Monday, April 23, 2012

Sustainability Matters, Still - Kurt Nelson

Delivered at the 2nd Annual Sustainability and Social Justice Dinner at Dartmouth College.  Dedicated especially to those born in or after 1991…

My sincere thanks to the organizers of this fine event,
it’s a pleasure to be back.
Thanks to the panelists so far.
And thanks especially to all of you for listening.

I want to tell you a story,
because I think it’s relevant.
But it’s also perhaps a bit odd.

So I’d like those of you who were here last year,
to take a minute,
and explain to your table mates,
just how great and trustworthy I am.
We’ll wait...

and I was one of about 1300 people arrested,
in front of the white house,
for participating in civil disobedience,
around the keystone XL pipeline.
Which was, I’ll admit,
a pretty awesome thing to participate in.
In a few short months
we went from public ignorance
and “no brainer” approval,
to massive media coverage,
a widespread movement,
and complicated victory.
It’s a pretty amazing – if imperfect –
story about the efficacy of demonstration and organizing.
But I’m not going to tell you that story tonight.

I’ve told it many times,
in many places.

as I told my Keystone story,
a single question would come up.
Again and again,
in meetings
one on ones,
the comment section of articles,
at Happy Hours,
you name it.
more than any other single question, I think.
It wasn’t, “What was it like to be in jail.”
It wasn’t, “Why Keystone and not Mountaintop removal, or some other issue...”

 those came up,
but the inevitable question was,
“But didn’t you have to burn fossil fuel to get down to Washington DC?”
It was a hostile question.
Sometimes meant as an earnest rebuttal.
more often meant as a joke,
but a pointed one.

I came up with what I think are three apt responses to this question
      1.  I took the train. I do my best to live into my rhetoric of sustainability whenever possible.
   2.  Some version of, maybe you should just shut up.
       3.  Are we really so cynical?  Is this really how we’re going to engage?

I have a working hypothesis,
that you – especially those of you born after 1991 -
(author’s note:  an informal show of hands revealed this to be about 3/4ths of the audience)
 represent a transition in generations.
And the story I really want to tell you tonight,
is about you.

Like all generational stories,
I’m speaking broadly about trends.
So if you’re sitting there thinking,
“Well that doesn’t sound exactly like me.”
I would kindly request that you take a breath,
Stay with me.
And Listen.
Because as I’m sure your table mates told you
I’m pretty much always right.

And the first thing to note,
in this story,
is that you’ve been lied to.
Not by me of course,
but pretty consistently.
You’ve been told that you’re millennials.
But you’re not really.
I’m a millennial.  About 10 years older than you.
And I can smell millennialism.
And you smell a little like millennials, but not really.

Millennials, of course,  have a story too.
We came of age
from about 2000 to 2008.
And we looked around,
at the sexual politics,
expanding wars,
and what amounted to a war on environmental regulation,
and thought,
‘Our values are not being lived out in our public life,
and we need to do something about that.’
So we did.
We opted in.
We organized.
We’re a generation of opter inners.
We took over organizations,
and started new ones,
and ran for political.
And in 2008, we turned out in force.
For the crowning achievement of our generation so far,
the election of Barack Obama.
And – sorry if this is news to you -
but it didn’t solve everything.
And honestly, I think we feel a little lost.

And that’s where you come in,
coming of age,
in the midst of that messiness.

You know, deep down,
 that narrow electoral politics,
won’t solve everything.
And you’re right about that.
But it’s hard now,
to find another thing that’s big enough.

So the crowning achievements of your generation so far,
are Occupy Wall St.
And Kony 2012.
(This is the moment to breath and not give up on me.)

Two things make Occupy and Kony similar.
And they’re devastatingly important to notice,
as your generation’s story unfolds:
First, you can organize better and faster,
than anyone ever.
And second, you can (and do) just as quickly turn around,
and tell the world why that way of organizing is stupid.

You are, in short,
a generation of skeptics.
And I think that’s a good thing.
My generation wasn’t skeptical enough.
You’re right to stay so.

The problem,
is that skepticism has an ugly little step brother.
And his name is cynicism.
And I’m worried about him for you.

Skepticism asks hard questions,
wonders about the most effective way to seek change.

Cynicism, on the other hand,
cuts down.
And makes a joke out of efforts to make change.

Skepticism seeks progress,
While cynicism seeks self-protection.

And it’s easier, honestly,
in the face of truly challenging stuff,
to be cynical.
But hear me when I say to you,
You’re too young
You’re too smart,
too talented,
And the challenges
facing us are too large,
for you to become a generation of cynics.

And I honestly don’t know how this story ends.

But here’s what I think:
I think your generation needs an issue.
An issue large and multivalent and important enough,
to embrace the skepticism,
and the many different ways to seek change.

And here’s what I hope:
That this business we’re dealing with tonight.
Environmental Justice.
I hope, that this is it.

It is, dare I say,
your call as a generation,
to help us all connect the dots,
between and the use of resources,
the degradation of the planet.
and real, human injustice.

People are already hurting.
This isn’t some future oriented issue.
And environmental degradation is unjust
in its punishment. 
People like us do the damage,
but it’s the poor who are already hurting.
Urban communities,
and indigenous peoples.
Developing nations.
Children, the elderly, women.
Pretty much everyone but me.

And the privileged, like me,
are already, as Wendell Berry says,
“condemned to moral and spiritual loneliness.”
(from The Art of the Commonplace)

It is an issue worthy of you,
And we need you,
to build the umbrella,
of the manifold small scale solutions
to change our direction.
We need organizers and policy hacks.
We need educators and activists.
Artists, Scientists, Religious Leaders.

And I desperately hope,
as your story unfolds,
that you will prove more worthy of these challenges,
than all those who came before you.

But it will be  a struggle.
not only against injustice
not only against environmental degradation,
but against despair and cynicism.

And I want you to ponder three tools,
that I think you’ll need for the road ahead.

The first is Purpose.
The easiest one. 
Our purpose is to seek a more just and sustainable world,
at the same time.
Grounded in duty to the people of the earth,
and those still to come.

The second, is hope.
It’s  harder.
But we must find it where we can,
and honor it where it’s found.
In faith.
In community.
In telling the small stories of success again and again.

And the third is friendship.
We cannot do this alone.
And don’t let yourself be convinced,
that relationships are anything other than central,
as we pursue this messy business of change.

Thus equipped,
with purpose, hope, and friendship,
I think we can push through the challenges,
through the cynicism.
We can remind ourselves that ultimately,
we are seeking to sustain the good.

We can stop asking the question,
“why don’t more people care?”
and instead ask,
“where do we need to go,
in order to help people connect,
to a more just, more sustainable future?”

I pray this story will end happily.
I’m eager to see it unfold.
And as self-appointed representative of millennials everywhere,
I’m confident that you won’t have to go it alone.
Thank you.
Now let's make it happen.

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