My essay, “Thaw,” was included in the Summer 2016 issue of Camas Magazine, with the theme of REVOLUTION.
As Senior Editor for Camas Environmental Literary Magazine back in 2014-2015, I learned so much about print publication, about curating works and editorial etiquette. Camas, in my opinion, remains one of the sharpest, most beautiful environmental publications out there, and it’s featured some of the best writers in the game, along with ambitious, lesser-known authors. This summer, my essay “Thaw” was selected as a nonfiction feature. The piece is about a ten-hour sit-in demonstration I organized for the first day of the COP21 Paris Climate Talks. Below you’ll find the first two pages. Consider subscribing or gifting Camas to someone you love. It’s a vital and necessary resource for imagining new possibilities in the world, and we need this more than ever right now.
A nagging bladder causes the Congolese delegate to squirm. He tries to shift focus away from his midsection and redirect it upward, towards his head. Jetlagged from recent travels, the man’s attire covers up the fatigue: shiny, pointed shoes; socks embroidered with shapes of wildlife; white cuffs poking a quarter-inch from under a black designer suit; a platinum watch at the hinge of his wrist. The delegate’s legs reorganize from spread to crossed as he props his head up with an index finger to concentrate.
November 30th, 2015. 2:45 P.M.
La Charante Conference Hall. Le Bourget. Paris, France.
The temperature outside flirts into the sixties, atypical for winter’s eve in the City of Light. It’s day one of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the Conference of Parties, COP21, a twelve-day event attracting 38,000 participants from 190 countries to confront what many believe to be the most pressing issue of our time: a runaway climate. The delegates converge in Paris to broker a deal for acceptable global temperature rise and emission controls.
Fastened atop the conference is an enormous hardhat of security, its layers woven in Kevlar and barbed wire. The 120,000 policemen and gendarmes on duty nearly match the numbers summoned for the 1944 allied invasion of Normandy. In a way, our own bodies should be first to accept these precautions, as they too are designed for defense: ribcage for the heart, skull for the brain, and twenty square feet of skin to keep it all from spilling onto the sidewalk.
But COP21 security is different. It’s exhaustive, with reinforced walls and rooms guarded by thousands, all watching, listening and sniffing, while still tasting the metallic tang of vengeance following terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 dead only weeks ago. COP21 enters its first day as a janitor crew at the Bataclan Concert Hall wire-scrubs purple bloodstains from General Admission.
High above the cleaning crew, thin-nosed drones fly by with their rotating cameras, while anti-aircraft missiles point in all directions. Beyond the drones, satellites hover stationary like caddisflies at dusk to watch every movement from space. The surveilled include not only delegates but the thousands of climate activists nearby, recently informed of France’s State of Emergency, that all public demonstrations are banned.
Despite this prohibition, the world marched. Over the previous two days, three quarters of a million people in 175 countries marched in 2,300 events. In London, 50,000. In Sydney, 45,000. In Madrid, 20,000. A teacher from the Marshall Islands, a South Pacific nation drowning from sea level rise, walked on stage in London to read a poem for her daughter in front of thousands. In Nanyuki, Kenya, hundreds of citizens marched along the equator. In Chile, a group shuffled in solidarity across a glacier near the country’s southern tip.
Paris had been muzzled, but the world hadn’t.
A fractured sun drops behind the city’s arrondiseements, twenty districts that spiral numerically clockwise out from the city’s navel—the Louvre. Light bounces off high-rise windows from the financial district to the north, its skyscrapers peering into the cuts and curls of Paris’ Hausmannian architecture so revered by the romantic, the revolutionary, and the poet.
But COP21 isn’t poetic. If it’s attempting to be, the stanzas don’t work. The metaphors don’t pop; they read clunky and synthetic. Most delegates don’t exude the passion Parisian lovers might. They don’t smell of cognac and cigarettes but more like dry-cleaning and hand sanitizer. Plastered along these conference hallways is a different type of poetry, the sharp-fonted edge of corporate song. BNP Paribas, a French multinational bank and one of the largest in the world, has billions of investment dollars in coal-fired plants. Another, Engie, is Europe’s largest importer of natural gas. Other sponsors include Coca-Cola, BMW, and Dow Chemicals. It’s as if Budweiser and Coors were sponsoring a Mother’s Against Drunk Driving convention.
The Congolese man leaves and returns to his seat holding a hot beverage. His shoes squeak at each step. A few heads swivel. Perhaps he doesn’t worry about his brief absence because there are 300 other colleagues from the Democratic Republic of Congo in attendance, all focusing on piped-in translations of the current speaker on stage.
At least this is how I imagine it all going.
This is how I imagine COP21 from 5,000 miles away in Missoula, Montana. This is how I imagine the single most important convergence of world leaders and activists to agree on solutions for a livable planet, the same planet I’m sitting on now, alone, cross-legged and overtaken by an uncontrollable shiver in this pre-dawn, subzero dark.