A TED Talk and someone with something to actually say--in the same room!
Friday notes from around the climate world
I confess that TED talks, as a genre, don’t do much for me: there’s something about the airless, over-rehearsed, always upbeat nature of them that curdles something in my spirit. But then, I never tuned in to watch Steve Jobs release the new iPhone either.
[What a joke. I was supposed to have stopped sending out these Friday posts to anyone except paid subscribers two weeks ago, but this week I can’t help myself—I really want to pay public tribute to the young activist who disrupted Shell’s pr efforts yesterday. But this is it. So, do me a favor and subscribe: my share of the subscription revenues go to Third Act, about which—more news next week!)
Yesterday, however, as part of the runup to the Glasgow climate conference, the TED folks convened a session in the Scottish city of Edinburgh. And for some reason they thought it would be a good idea to invite Ben van Beurden, the CEO of Shell, to give a talk. It’s not as if Shell and climate activists don’t have a history—many of my colleagues on the West Coast helped blockade the ports of Seattle and Portland with kayaks to keep their drilling rigs from assaulting the Arctic, using the not very subtle slogan “Shell No”. So I’m not sure what they were thinking when they asked him to sit on a panel with Lauren MacDonald, a Scottish climate activist. As Christiana Figueres (one of the great heroes of the climate fight) looked on, MacDonald got up and gave van Beurden what-for. Breaking with TED talk protocol, she got very mad and she got very real: van Beurden and his company, she pointed out, were “evil”—among other things, they were pushing a plan to open the new Cambo oil field off the Scottish coast. But she also brought up Shell’s long history—back to the death of Ken Saro Wiwa on the Nigerian delta—and pointed out that the company was busy appealing a ruling by a Dutch court that would force it to cut emissions 45 percent by 2030. Since that’s the figure scientists have set as necessary to meet the targets Figueres so ably negotiated in Paris, MacDonald’s question seems apt: “If you’re going to sit here and act like you care about climate action, why are you appealing?” She cried, and she left, and it was the best TED Talk I’ve ever seen.
According to Brian Kahn and Dharna Noor, writing in Gizmodo, the CEO later referred to her onslaught as “blackwashing,” which seems like a term he might want to, I don’t know, avoid.
+Loyola University of Chicago became the latest school to announce plans to divest from fossil fuels—a Catholic institution, it’s a precursor to more big divestment announcements set for Oct. 26. Oh, Oregon’s Reed College divested too—a decidedly non-Catholic institution.
+Well worth reading Matt Levine at Bloomberg as he discusses the way that big frackers sell their almost-depleted wells for almost nothing to companies that may lack the resources to cap them with concrete at the end of their useful lives. Ugh.
+A new study measures the world’s rooftops, calculates their angle to the sun, and concludes “27 petawatt-hours of energy (27 quadrillion watt-hours) could be produced from the area analyzed each year, which exceeds total energy consumption for the entire world in 2018.”
+In words clearly aimed at the U.S. Senate—and the turncoat Senators Sinema and Manchin—U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said this week that if the Congress doesn’t pass serious climate legislation “it would be like President Trump pulling out of the Paris agreement, again.” He’s right—and there’s scuttlebutt circulating that the Whtie House may be preparing to cave to Manchin and dismantle the Clean Electricity Perfomance Plan (CEPP) which would account for at least a third of the emissions cuts in the proposed legislation. That would be…bad.
+Even Elizabeth is annoyed at world leaders. According to the Daily Mail, which specializes in the Queen beat, she was overheard on a tv livestream voicing her annoyance with all the world’s presidents and prime ministers. “It's really irritating when they talk, but they don't do,” she said—which is pretty much the Greta Thunberg line to a T. It’s a potentially fierce combo!
+My contribution to the Glasgow foreplay, from Yale E360: it’s possible that “loss and damage” in the global South may emerge as a sleeper issue at this year’s COP
From the outskirts of Delhi to the outskirts of Colorado Springs, two new chapters from my nonviolent yarn. Catch up on the first 15 chapters of The Other Cheek by visiting the archive.
Matti Persson was, indeed, beautiful, which is to say, Norwegian. Cheekbones, jawline, an arch in the upper lip, eyes the blue-gray of a blue-gray fjord (or a blue-gray Volvo, or the blue-gray label on a bottle of Absolut), dirty blond hair tousled just so. Normally clean-shaven, the two-day trip from Oslo to the outskirts of Delhi had left him with an obnoxiously attractive stubble, but otherwise he looked calm and determined. He fell in at the back of the line of marchers, now stretching a good quarter mile along the road, but it was easy to see, from the gaggle of cameras ahead, where the DL must be, and so he began working his way up the line—along the inside, to avoid the traffic careening past on the highway. Many of the people he passed were Tibetans, or Indians, but there were also knots of Westerners: three young Englishwomen, who smiled and tried to make conversation; a contingent of Bay Area Buddhists, most with close-cropped hair and Apple watches; and numbers of Europeans and Japanese and Australians who were just patiently walking, water bottles in hand, many of them lightly meditating, whispering to themselves with each footfall.
It was a peaceful scene, despite the traffic, until Persson reached the cloud of cameras, their proprietors walking backward and shouting. “Over here, Ms. Bosworth—over here.” “Smile please, Ms Bosworth.” He could see now that it was a false summit—the line stretched on for another half mile ahead, but this was clearly the center of attention. He drifted in behind a small knot of what were clearly celebrities, and he looked like he belonged. Actually, he looked a little too young and healthy.
“Welcome to the ‘Why Do I Know You? Contingent,” said a short, tanned man, who was walking with a limp. “Tom Varance. And before you ask, I was the host of ‘Nutjob’ for its first three seasons. Yeah, that guy, the guy who shot himself out of a homemade catapult into a bonfire, the guy who rode a motorized wheelchair off a ski jump. That guy.”
“Um, Matthias Persson, from Norway.”
“Oh yeah, I thought I recognized you. You were in that movie about the crazy detective girl with the tattoo, yeah? That was great.”
“Uh—I wasn’t expecting so many celebrities,” said Matti.
“Yeah, well, that’s my doing,” said Tom. “After three seasons of Nutjob, enough. Like, literally, it was busting my nuts. On, like a sawhorse, when I was doing like a Wile E. Coyote thing with motorized rollerskates? And then I went to see His Holiness talk in Hollywood, this evening thing that Steven Seagal put on. And he really connected. So I started meditating. It wasn’t good for my career—if you stop for very long to think about it, I was being a horse’s ass for money, which I had more of than I needed. So I started meditating more, and working for Tibet, and once he started walking I figured I’d get some people over here. Because, the thing is—you’ll find this out—once you’ve been famous for a little while you’re always kind of famous. Like, I’ve hardly been on tv in a decade, and I don’t think Kate Bosworth has had a hit since, like Blue Crush, which really wasn’t such a hit anyway. But it doesn’t matter—she’s still somebody. So, you might as well make use of it. Get some cameras here. Make people understand it’s important. Apparently Nutjob is huge in India in reruns, or on Youtube, or something—all day long kids coming up wanting to break coke bottles on my forehead. I just give them a namaste.”
Matti bombed some more photos behind Lisa Vanderpump, and professional choreographer Derek Hough of Dancing With the Stars, and then he started working his way forward again, advancing up the line, past seekers and pilgrims moving quietly in the heat. He was walking faster, and eventually he began to sweat in earnest, and to think about stopping to let the celebrities catch up. He’d felt some kinship there anyway—the people seemed more successful than most of the rest of the marchers, who were ordinary, or even a little sad, just one foot in front of the other. But by this point he’d reached the gaggle of monks near the front of the procession, and through them he could see the DL himself, in his robes and a maroon sun visor. He started to push through in his direction when Sonam Dolma, who was getting pretty good at his job, appeared at his elbow.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“I need to talk to the Dalai Lama,” Matti said.
“Till lunchtime he does walking meditation, silent,” said Sonam.
“But—but this was my idea,” said Matti.
“Perhaps after lunchtime,” said Sonam. “Tell me your name.”
Matti spelled, and Sonam wrote it down carefully, and then stepped to the side, waiting for one of the Indian security officials to catch up. He handed him the scrap of paper; the agent took out his phone and began to call. Matti, meanwhile, just kept walking, since there didn’t seem to be any alternative. He was hot, and he was feeling steadily less special.
At lunchtime the procession paused at a small roadside park. Women in a butterfly cloud of bright saris set up a food line; the marchers got slices of dosa and small cups of dal. Matti, fearing for his stomach, stuck to bottled water and Cadbury Dairy Milks, which he’d brought in the airport. He’d grown up traveling—his parents were diplomats—but rarely in the developing world, and not on his own. The heat and the noise, and especially the smells, intrigued him and unnerved him both; Norway was not a smelly place, or a noisy place, and hardly ever hot. The flight to Delhi had been easy enough, but the airport, even when he landed at 4 in the morning, was a chaotic mess—he’d stood for a second in the international calm of the customs area, screwing up his courage to enter the steamy bedlam. Thank god for Uber; the driver had even figured out, with four or five phone calls, how to find the DL’s procession on the far outskirts of town. He’d had a sense of purpose as he walked up the line, the last remnants of the momentum that had gotten him to India, but now, stymied, he had no plan. Everyone else seemed to have someone to talk to; it was like the cafeteria at junior high. So he found some shade on the edge of the pavilion they’d erected for the DL and the monks, and he stood there pretending to study his phone, but he had no service—not even, he reflected, a way to call Uber again.
“Mr. Matthias,” said an Indian man, wearing a short sleeve shirt and a necktie who had appeared at his elbow.
“T.K. Basanti, sir, constabulary. You are the one with the website that began all this, sir?”
“What?” said Matti. “No, I . . .”
“Very impressive sir. Very substantial. His Holiness will see you now, Mr. Matthias,” he said, touching his arm and guiding him toward the back of the pavilion, into the cool and the dark. The Dalai Lama, who was sitting on a chair, rose to greet him.
Matti bowed his head slightly, but really only very slightly, because he didn’t believe in religions. The DL seemed not to notice, and beckoned him to sit on a chair as well. “We shall have some tea?” he said, and a monk appeared with two mugs.
“You wished to see me?” said the DL. “I’m glad, because I wished to see you. I’m told this walk we are on began as a school paper for you?”
“Yes, your—yes, sir.”
“Did you get a good grade?”
“Well, it wasn’t really a school with grades. And I’m—not at that school anymore,” said Matti, who thought the DL seemed close to giggling, but wasn’t sure.
“So I’ve been told,” said the DL. “Well, perhaps you don’t need school any more.”
“That’s kind of what I think,” said Matti. “There’s always more to learn, but there’s a great deal to do, also.”
“A man of action,” said the DL, beaming. “How did you come to be interested in the Tibetan struggle?”
“Oh, monks and . . . things. And repression,” he said. “It was part of the assignment.”
“I’m sure all the monks are most grateful,” said the Dalai Lama. “And eager for your further advice. So tell me why you have come?”
“To recommend some things,” said Matti. “I think—“ and for a moment he paused, feeling for some reason slightly hesitant. “I think it’s time for a hunger strike, sir. For you.”
“A hunger strike? I’m glad I’ve had a good lunch just now,” said the DL. “Why a hunger strike.”
“Well, because the novelty of the march is starting to wear off,” said Matti. “I follow Twitter and it’s been days since #walkwithDalai trended. All the press that’s here is here for an actress.”
“Kate Bosworth. She was excellent in Beyond the Sea,” said the DL. “So you’re worried we’ll be forgotten about?”
“Everything gets forgotten about very fast unless you change it up,” said Matti. “There’s this thing, the news cycle—things come and go in a day. Two days.”
“So why a hunger strike then? It takes a little while.”
“Yes,” said Matti. “But it gets worse, it doesn’t stay the same. Pretty soon you’re gaunt, and people are worrying about you. Also, it’s like an Asian thing? Like Gandhi did it a lot—that’s what they said at that school.”
“Ah, you know about Gandhi-ji,” said the DL. “I’m glad when young people do. But everyone’s always comparing. ‘You don’t walk as fast as Gandhi.’ Now it’s ‘you’re not as skinny as Gandhi.’ Very hard for a humble monk to keep up with a saint.”
“You don’t have to do it for too long, just enough to get the Chinese worried, and maybe they’ll make some concessions.”
“They might more likely prefer me to starve,” said the DL. “But in any event, you and I may have slightly different ideas about what we’re doing here. Doesn’t it seem like coercion if I say to the Chinese, ‘do this or I will starve?’ Is that so different from saying, ‘I will light myself on fire?’”
“No, don’t do that, not yet,” said Matti. “But not eating is different.”
“I’m not sure,” said the DL. “Isn’t the point of carrying this flag to get the Chinese to think differently about the Tibetans, to understand we’re not their opponents, that we could be their brothers. You wouldn’t have a hunger strike against your brother, perhaps?”
“Getting them to think differently will take forever,” said Matti. “We don’t have that kind of time. The point is to get them to change what they do.”
“It’s funny sometimes how young people seem more in a rush than old people, even though you have far more time,” said the DL. “They used to say, ‘when the Himalayas are ground to powder by a gauze veil that waves against them once in a thousand years, then eternity will have begun.’ Sometimes when I’m meditating that seems to make sense. Do you meditate?”
“I don’t have time,” said Matti.
“I see,” said the DL solemnly. “Well, time is an interesting thing to think about, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. It’s very good to have met you in person, so I don’t feel quite so much like a chess piece being moved about on a board. I think perhaps I won’t have a hunger strike just now, because—well, if I didn’t eat I’d walk even slower, and then we’d never get there! I hope you’re able to walk with us, and that we can talk again at some point.”
He bowed Matti out of his chair, and a monk led him from the pavilion. He also showed Matti the password for the wifi signal (“tsampa”), and as soon as he’d connected, almost without thinking, Matti summoned an Uber—a black Audi sedan arrived within minutes, and suddenly, in the time it took to thunk the door closed, he was out of the noise and and back in the portable zone of peace that people with credit cards generally inhabit, and his sweat was cooling in the air-conditioned calm.
Cass was in her bedroom, reading about the Arab Spring for Sister Maria’s “History of Nonviolence” class. She and MK had decided they spent too much time online, so she had vowed not to check her computer more than every other hour, but she could feel the pull building—real books took so long! And you were stuck in them, no clicking! And you could see how much you still had to go! The timer she’d set on her Fitbit went off, but she forced herself to finish the end of her Chapter, and then she pulled the laptop over onto the bed next to her.
She saw maybe fifteen accumulated new emails, but one name in the middle of the stack caught her eye instantaneously, and as she clicked on it she felt a surge of some chemical surging through her.
I haven’t written a letter to you since I left school, and I’m sorry. I’ve been busy.
Right now I’m on an airplane back from Delhi, where I flew to advise the Dalai Lama. He asked to sit with me and discuss the great march, which he thanked me for having conceptualized. And he urged me not to go back to school, because I was needed in the real world. Unfortunately he is very old and doesn’t understand the age we live in (and probably being religious doesn’t help), so he was initially reluctant to take my advice about speeding up the pressure on the Chinese government. However, perhaps my explanations about the need to act on internet time will sink in. #3hoursadayofmeditation?really?
Anyway, there was an adorable little puppy running alongside the car that made me think of you, and when we stopped I gave it the last of my Cadbury bar.
Now I am going back to Oslo where I will be able to think. I hope you will come and visit and I will send you a ticket if you would like. (Probably only coach class, because otherwise it uses up too many of my parent’s frequent flyer miles). I have attached a picture of me with the famous actress Kati Boswell, one of many celebrities who have been attracted to the march.
Best wishes to my friends in Colorado.
Cass read the letter through twice, and studied the picture closely, before she called MK.
“Um, MK,” she said.
“Yes,” she replied. “I got it too. First thing is, is there actually anyone on earth that doesn’t know you’re not supposed to feed dogs chocolate? Come on. I bet Gloria knows that.”
“I’m going to call you back in a minute,” said Cass, who put down her phone and sat on her bed, trying to decide if she was sad. She’d definitely felt a flush when she saw his name in her inbox, a kind of hot rise that tasted a little panicky, as if she’d been doing something furtive. But now, she decided, she mostly felt a sense of relief, at the thought she was never going to feel that flush from him again. She called back MK.
“Do you think he just copies and pastes to every girl he’s ever been involved with?” Cass asked.
“I’m pretty sure—and the bar is pretty low, since all I did was tell him to get lost.”
“Did you open the picture?”
“Yep, and she’s not even on Google. Is Kati a Swedish name? Maybe she was, like, in Ingmar Bergman films or something. But I could swear that the guy next to him was Tom Varance, the guy from NutJob. He was my brother’s hero—Tad lost two teeth racing a shopping cart down a hill because he’d seen it on the tv. He’d be impressed with Matti anyway.”
“Well, I do hope Matti doesn’t lose any of his teeth,” said Cass. “You have to admit, he’s as pretty as we thought as he was.”
“Pretty. Much. An. Asshole,” said MK. “You want to go for a walk, girl?”
“Thanks MK, but I’m really okay. I’m just going to go to sleep and dream about my three weeks of having the cutest boyfriend I’ll ever have. But the real question is, should we write him back?”
“Definitely,” said MK. “Exactly the same note. It should come from each of us, and it should say, ‘Since they’ve clearly got internet up there in business class, google chocolate+dogs.’”
Rafer and Johnson were finally asleep, and so their dads, Tony and Professor Kinnison, had adjourned to the living room of their apartment at SGI. Tony—the Emoticon, as students sometimes called him—lay sprawled out on the sofa, a Tyrannosaurus Red ale on the ground next to him. Professor Kinnison—Mark only to the faculty—sat in a wingback chair with a snifter of Ardbeg 10 Year in his hand. “Perhaps we should not have named them for a great decathlete,” he said. “They have a lot of energy.”
“Energy is good,” said Tony. “At least I thought so when I still had some.”
“I’m not sure I have enough to take on the question of this speech,” said his husband. “But I fear we must—it’s but two days away.”
“Remind me what we know about the speaker?”
“Lina DeVries,” said Mark. “In many ways one of us. Stalwart environmental campaigner across Europe. Started off at World Wildlife Fund, working on building support for the Paris climate accord. Gradually grew more radical as news of the climate crisis worsened, and as she despaired of political systems doing the right thing. Eventually wrote a long treatise, “So Dark Green I’m Anarchist Black” about the need to overthrow the system “Mit Allen Mitteln,” which is German for ‘by hook or by crook,’ or more roughly ‘by any means necessary.’
“Did anyone read the treatise?” Tony asked.
“Not really,” said Mark. “It was on Medium. But a few days later they started firebombing oil company offices. Carefully—they waited till night time, and they phoned in warnings, and they set small fires. It was all pretty clearly designed to be symbolic, until the one that lit up a Shell regional headquarters in Guernica near Bilbao and burned the security guard pretty badly.”
“That Guernica?” Tony asked.
“That Guernica,” said Mark. “It still hasn’t gotten much attention,” he added. “By current terrorism standards it’s pretty small beer. Still, they’re clearly on a path. No apologies. It was the guard’s fault for ‘being part of a hegemonic system of oppression, which is killing millions of people every year and threatens the future of the entire earth.’”
“How is she able to travel freely?”
“Ah, she’s been careful there too. She says she has no actual connection with the Earth Defense League, that they just make use of her ideas. It’s like Sinn Fein and the IRA. She’s been on a speaking tour across the U.S., though not many places have been eager to host her. Her lecture is called ‘Speak Truth to Power—In The Only Language Power Understands.’”
“She sounds like more or less the opposite of everything we stand for here,” said Tony.
“Not the opposite,” said Mark. “The opposite is climate deniers. The opposite is racists. She’s 20 degrees off. But of course it’s the crucial 20 degrees. We’re about the only school in the world utterly devoted to the idea of nonviolence, and now we have a spokeswoman for arson en route.”
“Well,” said Tony, “the question is—” but before he could get it out, there was a soft knock on the door.
“Come in,” said Mark.
The door opened partway, and Maria stuck her head into the room. “Are the boys down?” she asked.
“For the count,” said Tony.
“Whereas we are merely TKO’d,” said Mark.
“You think I don’t know about boxing, but I do,” said Maria. “Every Filipino follows Manny Pacquiao, even non-violent ones.” She was carrying a bottle of white wine and a glass. “I know what vile stuff you fellows drink,” she said, as she poured herself a generous dollop. “And I knew I was going to need a drink too.”
“Mit Allen Mitteln” said Mark, raising his glass.
“Mit Allen Mitteln,” she replied, clinking his. She settled down on the floor, leaning back against the sofa and Tony’s legs. “So, what do you think we should do? I’ve been canvassing the faculty. Barbara’s obviously not back yet from Nepal. Linny, who apparently picked up some German in her Greenpeace days, thinks she should ‘challenge this trottel to a few rounds in the ring and see how tough she really is.’ Suni thinks we should just let her talk, pay it no attention, and assume it will blow over.”
“Suni’s almost certainly correct,” said Mark. “People come to college campuses all the time and give obnoxious lectures and leave and life goes on. We all know how hard it is to get kids to pay attention even to things they’re being graded on.”
“I don’t think so this time,” said Tony. “For one thing, it’s a direct challenge to what we do, to our identity.”
“So maybe we should ask everyone to boycott it,” said Maria. “Let her speak to an empty room. Or to Lucas, and a couple of his friends.”
“We could,” said Tony. “But we sort of actually believe in nonviolence, right? So we probably need to be able to take her head-on, not be scared. If we’re scared, the kids will be scared, and that will give her message power. Also, remember: this is not just our home. For the moment, it’s home to these kids too. Some of them are awfully far, physically and emotionally, from their real homes. What they have in common, after some months of our teaching, is a deepening belief in non-violence. It’s sort of their identity. And this will be a challenge to that identity.”
“Challenge is what education is supposed to be about,” said Mark.
“Sort of,” said Tony. “But actually, growing up is what education is supposed to be about. Figuring out who you are.”
“So maybe we should let them shout her down,” said Maria. “Take a stand. I know that’s what a few of the students are planning.”
“It doesn’t work,” said Mark. “It will turn her into a martyr. Someone will put a video out on YouTube of her getting booed and suddenly she’ll be a lot more famous. Unearned Suffering 101.”
“We are not without resources,” said Mark. “While I would actually enjoy seeing Linny do her thing in the squared circle, it seems to me as if beating up the advocate of violence might be a mixed message. And in this case I’m not much use—this will be less an intellectual battle than an emotional one, I imagine. But that’s why we have a certain Professor Goccilupe.”
“A tired Professor Goccilupe,” said Tony, finishing his beer. “I do have an idea or two, but it’s going to mean changing the lesson plan for tomorrow. So, I think, sleep.”
“Slumber,” said Mark, with a last sip of his Scotch.
“Slumber,” said Maria, giving them each a kiss on the way out the door, glass and bottle in hand.