America ain’t heavy, she’s my brother
It was 11h40 am Wednesday on the isle of Mauritius when Bloomberg broke the news that Donald Trump would be the next president of America. I was on my way to the lobby to check out from the Sofitel Hotel. It was nominally a business trip, but ultimately it was about finding a balance again after fifteen intense years in the climate movement. How to not completely expend every fibre on something so big and multi-dimensional? How to find a way to pull back and regenerate without joining those who lock the door behind them when they reach their dwellings in secure estates and escape from poverty, crisis, and the brotherhood of humankind?
The first whatsapp message from an activist friend in Cape Town landed seconds later. Stunned as if just rising from the canvas after a massive blow to the temple, I had time to reply that it probably meant millions of people would lose their lives due to increased climate impacts and that I was looking for the positives, but struggling. Then I was in the lobby, suppressing an intense rage that was somewhat unsettling. My co-traveller thought he’d agreed with the company doing the airport transfer that the driver could stop on the way so he could quickly sign a business document, but as we entered the minibus, the driver disagreed. His boss was phoned again, language barriers intervened and my rage kept building as the driver’s boss put the phone down on my colleague in the middle of a sentence. The driver was trying to divert our attention with small-talk: “Is it your first time on the island….ah was the weather nice?” He was starting the car, putting it into gear, promising he would call back his boss along the way. But I could see he just wanted to get going and let our plan evaporate.
That’s when, contrary to my usual patience, I exploded. “I DON’T WANT TO GO WHERE YOU’RE TAKING ME!”, I half shouted at him, jerked open the sliding door and exiting the slowly moving vehicle so he could not continue on his way. Steaming, I walked away and sat down under a tree, feeling foolish.
When I reached home in Johannesburg in the evening, I was still angry and depressed, and I slept badly. It felt like the Paris Agreement was in tatters, as if multilateralism was slowly collapsing into war, as if all my work of more than a decade and that of many others had come to nothing. In the very early morning, half awake, I started to understand. The minibus had been planet earth, the driver and his boss had been Donald Trump and the Americans, the destination was one of irrevocable climate change and an unfixable planet. I had felt in that moment completely helpless and impotent, beholden to a joint future controlled from another continent, and it wasn’t where I wanted to go. Unable to turn the wheel or apply the brake, I’d reacted with immense anger and rage. Tried to break the bind and to exit the planet.
In the trees, just before 5 am, the birds were starting to sing, as they do on every summer day when the weather is good. I thought of Victor Frankl who discovered that even in a Nazi prisoner of war camp amongst indescribable atrocities, he always retained the power to choose how he would react to adversity. Then I realised that in climate change, there isn’t one steering wheel, there are millions. Trump’s may be directing a much bigger car, but in my corner of the world I decide what happens. My carbon footprint, my interaction with colleagues who have their hands on the levers of change. Like Frankl, I can decide how I react to the election of someone who does not intend to spend his time on climate protection.
My mind drifted off to considering my carbon footprint. The research shows Trump’s four year presidency will lead to perhaps 2 billion additional tonnes of CO2e emissions than Clinton’s would have. This is what we lost yesterday. And we were above target anyway if we added up the pledges made by countries last year. But in my corner, my neck of the woods, what can I do better? After all, in the long term, climate protection is easy. We have all the tools and they are all affordable. They’re becoming business as usual. It’s not the forty year target that is daunting, but the four year. Just like a diet – once the target weight is reached, it is easy to maintain. The challenge will an hour hence exist in the very moment, sitting down at breakfast: to eat only the calories my body needs and no more, until I reach my target weight. In very similar fashion we need to bring down our collective emissions to be within our collective carbon budget, as soon as possible – then keep it there.
It was getting light and it looked like being a beautiful Highveld day. It had been very dry, but good rain was predicted to come soon. As I realised it was nearly time to rise, a song kept wanting to come, from era when human harmony and togetherness were well understood. Something that promised to cut through Trump’s Gordian knot that had so disturbed my sleep. It hid somewhere in the subconscious, then bubbled up to where I could grab it and pull it close. A song the origin of which goes back more than a century but became a hit in 1969.
He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother
The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I'm strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain't heavy, he's my brother
So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We'll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain't heavy, he's my brother
If I'm laden at all
I'm laden with sadness
That everyone's heart
Isn't filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
It's a long, long road
It was apparently inspired by a book on the parables of Jesus telling a story of a little girl carrying a big baby boy. Seeing her struggling, someone asked if she wasn't tired. Surprised she replied, "No, he's not heavy; he's my brother.”
There is another story that a small American soldier in Vietnam, in the years after the song became a hit, carried a wounded friend for miles and miles to safety and used the same words to explain his stamina and unwillingness to relent to fatigue.
America is deeply wounded by race wars, gender wars, religious wars. It will take time to become a formidable comrade again in our global struggle to leave the children a planet they deserve. By that time, someone else will be wounded and under-performing, in need of help. This is the nature of a war. We prevail by taking turns to carry, and be carried. We can never be content to just do exactly our share.
And so, maybe for four years, we will carry her. She ain’t heavy, she’s my brother.
In the shower, I broke a bad habit of many years – allowing the pleasure of the hot water running over my body to let me stand there too long. It will take electricity to heat up the geyser again, and that electricity still comes from coal.
With the song and my wounded friend in my mind, I cut my shower time from five minutes to one.