Community Building in the Climate Emergency
It was a shit week leading up to the climate strike. I don’t even remember what the story of the week was. Maybe the three billion birds, a third of North America’s 1970 numbers, that have vanished from the population. Maybe something else that was quickly forgotten to make room for the next, more gruesome story.
The same week the climate crisis delivered an acute blow to our own life, as my wife and I learned the town we’d moved to Northern California to settle down in was now uninsurable. Increased wildfire risk in the area had led whole counties to have their policies dropped over the summer. The house we wanted was one of those homes and the deal we were looking at was just the trade-off for dealing with a future of unpredictable insurance costs and relative home values and a predictably worsening risk of fire.
I was pissed and unfocused at work, wondering how everyone could be going about business as usual. Four million kids felt the same way and marched in historic proportions around the world. I didn’t join them. Instead I went where I always go to feel better when life and crisis bear down, the mountains.
I spent ten hours straight on the move, covered over twenty-three miles, circling an alpine valley and traversing the cliff bands of an entire subrange in the Sierra. It was refreshing to be in the wilderness, finding secret waterfalls and miniature tarns filled with rare endangered frogs. It felt good to exhaust myself and leech the frustration and anger of the week from my psyche. It was peaceful and needed.
But I was alone, sometimes scared, sometimes sick of fumbling aimlessly across scree fields. I was literally wandering around the Desolation Valley and it felt it.
I drove home feeling no less afflicted by our heating planet’s prospects.
This Saturday I did something different. In an elementary school gymnasium in South Sacramento I attended a Green New Deal town hall hosted by a coalition of the Sunrise Movement, 350, The Sierra Club, The Democratic Socialists of America, the Poor People’s Campaign, Sacramento Climate Coalition and Move to Amend.
The roughly 130 of us in attendance heard immigrant students from the Marshall Islands describe the physical and cultural disappearance underway on their homeland. We heard a young person from Paradise, CA describe how the wildfire that destroyed her home and struggling community has forced her single mother to start over from scratch for the third time in her daughter’s life. We heard from healthcare and homelessness activists explain the exacerbating effects of climate breakdown. We heard a doctor explain the mental health effects of this emergency, namely isolation and hopelessness, and ways to manage those ills, namely action and community building.
I love spending time alone in nature. I think it makes isolation feel appropriate, enviable. I’ve written on this very blog about my usual antipathy to crowds. But where being alone in nature can do wonders to cure internal demons, it does little to solve something like the climate emergency. And in order to do something about this mess, we need to presume we can.
At the town hall, our group of fellow travelers weren’t just treated to a rundown of depressing shit we already knew, unfathomable danger that drove us to spend our Saturday organizing in the first place. We got to imagine a world where we succeed, where we stabilize our climate and create a society where we don’t repeat these mistakes and afford humanity the opportunity to enjoy the delights of nature more freely. We got to come up with ways to push for change locally, from shutting down banks with protest to pressuring representatives to sponsor legislation under the Green New Deal umbrella, not just name check the resolution at press events. I got to talk to real people in real life, my neighbors, who are pissed at capitalism, climate breakdown too and are genuinely motivated to build a better world.
The town hall ended with a barnburner speech from thirteen year old Supriya Patel, founder of the Sacramento chapter of Fridays for Future, which organized last week’s strike. Rallying the gym in call and response demands for a Green New Deal, the bad news and climate models and capitalist power against us felt no less imposing but far less inevitable to endure. Where my hike had me lamenting all that will be lost, Patel had us emboldened to reject the privileged nihilism of inevitable destruction.
There are a lot of communities out there. In the outdoor world you hear about ‘the community’ constantly. Whichever one you belong to, organize and be radical in your ambition. But more importantly, if you don’t feel like you’re part of a community, as I often feel, know there’s one out there working hard and we can’t do this without you.