COP21 and the resilience of skateboarders

The winner of a World Wildlife Fund poster contest mirrors the 1830 Eugene Delacroix painting "Liberty Leading the People." (Donna Schaper)
This article appears in the COP 21 Paris feature series. View the full series.

Paris — If you are someone who thinks it is already too late to keep the climate’s temperature from rising significantly above 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), COP21 -- the United Nations climate summit -- is the place for you to be. 

The outside is fascinating, the inside oblique. It reminds me of every United Church of Christ General Synod I have ever attended: All the action is on the border between the inside and the outside.

We will probably save the rich and not the poor, the centers but not the peripheries, the North and not the South. The pope is a wild card here. Hopefully, he is enough of an outsider to get us inside. On the papal plane from Africa to Rome, he suggested what’s obvious to the outsiders: Let us not commit global suicide.

As Gov. Chris Christie likes to argue from his perch in New Jersey, “We’ve always had climate change.” Yup, and we have always had poverty and we have always had disproportionate impacts from what Oxfam calls “extreme carbon emission inequality.” But we’ve never had climate change that threatened to put the Jersey coastline under water for a couple of centuries. 

I was so glad that the knock-off from the Delacroix painting of the French Revolution won the World Wildlife Federation poster contest -- and is papered all over the RER train system here in Paris. In it, we see a panda holding the sign of resistance and hope, and a young woman on the verge of skateboarding. The poster has the same fierceness the French showed on Nov. 28, when, after terrorism and the police cancelled the giant pre-COP kick-off march, they put their shoes in rows on the street. Not allowed to protest, they amused themselves and many others with the amuse-bouche of the human spirit. 

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Ordinary people won’t stop acting and amusing. The question is the spirit of the world leaders who imagine themselves the main course. To the extent that world leaders can come to the table knowing it is a whole table, one with insiders and outsiders, North and South, East and West, they will serve us well. If they only take care of their own, earth -- and the outsiders -- will be abandoned.

Here at COP21 there is a youthful spirit, a nearly Minnesotan niceness, a palpable sense of hope. “YES WE CAN, SI SE PUEDE” is the spirit of every display. Whether the subject is a green bond for large cities or riding a bicycle so that you can charge your cellphone or blend your free smoothie, the spirit has that vibe, that playful spirit of early hope. Our skateboarder is ready to ride.

Here you can see mushrooms growing out of logs injected with coffee grounds. Beautiful, edible oyster mushrooms. You can buy a nice meal in a glass dish, which is recycled. You can get a free recyclable cup to drink water out of a fountain. You can sign a climate ribbon (which had its first prom at Judson Memorial Church in New York City) and write on the ribbon what you will miss most when the temperatures rise too far to permit the earth’s amusement.  You can enjoy headsets, which allow you to understand the Iranian who is talking about how he saved wetlands or the Sudanese woman who went from 28 women in an agricultural cooperative to 5,000. 


More: “In lieu of palms this Palm Sunday, wave the 'Climate Ribbon'” (March 26. 2015)


You can learn about resilience in one lecture after another. What is resilience? Here’s what the Equator Prize says:

  1. Diversity of species, culture and institutions;
  2. Connectivity in rivers, flyways for birds, open sourcing markets as great as the old silk roads;
  3. Managing feedback loops: What happens next? Old fertilizer is a negative feedback loop, compost is a positive one;
  4. Complex systems thinking, which knows that even the rich are just a part of the picture;
  5. Nesting governance, decisions made locally and then nested;
  6. Encouraging ongoing learning.

The resilience of the skateboarders will save us. The world’s leaders may not. Many of them are too invested in the static quo. I’m not going all the way to hope, as the conference has just started. But I am feeling resilient, which is different than hopeful.

It is instead enjoyment of the periphery, where we are suspicious of any of the insiders who imagine they are the human center, which they are not. Those inside who know resilience are surely our friends.

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