Photo © shaunl
Photo © shaunl

Camila Thorndike ’10, the executive director of Oregon Climate, was named to Mic50’s list that recognizes the “next generation of impactful leaders.” Her view to halt climate change—pay every Oregonian a dividend of up to $1,500 each year.

In college, I was a caricature of the overextended environmental activist. Climate disruption was a threat everywhere, so I had to be, too. I organized for clean energy, green jobs, a better farm bill—you name it—dashing around campus from cause to cause with a fickleness that made Speedy Gonzales look like Regular Gonzales.

One week when I was passionately organizing in opposition to a proposed coal-fired power plant near the Columbia River, a Whitman student—let’s call him Kurt—cornered me to ask about the editorial I’d written in the school newspaper.

“Camila, what’s the endgame here?” he asked, conservatively. “You can block this plant, but I can guarantee they’re gonna build it somewhere else.”

I took a deep breath and prepared my best defense.

“No, because everyone everywhere will stand up to block all coal-fired power plants, so that we can live in a world without climate change, with crystal clear waters and smiling fish and peace for all the innocent children in the world, free from the tyranny of fossil fuels now and always!”

I patiently explained this, in plain English, definitively ending all debate on the topic forever.

Maybe Kurt wanted me to think bigger. I thought he was a troll, trying to get attention out of me, and I didn’t want to play. But if I were to engage him, it would have been a threat. You see, to fight was my identity. I wasn’t looking for an end to the fight.

Kurt keeps asking me silly questions, but I continued to rock my game, winning activist medals and landing cool jobs.

It wasn’t until one morning in July 2012 that my whole identity came into question. That morning, I caught a glimpse of the top of my scalp in the mirror. I peered closer, not believing what I saw, and as I parted my hair, a clump of it fell into the sink.

At first I hid behind scarves, but my bald spot began to grow and multiply. Showers became terrifying. Even washing my face became an ordeal. I would look down and see nests of hair in my shampooey hands, then eyebrows, eyelashes too. I was looking at part of me, how people saw me—my identity as a pretty girl—slipping down the drain. That was it. I was suddenly limited, suddenly mortal.

What I have is an inflammatory disorder called alopecia, where you can unpredictably and permanently lose your hair. There is no known cure, because the cause is not well understood.

With the help of a good doctor and a lot of luck, I look and feel fine now, but it took almost two years to recover, and I don’t know how long it’ll last.

But in those first few months I was so scared. Everything about my life came into question. To lose my hair was to lose my power.

It’s difficult to describe the panic I felt watching my youth melting away in a matter of weeks. I’d never realized how my confidence as a professional hinged on a cute, peppy persona. I know, please, I’m the cutest organizer out there. But seriously, what I had been was more of a cheerleader, rallying for the most popular fight at the moment, rather than a strategist behind the scenes at the chalkboard.

Now, what kind of organizer could I be without hair? How soon before a younger, healthier climateer would usurp my pom-poms? What could I accomplish in the time I had left? And really, how was my story different from anyone else’s? I was only on a slightly accelerated timeline.

I found myself revisiting my conversation with Kurt. I wasn’t concerned with his endgame, because it wasn’t in my interest for the problems in the world to end. Problems did for me the same thing my hair did: they made me important, wanted, needed.

Alopecia freed me from that delusion. A single flash of insight that youth is so ephemeral transformed my priorities. I had been trapped by what a lot of us do: getting obsessed by the problem, because it served me so well. I’ve heard this called the pathology of problem-worship. And as it rinsed down the shower drain I found myself back where I started: with a deep love for a natural world, a world that demands a satisfactory endgame.

When I learned my prognosis, I quickly resigned myself to wigs and eyebrow paint for the rest of my life. But the people who loved me never gave up looking for a cure. My dad quizzed doctors he met on planes, my mom urged me to pursue meditation, my sister reached out to alternative medicine practitioners, and my boyfriend juiced me anti-inflammatory root vegetables.

The people in my life wouldn’t settle for symptom management—because they loved me. The planet needs that kind of love. You are the ones to give it.

The popular American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller once said that a problem adequately stated is a problem very nearly solved. Our wigs and eyebrow pencils for climate have not healed it because we never adequately stated the problem—we haven’t diagnosed the real disease.

Climate change is not itself the problem, but one of the hidden costs we pay for cheap fossil fuels. It is one of the hidden costs of carbon energy. Climate change is a symptom. Other symptoms include disease, ocean acidification, refugees, water scarcity and pipelines.

We won’t address the causes of these symptoms by fighting every pipeline. No amount of wind turbines and solar panels and recycling programs will convince the Koch brothers to let up on tar sands.

We will address the cause exactly when the most profitable industry on earth—oil—pays the full price for their commodity at the moment they extract it from the ground. A true price on carbon will make the health we hope for finally affordable.

And we must act now. The International Energy Agency reports that we have two years, until 2017, to pull out of our massive fossil fuel investments if we are to avert a catastrophic 2° Celsius global temperature increase.

Just as the world’s climatologists have reached a consensus on the effects of burning fossil fuels, the world’s energy economists have reached the same consensus that the only way we can keep fossil fuels underground is when the people extracting it—for huge profits—pay for the full cost of carbon that we and our planet are bearing.

It is time to muster the goodwill we need to focus, with discipline, on the root of our symptoms. I discovered that goodwill—that love like my family showed in my hour of need—through art activism.

Two years ago, I helped organize hundreds of students, teachers, retirees and otherwise concerned Oregonians to construct a 120-foot mosaic of a salmon from 1,500 works of art, each expressing someone’s love for the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon. A few months later in May, the salmon migrated upstream to Salem, where we trained 100 people from around the state to lobby for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Our state representative would later tell us that our efforts were instrumental in passing an appropriations bill to study an Oregonian carbon tax.

The salmon was literally and metaphorically larger than the sum of its parts. Like a sand mandala, it spawned stronger activists and perished in the Oregon rain. It empowered us to build a community on a foundation of shared concern, bypassing the pathology of problem-worship and strengthening our resolve to work together for a solution.

The salmon opened my eyes to the ancient power of art. Making art together about what we love is critical to inspiring our insistence on real solutions.

Out of the big salmon project, I cofounded an organization called Oregon Climate, a volunteer-driven, statewide network nearly 2,000 strong, bringing communities together to pass a carbon price and dividend in Oregon. This law would cap or tax climate pollution and return 100 percent of the revenue back to Oregonians, to the tune of $500 to $1,500 per year.

Humanity will keep burning fossil fuels until they are too expensive. That’s why the economic consensus on carbon pricing is overwhelming. We can use the resulting funds to give everyone “carbon dividends” or “green checks,” making this climate solution one of the most economically progressive and politically invulnerable laws on the books.

I’ve been zigzagging across the state in my mom’s Subaru for years now, getting Oregon Climate off the ground. What keeps me going in this work is the vision of a future where everyone takes responsibility for their impact on others. With real polluter accountability, imagine all the innovations that will spring up from a level playing field for a low-carbon economy, from high-speed rail to the technologies we can’t yet imagine at scale, like algae biofuels to power jets.

The states are still the laboratories of democracy: if Oregon can pass this game-changing carbon price and dividend, the nation will follow. It will take all of us, a new generation of advocates who won’t take no for an answer because our lives depend on it.

Camila Thorndike contributed this essay as part of our After Whitman series. Tell us your story at #AfterWhitman. Find Thorndike at www.oregonclimate.org