When the XRPDX newsletter editor asked me for my thoughts on COP26, two things came to mind: the new National Geographic documentary about Jasques-Yves Cousteau, Becoming Cousteau, and roller skating.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday I was staying at my grandma’s house, and we watched the new Cousteau documentary. It was beautifully shot and very well done, but the whole time I was internally screaming. In 1992, 30 years ago, before the first Conference Of Parties, the International Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, happened in Rio. Climate change, transportation, fossil fuels, development, and sustainability were discussed. The same things that were talked about this year at COP26. It’s been 30 years, and we’ve done nothing! Nothing!
Which is where roller skating comes into play. Before I get into it, I want to clarify, roller skating is a ton of fun, which the UN COP process is not. But in a way, it is. Because there you are, zooming along, going in circles over and over and over. You put in so much energy and effort, and you go nowhere. And afterward, you’re exhilarated and exhausted and feel like you’ve really done something.
And you know, I’m sure all the national delegates at COP26 felt like they really were doing something. But to all of us on the outside, either in the streets or behind a screen, all we see is people going nowhere. Talking in circles. Greenwashing and using legal lingo to confuse us. Around and around and around we go. Even if we aren’t talking about the Earth Summit or other climate conferences, we’ve had 26 COPs. That’s more than years I’ve been alive!
Growing up, Jaques Cousteau was a hero in my house. My mom painted a portrait of him in a diving suit and proudly hung it on our living room wall. An explorer, inventor, cinematographer, and environmental activist, Cousteau brought the destruction of our marine ecosystems to public attention — and television. Cousteau and his floating laboratory, the Calypso, showed the world the beauty of our oceans and showed us how fast that beauty was disappearing.
In addition to being a champion of environmental advocacy, Cousteau also helped push The Antarctic Treaty, to keep Antarctica from being developed. In his lifetime, Jaques Cousteau saw so much destruction. And yet he still had hope. At the Earth Summit, he thought we could actually do it. Fix this mess we’ve put ourselves in. And here we are, 25 years after his death, failing his legacy, his dreams and hopes. Talking in circles and getting nothing done, over and over again.
The morning after going roller skating, you’re sore, and tired, and maybe even feel like you can’t get out of bed. Post-exercise paralysis. Which maybe doesn’t feel so different from climate-paralysis. The ache is the same, as is the inability to move. Because as we go around in circles for decades, people are dying. Our environment is changing before our eyes. Species are disappearing. Our skies fill with wildfire smoke one day, atmospheric rivers the next, and then ice and snow. Our future is disappearing, and around and around we go.