“Sea Levels Are Rising and So Are We!”
By Tom Engelhardt
Look what Greta started and what she did to me! I took part in the recent climate-strike march in New York City — one of a quarter-million people (or maybe 60,000) who turned out there, along with four million others across all seven continents. Then I came home and promptly collapsed. Which tells you one thing: I’m not 16 years old like Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen who almost singlehandedly roused a sleeping planet and is now described as “the Joan of Arc of climate change.” Nor am I the age of just about any of the demonstrators I stopped to chat with that afternoon, however briefly, while madly scribbling down their inventive protest signs in a little notebook.
But don’t think I was out of place either. After all, the kids had called on adults to turn out that day and offer them some support. They understandably wanted to know that someone — other than themselves (and a bunch of scientists) — was truly paying attention to the global toilet down which their future was headed. I’m 75 and proud to say that I was walking that Friday with three friends, two of whom were older than me, amid vast crowds of enthusiastic, drum-beating, guitar-playing, chanting, shouting, climate-striking kids and their supporters of every age and hue. The streets of downtown Manhattan Island were so packed that sometimes, in the blazing sun of that September afternoon, we were barely inching along.
It was impressive, exuberant, and, yes, let me say it again, exhausting. And that sun, beautiful as it was, didn’t help at all. At one point, I was so warm that I even stripped down to my T-shirt. I have to admit, though, that I felt that orb was shining so brightly at the behest of those young school strikers to make a point about what planet we were now on. It was about 80 degrees Fahrenheit during that march, which fortunately was to a park on the tip of Manhattan, not to somewhere in Jacobabad, Pakistan, now possibly the hottest city on Earth (and growing hotter by the year) with a temperature that only recently hit 124 degrees Fahrenheit.
That night, back in my living room, I slumped on the sofa, pillows packed behind me, and turned on NBC Nightly News to watch anchor Lester Holt report on the breaking stories of that historic day in which climate strikers and their supporters had turned out in staggering numbers from distant Pacific islands to Africa, Europe, the Americas, and — yes — Antarctica. Even — bless them — a small group of young Afghans in that desperately embattled land was somehow still capable of thinking about the future of our planet and risked their lives to demonstrate! “I want to march because if I don’t survive this war,” said Sarah Azizi, one of those Afghans, “at least I would have done something for the next generation that they can survive.” (Where, though, were the Chinese demonstrators in a country that now releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other, though the U.S. remains by far the largest emitter in history?)
Let me add one thing: I’m a religious viewer of Lester Holt or at least what I can take of his show (usually about 15 minutes or so). The reason? Because I feel it gives me a sense of what an aging slice of Americans take in as the “news” daily on our increasingly embattled planet. If you happen to be one of the striking school kids with a certain perspective on the adults who have gotten us into our present global fix, then you won’t be shocked to learn that those “Fridays for Future” global demonstrations proved to be the sixth story of the day on that broadcast. But hey, who can blame Lester Holt & Co? (“Tonight, several breaking headlines as we come on the air!”) After all, not far from Chicago, an SUV (“Breaking news! Shocking video!”) had busted ever so photogenically into a mall and rambled around for a while knocking things over (but hurting no one) before the driver was arrested. No comparison with millions of human beings going on strike over the heating of a planet on which life forms of every sort are in increasing jeopardy.
Then, of course, there was story number two: the “deadly tour bus crash” in Utah (“Also breaking, the highway horror!”) that killed four people near a national park. Hey, no comparison with a planet going down. Then there was the obvious crucial third story of the night, the “surprise move” of football’s New England Patriots to drop Antonio Brown, “the superstar facing sexual misconduct allegations,” from their roster. Fourth came an actual weather emergency, “the growing disaster, a new round of relentless rain on the Texas coast, the catastrophic cutting-off of communities, the death toll rising!” And staggering downpours from Tropical Depression Imelda, 40 inches worth in the Houston area, were indeed news. Of course, Lester offered not the slightest hint, despite the demonstrations that day, that there might be any connection between the seventh-wettest tropical cyclone in U.S. history and climate change. And then, of course, there was Donald Trump. (“Allegations President Trump pressured Ukraine’s leader eight times in a single phone call to investigate the son of rival Joe Biden!”) He’s everywhere and would probably have been bitter, had he noticed, to come in a rare and distant fifth that night. He was expectably shown sitting in his usual lost-boy pose (hands between legs, leaning forward), denying that this latest “whistleblower firestorm” meant anything at all. And finally, sixth and truly last, at least in the introductory line-up of stories to come, was humanity’s “firestorm” and the children who, unlike the grown-ups of NBC Nightly News, actually grasp the importance of what’s happening to this planet and so many of the species on it, themselves included. (“…And walking out of class, millions of students demanding action on climate change…”)
As I’ve written elsewhere, this sort of coverage is beginning to change as, in 2019, the climate crisis enters our world in a far more obvious way. Still, it’s fairly typical of how the grownups of this planet have acted in these years, typical of what initially upset Greta Thunberg. Admittedly, even that day and the next, there was far better coverage to be found in the mainstream media. The Guardian, for instance, impressively streamed climate-crisis news all day and, that evening, the PBS NewsHour made it at least a decently covered second story of the day (after, well, you-know-who and that secret whistleblower). Meanwhile, a new initiative launched by the Columbia Journalism Review and the Nation magazine to heighten coverage of the subject has already drawn at least 300 outlets globally as partners. (Even Lester Holt has begun giving it a little more attention.)
And though it may not be timely enough, change is coming in polling, in the media, and elsewhere, and those children I saw marching in such profusion that day will indeed help make it happen. Opinion will continue to change in the heat of the oncoming moment, as in the end will governments, and that will matter, even if not as fast as would be either useful or advisable.
“Don’t Be a Fossil Fool”
Let me stop now and look back on that New York demonstration, more than a week gone, where, at one point, people all around me waving hand-made blue signs visibly meant to be ocean waves were chanting, “Sea levels are rising and so are we!”
To understand what’s happening on this planet of ours from the bottom up, what our future might truly hold in a post-Trumpian world (that’s still a world), I wish you could have spent a little time, as I did that day, with those marchers. But I think there’s a way you still can. As I mentioned, I spent those hours, in part, feverishly jotting down what was written on the endless array of protest signs — some held, some pasted onto or slung over shirts, some, in fact, actual T-shirts (“No More B[oil], Leave it in the ground”). Some had clearly been professionally printed up. (Perfect for the age of Trump, for instance: “The universe is made of protons, neutrons, electrons, and morons.”) Many were, as participants told me, not original but slogans found online and turned into personal expressions of feeling, often with plenty of decoration. That would, for instance, include the mock-Trumpian “Make America Greta Again” and “There Is No Plan[et] B. Green New Deal!”).
Sign at New York climate-strike march on September 20, 2019. Photo: Jim O’Brien
Many of the signs were, however, clearly original, some done with ultimate care, others scrawled wildly. Some were profane (“Fuck Trump, the Earth is Dying!” from a 14-year-old boy or “Clean the Earth, it’s not Uranus”); some were starkly blunt (“Act now before the show is over”); some politically oriented (“We’re not red or blue, we’re green”); some pop-culturally on target (“Winter is not coming”); some wry (“Don’t be a Fossil Fool”); some politically of the moment (“Real science, Fake president,” “Less AC, More AOC”); some critiques of capitalism (“If we can save the banks, we can save the world,” “We can’t eat money, we can’t drink oil”); some wise (“The climate is changing, why aren’t we?”); some culturally sly (“#MeToo, said Mother Earth”); or clever indeed (“This sign is reusable, STOP AND THINK”).
There were those two kids I ran into. The younger, a girl of 10, was carrying a homemade sign that said, “Dear Donald, Hate to break it to you, but climate change is real. XOXO Love, Earth”; her brother, 14, held up a two-word sign all his own that simply said, “Mulch Trump.” Touché! A college student’s sign read, “I am studying for a future that is being destroyed.” A 20-year-old woman held one that said, pungently enough in our present American universe, “Eco not Ego.”
A boy, 8, was blunt: “Save our future.” An 11-year-old girl no less blunt: “If you won’t act like adults, we will.” A 10-year-old boy had written plaintively: “I’m too old 2 die,” while another, a year older, offered this mordant message: “I don’t want to live on Mars. I want to live in Manhattan 30 years from now.” Many signs were, in their own way, upbeat, but some were deeply dystopian as in one woman’s that said: “Don’t think of this summer as the HOTTEST summer in the last 125 years. Think of it as the coolest summer of the NEXT 125 years.”
There was the woman with a sign that read “Science is not a liberal conspiracy.” When my friend congratulated her on it, she responded, “I wish I hadn’t been wearing this sign for seven years!” There was the woman carrying a sign that proclaimed, “Here for my son’s future.” Mounted on it was a photo of a bright-looking baby boy. When asked, she assured me with a smile that he was indeed her child whom she had given this line: “Mom, why didn’t you do more?”
And if you don’t think this — multiplied by millions across the planet — is hopeful, despite heatmongers like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro now being in power, think again.
Let me assure you, I know what it feels like when a movement is ending, when you’re watching a nightmare as if in the rearview mirror, when people are ready to turn their backs on some horror and pretend it’s not happening. That was certainly what it felt like as the streets emptied of demonstrators in 2003 — and there had indeed been millions of them across the planet then, too — in the wake of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. It will not, however, be as easy to turn away from climate change as it was from the Iraq War and its consequences (if, at least, you didn’t live in the Middle East).
The new climate crisis movement is, I suspect, neither a flash in the pan (since global warming will ensure that our “pan” only gets hotter in the years to come), nor a movement about to die. It’s visibly a movement being born.
“And I Mean It!”
Eight-year-old boy’s sign at New York climate-strike march on September 20, 2019. Photo: Jim O’Brien
There was the 63-year-old grandmother carrying a sign that said: “I want my granddaughter to have a future! She’s due on February 1, 2020.” My heart went out to her, because the afternoons I spend with my own grandson are the joys of my life. (He was marching elsewhere that day in a self-decorated T-shirt that said, “Plant more trees.”) Yet there’s seldom one of those afternoons when, at some unexpected moment, my heart doesn’t suddenly sink as I think about the planet I’m leaving him on.
So, even at my age, that march meant something deep and true to me. Just being there with those kids, a generation that will have to grow up amid fossil-fuelized nightmares whose sponsors, ranging from Big Energy companies to figures like Donald Trump, are intent on committing the greatest crime in human history. It’s certainly strange, not to say horrific, to have so many powerful men (and they are men) intent on quite literally heating this planet to the boiling point for their own profit, political and economic, and so obviously ready to say to hell with the rest of you, to hell with the future.
So, yes, there’s always the possibility that civilization as we know it might be in the process of ending on this planet. But there’s another possibility as well, one lodged in the living hopes and dreams of all those kids across a world that is already, in a sense, beginning to burn. It’s the possibility that something else is beginning, too. And it’s never too late for something new. Increasing numbers of the young are now starting to make demands and, in the wake of that march, I have the feeling that the demanding won’t stop until they get at least some of what they want — and the rest of us so desperately need.
In the end, I’m with the eight-year-old boy who had clipped (quite literally) to the back of his T-shirt what may have been my favorite sign of the march. Begun by him but obviously partially written out by an adult at his inspiration (and then decorated by him), it said: “I’m not cleaning up my room until the grownups clean up the planet — and I mean it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
As well he should!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2019 Tom Engelhardt