What has most inspired me to act is wanting to be able to look you in the eye and say, “When I became aware of the existential threat of climate change, I did all I could.”  Despite my pessimism, I act in the hope it can make a difference for future generations and all the precious life on our fragile planet.

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Grady McGonagill
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Dear Evan,

December 28, 2017

One of the most exciting organizations I’ve come across this year regarding climate change is “Dear Tomorrow.” It’s a digital and archive project that encourages people to share letters, photos and videos with their children and family (or even future self!) about their promise to take action on climate change. The organization I’m helping build, Elders Climate Action, has recently entered into a partnership with Dear Tomorrow. We are encouraging members to write letters expressing their commitment to doing something about climate change.  I volunteered to be among those who pave the way. Here goes. As you’ll see, I’ve decided to go beyond a simple statement of intent to tell my version of how my generation contributed to the problem and how I came to the commitment I now hold.

“We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change,” said Jay Inslee, governor of Washington State, “and the last generation that can do something about it.” In fact, whether we can still do enough about it to preserve a livable climate is questionable. We face an existential threat we may not be able to successfully defend ourselves against. How did we get here?  I can tell you how I made an unwitting contribution and how I and some others of my generation are now trying to make up for what we did.

My story starts in 1961, when I bought my first car—a 1953 Mercury—at the age of 16. In those days, within my peer group getting one’s own car was essential for having status. It signified independence and freedom. Freedom to do what? Well, among other things, just drive around. Gas was cheap. To pay for the car and the gas I worked part-time during the school year and full-time summers. In a couple of years, I was able to upgrade to the ultimate status symbol at that time: a 1957 Chevrolet two-door hardtop, black with red interior. Flashy hubcaps, of course, and a loud muffler. In my Chevy and other cars, my friends and I spent countless hours just cruising around. Often, while doing so we would drink beer that we bought with forged drivers licenses. When we were through drinking the beer out of a can or bottle, we’d throw it out of the car window.  The horizon toward which we drove was without limit. The receptacle into which we threw our trash was without bottom.  Or so we thought.

My first moment of environmental awareness came while walking across the campus at The University of Texas, in my home town, Austin. I saw a large wire-mesh trash barrel with a sign on it: “There is no ‘away’,’” with “away” in quotation marks. That really hit me. I had been living with an unconscious metaphor in which there was a mythical place called “away” where you could just throw things and they magically disappeared.

Lots of unconscious mindsets got challenged in the 60s. Most visible to me was the challenge to prevalent attitudes toward authority evident in the emerging opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1967, I witnessed a march down the main streets of Austin, from the University to the Capitol, with the marchers dressed in black and carrying coffins. No one had ever seen such a thing. Most people, including me, were shocked. The women’s movement emerged about the same time. And all of this had been preceded by the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1968 the inaugural issue of Steward Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog” was published. On its cover was an image of one of the first pictures of earth taken from space. The year following, Buckminster Fuller wrote the “Operating manual for Spaceship Earth.”  In 1970 the first Earth Day got national visibility, but we didn’t yet talk about climate change. The focus was on pollution. It had taken decades to establish a connection between the relatively invisible exhaust from cars and the brown smog in cities like Los Angeles. It would be almost another two decades before NASA scientist James Hansen sounded the first loud wake-up alarm about the link between carbon pollution and climate change.

I and my generation benefited from other scouts with eye for the dangers hidden within our carbon-based life styles. Al Gore’s “Earth in the Balance” came out in 1992. It alerted me to widespread species extinction. But what had the most visceral impact on me was learning of the dwindling population of the Texas Horned Toad. The threat of demise faced by this familiar playmate in my youth moved me to tears and to action. I resolved to do something about threats to the environment and began using my professional skills to support environmental organizations.

About that time Joanna Macy and others began to speak of the need for a “Great Turning.” For many of my generation as well as younger people the trigger for action was Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” But it wasn’t until I read Bill McKibben’s 2012 “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” that I saw the need for direct action and the building of a mass movement. McKibben had switched from journalism to activism when he realized that the books he had been writing since 1989 were having little effect. He founded 350.org, which in 2013 mobilized opposition to the KeystoneXL Pipeline. In February of that year I joined the busloads of protesters converging on Washington, D.C., to rally at the George Washington monument and march to the White House, calling for a stop to the pipeline and for action to address climate change. This was my first demonstration since the war in Vietnam.  I decided that just as I had been a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War, I was now a Conscientious Objector to climate change. I found kindred spirits in the hundreds of thousands of others who took part in the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.

Getting to the point of taking action—even something as simple as boarding a bus to participate in a protest—was a very significant step for me, and one that took a significant internal shift that was only gradual. It began some years earlier when I engaged in a life-changing reflection. What became known as the “Immunity to Change” exercise began by asking me to name something very important to me: I wrote down: “making a difference in the world.” Then it asked me to inventory any behavior that was inconsistent with that goal.  I realized that I was engaged in nothing but small-scale activities that lent themselves to short-term evaluation: money earned or kudos received.  The next step led me to realize that I had a tacit commitment that competed with my espoused goal: I was committed to not failing, to having closure and clear indicators of success. This latent commitment was the more powerful one, as it was held in place by a subconscious limiting mindset: “If I’m not successful I will have no identity.”

Viewed in the light of day, this mindset was not compelling, but I knew that I was in its grip. I decided to commit to loosening that grip by rewriting the mindset: I didn’t think I was able to let go of the notion of success. But I saw room for change in how I defined it. Rather than defining success by achievement, I resolved to define it in terms of aligning my behavior with my values. This allowed me to fall short of achieving any particular outcome so long as I whole-heartedly pursued my commitment. I had been a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War and did two years of “Alternative Service.” I decided that I was a Conscientious Objector to climate change and resolved to enter into service of a movement to do something about it.

With inspiration from Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and others, this shift in mindset eventually resulted in my letting go of a 30-year practice as an independent coach and consultant on leadership in order to refocus on the existential threat of climate change. I began using my professional skills as coach and consultant for climate-change advocacy organizations, such as The Better Future Project. And I became actively involved in the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. But the biggest step toward activism came in response to a call I got in August 2015, from Paul Severance, the founder of a new organization: Elders Climate Action. He invited me to come to Washington, D.C. for “Grandparents Climate Action Day.” Who knew there was a “Grandparents Day”? There is—it’s the second Sunday of September. It was chosen as the date for lobbying members of Congress on climate change.

I was intrigued. To be sure, I was not a grandparent but I’m old enough to be one and who knows, perhaps one day you’ll make that happen!  In any case, I liked the idea of reframing “elderly” as “elder,” with connotations of the wisdom that can come with old age. And I liked appealing to legislators of both parties in terms of a common concern for succeeding generations, regardless of political orientation. So, I signed up and recruited a colleague to go with me, Rabbi Judy Weiss, the leader of the Boston Citizens’ Climate Change chapter.

It was a meaningful experience: I met my Senators—both Warren and Markey—and my representative: Joe Kennedy. More importantly, I had a chance to talk to conservative Republicans and try to understand their doubts about climate change. I felt like for the first time in my life I was truly exercising my rights as a citizen in a democracy. As a consequence, I decided to join the national leadership team of ECA. I also—and this was the really big move—resolved to found the first state chapter of ECA, inviting Judy to partner with me. Being able to count on a relationship with someone who had been a chapter leader of a similar organization was reassuring and very helpful.

Two years later, we’ve got a robust chapter in Mass, with growing membership and active involvement in the Mass Power Forward coalition. And we’ve now got five state chapters, with another two in the wings. Of course, it may well be too little and too late. That’s hard to know. But what I do know is that It’s acting on my convictions that counts, not the certainty of success.

These same two years have brought signs of hope. In 2014 the Pope published an encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si, which inspired me to go again to D.C. to hear his speech to Congress.  Then came the Paris Accord in 2016, in which nearly 200 nations acknowledged the climate threat and set goals to address it. The goals are insufficient, of course. And our current administration would even have us withdraw. But the handwriting is on the wall. There’s no stopping the momentum of renewable energy. And the many signs that climate change is here—the rising seas, drier droughts, raging wildfires, more intense storms—are increasingly hard to ignore. It’s a race against time. We just don’t know how much time we have.

In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King wrote: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  There’s an analog today. Recent polls show that a solid majority of Americans believe that climate change is real and puts future generations at risk. And a slight majority believes that humans are the problem. Yet few put priority on this issue and hardly any make their views known to policymakers.

In Drew Dellinger’s poem, “Hieroglyphic Stairway,” a great-great-grandchild asks a dreamer, “What did you do when you knew?” In addition to—and more important than—all the above, what has most inspired me to act is wanting to be able to look you in the eye and say, “When I became aware of the existential threat of climate change, I did all I could.”  Despite my pessimism, I act in the hope it can make a difference for future generations and all the precious life on our fragile planet.

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