Imagine a bunch of us are in a car, driving 60 mph on Interstate 5, heading toward Canada. One passenger says, “Wait a minute, we need to go to Mexico.” The driver agrees and slows down to 40.

That’s an analogy. It’s an optimistic version of human civilization’s response to climate disruption to date. The result, in this simplified version, is that we get to Canada an hour later.

I didn’t come up with the analogy – I heard it on the radio while visiting Portland recently. (If anyone knows who said this, please tell me – I’d love to credit her.) It’s brilliant, but you know what’s wrong with it? After the passenger’s comment, the real driver sped up to 65. Also, we’re not driving to Canada, which wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize. Instead, we’re heading toward a cliff.

Photo by Christian Em via Unsplash.

Photo by Christian Em via Unsplash.

So, not only are we 180º off course and accelerating, we have another problem: The only “solutions” we talk about amount to slowing down, not reversing course. Behind all that is an inconvenient truth; we seem collectively incapable of even acknowledging what’s happening. David Wallace-Wells has written a book called The Uninhabitable Earth, and a more concise New York Times article on the mass-delusion happening right now.

Want some bleak data? Since the first mainstream scientific conference sounded an alarm on global warming in 1971 the human population has more than doubled, with net growth of over 3.9 billion people. Annual human greenhouse gas production has increased by 41% just since 1990. A growing mountain of evidence documents alarming losses in wildlife habitat and biodiversity. The two candidates in the 2016 U.S. presidential election didn’t field a single debate question about climate disruption. And worst of all: a late-2018 Energy Policy Institute poll found that only 28% of Americans are willing to spend $10 per month to combat the problem. That’s bad, but I’m afraid there’s worse news. The international agency IPBES released a study this month documenting an accelerating worldwide species extinction crisis, of which climate disruption is one contributing factor. The stats in that report are horrific — over a million life forms are at risk, many of them may likely be gone within decades, and this is essentially all a result of human activity. Everyone should read this. Here’s another good summary.

I’ve found there’s no better way to quiet a talkative crowd than to mention specific impacts climate disruption or species extinction will have in our lifetimes, and the unfolding catastrophe beyond that. No one knows what to do or say, so we say little and do less. Nearly every written warning of the severity of the problem ends with some version of “someone’s got to do something about this.” While there are tactics everywhere (including presidential candidates’ emerging proposals), there is no strategy to get to Mexico. The tactics amount to easing on the accelerator pedal, at best. 

So, is this another one of those written alarms? It is not. Instead, here are two practical suggestions:

Every one of us needs to begin going through the five stages of grief, to eventually realize that life as we’ve known it won’t continue. We’re all pretty much stuck in denial now – four more to go. Then we need to wake up ready for change and demand it of our governments, our communities and ourselves. We could all do five or more things to limit our carbon footprints tomorrow. (There are many guides out there, most are unscientific, inconsistent and/or impractical – and none of them seem to mention population or advocacy, arguably the two most important things – but here’s one of the better ones.) Those are tactics, true, but they demonstrate commitment. The commitment is the important thing. Sweeping culture change is what we need, and commitment to change has to become contagious.

What about the nonprofit world? Environmental organizations have played a huge role in the environmental movement over the past 50 years, with an impressive track record until recent times. It’s hard to imagine they won’t be key players in the next chapter. What we’re doing collectively, however, isn’t working anymore. 

So, what are we going to do differently

With that simple question in mind, Public Interest Management Group has released a concept paper for transforming environmental nonprofits, individually and collectively, one region at a time. It’s rooted in a theory of change through which a revitalized sector will mobilize public opinion and policy change from the ground up, as it has with less daunting ecological concerns in the past. This is a very affordable step that can be part of a building a revitalized braking system.

Two hundred years from now, what will people think of us? Will we go down as the generation that knew about the problem, had the resources and knowledge to do something about it, but didn’t? Or the generation that heroically turned the damn car around? 

It’s a choice that we will make, either with intention or by default.