Reflections on the Sept 21 Climate Change March

This essay comes to us from NYC Parks Forester Bill Schmidt. Bill is a Certified Arborist who coordinates urban forestry for the Greening Western Queens project. 

NYC Forester Bill Schmidt
NYC Forester Bill Schmidt

Last Sunday, September 21, 2014, I joined over 300,000 of my fellow human beings in Manhattan for the largest climate change march in history. I was delightfully overwhelmed by the incredible turnout and the diversity of the participants.

There were young people, senior citizens, middle-aged Gen Xers like myself, faith-based organizations (I was marching next to a lovely group of elderly nuns), Native and African American groups, and organizations representing a variety of issues not directly related climate change who were marching out of solidarity.

It was a truly inspiring experience. During the march, I thought about what climate change meant to me as a forester, a father, and a global citizen. When I returned to the office Monday morning, a colleague suggested that I should encapsulate these thoughts about the march and share them with others in my field. So, here is my attempt to express how I felt in eight paragraphs or less.

Please forgive me if it’s too grandiose, but the complexity and global nature of climate change—the premise of the march—gave me some pretty grand thoughts about what we can do in our professional and personal lives that can make a difference. The march also had me questioning some of the ways we approach the issue, and it brought home the awareness that we can’t do it alone.

Photo by Robert van Waarden, courtesy of   Survival Media Agency (survivalmediaagency.com.)
Photo by Robert van Waarden, courtesy of
Survival Media Agency (survivalmediaagency.com.)

Perhaps I’m being naive or overly optimistic, but I felt that maybe, just maybe, the movement may have finally reached critical mass. It could be the tipping point we’ve been hoping for that might lead to real action on climate change. We’ll only know this in retrospect. Years from now we might look back and say, “That was the moment when enough people said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and we started to take real action on climate change.” Or maybe it will be just a tiny footnote in protest history.

If we just go home, turn on the TV, and go back to business as usual, it will mean nothing. However, if we look at past movements, like the civil rights and anti-war movements, it only took a relatively small percentage of the population to convince everyone else to question their collective complacency and take action. The feeling at the march that another world is possible was undeniably palpable, but how do we get there?

It’s a complicated question, as we are all part of the problem. Environmental activist Bill Mckibben once said, “Tackling climate change has been like building a movement against yourself.” That speaks to the complexity of the issue—how we all contribute to climate change by participating in even the most mundane 21st-Century activities. But the opposite is also true: we can all be part of the solution.

As a father of two, I’m very aware of the need for action. Every time I read a story, hear a podcast, or see a documentary on climate change, I have to ask myself, “What kind of planet will we leave our children?” Which inevitably leads to, “What can I do?”

I think I can safely assume that most of the people reading this blog are working for the environment. I’ve been working as a forester for the City of New York for seven years in the street trees planting division. For the past two years, I’ve been working on a special project, “Greening Western Queens,” that connects community groups to trees through stewardship and tree care.

I also volunteer as tree committee member for the Village of Nyack, a small town in the lower Hudson Valley that I’ve called home for over two years now. I get an enormous sense of satisfaction making a living doing something I love: transforming one of the world’s largest urban centers, one neighborhood at a time, into a cleaner, greener environment to live and work.

No one goes into this field for the money; most of us are likely motivated by a different kind of green. There are many reasons to choose an environmental career. Creating beauty, which I think everyone should try to do every day in some way, is a good enough reason in and of itself. Perhaps the unifying theme to our career choice is a desire to change the world, albeit in a small way, for the better.

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But does it make a difference? While planting trees is a good thing, it’s certainly not the only thing. I don’t want to oversimplify the answer to a complex problem. There is no one thing, or magic bullet, that will solve the problem. I read a New York Times opinion piece recently criticizing tree planting as the answer to climate change. Without going into specifics regarding the validity of the article, the takeaway message for me was that it will take a lot more than just planting trees to solve the problem.

I also hope that I’m not coming off as self-righteous, with an exaggerated view of my contributions to this global problem. I’m just one of many foresters in my division, and one of millions of other people working in the environment. I’m aware that my contribution to the solution, in a world of 8 billion and counting, is almost nonexistent.

And I know I could do more in my personal life to lower my carbon footprint. I’m a typical American who leaves his air-conditioned house in the suburbs to drive to work in his gasoline-powered automobile. Even though the air conditioner is energy efficient, I carpool with a fellow forester, and my car gets 30 mpg, it’s nowhere near enough to stop climate change. Just because I have an environmentally friendly career doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do more personally—and politically— to fight climate change. I guess we could all become better activists.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the work that needs to be done, for us to feel like we don’t matter in the face of such an enormous problem, to feel small and insignificant and that our choices don’t make a difference. We all studied hard in school and worked hard to develop our careers in the environment, so it can be disheartening to think that even after all of our sacrifices, we’re just an island in an ocean of trouble. I know I can fall into despair from time to time when faced with such adversity. But after marching side by side with so many committed, empowered individuals from all walks of life, I left the march feeling reinvigorated with a new sense of hope and purpose.

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Even if the march had no impact whatsoever on the powers that be, maybe it’s more important that it had an impact on us. We like to think that only politicians or U.N. officials wield influence. While that may be true on an individual basis, think of all the people we influence in our own lives: friends, family, coworkers, etc. Each person creates a ripple effect that can spread far beyond our fingertips.

An environmental career can make difference, but it will take everyone from every field working together to solve this problem. Everyone has something to offer. We don’t need to have all the answers right now to know that we have a problem, to know that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing and expect the world to miraculously change for the better.

Are we going to solve the problem by just planting more trees? No. Are we going to solve the problem by just driving a Prius or shopping at Whole Foods? Of course not. Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the march was seeing so many people with so many different backgrounds standing together to remind each other that we’re all in this together. Just doing one thing individually won’t change anything, but doing many things collectively just might.

At the end of the march, I noticed a placard that captured how I felt about the event: “To Change Everything, We’ll Need Everyone.”

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