How a hellish climate change meetup taught me to find my own way

J. R. and J. J.I met J. R. less than a year ago through The Great Michael Vine. J. R. shares my burden of saving the world. He is a lab rat and freelance journalist and writes for Scientific American and LiveScience. His book about the universe was published in 2009. Follow him on Twitter.com/JRMinkel.

Hello, Zepfanman.com readers!! Are you ready to rock?! ‘Cause I am. This is my first ever stint as a Guest Blogger, so big ups to J.J. for knowing quality when he sees it. If you like what you read here, check out my blog A Fistful of Science. Now let’s get down to it.

I’ve become increasingly interested over the past year in playing a more active role in my community. The big watershed for me was the death of Pops Minkel (my dad) in 2009. I realized how much of my grumpy attitude had come from him, and faced with the prospect of turning to “shit and dust,” as Michael Vine likes to say, I decided I wanted to spend my remaining days on Earth making as much of a difference as I could. I’ve since come to realize that being the change I want to see is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Let me give you a sense of what I’m up against living in Middle Tennessee.

Back in January I went to a climate change meetup at the local Church of Scientology “Celebrity Centre.” (The location should have been my first tipoff.) The celebrity guest that evening was Albert Bates, a former environmental lawyer and longtime resident of The Farm, Tennessee’s very own hippie commune, who was supposed to give his account of events at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen of the month before.

I was really jazzed on my drive over that night. After leaving New York for Nashville, I’d been thinking a lot about what to do next with my life, and I felt that activism was going to play a big role in my next phase. I thought I would surely meet some fellow travelers at Bates’s talk.

Well, the first person I met was a guy named Matt Gulliver of We Are Change Nashville, who pulled up to the church on his motorcycle as I was walking in. I introduced myself and quickly learned that his primary interest in being there was to promote his belief that climate change was a scam designed to bring about world government. Gulliver had confronted Al Gore at a book signing in 2009, declaring, “your carbon tax is meant to enslave America, and we don’t want it.” His political leanings stopped short of anything that would keep him from riding his motorcycle. He was also a proponent of hemp-based biofuel.

Strike 1.

Before Bates got going, a couple of presenters kicked things off. One of them in particular was excruciatingly annoying. His name was Lanny Smith, aka Earthman.

Sigh. Most of the things I would like to say about Earthman are unprintable. You can get a sense of his presentation here. It included a video of himself in a baggy Earth costume, “rapping” to the kids about how we gotta, you know, start caring about the planet and switch our incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescents. Real cutting edge stuff. And he went on for damn near an hour.

Strike 2.

Finally it was Bates’s turn to talk. In retrospect, what I was looking for from him was a plan of action. Now that Copenhagen had happened and it wasn’t the rousing success we wanted, I wanted to know what we could do on a state and community level to make change happen. What I got felt more like self-congratulatory cynicism to me. Bates thanked us for coming out, commenting that “the Matrix is thick” down South. I’m a little hazy on the exact details of the rest of his talk, because I started to really seethe inside. But you can get the gist from comments Bates has made elsewhere:

Arriving on the final day with a lame, lowball proposal, Obama tried to ram a strictly voluntary, symbolic pledge system down the throats of the delegates, who despite the media clouding, were actually close to several important agreements.

And:

Having destroyed the whole notion of consensus negotiations carefully crafted over the 37 years since Stockholm, Mr. Obama joined his waiting motorcade and exited. In 8 hours, he had done more to destroy the fabric of the United Nations than his predecessor had accomplished in 8 years.

For the full context, read the whole post linked to above.

Now, Bates’s account is very much worth keeping in mind as we assess Obama’s presidency and weigh our options in the next voting cycle. But what I couldn’t stomach was his tone. It almost seemed to please him to confirm that Obama was just another bum beholden to corporate interests, I guess because it made him more righteous in the process. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How was self-congratulation supposed to move us forward?

Strike 3.

I kind of lost it at that point. A Q&A session started — several members of We Are Change Nashville stood up to defend U.S. sovereignty — and I ended up asking the last question, which boiled down to this:

If we take climate change seriously, we have to acknowledge that it’s going to take away a lot of the control we have over our lives, including the circumstances of our deaths. So why aren’t we angry?

My actual words were more inflammatory, and I think most people in the room were put off by them. Bates at least nodded in understanding and encouraged me to surround myself with like-minded individuals, and P.S. to buy his book, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook. Earthman said I needed to have hope.

I’ve struggled a lot with my question in the months since Bates’s talk. All I can say is, I believe we need to take whatever action we can to change state and federal policy; to spread the word of feminism, antiracism and egalitarianism; and to prepare ourselves and our communities for change — now, while change is still voluntary.

I realize this is all easier said than done. It’s hard enough getting by in this shitty economic climate, let alone trying to achieve lofty ideals. But we’ve got to try. Our future is at stake.

I’ll let you know what I come up with.