference. We just need to keep going.
Now the big question people always have is, what - or what ELSE - can I DO?
Well, there are many things you can do. You can drive less. You can fly less. You can buy your food locally. You can grow your own food. You can hang your clothes to dry. You can install solar on your roof. You can insulate your house. You can start a book club or a game night or a gardening club in your neighborhood. You can - if you haven’t already - join 350.org or Citizens Climate Lobby or OFA or Go Fossil Free or the Sierra Club or one of the many groups sponsored by Acterra. You can - and you should - contact your elected officials and make your voice heard. You can join the Transition movement, or the divestment movement. Find other people who are doing this work and lend a hand. Every single one of you counts.
And if you’re still looking for something to do, I’ll leave you with a simple, specific thing you can do. You can help me. See, I’m a filmmaker - and my latest project is a short video for kids, about carbon dioxide pollution and where it comes from. It’s called Worse Than Poop - or the pooping cars movie - and I’m making it with my son, Elliot. Elliot? Do you want to tell them how the film starts?
Elliot: “Did you know that for every gallon of gas that we burn, it creates 19 pounds of CO2? And that’s bad - because CO2 is heating up our planet - which is REALLY bad. So if you think about it - CO2 is actually worse than poop.”
With Elliot as the narrator, our film will use animation to show the CO2 that comes out of a car as an equivalent amount of poop. So it will be funny - right? a pooping car is funny - and when people laugh, the barriers come down and they start paying attention. But beyond making people laugh, we’re going to do something devious with this film: we’re going to change how people - how kids - look at cars, and most importantly, we’re going to show them that future I just told you about - the one where kids breathe clean air, and we eat real food, and we know our neighbors, and we really care for each other and our communities.
So if you want to do something, right now, tonight - you can go to worsethanpoop.com, and take the Poopie Pledge to support our project, and spread the word.
And you can decide to be an optimist. To choose action over inaction. To choose hope over despair. Because no matter how big the problem, every one of you can make a difference. Every one of us can make a difference. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You may never know the difference you’ve made, but don’t let that stop you. Each of us is a tiny point of light in the darkness. But together, we are a sea of flame. Together, nothing can stop us.