The Day the Earth Stood Up

12/17/2009 03:36 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Alongside other notable dates in history such as May 1, July 4, and September 11, we might soon have to add December 16 to the canon of pivotal moments in the lexicon of civilization. While some of these seminal dates that we remember have been reduced to caricatures of their original inspiration, D16 is very much authentic, and is doubly noteworthy as a moment when not only people but the Earth itself truly stood up.

There have of course been many precursor episodes in recent years where people took to the streets en masse to confront abstruse "leaders" and attempt to thwart their plans to plunder the planet and turn communities into commodities. Indeed, the impetus of the Global Justice (nee Anti-globalization) movement primarily has been focused on disrupting these undemocratic exercises of power, and simultaneously -- in its message and mode of organizing alike -- offering an alternative form of worldwide solidarity.

Through this process of "corruption disruption," many important gains have been made. For one, the dominant issues of our time and the agendas of multinational corporations (and their complicit governmental sponsors) have been thoroughly exposed, and people around the world are by now familiar (at least in passing) with the WTO, IMF, G8, and all the rest of the alphabet-soup elites. Creating awareness is a laudable aim of social movements, but it isn't sufficient alone to change the paradigm in a meaningful way.

No, it takes more than mere awareness of crises to fundamentally alter behavior patterns. It also takes the articulation of a vision, including concrete suggestions as to how people can still have meaningful and satisfying lives while embracing something radically new in the process. This means pointing out not only an impending disaster, but nodding toward a possible world of harmony and justice as well. In this sense, the fork in the road faced by social movements in general and those confronting climate change in particular, as Brian Tokar cogently observes in an upcoming article for Communalism, is encapsulated in the essential question of our time: "Toward utopia or apocalypse?"

Years from now, if such reckonings still exist, our children perhaps will ask us about this crossroads moment in human history. We aren't the first generation to feel that the end-times might be at hand, but likely are the first to recognize that the choice is in our hands. This is the remarkable feature of D16 that will linger in history's glare, marking that moment in time when masses gathered against apocalypse and for utopia -- or at least for moving humankind away from the brink to allow a chance for better tomorrows to come.

We can scoff at the melodrama of it all and change the channel if we like. There are myriad ways to distract our gaze and continue about business as usual. This is, indeed, what the power elite would have us do, squeezing every last dime out of the current paradigm in the hope that our technological hubris will somehow rescue us in the final scene. But what will be left in that denouement, beyond mere survival at best? An Earth denuded and despoiled, with bottled air and reclaimed water for the rich, and scant sustenance for the rest of us? Enough for the privileged few, but none for me and you?

D16 asks us to come clean, to own up to our complicity with the very forces that threaten to render us abject museum curiosities in some distant future. This is all happening in real time, and isn't a case of apocalypse delayed -- by most estimates we have mere years, not eons, before the proverbial well runs dry. The changes in the offing have already begun to be felt around the globe, from hurricanes and tsunamis to recession and repression. The noose will tighten slowly at first, but as D16 urges us to behold, a critical mass of despoliation is being reached from which no amount of scientism will be able to save us.

In many respects, the message echoed on the streets of Copenhagen mirrors that of the classic 1950s science fiction film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. There, Klaatu, the alien visitor embodying a "stranger in a strange land" messiah motif, delivers a warning to the people of Earth that they must change their destructive ways or face imminent annihilation:

"The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly.... Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."

Let's be clear here: the message of D16 isn't just about climate change, although that issue in itself certainly deserves to be in the spotlight. It's about the totality of Klaatu's prescient message, namely that we must move away from a world of aggression and violence if we are to survive. This includes, equally, the obvious violence of warfare and belligerence, the more subtle forms of poverty and dehumanization, and the even subtler forms of consumption and toxification of the environment. In this sense, it isn't only human voices and concerns being raised on D16, but those of the Earth as well.

Through its humanoid appurtenances demanding equity, justice, sanity, and opportunity, the planet speaks truth to power. We are part of the Earth, owing everything we are to it, intimately connected to its rhythms and cycles. When we speak, it speaks through us. When we move, it is moved as well. Justice for the environment is justice for ourselves, and vice-versa. Peace on Earth equals peace with the Earth. In short, when we stand up, the Earth stands with us. This is the subtext -- and, indeed, the revelation -- of D16.

Like most of you reading this, I wasn't able to be in Copenhagen for the critical events of D16. I couldn't be there to add my voice on-site to those demanding a serious course correction to the arc of civilization's evolution -- but I can join the chorus now from half a world away, as can you. The dialogue that raged in earnest on wintry Danish streets will continue, and, as David Rovics reminds us in his keenly atmospheric account of the scene on the ground there, "the future is not written." At the end of the day, on the heels of D16 and inspired by its lessons, we shall be its authors if there is to be a future at all.

One need not be a science fiction aficionado to appreciate the inherent dramatic tensions at this pivotal point in the unfolding drama of human destiny. The Earth will survive our foibles and our triumphs alike, but we fragile hominids can no longer afford to abdicate our course to the purveyors of perfidy. Peace, or oblivion? The decision rests with us.