From City Hall in San Jose, on book tour for Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril —
“. . . Then you will remember why you try so hard to protect this beloved world, and why you must succeed.” I finished my talk, paused, and asked for questions. The third question came from a young woman with curly red hair piled on her head like ribbon on a present. She stood up, took a breath so deep it raised her shoulders. This is what she said. “Okay. So I’m on board about climate change. I get it. Now what do I do?” The room murmured. Mmmm: the whole auditorium, assenting. Heads nodded: white heads, dark heads, heads with hats. This is the question. It isn’t easy. Our options are limited, our cities and homes are wastefully designed, destructive ways of living are skillfully protected by tangles of profit and power around the world, and we have run out of time. The most conscientious person is going to have a hard time making significant change. I was pretty sure that everybody in the room had already checked off everything on the lists of “50 things you can do to save the planet.” These lists are all over the internet. Lightbulb Lists, I call them, because #1 is always, switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs. Of course, every single person should do all fifty of those things. Yes, you should buy local food. Yes, you should avoid beef, a hideous methane machine. Yes, you should unplug your appliances. Yes, you should refuse to invest in companies that profit from death. Yes, you should vote. Yes, you should opt for alternative energies and take the bus to work. Yes, you should refuse to buy poisons or plastic. Yes, and yes, and yes. No excuses, no delay, no exceptions. All this is important. By these means, you can refuse to make yourself an instrument of destruction and injustice.
Corporations are happy to shovel blame onto the consumer who makes the “free choice” for greed and poisons and waste. Don’t let them do that. But refusal isn’t enough, and everybody knows it. The room was asking for something different, something bigger. And frankly, I think they were looking for something that wasn’t so grief-stricken, that wasn’t so . . . well, so lonely and sad. I looked down at my notes, but they weren’t going to help me. I looked at the young woman who was looking back at me. I loved her for her honesty, loved her for her bewilderment. “The theologian Frederick Buechner wrote that if you are looking for your calling,” I said, “you will find it at the place where your great joy intersects with the world’s great need. We are overwhelmed by news of the world’s great and desperate need. In that desperation, we forget to think about our great joy. Find that joy,” I told the young woman. “Find that need. Go to that intersection. Do that work.”
The audience was listening, waiting. “What is your passion? What do you love? What joy defines who you are? That defines also your work. “Say your great joy is singing in the choir. You, with the beautiful voices, make it your job to protect the voices of the frogs and the songbirds. Make your church and its lands truly a sanctuary. Replace that great expanse of chemically poisoned lawn with native plants in a wildlife refuge, so that when people walk into the church, they hear the great choir of God’s creatures. If you have to, take your choir onto the city streets and bear witness. Is BP’s Board of Directors meeting? Is Kmart planning a new parking lot in the marshland? Sing on the street outside the glass doors. Turn Back O Man, Foreswear Thy Foolish Ways. You already know the words. “Say you are a watercolor painter, and there is nothing you love more than plein air painting. Then organize your fellow painters to protect beautiful landscapes. Find out when the next bulldozer will gouge out the next meadow, and get there before they do. Bring the press. Set up your easels and start to paint the glory of that morning.
When the bulldozers come, keep on painting, in brown hues now. Keep on painting, even if you can hardly see through your tears. The next day, go to the site of the next clearcut. Paint there. And the next, so that every person who would destroy a natural place understands that they are destroying something that is beautiful and of deep value. “Say you are a surfer, and all you want to do is bob on that sea, waiting for the Wave. Then your work is to protect the shining clean waters. Find the poor overworked person whose job is to monitor water quality along your beach. Sign yourself up as her assistant; sign up your buddies. Do some of her work. Find out the sources of pollution and take them on. Organize yourselves into Surfer Dudes for Clean Water and go for it in every way you know how. “Say you are a grandparent, and there is nothing you care about more than your grandbabies. Then, my god, your work is clear. Grandparents are in a powerful position to protect their grandchildren. We have skills, experience, and knowledge gained over a lifetime of productive work. We vote, and there are a lot of us. Many of us have time. We often have money. Put these assets together and we command the power to shape the new world.
How? By organizing our huge political power to elect officials who will get down to the most important work of protecting the life-sustaining systems of the planet. Knock on doors for these politicians, then hold them to account. If they dither or jabber or make excuses, send them home. Madeline’s Grandparents for Clean Electricity. Fierce Grandmothers for Safe Food. Retired People for Redwing Swamps. The Grandparent’s Coal Boycott. “The point I want to make is that there is power is sorrow, but there is a greater power in joy. Each of us can make our life into a work of art that expresses our deepest values. There are two steps here. First, do no harm: that’s the point of the Lightbulb List. Then, challenge your joy to do great good.”