The Thesis – Just Transitions
So, today marks a full year since I left the land of the midnight sun.
I wasn’t kidding when I said a piece of me would always remain there. Sometimes I miss it so much it aches in my bones.
I’ve finally finished the written portion of the related “thesis.” Since I was granted the license of doing a creative project I opted not to write a stuffy academic piece full of statistics and citations, and instead opted for an opinion piece without the jargon.
It isn’t as long as a typical thesis, but it is certainly longer than a typical Adaptive Earth blog – if you’re interested in the final learning outcome of my experience there and have some time to kill – read on!!
When I took off for Iceland, eyes clenched, white-knuckle-gripping the airplane armrests, I did so intending to learn about Iceland’s climate change policy. For my children I hoped to bring something worthwhile home to America.
My life revolves around being a mom, so when I hear the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning of catastrophic climate chaos that will cause widespread famine, an increased number of long droughts in heavily populated and large scale food production areas, increased weather anomalies and extreme weather events, all of which will cost hundreds of thousands of lives and cause huge numbers of people to become climate refugees before even mid-century if we don’t act now, it sends shivers down my spine.
When I first decided to build my thesis work around a 12 week trip studying climate change and sustainable community building in Sólheimar, a tiny eco-village in Selfoss, Iceland, I did it hoping I could come back and contribute to the discourse on the green energy policies we seem to be sluggish on instituting here in America. Iceland seemed like the right place to go considering their optimistic and ambitious goals, which include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75% within the next three decades.
I was naïve though.
Not because there are no good green energy answers in Iceland – to the contrary, the choices that country makes to power itself are nothing less than of the “greenest” caliber in comparison to the typical fossil fuel alternatives; they really do put America to shame.
Think the power of volcanic heat. Think abundant, renewable water sources. Imagine wind power in one of the windiest places you’ve ever been nearly blown over by.
No, my naïveté came from the idea that green energy is even the end-all answer in the first place.
One of the most pervasive themes of my curriculum while studying with the Center for Ecological Living and Learning (CELL) abroad revolved around the idea of community building to achieve the desired results sought after for a sustainable life. Sólheimar is not just an eco-friendly-village boasting a carbon recycling system that promotes crop growth by sequestering its own climate-forcing greenhouse gas emissions, which they then pump back into their on-site greenhouses. It is also called home by a population that is roughly 50% special needs.
This may seem wholly unrelated to the theme here, but for me, it was especially intricate to my learning experience. It meant I had to do more than study charts and graphs about what a kilowatt hour of energy is worth in terms of digging up old dinosaurs to burn for power, and what the environmental impacts are of mining rare minerals for “green” energy – it meant I had to learn how to coexist with people carrying different needs than my own. I had to learn how to be a good community member not just a good thinker.
It meant I had to learn to talk a little quieter during lunch for community members with hyperactive sensitivities to sensory stimuli; that I had to pick my seat judiciously so as not to be accused of theft by the regular incumbent thereof whose anxiety levels were regulated by a need for consistency. Instead of throwing on a hood to hide from the rain, it meant laughing with those who found joy in it and proudly wearing nicknames that reflected my snack choices – I had to acknowledge that I was being made to systematically readjust my routine approach to living, not so unlike what our species will need to do as climate change continues to encroach.
In addition to the requirement of blending into this exceptional and diverse community, I was required to blend into an even more immediate community – my CELL community, which consisted of a group of 10 students including myself and two instructors, all living together in a small cottage with shared rooms.
Our close-knit group studied environmental justice issues; we watched films that showed firsthand what it means to make a living by digging through garbage dumps, what it means to accept a higher likelihood of living with breathing problems because skin color placed you conveniently closer to toxic waste sites than people with paler complexions. We read accounts of exploitation of low-wage workers in impoverished countries by other countries with high-consumerist culture-sets who buy and sell their sweatshop products at markups workers will never see reflected in their paychecks.
We also got lectured on the disparity between the resource depletion that constitutes an American lifestyle (on average 3-5 planets’ offerings per lifetime per person) compared to that of someone living in an underdeveloped village across the ocean who doesn’t even venture to use up their share of a single planet’s offering. This is the difference between going to the mall in a gas guzzling pickup truck to snatch up the next best entertainment gadget or gizmo, and having to travel a half mile on foot to the nearest water hole to scoop up the day’s cooking and bathing resources, which may or may not be contaminated by industries owned by people from faraway places.
We then put climate change impacts into context when considering that the communities that already get hit the hardest and are predicted to continue to, have contributed least to leading lifestyles of hyper-consumerism that have cultivated the emissions problem to begin with. Lifestyles that take up more resources than a planet’s ability to give, resources which have to come from somewhere, and by logic and sheer mathematical certainty, will eventually run out.
Connecting the dots and crafting a bigger picture about what needs to be done to meet the challenges of climate disruption however, started to come less and less from the intellectual brain-packing we were doing, and more and more from the shared experiences we were having. And not just those we were having with the village community, but also, and maybe even more so, the ones we were having with each other as a tightly bound intentional community. In addition to tackling our academic pursuits together we were also cooking together, cleaning together, eating together, and challenging each other’s as well as our own perceptions of necessity regularly. We did this by picking “challenges” out of a hat once a week that we would try to take on either individually or as a community that encouraged us to rely on borrowing from one another’s strengths and skill-sets.
I remember one of the more difficult challenges we took on together was a voluntary sacrifice of all things ‘technology’ for an entire waking day. This included clocks, radios, lights, TVs, phones, computers, you name it.
It might not sound like much – a single waking day – not even 24 hours.
Believe me when I tell you this was not nothing.
This was an exercise in saying hello with eye contact. It was card games by candle light.
It was Poetryreading
It was living.
This was the day I realized that green energy like standard energy continues to perpetuate a lifestyle that is depleting resources faster than they can renew, and owing to its ambitions of keeping us powered up, also contributes to the climate and social crises we are dealing with today. Green energy, while an unarguably better alternative than fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emission rates, is a short term solution for a long term problem; and it offers its own injuries through a whole new set of destructive ambitions, exploitations, and toxic extraction of finite resources.
These injuries can be seen in the environmental impacts on places like China that are dealing with the burden of toxic chemical leaching from the mining and recycling of photovoltaic solar panel cells – impacts that ruin fresh water aquifers and contribute to unusually high rates of digestive cancer and other associated health problems. Also in places like Northern Brazil which is nestled in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, and is home to the Carajás iron ore mine. This mine is one of the largest on the planet of its kind, and is responsible for the clear cutting of one of the world’s most vital carbon sinks, as well as of the displacement of tens of thousands of indigenous people. The resources extracted here, among other things, are used for the production of industrial wind turbines.
Green energy is a “solution” that continues to prop up a social structure that takes from the meekest to give to those who are already living in abundance – a structure that rips us away from our roots and each other; and for what? So we can get busy staring at screens.
In order to get to Iceland I had to fund raise hard. One of my biggest donors was a green energy company.
So what am I supposed to do with this now?
I originally wrote a proposal for this thesis project that professed my intention to leave America, soak up all the green energy goodness abroad like a life-size sponge, and come home and sell it to the masses with my video camera.
I can’t do it anymore.
What I learned in this experience was nearly opposite of what I set out to learn, which I guess means the thesis work is working… I came up with a hypothesis about green energy policies abroad being the best answer to the issue and my experiential research has proved me wrong.
The fact is, the learning, bonding and blending I engaged in with my temporary family abroad brought me back to instinctual wisdom – the stuff that says I can find lasting and robust fulfillment in my relationships with other people and with the Earth just as much, if not more, than in a purchased trinket.
The stuff that says I don’t necessarily need to buy stuff. That I don’t necessarily have needs that require the exploitation of people who struggle to find clean water, or clean air. That I don’t need the next best technological toy that came from an extraction process that poisons a child’s backyard thousands of miles away out of sight and out of mind – not to mention emits noxious greenhouse gases that are quickly dwindling our shot at offering to future generations a planet that they can thrive upon.
If I really want to make a personal impact I can do it by growing my own food instead of financially supporting industrial agriculture, which is by far, through its production methods, transport of goods, and in some cases, through deforestation that occurs to make way for it to exist at all, is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. I can also choose to go to my neighbor’s house the next time I run out of sugar and ask to borrow a cup, building community instead of carbon foot-printing my way to the store to buy more. I can commune with my own backyard by setting up a blanket and meditating under a tree instead of draining the Earth of yet more energy by turning on the boob tube to watch other people pretending to live in the trendy sitcom of the day.
If I want to make a social impact I can support and push for political policies that address the world’s inequities caused by nightmares like unbridled free trade agreements that reward the exploitation of people living in poverty and underscore the tragedy of the commons, the unfettered growth that disregards the right each being on Earth has to an atmosphere with undisturbed equilibrium. I can push back on policies that continue to strip social programs of resources to increase funding for our already bloated military budget, which not only asks our men and women in uniform to sacrifice their lives in both the physical and emotional sense, but also boasts being another one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas contributors. I can even demand that subsidies to fossil fuel companies, which hide the external costs of bleeding and burning our planet, be replaced by a carbon tax that reflects at least some of the price tag – one that will not only reflect a more honest monetary figure but will also make us all think a lot harder before getting behind the wheel to go to the store because we too will be feeling the cost of our choices.
The majority of the movement to address climate change has largely pushed its momentum forward with renewable and green energy as the muscle behind its message, but I think that message is underscoring too many unjust solutions that are a band aid for where we really need to do the work.
It is not an original idea I’m having that we need a system change, but for me it is an alien idea that the change needed is not going to help enough if it is mostly derived from innovative energy solutions. We are going to need to change what we consider necessity, plain and simple. And if you ask me, this is accomplishable.
Hokey though it may sound, I’ve learned that the impossible is possible.
If you don’t believe me, just look at the abolitionists, the suffragists, the counter-culture activists of the 1960’s and 70’s who took to the streets and put an end to the Vietnam War, winning against one the most powerful institutions in the entire world, the United States Military Industrial Complex. Look at the 400,000 people who took to the streets of New York less than a year ago to sound the alarm on climate change.
People are waking up.
While I was about half way through my semester with CELL we visited with an internationally famed author and environmental activist named, Andri Snær Magnason who has worked on creating a more just and eco-friendly world for years unabated. Having been battling a feeling of fatigue in my own activist work I asked him what he would suggest for someone who felt like they didn’t have the motivation or strength to continue doing what they do.
Prozac, he said with a wink.
After a good laugh, he went on to talk about the choices we have in perception. The climate change crisis is exactly that: a crisis. Being a parent makes that fact live in all the more an urgent truth.
Just because the answer has more to do with changing the system than an easy one-stop-shop cure-all in green energy doesn’t mean it has to feel impossible though, and that was his take home message. We can carry it as heavy or as light as we choose through our approach.
Is the climate crisis a burden to carry or is it an opportunity to paint the world in the strokes we see beautiful?
Maybe it’s both.
We are alive in a time that as well as being scary is offering each one of us hero status. We can grab the opportunity by changing the way we live and being willing to do the work that creates socially just transitions, or we can run from the risks into a face full of electronic screens and cheaply made goods that we tell ourselves are just fine, as long as their creations were powered by wind, water, or sun – allowing the pernicious impacts of this approach to continue to ruin the future for so many of us.
Though implementing sound energy policy for people who can’t or won’t transition to a more minimalist lifestyle is certainly one component of what needs to be addressed in the ongoing threat of climate change disruption, we will pass by an incredible opportunity if we don’t see this struggle as the one that can be best solved by dragging humanity and a connection to natural living back into the sunlight.
The fact is, if we continue to take more than the Earth is willing to give us naturally, which is exactly what we are doing when we perpetuate lifestyles that depend wholly on harnessing electricity and manipulating the Earth for conveniences and entertainment, we will continue to run into a wall when trying to offer a future to future generations. Some of the populations hit hardest by climate change are those of indigenous communities who look seven generations into the future when making choices for today; if we want to survive as a species and give a shot at such for other species as well, we all need think like this.
I just landed a job as a community organizer for a nonprofit that focuses on social justice through programs aimed at empowering culturally oppressed and other impacted and marginalized communities.
When I set out to Iceland I thought I would finish up my thesis studies and search out a job with an outfit missioned to work almost exclusively on transitioning power consumption from fossil fuels to something “cleaner” but I’m finding that “clean” is a matter of perspective when finite resources and quality of life worldwide is considered.
The climate change crisis is not just a crisis of emissions – it is not just here to get us to open our eyes to the ways in which we treat the Earth – it’s also asking us to rethink the ways we treat each other, and by virtue of the inevitable connections we have to one another, ultimately how we treat ourselves.
“In the light of a collapsing world,
what better time to be born than now?
Because this generation
gets to rewrite history…”