This speech was originally delivered at Guardians’ Gala in Santa Fe on September 20, 2019

September 22, 2019

15 Minute Read

I recently asked a friend “what one thing defines Guardians?”  His immediate answer was this –  “you make people uncomfortable. “ I didn’t like that answer. I want to inspire. I want to energize. I want to activate. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable.

Then I realized… he’s right.  We do make people uncomfortable.  And that’s okay.  In fact, it’s a good thing.  And here’s why.

In a world full of suffering and injustice being comfortable is probably a vice.  Why should anyone be comfortable when so many beings, human and otherwise, are so very, very uncomfortable?  I could spend the entire evening listing them… the Joshua tree, the gray wolf, the spotted owl….or people, whether in poverty, in prison or in war-torn countries.

Still, it’s only natural to seek out comfortable positions.  Whether you’re talking about a comfy chair or a comfy political opinion. One of the most comfortable, and troubling, political opinions is that most things are either/or. Either you’re critical of our country or you’re patriotic.  Either you’re for economic growth or you’re for the environment.

I’ve been fighting that last one for years.  The truth is, the key to robust economic growth is investing in clean energy, but I assume most of you here tonight already know that.  What you may not know, is that New Mexico is the Saudi Arabia of the United States.  In fact, the bulk of New Mexico’s state funding depends on oil and gas revenues collected from the Permian basin—which is in southeastern NM and west Texas.

You may have read that New Mexico is expecting a billion dollars more than originally projected in next years’ budget, almost all of it from the Permian.  The governor wants to invest that money in early childhood education—and, just this week, free college tuition.  Which is great.  But… our dependence on oil and gas, our addiction to that toxic industry, makes me very uncomfortable.

As the executive director of WildEarth Guardians, it’s my charge to protect the environment.  And so, Guardians will be leading a bold campaign to bring an end to the era of fossil fuel extraction in the Permian.  And we’re starting by calling for a moratorium on further fracking on our public lands.

When I first thought about this campaign, I didn’t think about the programs that would be affected if we win.  I thought then, and I still think now, it won’t matter what programs children have if our planet is unlivable.

Then I thought something else — something that made me even more uncomfortable.  I have financial resources.  My kids are gonna get a great education, regardless of what programs might be affected by our campaign.  As my friend would say, I don’t have skin in the game.

But that’s where my friend would be wrong.  The thing is, I do have skin in the game.

I don’t work to protect the environment because I have a tree fetish, I work to protect the environment because I care passionately about protecting the vulnerable – whether it’s a tree, a salamander or a child — anybody’s child.

I’ve said this before, in other speeches, and I’ll say it again in the future – the fundamental political struggle throughout history is a struggle between two ideas…  should the powerful be protected from the vulnerable or should the vulnerable be protected from the powerful?  Obviously, I chose to protect the vulnerable – all the vulnerable.  I may focus on the environment in my work, but my heart is with the underdog everywhere.

I resent having to choose between two futures – one where every kid has access to early childhood education but the planet dies or one with a healthy planet and disadvantaged kids don’t have the opportunities they deserve.

Returning to the Permian.  When news broke of this financial windfall, progressive politicians were ecstatic.  I didn’t read anything even remotely balanced, like “this extra money is great, but at what cost?”  or “there’s lots of good things we could spend this money on, but I’m concerned about our contribution to the climate crisis.”  It was just, “extra money, whoo-hoo!”

You know who I really want to make uncomfortable… New Mexico’s politicians. Laziness and a lack of imagination has put us in this situation.  You can’t blame a teenager for doing bong hits all day and living off his parent’s trust fund.  But we cannot accept politicians who have lived off oil and gas money for decades without doing the hard work of nurturing new sources of revenue.  Yes, there’s been some good work done – but even if New Mexico becomes 100% renewable, we’d still have one of the largest carbon footprints of any state in the country.  Revenue from the Permian creates a comfort zone that deprives us of the motivation to seek out other sources of financing.  But the blame does not rest on politicians alone.  Their inaction isn’t possible without our apathy.  We have to hold both politicians and ourselves accountable for continuing this toxic addiction.

So let me share just a few facts about the Permian…

The Permian is now the largest oil field in the world, eclipsing those in Saudi Arabia – nearly one third of United States crude oil comes from the region.

As of this month, there were nearly 35,000 active wells in the NM portion of the Permian.

The BLM predicts over 16,000 more in the next 20 years.

Carbon emissions from the Permian could eat up more than 10 percent of the global carbon budget.  That’s the global carbon budget.

Now some facts about our kids…

New Mexico has the highest rates of childhood hunger and food insecurity in the nation

75 percent or more of New Mexico fourth graders are NOT proficient in reading or math.

Nearly a third of our high school students don’t graduate on time.

And, worst of all, one in four of New Mexico’s kids live in poverty.

Clearly, we’re letting our kids down.  But, thankfully, they’re not letting us down.

Today is a day of Global climate action, inspired by Greta Thunberg the 16 year-old from Sweden.  Millions of people walked out of their schools and workplaces to demand an end to the age of fossil fuels.  Their motto, which we should have thought of a long time ago, is  – “Our house is on fire, let’s act like it.”

I’m inspired by these young people – but I also feel ashamed.  We’re the grown-ups – we should be inspiring them.  If your house is on fire, you act quickly and with a sense of urgency.  You don’t schedule some convenient time to put the fire out, you just put it out—god damn it.

In the course of writing this speech, I have been compelled to take a long look at my own life….and I’m not doing enough—not by a long shot.

For example, I don’t drive an electric car.  I could, but I don’t.  It’s just that somewhere along the way, I don’t really remember when, I told myself, “I don’t want an electric car. But it’s ok because I ‘m fighting for change on a larger scale.”

But it’s not okay.  I can’t compartmentalize – we can’t compartmentalize anymore.

I don’t ask myself, every time I get on a plane, “is this trip absolutely necessary?”  “Do I absolutely need to go to Denver to meet with staff when I could do a video call?”  I’ve also heard about a personal carbon budget, but I dismissed the idea.  My thinking was, “it won’t really make a difference.”  The thing is it would make a difference.  I just didn’t want to do it.

So that’s my hypocrisy. What’s yours?

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer believed at our core people are not rationale. He wrote something profound, something that bears directly on what I’m talking about. He wrote: “We do not want a thing because we have found reasons for it, we find reasons for it because we want it.”  Put another way we cloak our desires in rationalizations. I’m done rationalizing.

I’m sure everyone in this room thinks what we want is to end the climate crisis. But do we want it enough?  Do we want it more than the thousand little things that make our lives …. Comfortable?  Do we want it enough to make a personal sacrifice?  By really examining the distinction between what we want and what we need.

For my own part I am going to demand of lot more of myself.  And I’m going to ask the same of you.

Sacrificing things you like may sound as if I’m asking a lot — but the truth it’s really the bare minimum. In fact, that’s not all I’m asking.  I’m not only asking you to make personal change I also want you to join Guardians to create political change. Stand up, speak out, and, most importantly, show up.

I know if you do what I’m asking you’re definitely going to be uncomfortable. And that’s not a bad thing.

As I said at the beginning I didn’t like the idea that Guardians makes people uncomfortable. You know what, now I love it.  I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s because nothing great ever gets accomplished without people being uncomfortable. It’s the necessary condition for any transformative change. And for 30 years Guardians has been all about transformative change. And nothing short of transformative change is going to save the planet.

So let’s all grab a bucket. And let’s put this fire out.

John Horning

About the Author

John Horning | Executive Director, WildEarth Guardians

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