I’m new to environmentalism. Like, baby lamb new. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been conscious of the impact my behaviour has on my natural environment, but it’s only recently that I’ve made a decision to commit to doing more than the minimum. I guess I thought that while environmentally conscious personal behaviour is necessary in addressing climate change, it is not sufficient in dealing with it. With that thought fresh in mind this article, Giving Up On Environmentalism, by Dave Pollard, an environmental activist of some 40 years committed service, fell into my lap. It was painful reading.
As somebody at the opposite end of the experience spectrum from Pollard, I felt the need to think long and hard about what had been written – about the limits of my aspirations to somehow better the world around me, about the limits to human ability in preventing itself from falling off the ecological precipice, and about the scope there was for hope, faith and passion in a world sadly lacking. There were some grim questions to answer. Would I, in time, expend so much emotional energy on what may be a constant stream of failure? Wasn’t I just joining a losing battle? Wouldn’t I be better off quietly ducking out of environmental activism altogether?
The simple answer to all of the above is an unsatisfactory ‘probably’. What follows is my attempt to come to terms with that.
We know that climate change is an injustice – against those in less developed countries; against our children and the generations that will follow them; against the plants and animals of the natural world that surround us with sound and colour; against even ourselves – and we know, also, that to stay silent in the face of it is to give our creeping assent to a tomorrow emptied of life. The sound of silence, which like a cancer grows, is a spring without birdsong and laughter. The sound of silence, in case you still wonder, is the sound of unopposed injustice.
This lesson is one well learnt in history and literature. In the writings of Dante, there is a place reserved for those angels who were neutral in the battle between light and dark and for those people who in life made no moral commitment, who must forever after chase a blank banner. For both the intellectual and ignorant that abstain from action, they become like King James, the wisest fools in Christendom; for while they never say a foolish thing, nor do they ever perform a wise one. In this, the injunction of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. comes judiciously to mind: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
There is a power in silence. When we stay silent in the face of injustice we lend that power to those responsible and take it from the innocent. But there is also a power in sound, and we must make the earth ring with it. So we must shout. So we must scream. So we must dance and sing and play and thrust our fists towards the sky in a cacophony that all may know that we will not allow sorrow and suffering to overcome the promise of tomorrow – or else we may as well place above the halls of the world a sign that reads: ‘Abandon all hope, you who enter here’, and in so doing rob the spring of its joy and the child of its laughter.
For those old and weary warriors who, sighing, drop the spear, or that great silent majority that never pick it up in the first place, it is well to be remembered that silence is a conscious action like any other – one for which we are morally culpable. For me, at least, silence is not an action I can justify, neither in the eyes of others nor to my own heart, which, when covered by the palm of my hand, reminds me of the life that beats inside. And though I walk and breathe with the fear that the injustice may never be righted, I will pick up that spear. And though the arc of history may bend toward oblivion, I will fight to the end – and do so gladly.
My hope may have been bruised by Pollard’s writing, but it has matured. My passion may have been battered but it has been tempered. And while my heart knows that I may be joining a losing battle, it is the very same – my heart – that keeps me from stopping. If the human world is to be saved – and there’s a distinct possibility that it won’t – then it won’t be easy; but it is a matter of faith: faith that humanity will right itself, faith that what I’m doing matters. After all, fighting for something you know you’re going to win is easy. Fighting for something when there’s no guarantee of success – and every chance of failure – takes a lot more courage and demands a lot more sacrifice.
The lesson for me is this: the silent renounce life. But it is those who fill the second with sound, and do not suffer injustice to pass, who will ensure life’s continued existence, however temporary. To quote Schumacher: “We must do what we conceive to be the right thing and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we are going to be successful. Because if we don’t do the right thing, we’ll be doing the wrong thing, and we’ll be part of the disease and not a part of the cure.”