And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me,
Shine until tomorrow, let it be — Paul McCartney
Greta Thunberg’s smile said it all. The famous young climate activist was getting herself arrested, along with dozens of other protesters, for blocking an entrance to London’s posh Park Street Hotel, located a few blocks from the House of Commons. The hotel was housing this October’s Energy Intelligence Forum where representatives from various petrostates and some of the world’s largest oil conglomerates were meeting and schmoozing with members of Parliament. There they attended panels on topics such as “How best to navigate climate, supply security and shareholder returns.”
“We have no choice but to disrupt,” Thunberg told the attendant media, because “the world is being swept away by greenwashing and lies.”
Of course the disruption of the “Oily Money” confab, as the protesters dubbed the event in a riff on its prior name, “The Oil and Money” conference, didn’t last long. The protest itself was quickly disrupted by the hundreds of London police called out to sweep away the activists.
But as the diminutive Ms. Thunberg, in front of a worldwide press corp, was gently, willingly and wordlessly escorted to a paddy wagon by two policemen, her smile, at once impish and saintly, fearless, confident and serene, simply said, “We won.”
Meanwhile, 2023 has been arguably the darkest single year for planetary life, including human life, since the Chicxulub astroid struck the earth 66 million years ago, setting much of the planet’s surface ablaze and raising toxic dust clouds that, within several weeks, wiped out 75% of all lifeforms, including most dinosaurs.
Obviously our present global environmental crisis is developing far more slowly than that explosive-impact event. In human time it is taking several generations for us to irretrievably upset the balance of nature. But on a geological timescale, that is far quicker than a blink of an eye.
Looking back at 2023, people will likely see it as the year we finally crossed a threshold of planetary system disruption that we had been approaching since the beginning of the industrial revolution — a threshold we can’t recross. During this year, global temperature records have been broken and broken again. It’s the hottest year on record, and, although we might get some temporary reprieve in the years ahead, there is no reason to think that temperatures overall won’t keep climbing for at least two decades. This summer, we briefly surpassed, then retreated from, the Paris Agreement’s 1.5ºC aspirational temperature-rise limit and, according to renowned climate scientist James Hansen, continuously rising emissions already have rendered that limit “toast.”
What’s worse is that even at the world’s current 1.2ºC+ temperature level, a record in and of itself, the impacts have piled up, or piled on, thicker and faster than anyone anticipated. A more-or-less continuous series of headline-making, climate-related disasters — ranging from massive wildfires that have turned entire towns to smoldering embers, consumed vast swaths of forests and altered the atmosphere’s albedo while depleting the ozone layer; to floods worldwide; to fossil-fuel-derived air pollution that claimed 5 million lives and deadly heat waves that killed almost 70,000 more; to forced migrations; rampant deforestation and the ongoing mass extinction of wild species — this is the year of the dark cloud.
But as I write this in the darkest season, a few days before the winter solstice, and even as two murderous wars rage and the COP28 climate conference has ended in a pathetic greenwash, I look around and see children with eyes aglow and clusters of colorful lights, like stars, defying the night. When I wonder if humans have hope of, if not turning things around, at least slowing them down so we can catch our breath and carry on, I smile softly, thinking of Greta’s Buddha smile lighting a small corner of our planet.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.