Gabriel Sistare, staff writer
Finding the river under the dregs: Moving with wartime urgency on climate change
They may have been brought by a friend, asked by their employer, or inspired by Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth.” For whatever reason, they arrived. Over 300 people filled the chapel last Friday night to hear five acclaimed personalities in the environmental movement.
The occasion was the first annual Headwaters Gathering, a conference that hoped to inspire action in the face of global climate change.
The speakers included Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx; climate scientist Paul Sears; distinguished professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College, David Orr; author Janisse Ray; New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin; President and CEO of the National Wildlife Foundation Larry Schweiger; and retired West Virginia coal miner and anti-mountaintop removal activist Chuck Nelson.
Saturday was for scholars. The speakers had their chance to exhibit all the complicated science and information they knew in the 20 minutes they were given.
Friday the panelists had the opportunity to share with the audience what they believed. That night, clean objective empiricism was left out. Their testimonies were rife with spirit and emotion.
Show our children that we are ready to be brave
Before the panelists spoke, the audience watched the Warriors of AniKituhwa, a Cherokee dance group, perform a series of traditional Cherokee war dances.
Painted red and armed with war clubs, the dancers entered the chapel shrieking in unison.
The leader, James “Bo” Taylor, explained the meaning behind the few dances that they did, including the Bear Dance, a courting dance that Taylor said always “happened after all the children went to sleep.”
Taylor said that it is a generalization that warriors like him are trigger happy and always wanting to pick a fight. “We are picking up our war clubs to show our children that we are ready to be brave,” he said.
Taylor’s comment seemed to deal with cultural rather than ecological defense but implied we ought to show bravery when faced with a task ahead of us that will not allow mistakes.
Many of the speakers mentioned the upcoming generation and how it was our responsibility to provide them a world worth living in.
During his “This I Believe” speech, Orr paraphrased a quote from Thomas Jefferson.
“No generation has the right to impose debt on another,” said Orr.
We Shouldn’t have to leave to find a better home
Although few offered comprehensive step-by-step plans for alleviating climate change and environmental degradation, many of the speakers, Majora Carter especially, shared their experiences of constructing plans for working against the present threat.
Carter’s initiative with Sustainable South Bronx wasn’t established as the fix-all remedy to the poor environmental conditions in the borough, but it seemed practical, the cost was low, and why not at least try?
Sustainable South Bronx began to install green roofs on buildings and tenement homes, start development on an extensive greenway throughout the South Bronx, and continues to train local folks in green job areas.
Carter’s work certainly isn’t the saving grace of the South Bronx and it’s environment, but what seems inspirational is Carter and her organization’s motivation to try their best to reverse a poor environmental situation that was left for them by the previous generation.
During her “This I Believe” testimony, Carter spoke of home, its importance and how we shouldn’t have to leave to find a better one.
Moving with wartime urgency
On Saturday, Orr, along and Carter, were part of the “This Is What the Paradigm Shift Looks Like,” panel.
While audience members may have expected a clear design of this so-called “paradigm shift,” Orr did not have one. In fact, Orr seemed as oblivious to the paradigm shift as the rest of the audience.
Apart from all the wars, famines, and economic catastrophes, Orr said that climate change is the first global emergency.
Orr mentioned that the environmental threat may be restricted in terms of scope and scale but not duration.
“It may be containable but it is not solvable,” said Orr.
The issue was not looming in the distance for Orr. It is serious now and as Orr said, it requires us to act with wartime urgency.
“You have to move on this as if it were a national security issue,” he said.
Orr did not shout at the audience. He sounded an alarm with pragmatic resolve.
“We realized there was a river at the end”
The conference was frightening at times.
Larry Schweiger and Dr. Thomas Peterson, physical scientists at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, presented an unfortunately large volume of scientific data indicating that climate change and environmental collapse is a reality.
Chuck Nelson told his story of experiencing daily destruction of his communities’ mountaintops to assist strip mining operations.
There were, however, glimpses, snapshots, of hope. Not one speaker said any of us should leave it all alone because things are too far gone.
Majora Carter told a story of a friend of hers mentioned a river a few blocks from Carter’s home in the South Bronx. Carter had never heard of the river and certainly couldn’t see it.
One day Carter and her friend wandered to an area that looked like a city dump. After days of labor spent disposing tons of waste, Carter eventually found the river.
Containing the environmental crisis will not be without effort. But successes happen.