The Second Best Time to Plant a Tree Is Now

The climate conversation we are going to have in 30 years—or in 12 years—will depend entirely on what we do today. And I mean today. This week, this season, this year.

“We don’t have 1,000 years to figure it out. We don’t even have 100 years. According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate change, we have 12 years.”

Photo by Nattapong Wongloungud/EyeEm/Getty Images 

A hairy, naked male and a hairy, naked female crouch over the body of an antelope they’ve just killed. They’re looking up with fear and fight in their faces as a huge bird of prey swoops down to try to steal their kill. A jackal lurks in the background, biding its time. It’s a frozen moment from 100,000 years ago, a flash in the life of a Neanderthal couple, reconstructed by scientists for a diorama at the Museum of Natural History. I saw this couple over Thanksgiving weekend when my family and I wandered into the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. If you’ve ever been there, you know it’s strange and amazing.

This diorama especially grabbed me. I felt moved by it. My kids were fascinated. Something about it is real and poignant. It must have been so much work to bring down that antelope. The couple is alone in the open landscape, vulnerable to the fierceness of nature. I wondered if they ever got to just chill in their cave. Did they ever sing? Did they play? Did they love each other? Their Neanderthal bodies are wiry and strong, thin and scrappy from a lifetime of fighting for survival. They didn’t survive, of course. The early hominids went extinct, just like the dinosaurs before them. Unique expressions of the divine, like a single firework, exploding for a short time, showering light, and then gone.

How did they go extinct? Scientists say it was a mix of factors, possibly including violence from Homo sapiens and definitely the pressures of climate change. Yes, they had climate change; the climate has always been changing. But back then, it happened at a much slower pace—at least 10 times slower than ours today. Even so, the pace of change was too fast—the landscapes and plants and animals morphed, and the Neanderthals were unable to adapt.

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Homo sapiens were able to adapt. Homo sapiens translates from Latin to “wise man” or “smart human,” and our adaptability is a hallmark of our species. As long as we had a good 1,000 years before things were really different, we were able to make the changes that we needed in time: where we lived, what we ate, and what tools we used. We were able to figure it out. And the unique spirit of life continued to flow through us.

This time around, we don’t have 1,000 years to figure it out. We don’t even have 100 years. According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate change, we have 12 years. That’s what they said. Only 12. We have 12 years to radically transform our economy, especially the amount of energy that we use and how we generate it, from coal, oil, and gas to solar and wind. Energy from hell to energy from heaven. This is not adapting to climate change—that’s a whole other set of things we need to do. This is about preventing the climate from changing so dramatically and so quickly that we are unable to adapt.

My fellow Homo sapiens, smart humans, we have 12 years.

And if we don’t? The U.N. report warns of catastrophic flooding, droughts, extreme heat, and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. Worst case, scientists believe we are heading toward the sixth mass extinction. We can hear the drumbeat clearly now—the fires in California getting worse every year, the hurricanes growing more violent, droughts, deserts expanding, thousands forced from their farmlands to become refugees. It’s happening.

Hearing the news these days, the drumbeat getting louder, I’ll tell you where I’m at personally. I feel scared for my children. I have twins, just 8 years old. I’m scared for them of what kind of shifting, collapsing world they are going to have to make their way in. Even with all of their advantages as White, well-educated, relatively wealthy Americans, are they going to have to struggle to survive? And they both want children of their own. I was telling them recently about a celibate monk I had met, and my son had a strong negative reaction, saying how sad it would be to not have ancestors, by which he meant, descendants. And I wish I could gush about how great it will be for them to have children and for me to have grandchildren. Except I’m not sure how great it will be for those grandchildren.

We’re staring into the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. 

I’m sad that they will never get to experience the untouched beauty of wilderness. Because what humans have done touches everything, everywhere. I’m heartbroken for all that we’ve already lost, for the wilderness itself and the polar bears and countless other animals whose stars will burn out before their time.

I also feel an immense sense of personal responsibility. I am a writer and the spiritual leader of a congregation. Am I doing absolutely everything in my power to inspire and nurture and activate people at this critical juncture in human history? And if not, what gives me—or anyone else with a public platform—the right to lead at this time? We’re staring into the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. Leaders of faith and conscience must honor the trust that people have given them by leading boldly and selflessly.

But I get distracted from the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced by the mundane necessities of life. My sense of responsibility to defend my kids’ future gets hijacked by my kids’ need for help with their math homework. My sense of responsibility to plant a seedbed of revolutionary change in my congregation gets hijacked by the need to let everyone know that Facebook is doing a matching grant fundraiser and they really ought to contribute to it.

And every single person I know is just like me in this respect. We all get absorbed in the work of life, and the joys of life, and the struggles of life, mostly doing things that when you take them one at a time are each valid and important, even noble. Some of us have trouble enough just making it through the day. Some of us are just trying to survive in an economy with virtually no safety net. Or an illness takes all our time and energy to manage. Or a family conflict. Or someone hacked our email or our bank account and we’re spending hours on the phone trying to sort it out. Someone breaks our heart and we’re spending a year feeling like we want to die. Or we fall in love, and we’re just too damn happy to worry about anything.

Our political life follows the same pattern. Political debate centers on the vivid human suffering of our time—our government teargassing people at the border, to take just one of thousands of nauseating examples. Politicians rarely talk about the existential elephant in the room, partly because this is not what their constituents are talking about, for all the reasons I just listed. Partly it’s because fossil fuel companies and chemical manufacturers and Big Ag are paying a lot of money to make sure that we don’t talk about it. They want to make sure that deregulation continues, that the science gets muddied, and that green referendums fail; to make sure that at global summits and climate talks, our delegation is actively promoting fossil fuels. And for good measure, they work to suppress the votes of poor people who are most affected by environmental collapse because they might actually vote to change all that.

So is this how it’s going to go down, Homo sapiens, smart human? Good people are too busy, and bad people are too smart? You can imagine some future diorama at a Museum of Natural History 100,000 years from now. It will depict a Homo sapiens family in an industrialized nation at mealtime. A female is lifting a package of food out of a microwave. A male is staring into a cellphone. A baby is drooling onto the plastic tray of a high chair, clutching something that looks like a Beanie Baby in one hand and a juice box in the other. A toddler is watching something on a tablet of some kind, laughing.

They say the best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago. The second best time is now.

Next to the diorama, the information panel reads as follows: “Homo sapiens roamed the earth for a brief 200,000-year span. Their extinction was precipitated primarily by rapid climate change. Unlike the climatic shifts of previous eras, this climate change was largely caused by these apex predators themselves, specifically by the burning of the remains of all the creatures that had gone extinct before them.” (That’s what fossil fuels are, by the way—you cannot make this stuff up.) “Archeological evidence suggests that Homo sapiens had discovered solar energy long before their extinction. But their primitive form of social organization and rudimentary ability to share resources may have prevented them from addressing the global threat in time.”

Our primitive form of social organization—basically the powerful oppressing the earth and those less powerful—has kept us from adapting. And some of us say it’s all too big, and we’re too late—we should have fixed this 30 years ago. And yes, in an ideal world, 30 years ago we would have switched to renewable energy, drastically reduced our consumption and waste, adopted plant-based diets, shared our wealth to alleviate the desperation of poor nations, and planted about 10 million trees. We’d be having a very different conversation right now. But the conversation we are going to have in 30 years—or in 12 years—will depend entirely on what we do today. And I mean today. This week, this season, this year.

They say the best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago. The second best time is now.

Never before has a species been able to foresee its own extinction. Never before has a species been able to prevent it. But we can. How do I know? Because there is something in us that rebels, in every cell, with every breath. Because when we open the eyes of our spirit really wide, we can see that our star is not ready to burn out yet. The life force of the universe is not done moving through us. If anything, it’s pulsing stronger than ever now.

You can feel it in the air. The forces of change are stirring. We are understanding that all of our struggles are one. Many of us and many people we know have become activists for the first time in our lives as we recognize that we have to take power into our own hands. There are at least 1 million organizations working toward sustainability and social justice. Several of the newly elected members of Congress are representing communities that had little voice before, and they are pushing for the New Green Deal. With the markings of evil so clearly scrawled right in front of us on national television every day, with the assaults on this Earth and its people now unmistakable for anything else, we are rising up.

We have 12 years left, a moment before us to be seized. Right now, we need political action. We need to boycott corporations whose greed is killing us. Every week, we can make a phone call, write a letter, speak out at a town hall—we can do something to fight back. A new climate organization has started in Great Britain called Extinction Rebellion, and a chapter is forming in New York City and other cities around the world. It’s about taking bold, direct action in defense of our future. I plan to be part of it, and I urge you to join me—blocking pipelines, getting arrested, physically obstructing the desecration of our ecosystems—because asking nicely is just not working.

We need the extinction rebellion. But we need something else, too. It’s not enough to just resist evil. It’s not enough to just yell, “stop!” We need a revolution. We need a vision of a re-sanctified earth. We need a dream of who we can be as a species. I don’t believe that the deep wisdom of the cosmos meant for us to stay stuck as Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens have been smart humans with great technology, but primitive forms of social organization that divide and rank people based on race and gender and hoard resources. We can be better than that. We are meant to evolve into something else, something of the heart and of the spirit, of deep compassion and broad vision:

Homo amandi. Loving person.

Homo amandi creates life-sustaining societies committed to restoring balance to the Earth. Let’s do it right now. Let’s make the heart decision to evolve into Homo amandi. Let’s compress the next 1,000 years of evolution into the next 12. It will be the evolution revolution. And the best thing about it is that every single one of us can participate in this revolution every day. We participate through our choices, through what we say in casual conversation, what we buy, what we click on, what we discard. Each action may seem trivial on its own, but we have to think big, think collectively, and ask, “What is happening through me? Is it the sixth mass extinction? Or is it the evolution of homo amandi?”

We need the extinction rebellion and the evolution revolution both. We need to be saying “no” with all our might to the powers that are doing violence, and we need to be saying “yes” to a new way of living in peace. I want it for my children, and I know you will want it for yours and for all those you love. I want to be a blessing to the Earth, not a curse, and I know you do too. My fellow Homo amandi, join me in seizing the day, this day—the second best time ever to plant a tree and become something new.

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