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Rebecca Solnit: 2013 Will Be Year Zero In Our Climate Battle

From climate change to class conflict—the challenges we will confront in 2013.

| Mon Dec. 31, 2012 4:34 AM PST

This time, though, it's not only about work and money. The twenty-first century class war is engulfing the natural world on which everything rests. We can see how clearly the great environmental battle of our time is about money, about who benefits from climate destruction (the very few) and who loses (everyone else for all time to come and nearly every living thing). This year, Hurricane Sandy and a crop-destroying, Mississippi-River-withering drought that had more than 60% of the nation in its grip made it clear that climate change is here and it's now and it hurts.

In 2012, many have come to see that climate change is an economic issue, and that economics is a moral and ecological issue. Why so little has been done about the state of the climate in the past three decades has everything to do with who profits. Not long ago, too many Americans were on the fence, swayed by the oil company propaganda war about whether climate change even exists.

However, this month, according to the Associated Press, "Four out of every five Americans said climate change will be a serious problem for the United States if nothing is done about it." That widespread belief suggests that potentially broad support now exists and may be growing for a movement that makes climate change—the broiling of the Earth—central, urgent, and everybody's business.

Ten years ago too, many people thought the issue could be addressed, if at all, through renunciatory personal virtue in private life: buying Priuses, compact fluorescents, and the like. Now most people who care at all know that the necessary changes won't happen through consumer choice alone.  What's required are pitched battles against the most powerful (and profitable) entities on Earth, the oil and energy companies and the politicians who serve them instead of us.

That clarity matters and those conflicts are already underway but need to grow. That's our world right now, clear as a cold winter day, sharp as broken glass.

Putting Aside Paradise

When I remember the world I grew up in, I see the parts of it that were Paradise—and I also see all the little hells. I was a kid in California when it had the best public education system in the world and universities were nearly free and the economy was not so hard on people and the rich paid a lot of taxes. The weather was predictable and we weren't thinking about it changing any time before the next ice age.

That was, however, the same California where domestic violence was not something the law took an interest in, where gays and lesbians were openly discriminated against, where almost all elected officials were white men, where people hadn't even learned to ask questions about exclusion and racism.

Which is to say, paradises are always partial and, when you look backward, it's worth trying to see the whole picture. The rights gained over the past 35 years were fought for, hard, while so much of what was neglected—including public education, tuition, wages, banking regulation, corporate power, and working hours—slid into hell.

When you fight, you sometimes win; when you don't, you always lose.

Here's another gift we have right now: the young. There are quite a lot of heroes among them, including the Dreamers or Dream Act activists standing up for immigrants; the occupiers who challenged Wall Street in its home and elsewhere around the country, became the unofficial first responders who aided the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and have camped out on the doorstep of Goldman Sachs's CEO these last few months; the young who blockaded that tar-sands pipeline, supplied the tremendous vitality of 350.org globally, and have just begun to organize to pressure universities to divest from fossil fuel companies on 192 campuses across the country.

When you fight, you sometimes win; when you don't, you always lose.

In 2012, they rose up from Egypt and Russia to Canada and Chile. They are fighting for themselves and their future, but for us, too. They have remarkably few delusions about how little our world is prepared to offer most of them. They know that the only gifts they'll get are the ones they can wrestle free from the powers that be.

Paradise is overrated. We dream of the cessation of misery, but who really wants a world without difficulty? We learn through mistakes and suffering. These are the minerals that harden our bones and the milestones on the roads we travel. And we are made to travel, not to sit still.

Take pleasure in the route. There is terrible suffering of many kinds in many places, but solidarity consists of doing something about it, not being miserable. In this heroic age, survival is also going to require seeing what fragments of paradise are still around us, what still blooms, what's still unimaginably beautiful about rivers, oceans, and evening skies, what exhilaration there is in witnessing the stubbornness of small children and their discovery of a world we think we know. All these are gifts as well.

Ice Breaking Up

As you gear up for 2013, don't forget that 2012 has been an extraordinary year. Who ever thought we'd see Aung San Suu Kyi elected to office in her native Burma and free to travel after so many years of house arrest? Who expected that the United Nations would suddenly vote to give Palestine observer state status? Who foresaw that the silly misinterpretations of Mayan prophesy would be overtaken by the Mayan Zapatistas, who rose once again last Friday? (Meanwhile, Canada's Native people started a dynamic movement around indigenous rights and the environment that has led to everything from flash-mob dances in an Edmonton Mall to demonstrations in Ottawa.)

Who thought that Occupy Wall Street, roundly dismissed by the mainstream on its one-year anniversary, would spawn two superhero projects, Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt? (Who among the police officers clubbing and tear-gassing the young Occupiers in 2011 thought that a year later these would be the people with the power and the generosity to come to their aid when a climate-fed storm wrecked their homes?) Keep it in mind: the future is not predictable. Sometimes, the world changes suddenly and in profound ways. Sometimes we make it do so.

Steven Spielberg's new film Lincoln is a reminder about what it means to fight for what matters most. Permanently freeing five million slaves and abolishing slavery forever meant renouncing a cheap power source in use for more than 200 years. Doing so was initially inconceivable and then a matter of indifference except to the slaves themselves and small groups of abolitionists.  Next, it was daringly radical, then partisan, with the whole nation taking sides, the fuel for a terrible war.  Finally, it was the law of the land. Today, we need to give up on, or at least radically reduce our reliance on, another set of power sources: oil, coal, and natural gas.

This is, among other things, a war of the imagination: the carbon profiteers and their politicians are hoping you don't connect the dots, or imagine the various futures we could make or they could destroy, or grasp the remarkably beautiful and complex ways the natural world has worked to our benefit and is now being sabotaged, or discover your conscience and voice, or ever picture how different it could all be, how different it will need to be.

They are already at war against the wellbeing of our Earth. Their greed has no limits, their imagination nothing but limits. Fight back. You have the power. It's one of your gifts.

Rebecca Solnit has seen salmon migrate and polar bears nap, and she's seen blockaders defend foreclosed homes and shut down oil refineries: all of it was beautiful. She is the author of A Paradise Built in Hell, among many other works. She has been writing TomDispatch's year-end essays since 2004 and she hopes to see you in the streets in 2013 and at the White House on February 17th.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse's The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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