Great Tide Rising
Finding Clarity and Moral Courage to Confront Climate Change
(released February 8, 2016
Even as seas rise against the shores, another great tide is beginning to rise – a tide of outrage against the pillage of the planet, a tide of commitment to justice and human rights, a swelling affirmation of moral responsibility to the future and to Earth’s fullness of life.
Philosopher and nature essayist Kathleen Dean Moore takes on the essential questions: Why is it wrong to wreck the world? What is our obligation to the future? What is the transformative power of moral resolve? How can clear thinking stand against the lies and illogic that batter the chances for positive change? What are useful answers to the recurring questions of a storm-threatened time – What can anyone do? Is there any hope? And always this: What stories and ideas will lift people who deeply care, inspiring them to move forward with clarity and moral courage?
"I have read this eloquent and deeply moving book slowly, savoring the prose and absorbing the insights. It's a major work. Much as I love Kathleen Dean Moore's previous books, I feel that Great Tide Rising surpasses them. More richly than ever before, here she weaves together multiple streams of wisdom—from philosophy, ethics, science, nature, and language, as well as personal experience. No one writes more eloquently about Earth, its condition and its future. No one thinks more rigorously about how we should live on this battered, beautiful planet, or how we should treat our fellow creatures. Her work helps me to imagine that our species might make it through this evolutionary bottleneck with something resembling civilized values. In a difficult time, I find in these pages a reminder that sanity can be coupled with urgency, celebration with grief. I'm grateful for this book, and glad that others will have the chance to see their lives afresh in the light it radiates." — - Scott Sanders, author, A Private History of Awe
Diana Chapman Walsh
"Great Tide Rising is a tremendously moving book, grounded in deep erudition that brings together Moore’s lifetime of thoughtful and creative immersion in the two worlds of philosophy and nature. It is at once heartbreaking and motivating, terrifying and empowering, managing to hold these and many other such tensions with a dogged and yet gentle refusal to look away." — Diana Chapman Walsh, President Emerita, Wellesley College
"I've been continually stirred, provoked, and inspired as I read Great Tide Rising. With compassion, practicality, and clarity, Kathleen Dean Moore raises profound and pertinent ethical challenges on nearly every page. In so doing, she provides a compelling introduction to environmental ethics, applying those perspectives to the immediate challenge—how to confront the climate crisis. She moves seamlessly through touching family explorations of species and landscapes as the baseline for moral philosophy. It's an outstanding book to teach with and I intend to use it frequently." — Mitchell Thomashaw, former president, Unity College
At Low Tide, Watching the World Go Away
We are wading in rubber boots at the rim of the sea, my grandson and I. Behind us is a limestone ledge that shelters green anemones and limpets; in front of us, a bed of eelgrass laid flat by the receding tide. It's a silver day in Alaska -- shining, shivering seas and clouds so low you feel you could bump your head. My grandson leans over to poke a greying starfish.
"This one is soft. That's means it's sick." This child is three years old and already he knows the signs of starfish wasting syndrome. He gives the sea star a last poke with his forefinger and stands to gaze around the cove.
"His mom is around here someplace," he says, wrinkling his brow and not finding her. "He's sick. He needs a mom." I think that is undoubtedly true.
Just last year, this cove was full of sea stars. We saw them in every damp crevice, heaps of them, the purple stars, Pisaster ochraceus, and mottled stars, Evasterias troschelii, not only purple, but green, red, brown, orange. This year, we come across only three or two stars, here and there, splayed on the shingle. These that remain are wasting away too, a hideous process. Lesions form. The tissues around them decay, so the sea star flattens and falls apart. An arm may crawl away, but soon it too turns to mush. Around our boots, torn arms and the wispy scraps of wasted sea stars float on the incoming tide.
It's a catastrophe, among many on a planet growing sour and hot, and I am afraid for this small child.
Leaning over, he pries up a large rock. The bottom is plastered with baby sea stars, no bigger than his thumb, and they are firm to the touch.
"Not sick," he says, and looks up at me with a three-year-old's grin, which is the most winning, the most beautiful grin in the history of creation, a grin for the triumph of all the planet's babies. I'm uncertain about the prospects of the little ones. I imagine that these sea stars, smaller than a dime, are destined also to waste away to a lace of flesh that folds, refolds as small waves push it to shore, just as sea stars are dissolving all along the Pacific Coast, Mexico to Alaska.
If only there were a mom around here who could shelter the young lives and comfort us all. But what would such a mother do? How could she bear the sadness? I can't think of anything worse for any parents than to feel helpless, as pieces of their child's world break off and quietly go away.
A statement of scientific consensus, led by Stanford scientists, has badly shaken me: Unless all nations take immediate action, by the time today's children are middle-aged, the life-support systems of the Earth will be irretrievably damaged. I am holding the hand of a small child in a yellow raincoat and orange bib overalls. His little boots have long ago filled with water. His hair is damp and smells of salt. And I am staring at my boots and thinking of what it could possibly mean to this child, to live on a planet whose life-supporting mechanisms have frayed and fallen apart.
He sucks in his breath. "Hey! Guys! Come close and look. Come close and look." Under a blade of rainbow kelp, he has found the red, orange-spiked, cucumber-shaped sea animal called a sea cucumber. How beautiful it is, and how beautiful is the human impulse to be astonished.
But there's this. Yesterday, on a beach only two miles from this one, sea cucumbers by the hundreds washed up, dead. I'd never seen anything like that before. Gloriously colored animals sagging under the sudden weight of the world, they rolled in with the tidal detritus, tangled in seaweed and slime.
What does this mean for the next generations, all this dying? Can the human species thrive in a world where other species are disappearing, even as they watch? I just don't know. And what does it mean for us, the people of the present, who desperately care about the world?
People ask me, why do you try so hard to stop the fossil-fuel industries that are over-heating the oceans and the air? You are just one person, and the dying has already begun.
My only answer is this little guy in the yellow slicker, who is just now squatting to touch a pair of rock blennies that are flicking around the damp sand. "Look," he says, "This baby fish is still happy, and this one feels good too."
How should I think about this? New research shows that the starfish wasting disease is most likely caused by a virus, and the virus is enabled by the increasingly warm and acidic seas, and the seas are warming and souring because they are absorbing carbon dioxide that is produced by burning fossil fuels. Somewhere there is a corporate committee that is deciding to expand their production and sales of fossil fuels, and at the same time invest heavily in the U.S. Congress, in order to kill legislation that would create alternative energy technologies. Somewhere, a man is deciding to trade the prospects of the next generations for the chance to increase the power and profits of his industry.
Economists say that the carbon catastrophe is an economic problem, and of course it is; it will cost trillions to restore or replace the functionality of ecosystems that climate change will destroy, if it's possible at all. Military experts write that climate change is a national security problem, and of course it is; famine and flooding will force people from their homes in waves of desperate refugees, and armies will mobilize for control of water. Technological wizards insist this is a technological problem, and of course it is; new ways to generate energy might free the world from culture-killing fossil fuels. Economic issue, national security issue, technological issue - it's all of these. But fundamentally, global warming is a moral problem, and it calls for a moral response.
To take what we need to support our profligate lives, and leave a ransacked and destabilized world for our grandchildren is not worthy of us as moral beings. To let the world slip away - the starfish and sea anemones, the green and fecund marshland, the glacial streams - to let it slip way, because we're too busy, or too comfortable to change, is a sin against creation. And when a corporation, in order to further increase profits that are already unimaginably immense - when a corporation, as part of its business plan, knowingly destroys the conditions of flourishing life on Earth? That is moral monstrosity on a cosmic scale.
My response is moral outrage, an outrage as deep as the depth of my love for the future generations wading wide-eyed in the intertidal life, and for the life itself, the heaps and networks of glorious green and striving things. In this book, I want to make clear why it's flat-out wrong to wreck the world. And I want to become clear about what my responsibilities to the world and its hopeful, grinning children call me to do. We, all of us, are called to gather the moral clarity and courage to confront the changes that are already upon the world, even as the winds grow stronger, the waves grow steeper, and the courses forward are obscure, dangerous, and sometimes strangely beautiful.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, of the Buddha, "The real power...was that he had so much love. He saw people trapped in their notions of small separate self, feeling guilty or proud of that self and he offered revolutionary teaching that resounded like a lion's roar, a great rising tide, helping people to wake up and break free from the prison of ignorance." That's what the world must do now -- summon from every voice, the lion's roar; gather from the seven seas, the great rising tide, to stop the final plunder and wreck of the world.
For ten years, I have been writing and speaking about the warming planet, the violent fluxes of wind and water, the fitful climate and acidifying seas, about habitat destruction and extinction, about the call to life. In the summers, I study and write in a cabin beside a tidal flat on Chichagof Island in southeast Alaska. In the other months, I'm in the thick of things, speaking with community activists, interviewers, university workshops, radio shows, students, and symposia of all sorts about the moral urgency of the environmental emergencies. This book is a culmination of a decade of thinking and speaking about a moral response to the devastation of the planet's life-supporting systems.
By training and profession, I am a philosopher; my work is to think as clearly as I can about humanity's role on the planet and the moral responsibilities that come with that role, responsibilities to our own humanity, to fellow beings, to the future. By lineage and inclination, I am a naturalist and nature essayist; my work is to celebrate the glorious world -- every purple starfish and barnacle -- and to grieve their disappearance. By choice and good fortune, I am a mother and now a grandmother; my work is to push back against those who would, for the sake of profit, squander it all and leave only a plundered world for those who come next.
So this book weaves abstract reflection and felt experience, much the way a river weaves its current through the stones and sluices of its riverbed. Ideas expressed in philosophical discourse, and experience expressed in personal essays, together tell a story of why I cannot, will not, sit by and watch the world go away.
There is debate in western philosophy as to whether moral decisions should be based on rational calculation or on the moral sentiments, emotions such as pity, generosity, love and anger. The debate seems useless to me. We need both: clear, honest, razor-edged reasoning and the emotions against which we measure their conclusions. One might say, we need a conversation between mind and heart, reason and feeling, clarity and courage. Our challenges are too great to use only part of our capacities to address them. Our gifts are too great to waste or ignore. The peril of the world calls us to analyze, observe, test, speculate, reason, but also to grieve, celebrate, imagine, regret, fear, abhor, hope, and to act.
It matters to speak clearly of all this. Contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor wrote, "articulacy has a moral point, not just correcting what may be wrong views but also in making the force of an ideal that people are already living by more palpable, more vivid for them; and by making it more vivid, empowering them to live up to it in fuller and more integral fashion." I think so too.
And so this book is written for an extensive and important audience, people who are trying to live by their ideals, this assemblage of clear-voiced people who care about the world. My purpose is to help them find words for their caring and reasons for their resolve.
So here is what I have been thinking and feeling as I stand in rubber boots in a sloshing tide, searching for a healthy starfish. How can one address the hard questions of a storm-threatened time: What should I do? Who should I be? How can one celebrate and love this glittering world, even as it becomes a sickened and dangerous thing? What can be said in response to the arrogance and illogic of those who would wreck the world? What are the words to say to people who deeply care, words that will help them move forward with new joy, courage, and integrity? How did human decisions create the climate emergencies, and how might new thinking take advantage of this last chance for civilization to start again and get it right this time? And this most important question, How can people come together in the one thing that has the power to change history - a great rising wave of moral outrage at the plunder and the wreckage, and an affirmation of a better way?
Because the looming environmental emergencies present a moral crisis, they call the citizens of the world to our best and highest humanity. Climate change is a violation of human rights on an unimaginable scale. It is a failure of reverence for all the lives, the creatures of land and sea that are striving to continue. It is a violation of justice, casting the burdens of corporate profligacy on those who will never enjoy its benefits. It is a betrayal of the children. It is also a chance, perhaps a last chance, to redeem the promise of humanity, the evolved awareness in a soft body that from the time it draws its first breath, seeks to love and be loved.
Because they are a moral crisis, global warming and extinction are also a crisis of the imagination. The world can't fight its way out of this. We have to think our way out. This will require as great an exercise of the human imagination as the world has ever seen. The clever minds of the hominid will have to re-invent not just light bulbs and electric cars. Rather, we will have to re-invent ourselves, we humans, thinking in entirely new ways about who we are and how we will preserve the best of our humanity as the world in which we evolved becomes something else entirely.
Finally, climate change is a crisis of character. We people of this decade, by some terrible chance, are the ones who are witness to the end of one world and the beginning of another. Maybe none of us would have chosen this time to be alive. The decisions we make in the next few years will decide if we will, or will not, redeem a just and thriving planet. As the world we know goes away, we are called to courage, not only to face down the coal trains and corporate bullies, but to face into the wind, to keep moving forward on a course that has no predictable destination, across waters with hidden, changing shoals. We are called to integrity, to do what we believe is right, even if it has little prospect of success. And we are called to love - fiercely, maybe futilely, acting always in defense of what we love too much to lose.
As the tide runs out, past the blue mussels to the great slabs of kelp, my grandson walks the high tide-line, looking for treasures. The tide has rolled a many-stranded rope from kelp stipes, eelgrass, gulls' wings, clam shells--whatever the sea has carried. He brings me a shiny green stone and a deer's femur, and then something I have never seen before.
It's a chalky white disk, as light and patterned as if it had been tatted. From a central disk about the size of a quarter, raised ridges radiate out like petals and then abruptly stop. I turn it over in my hand. In fact, the whole thing is about the size of my hand, and there are twenty-one of those ridges. Clearly organic. Radially symmetrical. Beautiful as a bone. The lacy exoskeleton of some astonishing new creature? My grandson touches it to his cheek. Then I know what it is, and I have to sit down on the sand.
This is the sun-dried central disk of a giant sunflower seastar (Pycnopodia helianthoides) after its twenty-one legs have broken off and crawled away to die, killed by starfish wasting disease. What a glorious creature, I think but do not say, to have died such a death. What an improbable creature it once was. Gooey and heavy, sometimes a meter across, stubbled with spines like the grey chin of an old man, the sunflower seastars creep after prey on 128,000 tube feet, slithering maybe a meter every minute. When they are stressed, they can shed their legs, a process that emits a chemical that warns of danger. How shimmering with menace the very seawater must have been on the day this creature died.
It is important to say this: There are many things worth saving. No matter what happens, there are many things worth saving. The Earth is filled, it is populated, it is shivering, with lives of beauty and astonishment - what a child's hand holds, and the hand itself, and the reverence in the hand's careful holding. The fate of these lives is not a matter of indifference or of economic expediency alone. These lives are the glorious, irreplaceable, priceless consequence of the creativity of the universe over fourteen billion years. Now that humans have taken on the role of Earth-changer, we take on as well the responsibilities of celebration, protection, and ferocious love.
Kathleen Dean Moore
Chichagof Island, Alaska