My step-grandfather, the last of my grandparents, died on the day I left home to get on a plane for the Climate Change and Consciousness 2019 (CCC19) conference in Findhorn, Scotland. It felt painfully appropriate to be thinking about grief at this time, as our modern western society continues to poison human communities, and entire ecosystems of other life, from Detroit and Flint to the Amazon. The murder of people and destruction of our shared habitat, seem to weave themselves into a tight cord, with Climate Change as simply one expression of this in its most feverish pitch.
Once I land in Glasgow, UK, I slowly make my way north on the way to Scotland, trying to take in the beauty of Spring, looking for signs of hope. In Edenborough, I join one of the protests of Extinction Rebellion, where folks are on the streets in an attempt to force their government to take responsibility to care for our Commons (healthy air, water, earth, and a stable climate). The streets in Edinburgh are filled with men, women, children, and our elders, artists, poets, engineers, and doctors. We share food and music, listening to each other’s hopes and dreams, while blocking major intersections in the city. I’m too exhausted to stay through the evening of the protest, and frankly too afraid to be arrested in a foreign country. So I check myself into a hostel across the street, hoping that with a few hours of sleep I might be able to rejoin the protest. I slept deeply and late, comforted by the experience of community and folks willing to put their bodies on the line for our bigger good. Throughout the conference, I listen closely to updates, as over 1,000 people in UK alone, put themselves in the way of being arrested, to force their government into action. They don’t want arrest in and of itself, but in our media-saturated world, this is what gets attention. Surely both arrest and blocked traffic are less pain than children dying from pollution induced asthma, elders from heat waves, and refugees from drought and flood stricken countries.
Conference sessions are filled with reports from scientific experts and global leaders fighting against environmental/climate disruption. However, the people who touch my aching and numbing heart most are the Indigenous leaders from around the word. “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” Albert Einstein is said to have taught. So too, while technology and activism are certainly vital to address our environmental crises, they are not enough. At the same time, as a Rabbi, my yearning to connect with Indigenous folks is also personal. With them, I’m trying to re-member how my people might have seen the world and related to animals, plants, and Earth, before our being colonized 2,000 years ago.
Alessandra Keighley, of the Taranaki community in New Zealand and I spend a particularly poignant afternoon sharing similar stories of struggling to recover our people’s traditions after colonization, of what it’s like to be called by the name given in our own people’s language, the struggle to re-learn that language, and all of the other healing wisdom of our own traditions amidst a colonizing culture. The details of our respective traditions and geographies couldn’t be more different, but I find a kinship with her that is rare. I have similar conversations and begin what I hope will be a life-long friendship with the leaders of the Kuntanawa people in the Brazilian Amazon, Haru and Hayra. The Kuntanawa managed to stay out of the way of rubber trappers in the beginning of the 20th century, but were eventually massacred by westerners in 1981, the same year I was born. Haru was just a child then. He eventually moved to a big city to get a western education in law. His peoples are trying to rebuild their village anew now, and form a coalition between Amazon tribes back in the forest now so they can better protect themselves from corporations and government seeking their lands for mining rare metals and cutting timber. They are struggling with the very basics, enough clean water to drink and food to gather or hunt. Too much has been poisoned and killed in the process of western development. His wife, Hayra, is a westerner, a trained doctor of acupuncture and many other healing modalities. Their marriage and egalitarian leadership is the first of its kind for an Amazon tribe. Even though my experience as a Jew trying restore my culture after the Holocaust is quite different, painfully, I empathize with many of the Kuntanawa attempts to rebuild a society anew from near extinction.
The Amazon is particularly important for the health of all of our ecosystems and climate because it affects rain cycles across the globe. What if, in order to build enough “Green” technology to transition us completely off of fossil fuels, we end up clearing so much rainforest for mining in the Amazon, that we disrupt the water cycle across the whole planet? Clearly, our transition to an ecologically sane civilization needs not only green technology. It also needs the resources for that technology to be sustainably sourced. As I reflect on this, the haunting words of Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, an Eskimo-Kalaallit Elder from far North Greenland who spoke at the conference, ring in my head. Amidst telling us his life story and many good jokes to soften the blow, he tells us that from his people’s perspective, it is too late to stop the onslaught of destruction. Angaaangaq and others like him have been trying to wake up the world for decades if not centuries, but perhaps we have simply not acted in time.
On the other hand, a global movement, unprecedented in human history, is beginning to shake the halls of power. Sixteen year old Greta Thunberg from Sweden has catalyzed groups of student to declare Friday strikes from school around the world. “Why should we go to school to prepare for to live in a world that you are destroying” she tells us and demands that adults stop their platitudes of hope and instead “act like your house is on fire, because it is on fire.” In response, on March 15th, 1.6 million students, from 25 countries, on all 7 continents, spent their Fridays on strike, in front of political offices around the world, demanding action to halt climate change and biodiversity loss. Moreover, as I make my way back home, I hear that the Prime Minister of Scotland, and then Wales, accede to the first demand of Extinction Rebellion and declare a “Climate Emergency.” Once home, I learn that this collective push has enabled the UK members of parliament to that national emergency as well.
So, I am left deeply inspired and afraid. I do not know what the future holds. The current state of the world has forced me to recognize both optimism and pessimism as forms of fortune telling. I’m not a prophet, so I don’t hold that power. However, I can contribute to building a kinder, more compassionate, and more ecologically sane world. As a Rabbi, I can be a chaplain to communities waking up to the realities of climate change and environmental disruption, and struggling with how to transform their natural grief and dread into what my teacher Joanna Macy calls Active Hope. This feels worthwhile, and possible, whatever the future brings.