Earth Day, Paris, 2006
by Guy Dauncey
Michelle woke the kids early and got them dressed for the Fête de la Terre that was to be held that day in the Bois de Boulogne, attended by tens of thousands. The whole day a holiday ! In place of work, there would be the morning's huge Earth Parade, followed by a concert in the park and an afternoon of fun and games.
Her children, Jacques (9), Pierre (7) and Mathilde (6) had no trouble getting up. This was their big day. For weeks, their school had been preparing a float for the parade, representing all the different spring wildflowers that could be found in Paris. With help from Les Amis de la Terre, they had approached thousands of Parisians who now grew wild flower gardens, however small, andthey had received 50,000 francs in sponsorships, which they had used to tear up their concrete playground, replacing it with a beautiful wildlife garden and a vegetable patch, and its own composting toilet.
As they joined the thousands in the parade, dancing and walking along the banks of the Seine towards the Bois, surrounded by music, balloons, bicycles and people on stilts, Michelle felt a wonderful sense of shared purpose. Why this very real sense of celebration, when just a few years ago, everything had seemed so hopeless ? The fashionable attitude used to be one of intellectual cynicism. Had the world's many social and ecological crises suddenly been resolved ?
Hardly so, Michelle thought, as she looked at the hats and the long-sleeved T-shirts which her children wore to protect them from the searing rays of raw sunshine that would soon be pouring through the hole in the ozone layer. Nor did the planet's food shortage make her feel particularly hopeful. With Earth's population growing by 200,000 people a day, and China and India importing 80 million tons of grain a year, grain prices had doubled since 2003. Lining up to buy food coupons at the shelters for the poor was not something she enjoyed when she had three children to feed.
With the turning of the new millennium, it felt as if something had shifted. In towns and villages throughout France, it was as if people had woken up and realized that if they didn't get up off their backsides and do something, no-one else would. The old idea that you could go on complaining and expect someone else to sort out the mess seemed suddenly dead. Cynicism was out, determination was in. And with that shift, a wave of new energy had been released into the community.
Building on the achievements of the 1990s, Paris now boasted hundreds of organic urban farms, encouraged by the food crisis and the regulations against the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Streets all over the city had been closed off to cars, many being ploughed up and redesigned as winding footpaths, bicycle trails and urban gardens. Later in the summer, apartment blocks would blossom with beans and squash growing on trellises that climbed up their sides, and sunflowers on their roofs.
In the realm of the economy, the Paris Fund for Economic Alternatives was attracting thousands of new people to invest in social and ecological businesses. Even the city's chronic problem of unemployment was getting better, helped by the community trusts, which were helping the city's arrondisements to develop their own local economies, using local welfare funds to invest in personal career enhancement, small businesses and microventures. Since, 2002, the whole of France had been enjoying a four-day week, releasing an impulse of creative leisure activities and family events.
The average Parisian knew a lot more about global warming now. Ever since the incredible winter of 2003, when temperatures across northern France had plunged to -20oC and remained there for almost three weeks, there was a much improved awareness in people's minds of the threat of climate change. A tough system of ecological taxes discouraged people from driving all but the most fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid cars, and towns and cities across France had been ordered by the government to priorize cycling and public transport over private vehicles. The far-sighted ecovillages legislation had put an abrupt end to further suburban sprawl, while encouraging the existing suburbs to develop their own local economies and village centres.
Taken in combination, these things were releasing an infectious sense of possibility that was empowering an entire generation. If these things were possible, what else might be? Maybe the only limits truly were in the mind. Maybe the future really could be whatever people made it to be.
As the throng of people gathered in the Bois de Boulogne for the day's celebrations, streaming in from all quarters of the city, Michelle looked around and wondered if her children would be celebrating Earth Day in fifty years time, their grandchildren beside them. The problems were still so huge, and pessimism could so easily return if people surrendered their hope.
"Rêvez, l'impossible rêve," a man sang from the stage, keeping alive Jacques Brel's intoxicating songs for another generation. That dream, she thought - that dream. All my life, I've worked for that dream. A world in which everyone could experience personal fulfilment, community health and ecological harmony. Should that be so very difficult, so hard to achieve ? Didn't everyone share the same dream, at some deep level ? And yet for years they had been so few, always trying to do too much with never enough people to do what was needed. She felt so grateful to the ones who had kept the dream alive, including those who were no more, who had crossed over. They would be so happy to see us here today, she thought, so proud of what everyone was doing.
"Regard, Maman - le ballon ! Le voila ! Le voila !" Mathilde cried out, as the first of a hundred hot-air balloons drifted slowly into view over Paris. "Regardez ! Les ballons !" came the voices of hundreds more children, joined by the adults, followed by whistles, horns and drums. Then everyone stood up and started singing, "Rêvez, l'impossible rêve," ten thousand voices joined together in song, calling out their hopes for the world to hear.
Yes, we can do it, Michelle thought, as she felt the energy of ten thousand hearts. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful concerned citizens can change the world," a small voice said inside her head, reminding her of the words of the famous American anthropologist, Margaret Mead. "Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." "Yes," she thought, "it is possible. We can do it, if we want to."
First published in Earthfuture: Stories from a Sustainable World. (New Society Publishers, 1999).