Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #174. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Jan. 1, 2022; in print Jan. 2

My friend Lee Morgan, who lives in Annandale, attended November’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. At December’s monthly meeting of the Central Minnesota chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby he reported on what he saw, heard and learned. There were 25,000 people gathered at the summit, so lots went on.

Lee confirmed what we suspected: Progress was made, but far short of what’s needed. Reams of talking the talk, minimal walking the walk. Strong undertow was exerted by the single largest contingent, lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry.

The fundamental problem is human resistance to thinking forward long-term. Looking back, we’re grateful for what our ancestors did. Closing in on a century since D-Day, we acknowledge the value of what that generation did for us. Defeat of the Third Reich was not foreordained. It was a close call.

But looking forward: how will our great-great-grandchildren remember us? Will they have reason to be similarly grateful because we headed off the 21st century’s biggest peril?

Trying to get even a few nations to do something about anything is daunting.

Add to the scope of the task the technical and logistical complexity of the solutions, and it’s less troublesome to think about other things. Carbon fee and dividend, front-and-center in CCL’s efforts, is both rational and effective, but you have to pay sustained attention to understand it.

Lee’s main takeaway: Grassroots are key. Politicians (for the most part, anyway) don’t lead; they respond to their constituents.

Here is where Lee’s report really grabbed my attention: There’s no reason to stop at federal and state levels.

He reported on a phenomenon that’s popping up: net-zero clusters. Industries, yes. But net-zero city clusters, too. Communities in a region – think “Greater St. Cloud area” – commit to doing what it takes to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in their corner of the world. 2038, the 50th anniversary of the St. Cloud Hydroelectric Generation Facility at the dam on the Mississippi River, is a good target date.

The rejoinder is obvious. What difference will it make for Central Minnesota to achieve this if China and India and the rest of the U.S. keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere as if there’s (almost literally) no tomorrow?

I suggest the answer is in two sage observations, one from two millennia ago, one much more recent. Words of Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, were memorably condensed by President John F. Kennedy: “If not us, who? If not now, when?” The other is a sentence attributed to the late anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I began to visualize what could happen here.

I thought first: Assemble the mayors of the regional cities – St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids, Sartell, Waite Park, St. Joseph, St. Augusta for starters – and have them imagine how to organize into a net-zero cluster. Eventually, city councils and county commissioners could get involved.

Then, however, I balked. What about Lee’s contention that politicians don’t lead? It’s not always true, but true enough to warrant skepticism that “assembling the mayors” is a good beginning. They have to be aboard, of course. Not as initiators, though.

If not them, who?

The breakthrough was Lee’s reminding us of the news photos we saw from Glasgow – more than 100,000 young people demonstrating in the streets, letting the suits in the meeting halls know that “What you are doing – and especially not doing – is making the world we’ll inherit, and believe us – it matters to us!”

My first thought had been to turn the organizing of the cluster over to the politicians, who would certainly have subsequently recruited young people into the enterprise.

But this had it backwards.

Our region is blessed with thousands of bright, energetic, imaginative young people at St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud Technical & Community College, the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, high schools and middle schools in many districts, and they have teachers who are themselves committed to saving the planet and knowledgeable about ways to do it. The cohort to lead us to net-zero by 2038 can be found in this population.

I don’t know who the catalyst is, but I’ll bet there is one or a group. Once these young people issue the challenge to the rest of us, there are many individuals and organizations – business, civic, educational, religious, philanthropic, even political – you name it – ready to join up.

St. Cloud prides itself on being designated one of the “most livable” cities in the world. We’re also, in the memorable phrase of Pastor James Alberts, “Big enough to make a difference – Small enough to make it work.” Net-zero by 2038. Let’s show the rest of the world what being “actually livable” is.