Today I took our toddler out of daycare (with his mom’s permission!) and participated in the Climate Strike in downtown Chapel Hill.
It was a youth-organized, peaceful protest against climate inaction, featuring student and faculty speakers. The gathering started at Peace and Justice Plaza, where there was music, chanting, and some speakers. We then processed through campus to the Old Well, where there were more speakers and more calls to action.
Many journalists were there as well and I was impressed that they all asked my permission before taking my picture because I had a toddler there with me. One of them asked me why I was there and I gave her a pithy response. Here is a slightly more thoughtful summary of my reasoning:
Too long have our politicians, our businesses, and we as consumers been addicted to an energy system that is fundamentally unsustainable. Our elected leaders are either ignorant or bought and paid for by those telling them to look the other way. Our businesses are myopically driven by quarterly numbers that are rewarded by maintaining the status quo and externalizing long-term costs. We as consumers demand cheap, abundant energy to support our immediate quality of life without regard for long-term impacts. It is easy to point fingers but we are all complicit in this destructive energy chain.
To be clear, I’m not demonizing energy. Energy has been transformative in elevating – and continuing to elevate – billions of people around the world to higher standards of living and quality of life. As Nobel laureate Dick Smalley said, if we can solve energy, we solve the other major challenges facing humanity essentially for free. We have not yet solved energy, though, and the repercussions of our toxic energy chain are already being felt: the Earth is warming, ecosystems are dying, and extreme weather events are becoming more severe and numerous (As I write this, Houston just experienced its second 1,000-year rainfall event in . . . checks notes . . . two years.).
I am also not demonizing capitalism. Capitalism is the mechanism that used energy to improve so many lives and I believe in it as a strong force for good. It isn’t perfect, however, and it can run society off the cliff if it receives the wrong price signals as inputs: garbage in => garbage out, as they say. A role of regulators and policy makers is to ensure that our free market has accurate, comprehensive price signals and here we have so far failed. We allow dirty energy to be produced, distributed, and used artificially cheaply (subsidized, even!) by not capturing the cost of cleaning up the mess left behind. In essence we have been mortgaging those costs forward to future generations but the bill (which has been accruing lots of interest in the meantime!) has come due.
Maintaining the status quo is a path to economic and social catastrophe the likes of which we haven’t seen . . . ever? We the people elect the political leaders and we the people buy the products that keep the businesses profitable so change must start with us. It is imperative that we demand action with our votes, with our dollars, and – on days like today – with our voices.
I’m actually very optimistic that we will solve energy. Humanity is incredibly effective when we unite around common cause, whether it is putting a person on the moon or defeating the Nazis. We have many of the solutions we need to combat climate change already and I know we can develop the rest. In fact, I believe solving energy will be the greatest economic opportunity we have ever created! It won’t happen by itself, though, and time is running out; we need action now.
As many of you know, I have devoted my career to helping solve energy. It was the thesis of my first ever blog post and it is what I spend my day doing at Smart OES. So why strike? Shouldn’t I be back at the office working hard on solving energy? Well, I think it’s important to let others know that they are not alone in demanding this sort of change. Moreover, I wanted to demonstrate critical mass to politicians and business leaders who may be watching.
Most of all, though, I have been really inspired by this group of young climate activists. Older generations are failing them on climate change and, rather than just giving up, they are taking matters into their own hands. People claim that younger generations are lazy and entitled but what I witnessed today was the opposite; they are motivated, hard working, and effective – so I especially wanted to come out today to support them.
But why bring my toddler? After all, at 16 months old, he isn’t going to remember it. That’s true, but this is the most significant issue that will affect his life and I want to show him that his parents do care and are dedicated to creating a better life for him. I don’t know if we will have righted the ship by the time he is an adult. I’m nearly the age now that I was when my dad died so frankly, I don’t know when I will leave him or whether I will leave him anything more than a broken planet. One thing I can leave him, though, is a sense of empowerment and a feeling of duty to stand up and fight for what is right. One day when he is old enough to remember, he will look at old pictures and see himself exercising his civil rights to peaceful protest. As he builds the narrative of his life, one of his early chapters will include publicly, demonstrably doing what’s right and that is why I brought him today.
As someone who has always been moved by Les Misérables, which is centered on a small group of young activists protesting against an unjust establishment, I feel like I’ve been training my entire life for this Climate Strike. I’m not sure exactly what it will accomplish but the experience was moving. The power of human voices and collective action is real.
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!