Al Gore and the Magical Elephant

This articles was submitted by Marilyn Cornelius who specializes in climate change-related solution-building from a transdisciplinary and creative perspective. She holds a doctorate from the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) at Stanford University. Her dissertation focused on designing behavioral solutions to reduce residential energy use under the guidance of Professor Stephen Schneider. Previously, as Environment Associate for the United Nations Development Program, Marilyn managed projects in ten Pacific Island nations focusing on climate change, energy, and biodiversity.

Al Gore was at Stanford on April 23 to give a lecture on the climate crisis and the democratic crisis. He was also there to honor a friend.

Gore was there for my late mentor, advisor, employer, and intellectual father, Stephen H. Schneider’s memorial lecture and bench dedication.

Steve left us unexpectedly on July 19, 2010. He was one of the world’s most brilliant and intrepid leaders on climate change science and risk assessment. He continues to lead through all who were touched, uplifted, and transformed by him. I’m fortunate to be one of them.

I know I’ve been spoiled by Steve. I seek his caliber of leadership everywhere and find it sorely lacking.

At Gore’s lecture, I sat and absorbed his eloquent summary of cutting-edge research on symptoms such as extreme weather events and drought that show how the climate system is failing. I heard him make scathing remarks about how badly American democracy has been “hacked.”

When it came to positives, Gore had a few things to say. He mentioned investments in renewables were rising. He mentioned the importance of sincerely writing to one’s congressperson promising support or sabotage depending on his/her behavior with regard to climate policies. He left me and others I spoke afterwards with an empty call to action. We need you, he said. “But what can we DO?” asked a motivated but confused professor afterwards…indeed, what can we Americans do?

What was missing from Gore’s talk, from his Climate Reality Project, from other prominent climate leaders’ campaigns (such as Bill McKibben’s 350.org) and what we at Operation Missing Link have been highlighting for a few years now, is exactly what we can all do, right now, to fight climate change and build a safer future for our children and theirs. We can change what we eat.

Based on evidence from the United Nations and World Bank, about a fifth to a half of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we raise, process, and eat animals and animal-based products. We use 45% of global land for livestock. Shifting our diets away from meat and dairy products provides an immediate action we can take to disentangle ourselves from a system that is destroying our forests, our animals, and our climate. This shift would signal to meat and dairy producers that Americans demand change. It would also signal to China (where pork consumption is escalating) and India (where the dairy industry is booming) that we are humble enough to change our lifestyles and lead the world toward real climate solutions.

Are we ready to lead by example? Can we begin with ourselves? Are we too weak to reverse social norms and economic interests that condition us to eat the way we’ve always eaten? How might we look at food as a path to climate solution-building? Do we have the creativity and resilience it takes to see beyond the “fabled” technology fixes that haven’t worked for decades and realize that we are the solution?

Our behavior REALLY matters. 

As I left Memorial Auditorium after Gore’s lecture, I was sad and restless. How could he miss the most important solution that was staring us all in the face? Steve believed in behavior change. He suggested I study it, and encouraged my research.

The real call to action that Gore and others often omit is the proverbial elephant in the room. This elephant is somewhat magical, as it provides multiple solutions, is ready right now to implement them, and begs for our discernment. Shifting away from meat and dairy not only restores the climate, forests, and land, it benefits our lungs and overall health from the reduced air pollution, reduces our risks of current epidemics like heart disease, diabetes and obesity, allows us to feed starving human beings, and offers animals a more humane life free of antibiotics, toxins, genetic manipulation, torture and untimely slaughter. If enough of us shift our behavior, especially what we demand and consume, this ordinary action could catalyze an economic transformation and overthrow current political corruption, ultimately restoring all of life to its rightful balance.

I sorely miss Steve’s fearless integrity, and his ability to ask important questions, questions that can take us forward.

One such question was burning in my heart all evening, and because Gore took no questions from the audience that night, it remains in my heart, burning relentlessly: Given that not everyone can afford renewable energy right now, and in the interest of achieving expedient emission reductions to reduce climate change, how might you and other climate leaders include information about the importance of shifting away from meat and dairy products, so people who look to you for guidance can make more informed choices and take immediate action to lower their adverse impact?

If Steve could answer, he might say: With scientific evidence, conviction and courage as a citizen, fearless integrity, and humility for “Ma Earth.”

That kind of leadership is a choice we all can make every day.  We can choose to be that leader, or to stand by and watch the destruction of our world.

As I reflect on Gore’s inability or unwillingness to discern its immense presence, the magical elephant is dancing next to me. It’s a dance that craves balance. Since I first saw the elephant, I can’t un-see it. Now that I’ve joined the dance, I won’t stop dancing.

Perhaps we will all be willing to open our eyes and be courageous leaders. Now is, after all, the best time to begin. Let’s dance!

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