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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Following the Ark: The People's Climate March

-- By Tom Phillips   

Photos: Brandon Johnson
The day began for me with an interfaith prayer service -- the first I've ever been to that seemed to be all in a common spirit.  People gathered on 58th Street under the banners of their various faiths, but I made my way through the crowd, trying to get close enough to the stage to hear the prayers and songs.  Starting with a friendly bunch of Congregationalists from Vermont, I made my way up through Unitarians, Pagans, Quakers, Buddhists and Ethical Humanists, until I wound up on a ragged border between Jews and Catholics, only about 100 feet from the action. 

For once, all the prayers and invocations pointed in the same direction.  We all have a common interest in survival, and the lives of those who come after us.  And there's no disagreement on the who our opponents are -- global corporations, artificial persons created by law for the purpose of doing business, which by their nature put profits first -- even at the risk of civilization.   

Between the two sides lies the institution of government, which has the power to regulate business, but which has largely abdicated its role.  The purpose of the march, on the eve of a U-N conference, was to challenge the idea that governments can't decide in favor of humanity.  Yes, they can.  

The interfaith crowd filled the entire block of 58th Street from Eighth to Ninth Avenue, and hundreds of other groups gathered in other streets surrounding Columbus Circle.  We had to wait while other groups got the march underway, but the band was rocking -- the cellist Michael Fitzpatrick with his intense vibrato, improvising behind gospel singer Roosevelt Credit, and Peter Yarrow, bent and shaky but still singing with conviction, making us sing along.

Finally we stepped out, cheering, behind a replica of Noah's Ark, a float festooned with all kinds of people.  One guy had a T-shirt that said "Don't panic, I'm Islamic."  Another's sign said he was "An Atheist on the Ark."

The march stretched as far as the eye could see, in front and behind, and went on for hours.  I came home and saw a report that said "tens of thousands," but it was hundreds of thousands, without a doubt.  The mood was entirely festive.  This was a celebration of human life and community, the very things at risk.  

We marched through midtown, past waving tourists in Rockefeller Center, and cow-like stares on 42nd Street, from people more interested in crossing the street to Madame Tussaud's.  When we made our last turn down 11th Avenue, the police tried to persuade marchers to "disperse," saying there were too many of us to fit in the last few blocks above 34th Street.  A few obeyed, but most of us kept going, and no one tried to stop us. 

No rally awaited us -- the Javits Center at 34th Street was blocked off, and there wasn't a big enough open space.   But the march had come off, we had made our point.  And everyone there seemed to understand that we will have to make it again and again, and recruit many more people to the cause.  

Confession:  Twenty years ago, when my kids were little, I used to tell them not to worry about global warming.  Even after the evidence began piling up, I took some comfort in what I understood of the Gaia Theory -- that the earth is a self-regulating system, with built-in mechanisms that tend toward equilibrium.  That made me cautiously hopeful.  

But a bright young protester from New Mexico pointed out to me today that the earth's self-regulation doesn't rule out the destruction of humanity.  If Mother Earth needs to kill off civilization in order to restore her equilibrium, that may be exactly what she'll do.  Or as one sign put it, "Earth will survive climate change.  We won't!"

In a vacant lot off 11th Avenue, one group put up a "tree of life" and handed out ribbons, on which you write what you don't want to lose to climate change, then hang your ribbon on a fence next to the tree.  Giving voice to what up to now has been a private fear, I wrote, "the lives of my grandchildren." 

OK kids, I marched.  Now it's up to you. 

-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips