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From Crisis to Opportunity

Will Cochabamba be a turning point in the climate crisis?

Mural in Cochabamba, Photo by Katherine Betts

Artists create a mural during the World People's Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Photo by Katherine Betts

It's the third day of the World People's Summit on Climate Change, here in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In the opening of the conference, the charismatic leader of Bolivia, Evo Morales, spoke to a gathering of more than 15,000 representatives from five continents. Morales read a "letter to future generations," warning that Mother Earth—which his people call "Pachamama"—is in danger from human intervention, and is communicating to us through tsumanis, hurricanes, droughts, and typhoons. He spoke of the rising tide of climatic migrants, now an estimated 50 million people, which could swell to 200 million, or more, in the next five decades.

This morning at a press conference, Morales again emphasized the urgency. The term "climate change" is too mild, in his opinion; the term he prefers is "climate crisis." It was an interesting comment for me, as just before leaving for Cochabamba, we decided to change the name of our upcoming documentary from EVOLVE LOVE: Love in a Time of Climate Change to Love in a Time of Climate Crisis. Even though the first title seems to roll off the tongue a little easier, after dipping my toes into the latest research about the accelerating pace of climate change, I'm beginning to realize that the scope of the crisis is beyond what most of us can truly fathom.

In the press question-and-answer scrum that followed, I took the opportunity to ask the central question of my current documentary, Evolve Love: How can the climate crisis be transformed into the greatest love story on earth ... how can this crisis become an opportunity? Morales' response was that the love story is between humans and Mother Earth, or the Pachamama, and that hope is our choice. It lies in defending her, in recognizing that Mother Earth's rights need to be our number one priority. From that, everything else will follow, including human rights. It is a radical inversion (though not from an indigenous perspective) this idea that Mother Earth's rights precede human rights. As Eduardo Galeano said in his statement to the conference, the indigenous heart comes from inside nature, while so many of us are on the outside looking in.

Evo Morales is calling for the formation of a Climate Justice Tribunal, which could penalize countries which fail to take action on climate change. He is also calling for a massive global referendum on the climate crisis, with as many as 2 billion participants. His statements are often very radical, and uncharacteristically honest for a politician—like his continual refrain that capitalism is at the root of the Earth's problems. He points to the need for a deep transformation of the cultural worldview of the people of this planet.

The indigenous people have stepped into political power and are offering us a new model of possibility that combines traditional indigenous communitarian society with modern day participatory democracy.

As exciting as it is to speak with world leaders, one of my favorite moments of the conference so far has been one in the margins, not on center stage. It took place when Katherine and I first arrived here. We were exhausted, after 24 hours of flying (believe me, the irony of flying to a climate crisis conference has not been lost on us). We flaked out on the grass in the university when the congress is being held to regain a little energy before diving into the process. A group of indigenous women sat down nearby, and we began to chat. They told us of their struggles, and their power. That Morales never would have risen to power without the women of Bolivia, who took to the streets in his name. They asked me if we had powerful women like them in Canada, and I assured them we did.

They showed us the whipala, a rainbow flag of equal size squares, representing the indigenous nations of Bolivia. The fact that each square is equal is a symbol that each nation has an equal voice, that none is greater than the others. They ended up feeding us lunch, giving us oranges, a flag, and a bag of coca leaves (excellent for altitude sickness, and a great way to gain some energy). We had some chocolate to share, and left the encounter smiling from their wonderful humor, vitality, and determination. This is the spirit of Bolivia, a nation in which the indigenous people have stepped into political power and are offering us a new model of possibility that combines traditional indigenous communitarian society with modern day participatory democracy. It's a tremendous new model, and one of the most exciting stories of hope on the planet.

Clayton-Thomas-Muller.jpgClimate Heroes
Meet the People on the front lines of climate action.

Bill Mckibben, founder of 350.org and one of the early voices of warning around climate change, and a participant in the congress, has said that it is common for politicians and activists to talk about saving the earth for our grandchildren, for future generations. This is laudable, but can also be spun into an excuse for passivity: It's challenging for the western mind to think beyond it's own immediate ego, let alone into the future. But it is becoming increasingly clear that it's not just our children or grandchildren who are going to experience the results of the climate crisis—we are all going to be facing them in our lifetime, at a magnitude far beyond what most of us realize.

Canada's own Naomi Klein spoke on a panel this morning, calling attention to the fact that the political will is just not there in the West. She explained that Canada, so often perceived as a benevolent force in the world, has become one of the greatest "climate predators" out there. Although we signed the Kyoto accord, our carbon emissions have risen over 30 percent since that time, with much of that coming from the expansion of the Alberta Tar Sands. It reminded me of George Monbiot's accusation that Canada is to climate change what Japan is to whaling. She raised an important question: How are we going to convince the countries that may be slow to feel the effects of the climate crisis that there is no more time to waste, there is no time left for half measures and denial?

There is a sense of urgency here at the conference, but at the same time, I feel a great sense of excitement and possibility in the air. It is through the people of the world that real change and real action on climate change will happen, not through the nation-states, and especially not from the rich nations. This gathering has, so far, been a tremendous start. My dream is that a movement of movements builds around the climate crisis, that a million—or better yet, a billion—small gestures can begin to open the hearts of a world that has fallen into separation, so that we can stop being outside of nature, and step inside. So we can come home.


Velcrow Ripper wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Velcrow, a writer and filmmaker, is the director of Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action

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