This story is the first one I know, it’s who I am and why I’m drawn to this work. Really, it’s a sketchy outline of the one I’ll be telling for the next 4 years, the story of people standing up when action calls and facing the problems of tomorrow.
I grew up skiing at a small double-peak in Central Oregon called Willamette Pass. Its low elevation has always made for slushy snow and early springs, and a lot of people end up driving on by in search of better snow. That never mattered much to me, though. When I was young, lift tickets were an expense that was hard to justify for my parents. They spent their honeymoon cross-country skiing in the Sierra Nevada. They enjoy the hard work of skiing, the solitude, the time to think. They may never realize how close downhill skis can come to the gift of human flight. On a more practical level, downhill skiing is easily twice as expensive as cross-country, and as a young family, we were lucky to be able to afford even a few weekends away. So the quality of the snow (or lack thereof) didn’t matter so much to me. Every day up there was a novelty that would leave me floating.
My opportunity to get out skiing more came in early high school, when I was admitted to a youth program of the local ski patrol. When I think back, what first comes to mind isn’t the skiing, but the ritual: the anticipation of the daily snow report, clothes layed out the night before, the smell of hot wax in the burning cold air of the garage. Then the stupefaction of the 5a.m. wakeup and the sleepy warmth of the director’s colossal red truck, the vision of the untouched mountain through the trees, the sudden proud professionalism of a morning meeting, and then finally, at long last, the thrum of the chairlift’s diesel, the scramble to the lift line.
Nearly half the upper mountain was taken up by a tree-filled run called SDN, or “steep, deep, and narrow.” Not many people really loved that idea the way my friends and I did, so every bit of fresh snow would be ours. We’d roll off the lift, giddy, follow the path into the hidden side of the mountain, and ski till we couldn’t see tracks. Then we’d stand there, hesitate, and listen to a world on mute.
There’s no white noise in a snow-filled forest, no wind, no chairlift machinery, no echo. Every noise passes through the air once and is finished.
We’d shift slightly and drop through that world, our minds quiet too, doing only what we needed to sweep long arcs in the snow.
The patrollers came from a wide range of political backgrounds, but no-one ignored the world that they lived in, what they saw every weekend. I joined in 2007, one of the first years when changing weather patterns affected the ski season. The adults spoke rarely of the late snow pack and the erratic storms, and only with closer friends, but in the timbre of their voices was the jolting decline of an institution many had been serving more than half their lives.
This last season, the mountain only opened for two days, and then only on the lower mountain. Even the 5-day passes had to be refunded. There were no powder days, no silence amongst the trees, no kids flying down SDN.
The droughts aren’t lost somewhere off in the hills, though. The absence of rain in Oregon is not something that goes unnoticed or unmourned. In my hometown, when the long sunny days of summer draw down into the first rains of fall, and you go out to walk along the river to let tension seep from your shoulders into the light, free air, you know you’ll meet others. They’ll be out running, biking, dancing. And you know you’ll see in the way their smiles get away from them that they too have been waiting for this day.
The mountains where I grew up are called the Cascades. In their very name is a dream of frigid glacier melt crashing over obsidian cliffs, of mist-fed moss, of forests as old as the last ice age. But in Oregon, like California, climate disruption is pushing ecosystems to their limits. Droughts run the rivers dry, turning ancient trees and saplings into kindling for wildfires and disrupting the healthy cycle of burning and regrowth. Pine beetles decimate whole forests, their habitat expanded by the unusual weather patterns. Climate change threatens industry and ecosystem, livelihood and home.
That’s where I come from. Just like everyone my home will be forever altered by climate change.
I’m sure we’ll adapt, we always do, but what will we lose in the process? Climate change has already contributed to the crises in Somalia and Syria. It will continue to convert injustice to crisis all over the world, and will hurt the poorest of us the most, those who don’t have the means to adapt. Mitigation is a necessity, and time is ticking ever down. An era of relative plenty could be ending as grain yields plateau, and water becomes more scarce. In the end, we don’t know how much more time we have to stem the spread of scarcity, but it’s not a lot. Time is, for now, our scarcest resource.
If this picture puts a well of despair in your stomach, look again. There is still ample cause for hope. We have workable solutions just waiting to be put to work. Drastic climate action won’t just promote justice, it’s the first step away from a path of destruction and decline, and the next step toward a world of more genuine equality.
And the truly exciting thing is, we’re already tending toward the better path.
People from all races, creeds, geographies and social classes are changing the way they live, right now. They’re starting to exist in ways that cooperate with each other and the world around them, ways that allow them to prosper more equitably and stably than economic growth ever did. In many ways, in many places, we’re still stuck at the crossroads, lost in the thrall of more things and false pragmatism, but in others we’re already well on our way to the next generation of social change.
Where are these people, you might ask? This isn’t the environmentalism of the 70s, they’re not going back to nature. They’re in cities and towns and farms across America, and even more so, around the world. They’re getting into “the good kind of trouble,” as John Lewis would say, they’re building responsibility into the core of new businesses, they’re putting real thought into their consumption. Generally, they’re just living their lives, but doing it in a way that reflects our changing world.
But to most of America, these change-makers are invisible. Our newspapers and television networks don’t pay them much mind. Old narratives rule, ones that don’t take into account the new data we’ve gathered since the end of the cold war.
That’s why I’ve started 360bybike.com. For the next four years, I’m going to act as a conduit for climate action as I travel one circumference of the earth by bike. Starting in Asia where I’m currently working as a teacher, I’ll make my way to Europe and Africa, and then North America and South America.
A map of my tour:
- Southern China–I will bike 2,500 km across China in the summer of 2015
- North Silk Road and the Mediterranean–Beginning in the Spring of 2016, I will bike from Central Asia to Europe, then south through Iberia and Morocco
- The Americas–In this third and final phase, my sister and I (and potentially others) will bike south through the Americas, beginning at the Arctic Sea and biking south to the Andes, then heading southeast through Brasil and Argentina to Cape Horn, and finally northward along the Carretera Austral, ending the adventure in Vaparaíso, Chile
Along the way, I want to highlight the fundamental change that is taking place in communities around the world. I want to help communicate the sudden pull of action that happens when you realize that a better world is again possible, is in fact around the corner if only we choose the right path.
People’s lives and livelihoods are every day more disrupted by climate change. But even with some of the most powerful, entrenched interests in the world against them, everyday people are working, fighting, dedicating their lives to stopping climate change. And against all odds, slowly, surely, they’re making progress. 360bybike will tie this rising tide of people closer as we together organize community actions and events along my route, and as we join a global network working for solutions to the problems we see. I’ll gather the energy and creativity of people I meet, in interviews, stories, and art collaborations that show the raw force and courage of this movement. And while I hope these stories will raise questions and change minds, I’ll try to contribute more concretely to climate action by raising $10,000 for 350.org.
A new generation of change makers are looking for the path at the intersection of pragmatism and idealism. This project will try to share their knowledge, their experience and their dedication, in a way that will nucleate action.
There are a lot of ways to take the first step, and it’s easier once you build some momentum:
- Educate yourself: Once you know what’s going on, and what’s likely to happen within our lifetimes, it’s hard not to act. Books I recommend: Plan B 4.0 By Lester Brown—written by the pioneer of the concept of sustainability, this book lays it all out in clear, easy language, and gives practicable policy solutions. Illuminating and inspiring. (also Free!). America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy—this one is US-centric, but clearly outlines the path toward a better-not-more economy. For Climate Change news, I love Climate Nexus‘ daily news update. I try to tweet several articles a day as well.
- Help me raise $2,500 for 350.org by September: This is where I most directly need your support. I’m financing this trip by my Chinese teaching salary alone, hoping that I’ll be able to get by on $5/day for room and board (lots of camping, rice, and beans). 350.org is the vanguard of the climate movement, and any donation to them is an investment in a sustainable future. Can you donate $50? $20? $5? Anything you can do will make a difference. Donate here—80 cents of every dollar go to 350.org, but this method saves them processing fees. I was initially pointed to climateride.org by someone at 350.org.
- Get out there and change minds. Connect with your local 350 group, find out what they’re doing, get out, change minds, make news, fight for climate justice or whatever sort of justice you see fit. Democracy doesn’t end on election day. We have to be loud and convincing every day of every year.
- Look at your own life. Consumerism and unregulated capitalism have failed us. Learn what you can do to minimize your footprint, stop wasting, and invest in the future. Divest or become a shareholder activist. Go local. Go vegan or grass-fed. These are things we all need to do to live within our means.
And, of course, my website. I’ll post here periodically, sometimes weekly, often more, sometimes less. If you have any thoughts, feedback, or questions, or would like to contribute in other ways, you can also get in contact with me there. Website
Finally, spread the word! If our stories are gonna have an impact, they need an audience. If you know anyone who you think would be interested in reading or collaborating, please take a moment to share this letter or the above links.
For more on ways you can contribute to this project, check out my “Support” page.
All the best, Forrest