Call to Arms

We need revolutionary zeal if we are to succeed against ecological perils.

Now that Fairfield, Iowa's Ed Malloy has been named one of the nation's 15 Greenest Mayors, the challenge of living up to that title is one of the most important opportunities he and this community will ever face. The City of Fairfield will soon hire a fulltime Sustainability Coordinator — and then it will be time for the mayor, his sustainability czar, the city council, and all of us voting and tax-paying citizens to commit to going far beyond comfortable initiatives and merely symbolic actions. We have the chance to create something big and bold — to show the state, the country, and the world how intelligence and commitment can rise up in local communities to take on the environmental crises that threaten the entire planet.

Barack Obama, it is claimed, was caught on tape while preparing for the presidential debates, nailing the climate challenge in a few words: "Well, the truth is — we can't solve global warming because I  f**ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective."

My wife and I changed our light bulbs and took a few other steps that reduced our electricity consumption by about 30% the last three years, and we feel good about that. But, feel good or not, it is as clear to me as it was to Obama that light bulbs will not take us where we need to go. The scope and urgency of the problem require changes on a much larger scale. We need, as Obama knows, "something collective."

We in Fairfield are on the doorstep of "something collective". Far beyond that, the U.S. is — or should be — on the doorstep of something dramatically collective. Climate scientists say it's now or never.

It will take revolutionary zeal, not just ordinary enthusiasm, to make a difference. A thoroughgoing "sustainability revolution" is required, at the level of our commercial and political systems — not just isolated, comfortable, incremental changes.

As we celebrated another Fourth of July this month with our picnics and fireworks, how many of us thought about the astonishingly brave, radical, and dangerous spirit we were commemorating? As Americans, we have inherited a country built by people who knew what revolution means, what it takes, how necessary it can be, and how it can change everything. If ever there was a time when that spirit needed to be reignited in our awareness, it's now.

What if the American colonists had been more careful, more "politically realistic" in their approach, satisfied, say, with not buying certain British products as a symbol of their protest? Such timid realism would have meant that the great American experiment in democracy would not have dawned on the world. Instead, men like Patrick Henry made it clear that their commitment, and their readiness to sacrifice, had absolutely no bounds: "Give me liberty or give me death." Today, we are not being called on to risk our lives, but the consequences of our 21st century challenges far exceed those of our forebears, and we need to consider, with a corresponding level of seriousness, what we are willing to lay on the line.

Changing light bulbs, reducing consumption, buying hybrid cars, installing solar panels on our homes — all of these actions are commendable. Their greatest value, however, lies in the way these actions can become tools of inspiration and engagement on a much wider scale. These personal initiatives will not in themselves reverse the looming perils. But they can gather energy, encouraging us and others to move on to much larger projects — political and collective — and to become awakened to the seriousness of what we are being called to do. Only then will these small steps have served their true purpose.