By Max Larkin
NEW YORK, NY. — I traveled down to New York for the People’s Climate March, I admit, out of a sense of political curiosity. I care, but like many Americans I’ve found it hard to rate the climate over poverty or prison or the foreign-policy fires that break out from time to time. By chance a friend and I had joined an interfaith brigade, a subsection in the People’s Climate March had assembled on West 58th Street, in the shadow of The Shops at Columbus Circle and CNN HQ. It was around eleven o’clock.
At the front of the crowd, Rabbi Jay Michaelson stood at the stern of an ark-shaped float on the back of a truck, wearing a technicolor tallit. The ark was a new construction; organizers hoped it could be reused in other parades down the line. Right then it held ministers and kids, markers and tape; a few volunteers wore horse masks or had paper unicorn horns strapped to their heads, and signs that read: “We Missed the Boat Last Time,” etc., etc.
Michaelson blew a shofar after speeches and prayers made onstage; he’s newly a rabbi and comes from a career in activism. Even today, he said, he’s “more of a march-in-the-streets rabbi than a pray-in-the-pews rabbi.” He’s also a columnist on environment and politics for the Jewish Daily Forward.
Two days before Michaelson had written that the green movement needed to appeal to the mainstream to be successful. In the fight for gay rights, he had learned about the all-importance of political messaging. He spoke candidly:
It was market-tested to death. When that movement was about gay rights, it was a big loser. It didn’t work, and nobody was motivated. When it turned into ‘love is love’, ‘we just want what everybody else wants: family, love, connection’ — and faith leaders played a big part in that — that message worked. It wasn’t cynical. It’s not that that’s not true. It was true. But which side do you emphasize?
He looked out over the group: “Calling it the ‘People’s Climate March’ — it isn’t exactly a frame that reaches out.”
We paused while some of the Muslim delegation began silently to pray toward Central Park, backed by an inflatable mosque. The crowd — Buddhists with banners, little platoons of hippie Catholics, here and there anti-nuclear T-shirts, crafty, hand-painted signs — was very definitely “progressive”. How would a People’s Climate March look to people who would never think of attending?
Suddenly an organizer tapped me on the shoulder: “We need to get going, so would you—?” The Rabbi and I said a quick goodbye, I hopped off the boat, then we all were off. The ark seemed to drift away on a sea of shoulders.
The march followed the line of the park, passing a ‘climate vigil’ sat in cross-legged meditation on the grass. There was no overwhelming sound; the march had no sergeants. The signs read: “There is No Planet B”, “Don’t Frack With U.S.,” “Ashamed Republican” with an arrow pointing down at the man holding it. Children, long-haired teens, nuns, and expatriates walked unregimented, in drifting formations. An older woman wearing a paper bag as a hat — she had written “Recycle” on it in Sharpie — emerged as a swaggering presence nearby. (One of the amazing things about the movement is the respect it has for its grandmothers.)
We made the turn down Sixth Avenue, and marched into the heart of Manhattan. A family pushed their luggage across the street and through the crowd on a trolley. There was Fox News HQ; a building-side crawl reminded passersby of ISIS. Then we passed the banks, with all-glass facades that made them look all the emptier, the more forbidding.
Nobody threw a brick. A young man, in full Caledonian dress, blew a bagpipe; behind him people danced to a Brazilian drumline. The “Recycle” lady strutted along alone, between banks of public and parochial-school students. Bryant Park was quiet, bracketed by a police cordon. For those present, midtown Manhattan was transformed. Did anyone notice?
The movement’s answers may come from repurposing a history. In 2002 the administration of George W. Bush reintroduced a doctrine of preemptive war, or “anticipatory self-defense.” For obvious reasons that language has fallen into disuse (though we are now fighting a limited preemptive war against the jihadis of ISIS, who pose, it’s said, “no immediate threat” to the American people).
But let’s not let perfectly sound moral thinking be abandoned entirely, when it has only been misapplied. Preemption itself is not evil: in a risk-ridden and high-velocity world, it’s common sense. And finally we may have a problem worthy of its use — and hundreds of thousands of people are marching over it. We might, borrowing a phrase from the philosopher William James, consider the climate movement as the moral equivalent of preemptive war: brigades of clean-energy advocates, barge-stopping kayakers, arborists, aquaculturists, and architects, toiling and thinking and building as if the worst is still avoidable.
In his original essay, James predicted that we might civilize ourselves by putting the “barbarian virtues”, so popular with so many American men, to civic work: in football and Americorps and the Civilian Conservation Corps, where the struggle is against nature and privation, a cordial opponent or our own limits.
In 1977 Jimmy Carter pitched the nation on treating our energy dependency as an opportunity to rally and fight a common cause in this nature using this very rhetoric.
But maybe it would be best if the climate movement today proposed a grander kind of struggle. The enemy ought to be, beyond oil and even capitalism, a defect in national, or human, consciousness — the immature American wish to remain outside of history, our tendency to treat every small emergency as a fire to be managed, an opportunity to avoid the big ones.
After turning at one last barricade, the march continued on to Eleventh Avenue where it dried up uneventfully: no speech. It was an evanescent kind of civil action, like weather. It was a dazing kind of day, but by the time I left New York the next morning I was impressed.
The march announced itself by force of numbers, and by its feel. No one seemed angry. This is not to say that the marchers had been bought off, or didn’t understand the long odds facing them, or even that they aren’t angry. But they are taking a clever rhetorical detour around a problem.
I thought of Kurt Vonnegut’s terrifying poem of extinction, “Requiem”.
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
”It is done.”
People did not like it here.
If there was a common message to the march, it is this: “We do like it here, don’t we?” (And love is love, isn’t it?)
I hope that the marchers — especially the youngest among them — another generation tempered by war and peace that is bitter and uneven, can help the rest of us relearn our history, relearn that there is history beyond four-year cycles and Long Wars, and that the United States has a lot of making up to do.
We are finding it harder to ignore the consequences of our actions and self-aware, with the medium of the internet and the medium of the atmosphere as instructors. We have the fear of shame that would come from a world whose barrenness testified to our carelessness. And all we will need, in a sense, is prompting: if not from storm and drought, then from such marches as this one in September.
To do this the activists will need to be militant, but un-military — they will need, much of the time, to smile and be peaceable and commonsensical: to remind us how worthy all this is, Chris Hedges be damned.
In a tight huddle toward the end of the walking some twenty-two-year-old finished up a pep talk to others in his group: “Organize, organize, organize!” Everyone around him cheered, and even sighed. It’s the call that Stokely Carmichael made after a long march fifty years ago this summer, and it still sounds like the answer.