The existential issue of our time

Elaine McArdle


UU World Magazine Winter 2019

Each day brings mounting evidence of the planet’s growing climate crisis. July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded. By 2050, rising sea levels will displace at least 140 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, according to the World Bank. Sea ice levels are falling in the Arctic, wildfires are raging in the Amazon and Indonesia, and a shocking number of animal species are going extinct. As with so many social problems, people living in poverty—who are responsible for only a fraction of global carbon emissions—will bear the brunt of the impending climate disaster, according to a June report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. Meanwhile, billionaires convinced of societal collapse due to climate change and other forces are building private compounds and keeping helicopters at the ready.

“Climate change is the existential issue of our time, perhaps in our history as a species,” says Stephen Leslie, a former Benedictine monk who has been an organic farmer in Vermont for twenty years. Although Leslie has been devoted to environmental sustainability for many years, two new reports from the UN brought him to his own personal crisis. One, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warns that humans have less than a dozen years to act on climate change before the effects are irreversible. The other, by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), concludes that the global decline of nature is unprecedented.

“I started digging in, and I was floored and freaked out,” says Leslie, whose use of horses instead of tractors for some farming tasks has been featured in the New York Times. “The acceleration of the ice caps melting was off the charts, far worse than what anyone thought even ten years ago.” One night last spring, as Leslie watched his 12-year-old daughter perform in a dance competition, he began to weep uncontrollably for the children and their future. Then, inspired by the message of teen climate activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden—who has said that “the one thing we need more than hope is action”—Leslie says, “I decided to get involved with Extinction Rebellion.”

Launched in October 2018 in the United Kingdom, Extinction Rebellion (XR) describes itself as an apolitical network that relies on nonviolent direct action to persuade governments to react to the planet’s ecological emergency. In less than a year, it has expanded to more than 650 groups in forty nations and has held a number of nonviolent protests and actions to demand government attention to the climate crisis. In April, 1,000 people joined an XR protest in London that blocked major landmarks in the city and helped persuade Parliament to declare a climate emergency, making the U.K. the first nation to do so, according to Labor Party leaders. In September, XR announced an International Rebellion to start on October 7, calling on climate activists to peacefully occupy and shut down centers of government and corporate power to spur action on climate change.

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