Lost in the Maelstrom? Reclaiming the Narrative as an Engaged Citizen

If the headlines appear to us as a maelstrom of disparate troubles, then we are missing the broader narrative: our efforts to control the present are distractions from the need to work with the future. As we complain about others, we are failing to acknowledge a powerful protagonist: we as a engaged citizens.

We complain angrily (as we should) when President Trump targets another nation’s cultural sites, and we grieve (as we should) over the devastation of fires in Australia, but we are howling over present losses while doing so little to prevent future ones. We are shouting at disappointing leaders without empowering better ones to do more.

Those horrific Australian fires are driven by the changing climate we have done so little to mitigate or adapt to. We should be calling for the protection of anyone’s cultural sites, in all ways, and yet we are willing to accept the sure loss of World Heritage sites to rising seas, gnawing storm erosion, and unquenchable fires. By the way, I don’t believe those fires are dodging Australia’s cultural sites, whether Aboriginal or Settler….

Let’s examine that broader narrative: every issue humans now face has a connection to our shared planetary climate – either what we are doing to it or what it is doing to us. Every. Single. Issue. If you are outraged by any of this, then we need you in this story. We need you to create meaningful change rather than contribute to the cacophony.

  • Oil contributes to an expanding carbon footprint, and is an economic and political underpinning of armed conflict.
  • Fire and floods are triggered by warming air and water, and by disrupted hydro-cycles; and exacerbated by interference with traditional ecological management, and by over-grazing and over-development.
  • Drought and extreme heat lead to agricultural failure and productivity loss, human displacement and immigration conflicts, loss of heritage and cultural sites, famine, poverty, documented suicides in Africa and Australia and India, and to other deaths.
  • Injustice appears in the form of fence line and pipeline exposure to fossil fuel-related pollution affecting primarily disadvantaged and disempowered people, and where individuals in the Global South suffer the impacts of climate change while the nations of polluters continue business as usual.
  • Biodiversity loss threatens ecosystems on every continent, including those that provide human-oriented food stocks and medicines.
  • Economies suffer, too. They weaken under climate impacts whether we lose a home to a flood or stock prices to devaluation of sunk costs, when local businesses and industries are destroyed by fire or flood, and when companies go out of business after a supply chain is permanently disrupted.
  • The ripple effects of sectoral and national impacts in a global financial system will bring climate change into each of our lives at varying scales and increasing measure even if some of us manage to avoid the physical impacts.

Again, if you are outraged by any of this, then we need you in this story. When we look at the stories beyond the individual impacts and actions, and around the edges of the news screen, each of us can find a way to help address the larger problems which the current grieving and shouting do not. But, please recognize that our individual actions truly matter only when each of us contributes to the collective capability and capacity to solve these problems. When we match our individual actions with community ones, we transform our impact from momentarily practical to exponentially enabling.

Let’s look at individuals as protagonists. For example, my energy use reduction matters only when I’ve permanently limited my consumption and purchased or helped implement or publicize the renewable alternatives that produce no carbon and reduce localize environmental impacts. My water use reduction matters only when I regularly limit my shower use and support the water authority’s work to improve processing and delivery systems without disrupting associated ecosystems. My vote matters only when I use it and I’ve publicly given local, regional, and national leaders the support creating the courage to exercise political will to address natural resource management holistically, refuse fossil fuel expansion, and support environmental reparations on regional, national and global scales.

Is one of your present priorities simply getting to classes or work and back? Then green your commute where you can while supporting local efforts to expand bus routes, provide bike parking lanes, and offer free access to weekly commuters. Maybe your concern is maintaining a steady income but you’re in a climate-unfriendly industry. Then become the engaged citizen and ask your local leaders to bring in green jobs, prioritize tax benefits for green industry, and tell them they can count on you to take the re-training they offer. Or is an important concern finding healthy food for your family but money is tight? Then learn from the local Extension service or trusted websites where to best spend your organic dollars, take a class on selecting and preparing fresh food in season, and be the engaged citizen who tells your local store that food which is more-local and less-packaged is what you require – and ask your neighbors to, also.

What I want to howl and shout about is the failure of governments to lead well. At the recent UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Madrid (COP25), World leaders failed to agree on carbon accounting mechanisms and provide commitments to keep the climate on a track to only 1.5°F warming, chief among them was the United States. They showed us that they lack the political will to lead their countries to ambitious commitments to save us all. We must give them that will.

So, instead of shouting, I do climate work, personally and professionally. To scale my impacts, past DIY laundry detergent and a “clean” clothing commitment, I lead the United States cultural sector – made up of threatened cultural sites, and museums and zoos and gardens and aquariums – as it scales its work toward meaningful climate action. The sector supports the Paris Agreement through We Are Still In, the largest coalition of the Accord’s supporters anywhere in the World. And I cheer on all who lead their institutions, tribes, cities, states, colleges and universities to sign the We Are Still In declaration, helping the courageous and driven members of my sector to take action themselves and partner with others to scale that action.

We cultural professionals and volunteers and supporters cherish the sites, objects, plants and animals that we care for and which are at great risk in this climate. We revel in the ways that individuals and communities can build, create, learn from and care for these tangible beings and things — and the intangibles surrounding them. And, increasingly, we help those individuals and communities take climate action so that what they value can last. We are telling our current and future leaders that we support them when they, too, take bold and confident action to care for this planet and us all. Everyone can.