|In any revolution, the first to take up arms, the most passionate and articulate leaders, are those on the front lines. The reason for this is that they are the most informed about how horrendous the situation is. They are the first, as a result, to see the need for radical change, the ways to achieve that change, and the foolishness of hoping things will get better by themselves. They are often unlikely heroes.
Bill Moyers is one such hero. Week after week he’s out there on the front lines focusing his critical eye on unearthing what’s most wrong with our world, shouting it out for all the world to hear, showing it for all the world to see. Many of us have reached the point that, while we know he’s right, we cannot bear to watch, to listen any more. The endless feelings of anger and helplessness are just too hard to subject ourselves too. Moyers is relentless. He’s 70 years old, an ordained Baptist minister from Oklahoma and Texas, and he retires next week from Now, his TV journalism program on PBS. And he recently delivered, on receiving the Harvard Medical School Global Environmental Citizen award, what may be the most important speech of the 21st century so far. Here it is in its entirety, emphasis mine:
I accept this award on behalf of all the people behind the camera whom you never see. And for all those scientists, advocates, activists, and just plain citizens whose stories we have covered in reporting on how environmental change affects our daily lives. We journalists are simply beachcombers on the shores of other people’s knowledge, other people’s experience, and other people’s wisdom. We tell their stories.
The journalist who truly deserves this award is my friend, Bill McKibben. He enjoys the most conspicuous place in my own pantheon of journalistic heroes for his pioneer work in writing about the environment. His bestseller The End of Nature carried on where Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring left off.
Writing in Mother Jones recently, Bill described how the problems we journalists routinely cover – conventional, manageable programs like budget shortfalls and pollution – may be about to convert to chaotic, unpredictable, unmanageable situations. The most unmanageable of all, he writes, could be the accelerating deterioration of the environment, creating perils with huge momentum like the greenhouse effect that is causing the melt of the arctic to release so much freshwater into the North Atlantic that even the Pentagon is growing alarmed that a weakening gulf stream could yield abrupt and overwhelming changes, the kind of changes that could radically alter civilizations.
That’s one challenge we journalists face – how to tell such a story without coming across as Cassandras, without turning off the people we most want to understand what’s happening, who must act on what they read and hear.
As difficult as it is, however, for journalists to fashion a readable narrative for complex issues without depressing our readers and viewers, there is an even harder challenge – to pierce the ideology that governs official policy today. One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the oval office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.
Remember James Watt, President Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior? My favorite online environmental journal, the ever engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, ‘after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.’
Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn’t know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious. So were his compatriots out across the country. They are the people who believe the Bible is literally true – one-third of the American electorate, if a recent Gallup poll is accurate. In this past election several million good and decent citizens went to the polls believing in the rapture index. That’s right – the rapture index. Google it and you will find that the best-selling books in America today are the twelve volumes of the left-behind series written by the Christian fundamentalist and religious right warrior, Timothy LaHaye. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions of Americans.
Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre (the British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for adding to my own understanding): once Israel has occupied the rest of its ‘biblical lands,’ legions of the anti-Christ will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts, and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow.
I’m not making this up. Like Monbiot, I’ve read the literature. I’ve reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That’s why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It’s why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelation where four angels ‘which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of man.’ A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed – an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. The last time I Googled it, the rapture index stood at 144-just one point below the critical threshold when the whole thing will blow, the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.
So what does this mean for public policy and the environment? Go to Grist to read a remarkable work of reporting by the journalist, Glenn Scherer – ‘the road to environmental apocalypse. Read it and you will see how millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed – even hastened – as a sign of the coming apocalypse.
As Grist makes clear, we’re not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. Nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election – 231 legislators in total – more since the election – are backed by the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right advocacy groups. They include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Conference Chair Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Policy Chair Jon Kyl of Arizona, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt. The only Democrat to score 100 percent with the Christian coalition was Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, who recently quoted from the biblical book of Amos on the senate floor: “the days will come, sayeth the Lord God, that i will send a famine in the land.’ He seemed to be relishing the thought.
And why not? There’s a constituency for it. A 2002 TIME/CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies found in the Book of Revelation are going to come true. Nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the 9/11 attacks. Drive across the country with your radio tuned to the more than 1,600 Christian radio stations or in the motel turn some of the 250 Christian TV stations and you can hear some of this end-time gospel. And you will come to understand why people under the spell of such potent prophecies cannot be expected, as Grist puts it, “to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the rapture? And why care about converting from oil to solar when the same God who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes can whip up a few billion barrels of light crude with a word?”
Because these people believe that until Christ does return, the lord will provide. One of their texts is a high school history book, America’s Providential History. You’ll find there these words: “the secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pieÖthat needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece.’ however, “[t]he Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God’s earthÖÖwhile many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people.” No wonder Karl Rove goes around the White House whistling that militant hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” He turned out millions of the foot soldiers on November 2, including many who have made the apocalypse a powerful driving force in modern American politics.
I can see in the look on your faces just how had it is for the journalist to report a story like this with any credibility. So let me put it on a personal level. I myself don’t know how to be in this world without expecting a confident future and getting up every morning to do what I can to bring it about. So I have always been an optimist. Now, however, I think of my friend on Wall Street whom I once asked: “What do you think of the market?” “I’m optimistic,” he answered. “Then why do you look so worried?” And he answered: “Because I am not sure my optimism is justified.”
I’m not, either. Once upon a time I agreed with Eric Chivian and the Center for Health and the Global Environment that people will protect the natural environment when they realize its importance to their health and to the health and lives of their children. Now I am not so sure. It’s not that I don’t want to believe that – it’s just that I read the news and connect the dots:
I read all this and look up at the pictures on my desk, next to the computer – pictures of my grandchildren: Henry, age 12; of Thomas, age 10; of Nancy, 7; Jassie, 3; Sara Jane, nine months. I see the future looking back at me from those photographs and I say, ‘Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.’ And then I am stopped short by the thought: ‘That’s not right. We do know what we are doing. We are stealing their future. Betraying their trust. Despoiling their world.’
And I ask myself: Why? Is it because we don’t care? Because we are greedy? Because we have lost our capacity for outrage, our ability to sustain indignation at injustice?
What has happened to out moral imagination?
On the heath Lear asks Gloucester: ‘How do you see the world?” And Gloucester, who is blind, answers: “I see it feelingly.'”
I see it feelingly.
The news is not good these days. I can tell you, though, that as a journalist, I know the news is never the end of the story. The news can be the truth that sets us free – not only to feel but to fight for the future we want. And the will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism, and the answer to those faces looking back at me from those photographs on my desk. What we need to match the science of human health is what the ancient Israelites called ‘hocma’ – the science of the heartÖ..the capacity to seeÖ.to feelÖ.and then to actÖas if the future depended on you.
Believe me, it does.
We, planet Earth, One, Connected, see it feelingly too. We know instinctively that what man has created is unsustainable, that our civilization is out of control and driving the planet to the next great extinction. We cannot explain this in rational or moral terms — and if we wait until there is enough evidence that we can, it will already be too late. It may already be too late. Daniel Quinn (Story of B, Beyond Civilization) has tried valiantly to explain this in rational terms. Derrick Jensen (A Language Older Than Words) has tried valiantly to explain it in moral, emotional terms (“Stand still and listen to the land, and in time, you will know exactly what to do”). But ultimately we just know — when we look at factory farms and the atrocities in Rwanda and the melting of the arctic and the millions of children enslaved and abused in sweat shops, and the millions of other acts of inhumanity that go on every day everywhere relentlessly and incessantly in this prison called civilization, that we cannot allow this to go on, we cannot leave this legacy to our grandchildren, that we cannot allow human excesses to end the world.
In many ways, those drunk with the rapture that Moyers describes are our perfect foils. They, the religious fatalists, outnumber us — the scientists, the journalists, the informed, the sensitive, we who have “the capacity to see, to feel, and then to act” by a large enough margin that we will never be able to overcome their political and social dead weight and bring about the needed change through democratic action or social persuasion. As the crisis gets worse, and looks ever more hopeless, their numbers will swell faster than ours. They are worse than dead weight: As Moyers says, they welcome the apocalypse, and will actually go out of their way to accelerate it. At a time when every new baby, especially in the Western world, adds another unbearable burden to the already cracking foundations of our ecosystem, they are eagerly having babies in large numbers, creating new martyrs for the rapture. And as the last vestiges of nature and other cultures are eradicated from the face of the Earth, there will be fewer and fewer who are even able to get in touch with their instincts, feel the spell of the sensuous, to understand the knowledge of nature’s understanding and its better answer of how to live, to “see it feelingly”. We cannot expect those who have only ever known one, narrow, civilized, imprisoned way to live, to imagine another, wildly different way, when all the natural models of it have been extinguished.
The believers in the rapture are our enemy. The religious right, the corporatists, the technophiles who believe we can invent our way out of crisis, the war-mongers, the denyers of our civilization’s irresponsibility and destructiveness and unsustainability, are all our enemies. They have the power, the money, the faith. We don’t even have logic on our side — for how can it be logical to end the civilization that has allowed our species to stave off extinction, how can it be logical to reduce our numbers when our very biology drives us to reproduce, how can it be logical to go against all the rational and moral teachings we have learned since birth? All we have on our side is our instinctive knowledge that we are headed towards catastrophe, that the religious fatalists are part of the problem not the solution, and that all the other species of life on Earth are on our side, depending on us to help them fight the cancer of human overpopulation and rapacious overconsumption. And the instinctive knowledge that we have to “fight for the future we want”, at any cost.
There are those who argue that we are, in a way, not unlike the believers in rapture. Their beliefs are spiritual, based on faith. Ours are instinctive, based on our senses. Neither side has enough objective, rational, articulatable knowledge to support our position logically, to persuade skeptics. But the time is past for that. Those who are paralyzed by their brains, by the need to be convinced rationally of the inevitability of social, political and ecological collapse if we don’t radically change our culture now, are beyond our reach. We cannot wait for them to be convinced, and cannot waste our time trying to convince them of what only their instincts can tell them. I’m sorry, because a lot of them are my friends, my readers, and they want us to convince them rationally. Not possible, my friends. Turn off your computer and go out and experience the spell of the sensuous. Get out there on the front lines so you see for yourself what our civilization is really wreaking on this planet. And then join us. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
It is time for us, instinctive pacifists though we may be, to declare war on ruinous human civilization. It is time for Plan B.
Next week I will present my personal manifesto for change. And suggest we each develop our own personal manifesto. A war of a million cells of one.