A More Perfect Union: On Patriotism and Climate
At the University of California, Irvine’s Commencement last summer, sitting on the field at Angel Stadium in the baking sun, our kids listened to President Obama describe climate change as the defining challenge of our time. For our children’s future, and our children’s children’s future, he said, we need to act now. Our boys, 7 and 5, squirmed in their seats. I poured the last of our bottled drinking water onto their heads to cool them down. I wanted us to make it through the address, which, with each sentence, affirmed and strengthened the foundation of our work here at UC Irvine.At the University of California, Irvine’s Commencement last summer, sitting on the field at Angel Stadium in the baking sun, our kids listened to President Obama describe climate change as the defining challenge of our time. For our children’s future, and our children’s children’s future, he said, we need to act now. Our boys, 7 and 5, squirmed in their seats. I poured the last of our bottled drinking water onto their heads to cool them down. I wanted us to make it through the address, which, with each sentence, affirmed and strengthened the foundation of our work here at UC Irvine.
He talked about the seminal research and advocacy led by our faculty decades ago to understand and curb ozone depletion. He talked about the vision it took for our campus to create the first Earth System Science department in the nation, and their faculty’s groundbreaking research last spring describing how warming oceans drive polar ice shelf melting. He talked about our pioneering work to create fuel alternatives, understand global change, build flood resilience, and slash carbon emissions in our own physical plant. Most compellingly, he talked about the need for all hands on deck as our graduates step out into the world, and for university communities to take the lead. At UC Irvine, climate leadership is present in the full range of sciences and humanities, and emerges from all points on campus. The Sustainability Initiative, my office, acts to harness that leadership and broaden its impact on society. Engaged sustainability scholarship and practice are integral to UC Irvine’s excellence as a research, teaching, and service university.
A few minutes earlier, our family had been backstage in the hush of the stadium, waiting to meet the President. The locker room had been draped in blue velvet. As we waited in our small group, my husband talked with the host Mayor of Anaheim, who had won on a platform of kindness. Our kindergartner held court with the fire and police chiefs of Orange County, awaiting their turn behind us. And our first grader was taken with the flags, one bearing the Presidential Seal. The day before, he had been the one up on a stage, reciting the Preamble with his classmates in the school auditorium. We’ve been talking a lot about what it takes to form a more perfect union, and why the bald eagle grasps both the olive branch and arrows. When the President entered, our children stood at attention.
After our photo, I told the President of the sustainability initiatives at UC Irvine, and that I was encouraged to see bolder action on climate. I told him that he could count on the University of California for leadership. He said he very much does.
But none of that mattered that day to my kids. We were ferried away to our seats on the field. The colors were presented. The Anthem was sung. My kids were hot. And thirsty. Our children needed climate action decades ago. It is not the threat to my own children’s comfort that motivates me, of course. It is the threat our small steps pose to their entire generation’s capacity to act at the scale and clip necessary to turn the tide. As a child myself, I remember comprehending for the first time the complexity and seeming totality of environmental and social crises. Fortunately for me, that learning was later coupled with training led by other teens in community organization. And that training included more than just tools for serving, resisting, reforming, and governing our current system of industrial growth. It also included tools for creating alternatives to our current system, in other words, tools for the new systems and cultures needed for a life sustaining society. I was trained to thread together movement at the individual, organizational, and societal levels, and to create opportunities that motivate shifts in inner experience, behavior, and external reality. In our work at UC Irvine, we are also training students to become this kind of knowledge broker, prepared to integrate knowledge and action at all levels. As our students say, they seek to transform “their lives, this campus, our world.”
My own children are just beginning their education. We are teaching them first that the world is good. That people are good. That they are safe. That their job is kindness and reverence. While they relish in storybook battles, we have kept today’s epic struggles at bay for now. The work I do as a human rights and environmental lawyer is distilled down for them as helping out. They know mom may travel soon, but they have no idea, for example, that the extralegal armed actors who kidnapped and murdered my boyfriend fifteen years ago in Colombia as he exited indigenous land then coveted by Occidental Petroleum now seek reconciliation with the families of those slain. They know mom hosts interesting people on campus, but they have no idea that the guest from Fukushima spoke of children who have never played outside, or that the Australian guest spoke of record heat and wildfire, or that the Mexican guest spoke of fast moving floods, or that the Native American guest spoke of having no water at all. Listening to President Obama talk about the changing climate may have been their first peek into the future that awaits them.
During his remarks, the President invited us once again to choose hope over cynicism. I was swept up with the crowd in the cadence of the rhetoric. Then, as I sat there holding our sweaty kids, I realized something was off. I realized that, for their sake, we cannot expect hope to be the foundation of climate action—it is too weak a force. It is not hope that will drive the transformations we need.
When my boyfriend’s bullet-riddled body arrived at LAX from South America all those years ago, his mother kindly declined the presentation of the flag by the State Department. Instead, she draped the casket with a flag bearing an image of the Earth. It is not olive branches versus arrows. It is not hope versus cynicism. It is not a storybook battle of good versus evil.
Instead, what our children and students need to learn is to cling with steadfast allegiance to the recognition of the interdependence of all life. At school, they learn to pledge allegiance to the flag. In our community, they also learn to promise to develop understanding in order to live peaceably with and protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. There is nothing hopeful or not hopeful in this additional pledge. It is guidance for action. Hope, without more, allows us to remain provincial, when the sensibility required is global.
A call to hope in the face of climate crisis also masks what many recognize as deep grief for all we have already lost to the fossil fuel economy. Our waters, our seasons, our communities, our food, our health. The flip side of grief is, of course, love. When we make room for grief, we also make room for the greatest motivating force for action that we know. And when we are skillful about it, love born from loss travels with joy and fearlessness, two other mighty forces that we would do well to harness. That combination is what we saw traveling down Central Park West last weekend, and what we see every day in communities working on the frontlines of climate crises.
This is what I wanted to say to President Obama but didn’t. The conventional progressive impulse to draw on hope to drive social change cannot, without more, produce the deep transformations we need to protect the earth and enable an equitable future. Our approach needs to be augmented. To succeed in getting all hands on deck for climate action, we must lead in a way that tells the story of the interdependence of all life. Let’s get comfortable acknowledging what we are losing, and the fierce love underlying our sense of responsibility, not just to our children, but to the earth itself. When we’re clear on that, we get clear on investing in what helps and divesting from what harms. We get clear that all hands on deck means learning to work together better across discipline and sector. It means working hand in hand with communities in ways that harness the resources of our public and private institutions to accelerate the shifts to sustainability and climate neutrality. We are, after all, fearless in protecting what we love.
As we exited the stadium that day, Mr. Obama’s motorcade passed in front of us. I told my son that he could imagine that the arrows in the eagle’s talons were used to cut through the illusion that we are separate from each other and from the earth. That he could imagine them being used that way to help us form a more perfect union of the whole.
Last weekend, here in Orange County, I corralled my kids and their skateboarding buddies aside as the 400,000 people gathered in the streets of New York held an unbroken moment of silence. When I told them that the earth has a fever, and that a web of people all over the world were, at that very moment, working very hard to bring it down, they, themselves, got right to work. Cardboard and paints, brownies and a makeshift booth at the town center to support, in their words, poor people and the earth. We rallied to match their spontaneous and earnest action. Their swift mobilization caught us off guard; we barely tapped the depth of their agility and focus, their care. I glimpsed a future in which my own tools and resources, metaphors and explanations will quickly be insufficient–a future in which I will be learning from them. These kids get it. Their generation gets it. The students I work with on this campus get it. They get what it means to act with compassion and undiluted purpose, and to act now. May we do right by them. May President Obama with his peers at the Climate Summit in New York rally to do right by them with action now.