BEYOND AMERICA & THE PARIS AGREEMENT: Eco-Cultural Regeneration as Climate Justice by Spiritual Ecology Fellow, Kyle Lemle

Our Climate Denial is Deeper than Trump

On oh this auspicious day, as news breaks nationwide that President Trump is pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement, I would like for us all to take a step back. May we pause for a moment, and before we engage in the oh so comfortable blame game, the finger pointing - before we blame Trump for anything - I’d like to invite my dear compatriots to hold up the mirror.

Mr. Trump’s decision is very American - the decision to turn inwards, to take care of what’s mine, anything beyond that is mere charity. International agreements require sacrifice, a repositioning of the self amidst the whole. The Paris Agreement, as watered-down as it may be, is a living commitment to serve a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is written in service to the planet as a whole, because climate change is a planetary reality that we are creating, becoming, and addressing as one.

But America was not founded on any notion of oneness, of collective responsibility. We have not grown to be the imperial power of the world through empowering cultures of stewardship, safeguards or sustainability. We have grown, as all imperial powers have, through conquest and violence against the Earth and its peoples. We are rich because we have made everything - our primordial rivers, plant genomes, energy-rich dinosaur sludge, even our human neighbors - into commodities to be bought and sold.  

To be American is to believe in manifest destiny, in “finders keepers,” and our laws and courts protect our right to make money off of anything we claim ownership of, at the expense of those pesky externalities - the desecration of the water, the ancestral homelands of indigenous peoples, the air we breathe, the climate, a liveable world for future generations.

So this week, as Trump unsurprisingly puts into practice the self-centered values our great nation was founded on, I invite us to not talk about Trump, but to talk about those values themselves, our cultures of greed and violence against the Earth that condone taking without reciprocity - the great taking of carbon from the tar sands, from the trees and releasing it into thin air, without the promise of sequestering it back.

Can we for a moment zoom out of the fear-inducing political spectacle of the West Wing to the ideology driving it, and the larger ontological question, a more long-term question then this moment which will come and go with Trump - can we as Americans learn to revere life on this planet enough to live in a reciprocal relationship with it?

And if so, can we mature out of a culture of exploitation into a culture of regeneration? And if so, what are the acts, the rituals, the immediate work we can do to shift our ecological positionality - how we as Americans see ourselves in relationship with the Earth in this time of climate chaos? If so, would we ever again come close to electing a President with such blatant disrespect for the Earth and its inhabitants?

Bison skulls to be used for fertilizer, 1870. Bison were hunted for their skins, with the rest of the animal left behind to decay on the ground.

Bison skulls to be used for fertilizer, 1870. Bison were hunted for their skins, with the rest of the animal left behind to decay on the ground.

Our Pioneer Heritage of Desecration | Climate Change as the New Imperialism

What is largely missing from the climate movement, what the mainstream media is too scared to cover, is beyond the political conversation, beyond Paris, beyond the language of the cap and trade policy, beyond the fiasco with Volkswagen’s cheating on emissions standards.  

Today’s news follows the tone set on Trump’s first day in office when the administration deleted the White House web pages on civil rights and climate change in the same click. This is a gesture well within the wheelhouse of our old and established values, where any semblance of stewardship -  or “Care for Our Common Home” as Pope Francis implored Mr. Trump on his recent visit to the Vatican -  is being deleted. Trump’s America is an old America that preaches the glory of the individual capitalist and buttresses a system that benefits the separate and fenced-in individual, at the expense of all other beings, people of color, indigenous peoples, animals, and future beings.

Vandana Shiva calls this eco-apartheid when she writes: “Separatism is at the root of disharmony with nature and violence against nature and people. Today, we need to overcome an eco-apartheid based on the illusion of separateness – the separation of humans from nature in our minds and lives. This eco-apartheid is an illusion because we are part of nature and Earth, not apart from it.”

This parasitic relationship with the land is not new. Everywhere I go, the land tells stories of forests taken, even in Death Valley one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. I took a trip there this Spring and found a fragile forest of small juniper and pinyon pine on mountain peaks surrounded by desert. Ancient, twisting wizard trees stood, but these were just what remained. I read the plaque at the base of the trail commemorating the charcoal kilns (built by Chinese laborers) where the original forest was cut and burnt. The plaque made this place American - we love to memorialize conquest with forged tributes to the mining years, the gold rush, the cowboys who settled and civilized the land.

Trump’s decision today to “Make America Great Again” is referring to an America built on a long history of violence, our addiction to plundering the "mythical frontier." And we continue to wage war so we can take more. If the 18th and 19th Centuries were the time when the forests were taken, the 20th and 21st Centuries are proving to be the imperial conquest of the skies, our atmosphere.  

Manifest destiny sanctions climate violence. It is an entitlement to all that stands before us and the empty quest to reify a lost dream. But what we are seeing unfold is a never before seen form of generational injustice.  

If we lived on a small island with a rising sea, would we do this to ourselves? Our President literally lives in a tower - what he does not realize is that the sea is lapping at his foundation.

A tree planting with Friends of the Urban Forest

A tree planting with Friends of the Urban Forest

Taking Responsibility | The Invitation for Reciprocity

What would it take to commit to changing what it means to be American? To commit to beginning the process of giving back all we have taken? How do we apologize for genocide, a mountain of buffalo skulls, the empty silence of wind without bird song, an island swallowed by a rising sea - how do we take responsibility for the death of the world?

The great wheel is turning, and we are learning that the idea of a self-sufficient nation or individual is a fallacy, a lost dream. We are learning that to be an adult is to take responsibility for our actions - with a big emphasis on the “our.” This includes taking responsibility, without blaming, for our brothers and sisters who cause more harm than they acknowledge.

What would it take to respect ourselves enough to humble our own interests for the good of the collective, all nations, the planet? What is a life that gives as much as it takes, if not more? Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “Reciprocity—returning the gift—is not just good manners; it is how the biophysical world works. 

Reciprocity is why I am interested in planting trees. I Imagine a world where, as we walk, what trails behind us is not waste, is not desert, is not forgotten but where our shadows grow as gifts. Where our footsteps are not violent, our actions yield no shame, where we don’t need earphones and medical masks to shield us from the mess we’ve made.

I imagine with each step, a seed is planted and we can measure our footsteps in the groves that grow behind us, living breathing shadows. The healing technologies to repair our world are as ancient as they are alive. My personal favorite technology is the forest itself.

Trees stabilize our climate. Trees bring the rain. Trees, for many, are home to the Gods. For me, it has always been about the trees. When I was little, my dream job was to be Johnny Appleseed.  And today my heroes remain the tree planters of the world, like Wangari Maathai, the legendary matriarch of Kenya who through planting trees helped bring down an oppressive political regime.

I have planted trees all over the world, from Bhutan to India, to the streets of San Francisco, and I have learned in working with many different forest communities that we are children of this land, spoon fed from the source, we can choose to be parents too and nurse it back to vitality. But parenting takes patience. We travel to the moon and back in the time it takes for a tree to grow twenty feet. Planting trees asks us to decolonize our expectations on rapid returns on investment, to rewrite the shareholder’s contract.

Still, we have so far to go, one step forward, 100 steps back. We are clear-cutting our forests in a blink. Yes as Trump sells our right to pollute the air he also tries to sell America’s public forests. Deforestation accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions. It will take generations, even still we begin the long process of replanting to give back what we have taken. What else is there to do? We cannot wait for the final forest to fall before we plant the first tree.

Green Gulch Farm, Muir Beach, CA.

Green Gulch Farm, Muir Beach, CA.

The Promise of Regeneration

The United Nations climate negotiations will continue at Cop23 this November, with or without Mr. Trump. If I were to go as a delegate, I would be more qualified than the OILigarchs representing our State Department. I would humbly offer another set of values from America - values inspired by the original tenders of Turtle Island -- those rooted in reciprocity that know we are not entitled to oil, plastic, or beef without making a sacrifice, without offering back to the primordial giver.

In this way, I see restoration ecology as eco-cultural restoration, a necessary form of Climate Justice work. Regeneration takes faith and science, a strange marriage. Even today as Trump makes a speech and the world seems to be crumbling to pieces - when a healthy environment seems like a far off dream - may we take the long view, may we stand upright and proceed anyway, making a life through the physical practice of regeneration. And maybe one day, we will walk through the forests we’ve planted and our grandchildren will be unaware that anyone planted them at all.

It is radical to work in this world for reasons other than profit. What if, dear America, we measured success not in the bounty taken, the granaries filled, but in the gifts we give, the weeds we pull, the life we make with our hands, the minutes spent doing exactly that which keeps the heart warm, beating without grasping at peace?

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Kyle Lemle is a tree planter and community-based natural resource management professional with experience working for international and grassroots NGOs from Bhutan to Thailand to California. He is an inaugural recipient of the Spiritual Ecology Fellowship, through which he is working on a project to melt down weapons into shovels to use in ceremonial tree plantings at sites of violence and sacred sites. Hi is also founder and co-director of the Thrive Choir based in Oakland, CA, and can be reached at kyle.lemle@gmail.com