“Bearing witness is such a democratic act. Once you do it, you are complicit. You can’t just go somewhere and see something that is unjust, wrong, or unethical and not do something about it. Your voice, your heart, your feelings can really change the world.” ~ Billy Shore, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Share Our Strength
I first heard those words eight years ago at a conference and they reverberated through my head as I read Eileen Flanagan’s honest and inspirational memoir, Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope.
In recounting her “search,” Flanagan takes us from her experiences as a young Peace Corps volunteer in a small village in Botswana during the early 1980s, to February 2013 when she, Bill McKibben, and other climate change activists handcuffed themselves to the White House fence.
In between those two acts she became a Quaker, a spiritual writer, a wife, and a mother of two. As her life progressed and she moved from place to place, she went from living in a simple mud hut to a house that, as she writes, “… had more bathrooms than I could keep clean.”
At age forty-nine, her children nearly grown, she realized her life no longer aligned with her values — many of which were rooted in her early experiences in Africa. Her concerns about entering this next stage of life, and her feelings of urgency about halting climate change mirror those of many moms, myself included. She writes,
“I wanted to honor the work of parenting, but I didn’t want to disappear in it, especially now that my children were becoming increasingly independent. More to the point, it was partly my love for my children that was motivating a deep, churning desire to prevent my generation from screwing up their futures irreparably.”
As her journey towards fulfillment unfolds, a few key lessons emerge. The first —that the power to change things lies in our own hands —occurred while she was a teacher in Botswana. As Shore said, bearing witness compels us to take action. In Flanagan’s words,
“Witnessing the effects of colonialism as I traveled around the region during school vacations woke me up to the plight of the truly poor and planted the idea that things only changed when people struggled to change them. In some ways, it was what I learned in neighboring South Africa and Zimbabwe that led me to handcuff myself to the White House fence a few decades later, … it was impossible to imagine that those dispossessed by colonialism would have that injustice compounded by global warming, which I wouldn’t even hear about for another few years.”
In fact, Flanagan returned to Africa nearly thirty years later. While there, she interviewed several experts about the impacts of climate change on the region. In describing those interviews, she provides readers with a second lesson: Climate change often does the most damage to those who have contributed to it the least. According to the IPCC report, those living in Sub-Saharan Africa will likely face extreme hardships due to climate change.
In an interview with Botswana’s principal meteorologist, Flanagan learned that not only had the country’s average temperature risen, there were fewer days at the minimum temperature, and that what had once been the extreme high was no longer considered extreme. As she tells her readers,
“What had changed in the past few decades was not that people were anxious about the lack of rain — that was perennial in Botswana. It was that the weather had become unpredictable, erratic, ‘weird.’”
Flanagan ends her story by cementing another key lesson: We become stronger and more effective when we add our voice to a larger movement. After her arrest and release, Flanagan joined 40,000 other participants at the February 2013 Forward on Climate Rally. She writes that part of what had changed for her over the previous year was “being the many.”
“When I’d cried in my three-story house the previous winter, I had felt alone. Now I didn’t. I knew I was part of the many, connected to a spiritual force greater than ourselves.”
We don’t have to go as far as Africa to witness the destructive consequences of climate change. We only need to step outside our front door. And as Flanagan’s book shows us, the power to halt it is in our hands. Together, we really can change the world.