When a fearsome storm is bearing down on a great ship – the first winds shuddering in the sails, the first waves burying the bowsprit, sullen clouds obscuring the horizon – the captain shouts the order. “All hands on deck.” Every sailor knows what that means. Each person on board, no matter their rank or watch, has an absolute duty to rush from their gambling tables or bunks to their stations, to do whatever has to be done to save the ship.
What if sailors don’t respond? – “Give me a minute, I’ve got some lucky dice for once.” Or, “wake me if it gets really bad.” Under the old laws of the sea, that would be a flogging offense, or worse. But the failure to respond would be a moral transgression as well – in two ways. First, the crew members who do not respond become free riders, taking unearned advantage of the actions of those who do answer the call. But worse, those who do not respond say, by their lassitude, that they don’t believe the crisis is real and immediate. If their inaction persuades too many others, who will right the ship?
The analogy is a harsh one. The climate disruptions that are bearing down on the planet – intense heat, failed crops, waves of desperate refugees, extinctions and acidified seas – are a planetary emergency. Unaddressed, they are likely to take down the ship: “Unless immediate action is taken,” 300 scientists recently wrote, “by the time today’s children are middle-aged, the life support systems of the planet will be irretrievably damaged.” This is a call for all hands on deck. But the order is not coming from any captain. In the face of the perfidy of reality-denying government “leaders,” the call is coming from all quarters – scientists, religious leaders, human rights activists, national security advisors, economists, parents, and local government officials, including indigenous people worldwide. Turning back this crisis, if it is still possible, will take the greatest and most determined public collective action that the planet has ever seen.
The danger is that inattentive citizens might not step up to help, not enough of us. And that is a moral failure; let us say it straight. Those who stand aside are taking advantage of the actions, often sacrifices, of those who step up to demand or offer solutions. If the children of the inattentive have fresh drinking water, if their grandchildren have enough to eat, if their coastline property fends off the rising seas, it will be because of the courage of others, not their own. But the inattentive are not just doing nothing. It’s worse than that. Their silence reinforces the message that this climate disruption is no big deal – exactly the message the fossil fuel industries and their government minions want to convey. In that way, those who fail to respond to the emergency call, distracted or dozing, become part of the storm itself.
Here’s the point: Democracies are governments by and for the vociferous – the shouters and tweeters, yes, but also the people who pack the meeting halls and pick up the phones. When people show up for the cause, they win, as we have seen again and again, for better or for worse. When they don’t, they lose. In the United States, a significant majority, sixty-one percent of voters, think that climate disruption is an “extremely,” “very,” or “moderately” important issue. But of those, more than half “rarely” or “never” talk about it. They never even talk about it.
Climate change is a call to all hands to rush on deck, to “come alive” to help save what they care about the most, by doing what they do best. Is it writing? Public speaking? Is it singing? Organizing? Is it walking in a parade? Is it even blocking a bulldozer? There might have been a time when our work for the world was quiet work in our private lives, focused on exemplary living and careful consumption. That time has passed. Our work now is in the streets, in the state houses, in the college quad, in the grocery line, speaking out. Speaking out against the corporate plunder of the planet. Raising our voices to defend the endangered beings who have no voice to defend themselves – future generations, plants and animals, the desperate poor, the children.
Adapted from my afterword in Coming Alive, by Brorby et al.