“If the planet dies, all causes are lost causes.” — Anonymous
Humanity’s fate hangs on a tight race between two tipping points: a scientific one and a cognitive one.
Scientists use the term “tipping point” to refer to a runaway feedback loop that, when triggered, abruptly and irreversibly changes the behavior of a system, such as the climate. For example, when permafrost melts, it releases methane, 50 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Thus: global warming, melting permafrost, more atmospheric methane, more global warming. The worrisome cycle can easily spin out of control.
But there’s another climate tipping point: the tipping point of public awareness. If the level of climate awareness tips before climate catastrophe, we just might salvage a viable future. And if so, historians of that future will record September 21, 2014, as the day that saved planet Earth.
I had planned to attend the People’s Climate March (PCM). Our small town chartered two coaches — bound for the Big Apple — and packed them to capacity. Alas, a knee injury sidelined me. My wife and daughter marched. Spellbound, I watched the event live-streamed from Democracy Now!
Organizers had anticipated 100,000 marchers; in their wildest dreams they hoped for 200,000. Early Sunday afternoon the numbers exceeded 300,000 and kept climbing. As marchers spilled in from side streets, the procession swelled and stretched, ultimately reaching four miles in length and gathering up at least 400,000. A drone captured this aerial view.
The environmental equivalent of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, the PCM was undoubtedly an historical watershed.
But unlike the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1950s and 1960s, during which the media daily brought police brutality and body bags to our living-room TVs, the mainstream media has been conspicuously AWOL or unreliable on the climate. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox all ignored the PCM or treated it as an afterthought. Even NPR downplayed the event. We can only conclude that corporate media has as a stake in the status quo, even when business as usual is stealing the future. For genuine news, it has become necessary to frequent refreshing alternatives such as Democracy Now!, which covered the PCM live for three hours, The Guardian, Nation of Change, and Common Dreams, among others.
I’m no journalist, but for those who missed the significance of this singular moment due to the mainstream media’s abdication of responsibility, permit me a few reflections on why the PCM was monumental.
First, it was huge: eight times the size of the largest previous climate march. I’ve learned a little rule of thumb from local politics. For every person who shows up for a protest, 10 others wanted to be there but couldn’t, and perhaps 100 others sympathize with the cause. The sheer size of the PCM implies that Americans are finally waking up. The rest of the world, it’s worth noting, has long been awake on the issue of climate.
Second, although I can’t claim this as gospel truth, I suspect the PCM gathered the largest coalition of groups since D-Day, and perhaps more. There were, of course, the usual suspects, the environmental groups: 350.org (the primary organizer), Sierra Club, Green Peace, Climate Justice, the Rainforest Action Network, and so on. But these comprised just the tip of an iceberg gargantuan enough to sink the Titanic of climate denial.
Also present were numerous unions, from the AFL-CIO, to the UAW, to the Domestic Workers Union, to the Amalgamated Transit Union. Not surprisingly, Occupy Wall Street was there also, because the 1 percent that is screwing the 99 percent economically is also screwing us climatically.
Women were out in full force. In addition to stalwart groups like now NOW and Code Pink, there were Mom’s Clean Air Force and the Raging Grannies, lobbying for climate action to secure a future for their children and grandchildren, respectively.
All manner of medical workers were present: Physicians (and Psychologists) for Social Responsibility and the New York Professional Nurses Union, for example. Why? For many reasons, among them climate change’s impact on the spread of tropical diseases and the increasing frequency of asthma and respiratory illnesses due to atmospheric pollution.
Anti-war (including Veterans for Peace) and anti-nuke protestors were there, because addiction to fossil fuels keeps us perpetually at war, and because nuclear power plants are ticking time bombs. Renewable energy solves both problems.
Citizens of 150 counties attended, represented by groups as diverse as South Asians for Climate Justice and the Eco-Sikhs. Marshall Islanders, for example, live on average just 6 feet above sea level. Their ambassador marched to draw attention to the devastation the island nation has already suffered from rising seas. The Survivors of Sandy marched too, for much the same reasons as Marshall Islanders.
Indigenous groups from around the world were front and center, because they’ve known from time immemorial that to dishonor Mother Earth is the worst form of insanity.
Students from hundreds of colleges marched because their futures are jeopardized by an unstable climate and continual war over oil, land, and water.
Communities of faith, awakening to the moral and spiritual implications of climate change, were represented by tens of thousands of marchers.
Scientists marched too, proclaiming unapologetically: “The ‘Debate’ Is Over.”
Two dear friends, Harvard grads both, marched with Divest Harvard, determined to end profiteering by the fossil-fuel industry, which has declared war on the Earth’s life-support systems.
In all, 1400 organizations participated, each with a unique identity, yet united in solidarity for one mega-cause: to rescue planet Earth from the stranglehold of fossil fuel. And speaking of solidarity, there were 2646 solidarity events held in 162 countries.
Finally, the PCM, unlike mass demonstrations of the past, was truly a “People’s” march. Sure, there was no shortage of celebrities, politicians, and climate gurus: environmentalist and principal organizer Bill McKibben, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse, former vice-president Al Gore. Susan Sarandon and Leonardo DiCaprio marched. So did UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, alongside world-revered primatologist Jane Goodall.
But there were no major speeches by the organizers or the celebrated. Instead, there was a moment of silence followed by a deafening roar that coursed like a wave through the four-mile throng. Some called this a wake-up alarm, intended for those whose heads are buried in the sand, whose ears are filled with wax, or whose souls are deadened by greed and/or power.
There was no need for speeches. The faces, costumes, placards, and signs said it all: “The Greatest Danger to Our Future is Apathy,” “Stop the War on Mother Earth,” “There Is No Planet B,” “We Are All in the Same Boat.”
(The author is once again grateful for the wise suggestions of Doug Hendren.)
The author's book Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit (Praeger, 2012) further explores the interface between science, mythology, spirituality, and meaning. According to Ursula King of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol, Dave Pruett's Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012) "opens up [an expansive worldview] of true audacity and grandeur that will change your thinking forever."