Hummingbirds, Polar Bears & People

The climate crisis is not only about polar bears. Our own actions have ramifications in the world, so polar bears and other life forms are threatened by the degradation of complex life-support systems. Those natural systems depend on a stable climate, with carbon dioxide concentrations between 280 and 350 parts per million. Those same life-support systems help to make our world livable for human beings, so we have built a civilization that depends on that efficient, life-giving interplay of natural forces. 

A world in which that order is destabilized is more expensive, more dangerous, harder to make a living in, and out of step with our most human dreams and aspirations. The vanishing habitat of the polar bear is a high visibility signal of the degradation of a planet-wide web of interwoven climate patterns, on which we depend for life and livelihood. 

At the UN Climate Summit on June 29, 2015, Cardinal Turkson spoke for Pope Francis, saying the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si: On caring for our common home calls on all governments to establish integral ecology as the guiding principle for all policy. The standard is more ambitious than any declared before by any world leader, but it is also, simply, the expression of a basic and universal ethical obligation: do not profit by doing harm. This resolute ethical call has come along now, because the hour is late for counterproductive rhetorical games of the kind that argue for a right to do harm, because somehow enterprise is easier that way. 

We have the knowledge, the discernible shared interest, and the technology we need, to get beyond that degraded way of interacting with each other and with the world. We don’t need major powers asking us to accommodate a destructive reluctance to lead responsibly, while claiming impotence. We can achieve an integral human ecology without going backward economically, without impeding innovation and enterprise, without limiting human freedom. In fact, there is no better way to expand and defend human freedom than to answer this ethical call with equally bold solutions. 

What we need, now, is to favor the hummingbird. 

Wengari Maathai told the story of a terrible fire in the forest. All the animals fled the flames in panic. But one little hummingbird snapped into action, and went to gather water. It carried a single drop of water in its beak, flew back into the blaze and squirted the water onto the fire. It did this again and again, until the other animals began to mock this effort as futile, saying it could never succeed. The hummingbird answered, earnestly, “I’m doing the best I can.” If we all do less than the best we can, we are guaranteed to get a suboptimal result; if we bring our best effort to all that we do, the optimal becomes possible. Wengari Maathai won a Nobel Prize for starting the Greenbelt Movement, empowering women and defending human rights, while planting millions of trees. She was a hummingbird, and she knew that any one of us can be. 

Action in service of good outcomes is empowering; avoiding action, when we see degradation unfolding, degrades us. 

When a crisis is vast, it can easily come to seem so intractable as to be unworthy of our attention. If no one else bothers with this, why should I? Most of us know all too well how it feels when others reveal that this thinking will govern their choices. We hope for better, because we all know that such strained detachment actually leads to real harm. Our economy is not immune to these degradations; it is entangled in them. 

The president of Kiribati told those gathered at the UN yesterday that this moral and practical entanglement is putting his nation at risk of disappearance. 

I have witnessed hundreds of citizens coming to Congress from across North America, paying their own way, volunteering their time, to bring a little respect to the policy process, like hummingbirds carrying water into the fire. Policy change to meet a pervasive crisis does not come with magic, or because we land a rhetorical punch. It comes, because honest people do good work, and keep doing it. We must keep doing the best that we can, and not waver. 

 [ The Note for June 2015 ]


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