First published in the Huffington Post, September 8th, 2015
Since Julius Caesar pronounced his famous words, “Veni, Vidi, Vici” — “I came, I saw, I conquered” — it has been the mantra for financial progress, military victory, and sexual success.
But a few months ago, Pope Francis eloquently and convincingly called for a different relationship to our common home: “Each community can take from the bounty of the earth…but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” Many other spiritual and secular leaders have echoed his sentiments.
As a secular Jewish fan of the Pope, and with a big dash of chutzpah, I’d summarize his proposed paradigm as follows:
Veni, vidi, vigilo.
I came, I saw, I protect.
“Veni, Vidi, Vici” has delivered us to the precipice of a planet where chaos looms. Conquering and dominating nature guides most commerce and development in the world. From Arizona to Dubai, we build where there is no food and water as if we can just overcome the problem, and eat and consume goods as if they are inexhaustible resources useful for our pleasure and convenience alone.
There is another way.
Veni, vidi, vigilo demands that we notice our surroundings, both natural and manmade, and take responsibility for our place in the picture. “Vigilo” in Latin has two meanings: “I protect” and “I keep watch.” Just as eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, keeping watch over our common home is the price of our survival. This new paradigm holds the keys to a habitable planet where plenty has a new meaning and our children and grandchildren have a shot at a stable world.
Winona LaDuke, the Native American leader, defines a warrior as “one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves and above all, the children, the future of humanity.” Almost every moral code, religious and secular, implores us to claim this responsibility — to be ferocious protectors, as opposed to ferocious conquerors. It’s not always so easy.
But surprising protectors have emerged in recent years. A few examples are in the IT industry. The data centers that power, inform and govern our lives use huge quantities of energy, over 10% of global electricity usage. Google, Facebook and Apple are all investing their time, money, and political capital in moving rapidly to 100% clean energy. Their just rewards are predictable costs, as well as stable energy sources for a future where fossil fuels will be expensive or unavailable.
In addition, some more unusual suspects have taken exceptional steps. This is not a fantasy column that pronounces multinationals as benign world saviors. But credit is due for those that step up to protect instead of conquer, at least in some areas. McDonald’s, working with Greenpeace, led the moratorium on soy from newly deforested land in the Amazon in 2006. Interface Carpet, the world’s largest carpet company, used biomimicry to create its signature modular carpet products that have eliminated nearly all of its landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions. And in the health industry, the exemplar of a corporation stepping up remains CVS’s 2014 decision to step away from the sale of cigarettes, a $2 billion annual revenue hit. All of these companies still need massive changes. But they have each in their own way moved outside their comfort zones on behalf of our common home.
And in the public arena, one can never be too grateful to the Democratic and Republican United States senators (working together!) who passed the revolutionary Clean Air Act in 1970. This law remains the biggest reason the air in the United States is not as dirty as the air in India or China. And today, many of the largest school districts in the United States are beginning to collaborate through the Green Schools Alliance to transform markets and policy, shift behavior, and maintain and power buildings to the highest standards. These school districts are actually claiming responsibility for protecting the future of the children they teach. Veni, vidi, vigilo.
Somehow, all of us have to begin protecting the planet as part of daily life. From small actions (turning off switches and gizmos) to lifestyle changes (eating less meat, consuming less stuff, and commuting differently), to larger actions (long term political activism, conscious investing, and integrating environmental impacts into every financial, social, and political transaction), protecting our planet first requires connection to our planet. With the help of social media, we can make matching commitments, transforming our individual habits into massive reform.
But our most important collective action — and it’s a warrior-scale action — is to convince the fossil fuel industry, its shareholders and political stakeholders that they must change their business models, and accept that they cannot sell (and we cannot burn) trillions of dollars of assets on their books. The world is already suffering too much at the behest of these profits. The first oil company that commits to divesting (stranding many of its assets) and rebuilding itself based on renewable energy will be the company that history remembers as worthy of its value. And governments have to eliminate their hundreds of dollars of direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Instead, governments should support the complex and difficult economic transition away from fossil fuels. Only a great political and financial wind will make this happen.
In August 2015, the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change was as compelling as the Pope’s Encyclical. “But the same fossil fuels that helped us achieve most of the prosperity we see today are the main cause of climate change. Excessive pollution from fossil fuels threatens to destroy the gifts bestowed on us by God, whom we know as Allah – gifts such as a functioning climate, healthy air to breathe, regular seasons, and living oceans. But our attitude to these gifts has been short-sighted, and we have abused them. What will future generations say of us, who leave them a degraded planet as our legacy?”
We can only save our magnificent planet and habitat if we turn our ingenuity to it with full commitment and radical cooperation as warriors for the future.
Veni, vidi, vigilo.