My Day With Al Gore

Guest Writer
8 April ,2014

by Kristin Muthui

One thing that is becoming very clear, as people continue to argue about climate change and its impact on society, is that if we want to change the situation, we need to address inequality before it threatens our way of life.

On a global level, this manifests itself in the strange mechanisms that have been developed to solve the problem. For example, getting people in rural Africa and Asia to stop using firewood for cooking and start using ‘efficient’ stoves and switching to bio pellets and solar energy cookers, while companies continue to dig for oil, run huge industries on coal and encourage rich countries to consume even more.

Climate scientists have started talking about doomsday scenarios, or what we can call the “Easter Island theory” – where an entire civilization collapses because the ecosystem was completely destroyed. It has happened over and over again in history – even in Africa – with the Rozi, Great Zimbabwe, the Egyptians, and the Romans.

Developed countries will be shielded from the worst of the damage caused by climate change – they have purchasing power and strong systems. But again, as more and more people fail to be able to survive, the chickens will eventually come home to roost.

This brings me back to the Climate Reality leadership training I recently attended. It was wonderful. We listened to inspiring men and women, such as Wanjiru Mathai, who spoke to us about climate related challenges facing Africans today, and how they are mobilizing communities with practical solutions that tackle both climate change and social injustice to improve their lives.

Then we had a full day with Al Gore, who is famous for bringing issue of climate change to ordinary people when he released his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. He has continued to encourage ordinary individuals to agitate for change through their personal networks and within their communities. The man oozes optimism and charisma, and has only one message to sell: Every individual has a personal obligation to fight against climate change, especially because the survival of the human race depends on it.

I was inspired by the young African entrepreneurs that came to speak to us. Two in particular caught my attention, as they were both from East Africa.

These boys share many similarities – they both grew up in the rural areas, and both spotted problems in their villages that they wanted to solve. One got the chance to go to university, the other did not. Both are successful entrepreneurs today, providing renewable energy (solar panels and lamps) to rural Africans.

We all know or have heard of people like these who beat incredible odds to make something out of themselves. They may not be billionaires or in power, but they have managed to lift themselves out of poverty, got themselves an education and are now fully functioning, confident members of society.

This is an example of the kind of Africa we live in. On one hand, you have people like me – urban, well-educated and obsessed with acquiring stuff, criticizing Western media for making Africa look like a shit hole and aspiring (consciously or unconsciously) to live up to what I imagine are Western ideals.

I don’t have any creative ideas to solve challenges in my society – I’m too busy fighting to get my little trappings – a nice phone, a good job, maybe even a nice car.

On the other hand, you have the rest of our population – disenfranchised, facing basic problems such as how to get food on the table, how to go to school and keep surviving in an environment that seems to crush you at every turn.

Like many Africans, I am keenly aware of this divide – but I am not sure how to bridge it. It can be awkward for us in many ways – for example, the misconception that I am somehow arrogant and feel myself superior for what was given to me without a day’s effort in my life.

Some of it is the fear that I will be perceived as arrogant and conceited by my less fortunate peers. I also imagine the sense of inadequacy some people may face. Because as much as our society is divided along tribal lines, we all know that the “money vs non-money” is much more pervasive.

“For them, it is about doing something to make them feel good. But for us it is about survival.”

This is what one young man running a youth group explained to me.

I knew what he meant. That the boy who started a business selling solar panels did not do it because he wanted to change the world – he did it because he needed to make money.

On one hand, middle class young people have education and intangible resources such as networks, access to information and strong role models to shape their safe little dreams. On the other hand, young people in rural areas and disadvantaged urban areas have the great ideas and the tenacity to bring them to life, simply because it is sink-or-swim for them.

What would happen if we brought ourselves together and united as young people, instead of rigidly separating ourselves based on the achievements of our parents? What if we actually came together – masters of social media and Twitter activism – with the folk willing and ready to go out and protest in the streets?

What kind of awesome ideas would come forth from this more open society? And what does this have to do with Al Gore and climate change?

Fighting for a more just society is intrinsically linked to fighting for a more sustainable society. But coming together, and no longer hiding behind clever social media updates and wordy blog posts, is critical if we want to see any kind of change.

There is a deep cynicism that has overtaken the youth, not only in Kenya but in Africa as a whole. We would rather talk about how society will never change and how our politicians will be forever corrupt. We think that we are being clever with this kind of thinking but the truth is we have disempowered ourselves.

Someone made an interesting comment recently: That young people in the world today are in a kind of ‘Animal Farm’ exercise. We criticize the system not because we hate it, but because we long to be a part of it and resent being excluded. We haven’t ‘owned’ our generation yet.

What can we do about it?

The easiest and most comfortable thing is to start changing the discussion. It is happening already. Kenyans on Twitter, when not launching scathing attacks on random objects, are a force to reckon with. Food drives, searching for missing people, raising funds, they can really do it all.

So why not start a new discussion? A discussion about what we can start doing today? Why not encourage each other instead of perpetually encouraging negativity?

The next step follows naturally. Organising ourselves for our causes using existing organisations or by creating new ones. Getting out there and roping in our friends and family to our cause.

Finally, when we have critical mass, we can stand as one voice and do the unimaginable – demand that our governments respect us and do as we demand.

The truth is, I did not need Al Gore to tell me that climate change is real. But I did need him to remind me that I have a responsibility to be part of the solution to our generation’s problems, because no one else will do it for me.

Kristin is particularly sensitive to environmental and social issues. She has a degree in Business Management that she doesn’t use and hopes to make a real contribution to climate change solutions someday in the future. Follow her on Twitter @mumbiwairimu

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