by Paul Severance
It’s 3:23 in the morning, and I’m awake
because my great, great, grandchildren won’t let me sleep.
My great, great, grandchildren ask me in dreams:
What did you do, while the planet was plundered?
What did you do, when the earth was unraveling?
Surely you did something when the seasons started failing –
as the mammals, reptiles, and birds were all dying?
Did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?
What did you do
Drew Dellinger, Hieroglyphic Stairway
When I first heard this poem, it triggered a deeply disturbing vision of my great, great grandchildren facing a steadily-dying future world—because we had largely ignored the threat of global warming. They might be researching to find out what I, their great, great grandfather did, or did not do, once I knew.
I wouldn’t want them to conclude that I just hadn’t cared enough to devote my time, energy, and resources to doing everything I could to prevent such disaster for them.
On one level it’s just that personal: Although I can’t control the outcome, I want to be one of those who did their best.
Then, at some point, perhaps because I spent my career as a community organizer, my vision shifted, and I started thinking about “We” rather than just “I”. Now in my elderhood, I posed a question based in the power of collective purpose and action:
What if We were to create a movement of elders to aggressively address the threat of climate change and help change our country’s energy policy in order to stop the spewing of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere?
I had little idea of what it would take to begin to answer this question, but I was determined to do something. Now that would be a legacy I would be proud to be part of and to have my great, great grandchildren discover!
By fate, the vision of our country’s concerned elders steppinga up to address our many social and environmental issues motivated the gathering of 47 of us in Burlingame, CA, in April 2014 to begin such a quest. We asked ourselves how elders could bring our unique perspectives and energies to bear on some of the challenges facing our nation and the world.
That meeting produced a consensus to form the Conscious Elders Network (CEN), to serve as an incubator for elder-inspired efforts to make a difference. I brought my desire to take on climate change to that meeting. As a result, our CEN Elders Climate Action (ECA) movement emerged alongside other educational, social and spiritually oriented CEN focus groups. The idea of beginning with a specific initiative, “Grandparents Climate Action Day (GCAD)” to be held in Washington, DC was born at that meeting.
I took on the role of chair for the ECA campaign and was blessed with a remarkable team of elder leaders who stepped forward; together we began building the movement and organizing GCAD. Over the months between our initial April 2014 idea and its September 2015 culmination, we developed the following partnerships and network supports:
- Attracted over 1500 elders from 46 states to join our movement.
- Adopted the Carbon Fee and Dividend legislative proposal, and support for the Clean Power Plan as specific solutions we would advocate
- Developed partnerships with 61 like-minded organizations, including the Citizens Climate Lobby and Moms’ Clean Air Force, who were helpful in many ways, including training us in effective lobbying
- Developed a website and newsletter to communicate to our members and partners
- Created a petition drive to gather additional support for our campaign.
Throughout this campaign, we were continually spurred on by Drew Dellinger’s stirring question:
What did you do – once you knew?
That question brought restless nights to many of us, yet it also sustained us in our action. After many months, involving an equal measure of soul searching and community organizing, 145 elders from across America journeyed to Washington, DC to deepen our knowledge of the science behind climate change, and to train for meetings with members of Congress. We audaciously conducted two “flash mob” song and dance routines to call attention to our cause, one in Union Station and one in the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria. Before leaving the capitol, 22 teams of ECA members held meetings with 44 congressional offices to urge support for effective action on climate.
The message we received from legislators and their staff members was a resounding: “Keep doing what you are doing. We need to know that this is important to you.” Fellow activists who meet with Congress on a regular basis echoed this sentiment as well: “What is essential to affecting what Congress takes up and does is establishing personal relationships with them. Keep coming back.”
We felt both exhilarated and exhausted from our collective experience, and were willing to accept both, as we set about planning what we will do in this next year and for long as it takes.
Our campaign is based on shared convictions that were revealed as our advocacy work progressed:
- We are literally at a critical turning point in human history. Human civilization now has the capacity to make the Earth inhospitable for future generations whose lives will depend on our actions, or inactions, today.
- We have the capacity, with current technology, to preserve a livable planet—if we make that a top priority.
- Our country must take a lead role for this challenge to be met successfully. The U.S. has been a leading contributor to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere—the primary cause of climate disruption.
- United States action on climate change is gridlocked by confusion sown by fossil fuel interests and ideological intransigence.
- Elders have the potential to be a critical force that leads the U.S. through gridlock to a solution. Just as we have reached this critical point in history, elders have become over 25% of our population. Any time we are substantially united on a public policy issue, our influence will be both substantial and consequential!
- Future generations need us to be true elders—to take a long view; to make their well-being a top priority. That has been the role of elders throughout most of human history.
With this in mind, we envision building a powerful and diverse movement of elders with a common goal of preserving a livable climate for future generations. Some of the elements we are pursuing include the following:
- Person to Person: It starts with each of us connecting with people we know and urging them to get involved.
- Multimedia Organizing: We plan to use all the modern communication tools at our disposal to create more awareness, to educate and provide opportunities for effective action.
- Partnerships: We are connecting with organizations that share our concerns to multiply our impact through collaboration.
- Local Organizing: We are forming local chapters to reach out to faith communities, civic organizations, senior clubs, neighborhood groups, etc., to involve others in our campaign. Chapters will hold educational events, organize meetings with members of Congress, set up tables at community events, and more.
- Regional and National Events: We will continue to bring the voice of concerned elders to our national representatives in Washington, DC and throughout the country by organizing further events like our recent Grandparents Climate Action Day, and by participating in coalition events like the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York.
* * * * *
I had the privilege to be in Selma, Alabama this past summer for the 50th anniversary of the March to Montgomery. I was inspired by being in forums where some of the unknown heroes of the civil rights movement talked about what it was like to take a stand against a powerful and violent system. They didn’t know if it was possible to overthrow that system; they didn’t know whether they would survive the effort. But they were determined that their children and grandchildren would not have to grow up in those conditions.
They changed our country, its laws, and its culture, despite the odds—and now we must do the same.
We invite you to join us by checking out our website: eldersclimateaction.org or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will contact you to discuss how you can get involved and make a difference, too.
Paul Severance spent most of his working life as a community organizer. He founded United Senior Action of Indiana in 1978, and served as its Executive Director for 27 years. Prior to that, Paul directed numerous urban neighborhood and senior development projects in New York State and Indiana. Retired since 2005, Paul is melding his passions for conscious aging with addressing the dangers that climate change poses for future generations. He is past Board Chair and current Co-Administrative Director for Sage-ing International; and he is a member of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps. Paul currently serves as Co-Chair of the Conscious Elders Network’s Elders Climate Action initiative.