Exactly one year ago today, my father and I had a tremendous, wall-shaking, eardrum-bursting debate that quickly turned personal. It wasn't about any of the things that fathers and adult children generally argue over: finances or religion or career. Or even something little and petty, like who was cooking dinner that night.
It was about the future of the planet.
All weekend, my father had been spouting ominous prognostications about our world's future. There were too many people and too few resources. The Eurozone was on the brink of collapse. But, first and foremost, we weren't doing enough to combat climate change, and the consequences -- a rapidly warming earth, rising sealevels, conflict, famine, and disease -- would be dire. Even more gloomily, he believed that there was no solution: no alternative energy source that could satisfy our planet's vast demand for energy. The whole thing was hopeless.
Earlier that New Year's Day I had visited a small bookshop in the town where we were staying, and had bought a copy of The Geography of Hope, by Chris Turner. The book discussed how various countries are adapting clean energy technologies to suit their individual needs, and argues for replacing fossil fuel energy not with a single "Holy Grail" of clean energy (like cold fusion) but rather a wide array of more conventional technologies: solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal. (Chris Turner uses the phrase "A congress, not a king".) One of the most compelling examples is Samsø, a Danish island that switched from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy -- within 10 years! (For skeptics who argue it's easy to produce wind power on an island, I point you to the example of not-particularly-sunny Germany, which set a world record one weekend in May 2012 by deriving nearly half its energy from solar. In fact, it's currently producing more solar energy at peak generation than it can use, and has been exporting the excess.)
I brought the book over to my dad, asking him to read a segment of one chapter. He spent about 30 seconds skimming the first page, tossed the book back at me in disgust, and declared unequivocally, "It'll never work."
I won't detail the half-hour long, loud, and emotional debate that followed. In the small cabin that we were spending the holidays in, there was little room to walk away from the fight -- which quickly degenerated from a debate into "Is not, is too." Neither of us had hard facts on hand to prove our point; my position was little more than "Human ingenuity and technology will triumph over any obstacle!" and his,"It's too much work and too expensive to get up to scale." Don't get me wrong; we were both passionate about environmental causes. Yet it was because of this very passion, I think, that he was arguing so viscerally. So angrily. He was afraid to hope. Afraid that I would be disappointed in my hope.
But the moment I remember most vividly was the moment he leaned over and, shoving his finger into my face, bellowed: "So what have YOU been doing to stop climate change, then?"
I had been doing quite a bit to help our world, I spat back, thank you very much. I'd just written over a dozen letters for Amnesty's yearly campaign. I donated to a number of causes, and posted almost daily on Twitter and Facebook to try to increase awareness of various issues. One of the big motivations behind my piano teaching career was to make the world a better place…since music can be such a force for change in young children's lives.
And, I went on, where was his approach going to get us? Were cynicism and pessimism going to stop climate change? Couldn't he at least try to keep hope alive, even if he felt powerless to change the world any other way? I quoted Vaclav Havel: "When a person tries to act in accordance with his conscience…it won't necessarily lead anywhere, but it might. There's one thing, however, that will never lead anywhere, and that is speculating whether such behavior will lead somewhere."
We finally stomped off to different rooms for the rest of the day. Neither of us ever brought up the argument again. Yet throughout the weeks and months that followed, the question kept resurfacing in my mind, try as I might to argue it away.
"What have you been doing to stop climate change?"
I'd always been environmentally inclined, but the more I thought about my Dad's question, the more I began to take an avid interest in reading and reposting articles about climate change. I signed up for the 350.org mailing list, and saw that on May 5th there would be a global "Connect the Dots" day of action. Was there an event in my city? I checked, and -- rather to my shock -- found that, though I lived in one of Canada's largest cities, nothing had yet been planned.
I had never organized a protest. Moreover, I didn't want to: it wasn't, as I thought, "my sort of thing". I begged and pleaded with God or the Fates to let someone more knowledgeable take charge. "Why me?" But as the days passed and no event was posted, I realized that if I didn't take the initiative…nobody would.
And I knew I would never forgive myself if I simply sat back, did nothing, and watched the world -- literally -- burn.
So I organized the protest -- which turned out to be a success, and amazingly fun. I made it a priority to seek out and repost and retweet climate change and clean energy petitions. And I became a donor and supporter to groups -- like 350.org, Avaaz, and Leadnow -- seeking action on climate change, and with the membership base and reach to make real change happen.
And then in November, I began writing a series of poems which I posted here: about Christmas, yes, but also the environment and climate change and our current state of the world. And what the future might become if we act now…and what it will become if we don't.
Because I realized after that argument with my father: feeling hopeful is not enough.
Oh, it's a lot better than cynicism or pessimism. And it can inspire others to act and to live in a more positive way. Yet if it is used as an excuse for sitting on one's hands and letting the world go on its way, it has defeated its own purpose.
The purpose of hope is to inspire us to act.
It is as silly to sit around making hopeful predictions as to sit around making pessimistic ones. In Havel's words, neither will lead anywhere, not in and of themselves. The truth is that all predictions -- cynical or optimistic -- about our world, have a central flaw: that we ourselves create the future we are trying to predict.
I know today many feel powerless. Hopeless. Apathetic.
A greater and more pernicious lie has seldom been told, and so widely believed. We are not powerless. We are the creators of the future. Nobody else will determine what happens to human society, to our Earth, except us.
We saw it, in Canada, when Canadians joined together to defeat the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline -- at one time thought to be "inevitable". Americans saw it when, despite corporate election spending and the war on voters and an endless stream of lies, voters joined together to re-elect Obama and stand for marriage equality. Or in Pakistan, where a country came together to decry extremism and demand education for children in poverty after a schoolgirl was shot in the head for wanting to learn.
It is we who create the future. And no matter what, you will help create our future. Either through your inaction, or your action. There is no "neutral" choice. No opting out. You are part of the future.
Don't make a New Year's Resolution this year. Do a New Year's Action to help our planet. Don't try to be hopeful. Do something hopeful. Join together with other hopeful people…like me. Let's make 2013 the year that we, together, take back our planet.
Thank you, Dad, for our New Year's argument last year. Thank you for making me think.
Even more, thank you for pushing me to act.