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To Be of Use in a Warming World

by Phil Brick
Miles C. Moore Professor of Political Science
August 26, 2011

Greetings, and welcome to Whitman College on this beautiful day, one filled with anticipation, hope, and perhaps a bit of anxiety. I have no intention of adding to anyone’s anxiety, but I would like to share some ideas about climate change with you today, a topic so popular that it almost requires a captive audience.

In case you are worried that this address might be a little like being cornered at a perfectly good cocktail party by Al Gore, or on this happy occasion, a bit like inviting Henry David Thoreau to a Rick Perry fundraising gala, let me reassure you. It is possible to think about climate change in ways that won’t send your friends running for the exit. So please bear with me.

I believe that climate change will be a defining issue facing you, the class of 2015, as you walk through your life in a warming and ecologically dynamic world that is without precedent in human history. I say this not because I believe that other concerns such as war, terrorism, poverty, and injustice are less important, but rather, because I believe that climate and environmental change will be a common driver of all these concerns and many more. The consequences of climate change will reach into every aspect of your life, and that process is already well under way.

Anthropogenic climate change is already here and it may indeed be irreversible. This is an idea that we are still getting used to. Most narratives on this subject suggest that climate change is something that only our children or grandchildren have to worry about… it’s a problem with real consequences only far out into the future. Well, no. Those children and grandchildren everyone has been talking about for the past 20 years of the climate debate, that’s you, the class of 2015. The future is already here in this room.

The growing ecological consequences of climate change are also already here, the result of past greenhouse gas emissions about which we can do little. We have already seen a plethora of signal events predicted by climate models: unusual heat waves, more violent storms, extreme flooding in some places, crushing drought in others, more frequent and intense wildfires in our forests, decline of mountain snowpack, changes in plant and animal phenology, the acidification of oceans and the bleaching of coral reefs. Forests are turning to grasslands, and grasslands to deserts, while diseases like malaria are showing up in places rarely seen before due to changes in climate.

And this is but a G-rated pre-view of what may be under way. We know that deep in earth’s history relatively small perturbations can have outsized consequences, the result of positive feedback loops that amplify warming or cooling trends, sometimes exponentially and irreversibly on human time scales. We don’t know enough about these tipping points, yet our uncontrolled experiment on our planet’s biophysical systems not only continues, it is accelerating. Last year, more fossil carbon was released into the atmosphere than in any year in history.

This is not a warning and a call to action, at least not in the environmental tradition of apocalyptic rhetoric pioneered by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I am merely describing the planet on which we already now live, one that is and will be fundamentally different from the relatively comfortable and stable Holocene era in which human civilizations developed.

Writer Bill McKibben suggests that our climate is now sufficiently different from what preceded it that we should think of ourselves as inhabiting a new planet, our launch from one to the other propelled by a burst of carbon dioxide. He calls our new planet Eaarth. (“double A earth”) Eaarth will be a much more difficult place to live and prosper than our old planet Earth, but I hope to convince you today this is no reason to be discouraged. Instead, we should see the climate problem as an invitation, a calling, to live and work more deliberately and more imaginatively.

It is important to understand what we are up against. Climate change is literally a perfect biophysical/political storm, a whirlwind that produces public indifference almost as if by design. As we all know, much of the world economy runs on relatively inexpensive fossil fuel, and this is unlikely to change any time soon. Further, any serious effort to address greenhouse gas emissions must be a global one, requiring a level of international coordination unprecedented in history. But that’s only part of the story. Think of carbon flows into the atmosphere like water flowing into a bathtub where the inlet pipe is much larger than the outlet drain. Since carbon emissions remain in the atmosphere for about a hundred years, the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere accumulates slowly, and once there the pattern is hard to reverse. We keep putting water into the bathtub, and at the same time, we are narrowing the drain as well, as we clear forests for agriculture and the oceans’ capacity to absorb additional CO2 diminishes. Given this, it is futile to think there will be any quick fixes to our predicament. Even if we shut off all our emissions today, clearly impossible, the climate would still warm well into the next century, with unknown ecological consequences. Every day we wait, the harder the tub becomes to drain. Water is already spilling out on to the floor and will continue to do so.

This perhaps explains the urgency and apocalyptic sensibility that climate scientists and activists bring to climate politics, which to this point has been dominated by the rather naïve expectation that scientific clarity and ecological necessity will produce rational political, economic, and social responses on a global scale. But if anything, the opposite seems to be happening. The more we learn about climate change and the true scale of the problem, the more we feel powerless and immobilized. This isn’t inevitable. Instead, public apathy and even denial about climate change is a predictable product of the way climate science and environmental narratives have shaped our understanding of our predicament, which in turn have structured our responses, or more accurately, our lack of responses, to the climate challenge.

Take a moment to think about how you learned about climate change. Was the meaning of climate change presented to you as an in-your-face given, kind of like the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, DC, where six US marines are planting an American flag on top of an embattled hill, the intended meaning of the sculpture all but complete? Or was it more like Maya Lin’s Vietnam War memorial, where the names of the fallen are etched into corridors of reflective black granite, which seem to invite visitors to participate in completing the memorial’s uncertain meaning?

If I’m right about this, chances are good that climate change was presented to you in no uncertain terms, with a storyline something like this: our planet is in grave peril; we must quickly and fundamentally re-shape our energy economy; to do anything less is to flirt with disaster. So we must all rise up and demand the enormous economic and social transformations necessary to match the scale of the problem, and it all has to happen yesterday.

Perhaps you might remember the moment in Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, when he suggested that we already have all the tools we need to solve the crisis, “all that’s missing is political will, and in America, political will is a renewable resource.”

Well, no. What’s actually missing from climate politics are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of small pathways where citizens across the globe can participate in shaping the climate story for the next century and beyond, a story that remains uncertain and largely unwritten. Although we must heed the alarms raised by climate models that have remarkable power to peer into the future, we must reject any singular imperative extrapolated from those models, no matter how scientifically clear and compelling. The meaning of Eaarth is for us to build. To suggest that something as complex as climate change has only one grand meaning, and thus only one solution, is to commit the same errors of high modernism that helped put us in our current predicament in the first place.

So we need to start small, there will be no shortcuts. We are going to have to figure out how to slow down the flow from the tap, open the drain, and deal with the water on the floor, all at the same time. It won’t be easy, and we may fail. But we need to make our own way in a warming world, slowly building foundations for larger structural transformations that will be necessary to make the planet habitable over the longer term.

If all this sounds somewhat speculative, it is worth remembering that the greatest political changes of our times, from Wenceslas Square to Tahrir Square, came not from leaders suddenly finding the political will to change, but rather by being forced to recognize the social transformations that had already taken place, built not by some grand imperative but rather on the foundations of the practical and collective experiences of everyday life: small acts of resistance, intuition, love and desire, inventiveness, frustration, anger, flexibility, resilience, and most of all, work worth doing.


Last fall, I was in the field with 21 Whitman students, floating down the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument with park botanist Tamara Naumann, who has devoted much of her life to ecological restoration projects with impossibly long odds of success. After we finished a service-learning project, digging out invasive tamarisk from a weed-infested river shore, Tamara explained that even though our considerable efforts that day might seem like an imperceptibly small dent in a huge problem, our work was of enormous consequence.

She pulled out a small piece of paper with a poem by Marge Piercy to help explain why she continues her work, knowing full well that her singular efforts can never match the scale of ecological ruin on the Colorado Plateau. I’d like to share that poem with you today. It is titled

To Be of Use.

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Work that is real. That, I submit, is what has been missing from climate politics for over twenty years. We need a climate politics that is empowering, not disheartening. Martin Luther King, speaking on the national mall in 1963, had a dream, not a nightmare. We need to imagine new tasks to make climate challenges meaningful in our lives. We can’t expect to solve the problem, but through our work, we can generate new metaphors for more effective climate activism and new social landscapes that are more fulfilling and perhaps more just. I will come back with a few specific examples in a moment, but for now I would like to speak directly to the first-year students in the room.

Today, class of 2015, you are on the brink of an exciting new chapter of your life, and of your life’s work. There are many people who lovingly sacrificed to get you here; some of whom may be sitting behind you in this room. Before you say goodbye today, be sure to find a private moment to let them know how much you love them and how much you appreciate all they have done for you. At same time, avoid making any firm commitments to answer your cell phone every time your mom or dad calls. As much as you love them, it’s better they don’t know everything.

Perhaps you’ve been told that going to college will help you discover who you are; so you have come here with the goal of finding yourself. Not a bad idea, but let me suggest a more potent possibility. Enlightenment and fulfillment come not when you find yourself, but rather when your life seems to dissolve into a task that is profoundly worth the effort. Your goal for the next four years will be to learn how to go about losing yourself in a task.

You will know it as the moment when you find yourself utterly transparent in your doing of a thing, whatever that may be. If you are learning to ski, you may know it as that moment of weightless flight between turns on a steep and deep powder day. If you are a jazz musician you may experience it as the moment when disparate, improvisational voices blend seamlessly into one another. If you are a struggling writer, when words seem to flow from nowhere on to the page, you will know you are in the zone.

Every task worth doing has the potential to create such moments, but they are never given; they are always apprenticed. Over the next four years, we hope to share our passion for an intellectual life that answers the calling of problems truly worthy of a life’s work, problems so complex and intractable that they always keep us squarely on the margins of complete understanding and true wisdom. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

And so it should also be with our calling for real work to keep our planet habitable in this century and beyond. There is no climate solution, but this should be a call to many tasks, not to empty requests for political will, discouragement, denial, or retreat. Out of work worth doing, no matter how small, will come good metaphors to inspire still more powerful work that remains to be done.

The great 20th century Chinese writer Lu Xun captures the essence of my message to you here today: “Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like the roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many pass one way, a road is made.” We can’t expect grand plans to improve our planet’s condition to succeed at the same time we know from history that grand plans to improve the human condition invariably fail. We have to start with our own paths, our own meaningful work, and roads will emerge from there. I know time is short, and success is not guaranteed. But neither can the failure we already know continue.

Let me leave you with a few examples from my own experience in the field, from my little corner of the world, the interior American West, of what I have in mind here.

In Colorado, the mountain pine beetle, no longer kept in check by cold winters, is decimating mountain forests on a truly astonishing scale. Hundreds of thousands of acres of standing dead timber now invite catastrophic wildfire, which would pulse still more carbon into the atmosphere. But a small non-profit organization is looking to harvest those trees, convert the woody biomass to biochar, and put it back into the ground to sequester carbon and help re-vegetate abandoned mine sites at the same time. This won’t solve climate change, but it is good work and it is a good metaphor.

In Oregon, cash-strapped rural school districts are converting their petroleum heating boilers to biomass from nearby forest restoration projects intended to prevent the kind of wildfires we saw in Arizona earlier this summer. Turning away from expensive heating oil, school districts might save enough money to offer classes in art and music that have fallen prey to budget cuts. This won’t solve climate change, but it is good work and it is a good metaphor.

Finally, my favorite example. Recently the State of Washington spent millions on feasibility studies for several huge, new, off-channel dams on the main stem of the Columbia River to alleviate expected late-season water shortages due to climate change. These proposed dams, one larger than Grand Coulee, would be enormously expensive and environmentally destructive. So a small non-profit in Spokane did a study showing that if the lowly beaver could be restored to much of its original habitat on higher order streams in northeast Washington, just as much water would be available, without the big dams. We’d let the beavers instead of the Army Corps and the taxpayers build the dams, and at the same time we’d create new riparian habitats for plants and animals on the move in a hotter and drier West. Restoring beaver to upper order watersheds won’t solve climate change, but it’s the best metaphor I can think of. Instead of arterial projects that do little more than reinforce past mistakes, steadfast work by humble creatures at the capillaries can be more effective and ultimately transformative.

We already know enough about the climate challenge to engage in meaningful work to address it. All that’s missing is imagination. And on the eve of your four years at Whitman, let me suggest that imagination is definitely a renewable resource!

Class of 2015, welcome again to Whitman and to the many tasks before us. We look forward to working with you as you chart your life’s course, now just a path, but with others, hopefully a road worthy of our common travel on our new and beautiful planet, Eaarth.

Thank you, and best wishes for your time here at Whitman College.


David Brooks, “It’s Not About You,” New York Times, May 30, 2011.

David Gessner, My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism. Milkweed Editions, 2011.

Christopher Hitchens, comments at a debate with William Dembski, Prestonwood Christian Academy, Plano Texas, 2010.

Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Times Books, 2010.

Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use.”

James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press, 1998. The comparison between the Iwo Jima and Vietnam memorials appears p. 355-356.

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Penguin, 2009.

David Victor, Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Lu Xun, Selected Works. Foreign Languages Press, 1980.

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