Recently, I read a story in The New York Times about Greenland and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. As rising global temperatures melt the vast ice sheet that has long guarded the northern Arctic, fossil-fuel companies are rushing to extract newly available resources. Greenlanders, according to the report, are displaying mixed reactions: Some are hopeful for new jobs; others lament a decline in traditional ways of life. But neither the article’s author nor anyone interviewed raised the question that has stayed on my mind: What do these developments mean for the climate and, by extension, the rest of us?
Whether we live in Brooklyn or Bangladesh, our fate will be revealed as the ice melts away. Extracting more fossil fuels from beneath ice sheets melted by the burning of fossil fuels won’t be just a bitter irony; it will be a disaster. This year, some of the world’s top climate scientists calculated that the amount of carbon dioxide stored in the reserves that oil, coal, and gas companies already have on the books—resources they plan to use—is five times more than the amount we can burn and still limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, beyond which runaway climate change may be unavoidable. To prevent that fate, the scientists warned, we must leave 80 percent of those carbon reserves underground forever.
Keeping this Pandora’s box closed is a daunting challenge. It will require a strategy rooted not just in the traditional progressive values of liberation and resistance but also in the more traditionally conservative ideas of restraint and, well, conservation.
Our challenge is to make the use of fossil fuels unthinkable. Everywhere fossil fuels are—the mines, pipelines, power plants, trucks—we need to be, too. Together, we can form a global antibody to this carboniferous cancer, stopping inflammation as it flares up while boring in on the root causes of the crisis.
• We support and connect the thousands of community groups who are directly confronting extraction from the ground up.
• We invest in the power of creative mass action, understanding the old truth that boldness has power in it, especially when we act together.
• We bring the inside and the outside onto one side, encouraging our grass roots to work in tandem with our litigators and lobbyists: Suits, no longer fear the dreadlocks (and vice versa).
• We tell stories, making social media our new campfire, Twitter our new soapbox. Keep the talking points (and the traditional campfire, too) but add in a sense of drama, narrative, and character that is all too lacking from our jargon.
• We paint an irresistible picture of the future, celebrating the enormous job-creating potential of new sources of energy and its more efficient use. We create a just transition for current workers in the fossil economy.
• We lift up new champions and support leaders wherever they are: both legislators who are working on Capitol Hill and organizers who are pounding Main Street.
• Above all, we stick together. As everything from extreme weather to internal conflict threatens to tear us apart, we find new ways to affirm the bonds that keep us working as one.
These strategies can help us create a new economy and society based on sustainability, care, and equity rather than plunder and profit.
Here’s another example: This summer, when the coal-fueled centralized power system in India failed and lights went off across half the country, it was the rural poor who, cut off from the regular grid and reliant on distributed solar energy, still had access to electricity. Especially in a rapidly industrializing economy like India’s, a fossil-free and decentralized power grid offers tremendous promise.
My friend Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance has been speaking recently of an insight Gloria Steinem detailed in her 1994 work, “Revaluing Economics.” In it, Steinem explores the two areas of the economy that continue to be undervalued: work done at home and the planet’s natural resources. I’d consider adding another: work done in the streets. Activism may not pay in the traditional sense, but taking action together, especially to defend those precious carbon resources, can preserve for us something more valuable than cash: our future.