Something about a mountain draws people toward the heights. It’s daunting, dangerous, requiring one step, or misstep, after another, like any arduous path to a new level, a plateau of reform. When you make it, there’s something majestic in the peaks. The experience is all there in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. That’s why I spoke at the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics on July 9, in mile-high Boulder, Colorado, and again at the Tattered Cover in Denver. Building a social movement through ups and downs is a similar to the process described by Aldo Leopold in “thinking like a mountain."
Pope Francis suddenly ranks ahead of Governor Jerry Brown among those assembling for this year’s climate summit. The influence of the Pope and his encyclical may greatly sway the California Governor as they share their thoughts together. Their synergy will have an important effect on President Barack Obama - and to a lesser extent Speaker of the House John Boehner and the Republican Congress, in their meetings this September. Pope Francis, President Obama, Gov. Brown and, of course, Speaker Boehner and the Congress are rooted in the realm of the powers and principalities.
The Pope himself manages the interests of the Church, with all its contradictions. There are still differences among them. Francis is more progressive than all of the summit leaders, coming as he does from the social justice tradition of Latin America, with its opposition to “cap and trade” policies and its long tradition of colonialism and martyrdom at the hands of the rich and powerful. Jerry Brown is former seminarian who steers today in the Machiavellian waters of partisan interest groups, including the sworn enemies of social justice and clean energy movements.
Brown leads the nation’s governors in climate politics with trend-setting goals of cutting 50 percent from California’s transportation fuels, setting a 50 percent goal of power from renewable resources, and reducing fossil fuels in new building design by another 50 percent by 2030, a “3-50” goal borrowing the name of the activist organization 350.org.
Joining Brown’s bid for leadership is the rising California Senate leader Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, who once led the immigrant rights movement in the streets of Los Angeles. Allied with them is green investor Tom Steyer who is adding California divestment from coal as an important breakthrough this year. (De Leon is carrying the divestment bill, which could be a national model.)
When I recently interviewed Steyer, he was optimistic about the Brown agenda and the divestment bill, but predicted a lot of “horse-trading” in Sacramento about the governor’s “3-50’s” package. The wealthy lobbyists for the fossil fuels industry are pouring millions into fostering a “moderate” bloc of Democrats and Republicans, heavy with the inclusion of Latinos from the Central Valley of California. Though places like Kern County are rich with immigrant rights and farmworker traditions, the region remains a colony dominated by the oil and gas oligarchs of Occidental and Chevron. Kern County itself hosts 66,000 undocumented workers, and its sheriff says the place should become part of Arizona. A bill to create a more progressive regulatory agency in Kern is being strangled in the legislature at this writing. Most of the poor in Kern and the Valley are Catholics who pray for the Pope and vote for Brown and Obama. Will their suffering be recognized as central to climate justice?
It will take millions in the streets and public gathering places to create a climate of opinion conducive to a climate treaty based on justice. Optimistically, what comes to mind is the papacy of John XXIII and his encyclical Pacem in Terris, (April 1963) when a global community then rallied to abate the nuclear arms race and launch an international treaty. The impact of that Encyclical on the Kennedy administration, the Soviets, and many other countries was profound. The result was the first global treaty on nuclear armaments, propelled by an international citizens' movement demanding the end of the Cold War and the dangers of strontium-90 to the planet’s mothers and children.
During that same moment of “miracles and wonders”, more than 250, 000 Americans marched on Washington for jobs and justice, convincing a young president to assert leadership on voting rights and cast his fate with the movement for social justice. I remember all of it, from the Cuban missile crisis, to meetings with presidential advisers, to the new student uprising, to the Peace Corps declaration JFK made in Ann Arbor, and to the majestic march on Washington. It was a time to climb the tallest mountains, though Dr. King warned that we might not make it.
Pope John XXIII died of cancer two months after the encyclical while JFK was murdered three months after the nuclear treaty and civil rights rally, the beginning of a death march through a decade provoked by a virulent reaction that asserted no surrender. Quickly came Vietnam and multiple assassinations and blockages of hopeful progress.
Our prayer and our commitment this time should be for the mobilization of a total public alert to prevent any repetition of what happened to us 50 years ago. No one today needs a reminder that the history of evil already is beginning to repeat in places like South Carolina. I don’t believe our America could withstand another era of war, budget cuts, repression and wanton shootings in the open streets.
Hope today must be based on the Pope, the president, leaders like Jerry Brown and what we Irish call “the risen people” - the millions fighting for climate justice, jobs, and fair and decent economic development. Together those forces are capable of achieving the foundation of a substantive UN climate treaty by the end of this year, one based on strides towards social justice. A treaty endorsing emissions reductions must be integrated with a Global Green Fund to improve the lives of those millions who daily suffer from pollution and poverty.
This is one of those moments when the world can begin to shift, at least in the direction of hope, and on a serious, organized and sustained basis for a decade to come. At the very least, a new generation must send a credible message that we will not tolerate the return of the forces that ruined our country once before.