DeMocker: You work directly with students and witness their struggles. Can young people hungry for real change work toward it without risking their personal futures?
Moore: Students face a serious dilemma. They know that the real risk to their future is climate change, and that they have the power to stop it. But they’ve also been told that they need jobs to pay off their student loans, that they won’t be able to compete in the job market if they are distracted from their studies, and that they won’t get a job if they have an arrest record. We see the plutocracy at work in this, undermining public education, increasing student debt and unemployment, and tightening the constraints on free speech. People ask, “What is the end of democracy going to look like?” I think it’s going to look a lot like this.
DeMocker: You and your students have a “hope-o-meter” for the future of the earth, with a one meaning very little hope and a ten meaning no worries. Where are you on your hope-o-meter now?
Moore: Honestly? I’m about a one. I see feedback loops in the natural world that are going to make climate change much harder to address. As ice melts, it frees methane, a potent greenhouse gas. As forests are destroyed, they release carbon dioxide. By every measure global warming is increasing more rapidly than the most horrifying predictions of the past. And I can see the political feedback mechanisms kicking in: the more politicized the issue becomes, the more money will be thrown into debating it instead of addressing the crisis. It will be hard to get out of this one.
DeMocker: So why do you try?
Moore: People tend to think that we have only two options: hope or despair. But neither one is acceptable. Blind hope leads to moral complacency: things will get better, so why should I put myself out? Despair leads to moral abdication: things will get worse no matter what I do, so why should I put myself out? But between hope and despair is the broad territory of moral integrity — a match between what you believe and what you do. You act lovingly toward your children because you love them. You live simply because you believe in taking only your fair share. You do what’s right because it’s right, not because you will gain from it.
There is freedom in that. There is joy in that. And, ultimately, there is social change in that. That’s the way we respond to a lack of hope. A person could be at zero on the hope-o-meter and still do great, joyous work. Even — especially — in desperate times, we can make our lives into works of art that embody our deepest values. The ways of life that are most destructive to the world often turn out to be the ones that are also most destructive to the human spirit. So, although environmental emergencies call on us to change, they don’t call on us to give up what we value most. They encourage us to exercise our moral imagination and to invent new ways of living that lift the human spirit and help biological and cultural communities thrive.
Over the weekend I sat for an hour in a warm pond in beautiful sunshine with my one-year-old grandson on my lap, splashing and scooping. I’ve never seen a child so happy. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so happy. That type of immersion in the world is a lesson in responsible caring. We can find the ongoing strength to do this work if we keep in mind that it is powered by love.
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