Honoring David Underhill


Bridge the Gulf, along with many along the Gulf Coast and beyond, is mourning the loss of David Underhill, who passed away on November 8. David was a Bridge the Gulf contributor, an unwavering advocate for the Gulf Coast and a personal friend to many.

As Derrick Evans said,

"David was one of those few people, especially white people, and most especially uber-literate potential eggheads (smile), who did not wait for Katrina, or BP, or Keystone, or Donald Trump, or anything else cathartic before making it his habit and lifestyle to pay close attention and stand firm on the informed and correct side of climate justice issues, and more important, alongside neighbors living with those issues while keeping culture, faith, love and laughter alive somehow. Over many decades, David wrote, protested, offered solutions, and once had a radio show to pitch social and environmental sanity and humanity to Mobile area residents. Everyday marginalized people knew him and loved him like family. They trusted him with their stories, relationships and communities for many long years, and his own story and collective work belong in a museum somewhere. His death feels like yet another massive berg of Gulf Coast survival and resistance history breaking off to float and melt into both rising oceans that he warned of -- environmental and human inattention."


(Above - David Underhill in New Orleans, August 2016 Photo Credit: Karen Savage)


What follows are David's words of wisdom and reflection, as delivered at Rise For Climate Mobile Bay, held in Mobile's Bienville Square on September 20, 2019:

"The Pied Piper played a hypnotic tune and led the children away. But that was long ago. Now the children are calling out and taking the lead, and we quasi-fossil adults are trying to catch up and follow along. That’s as it should be. In the long spans of time we have only a few blinks left, but the young look into their murky future and see the shapes of ominous, menacing things awaiting them there. They did nothing to create these threats, but they are the ones who must grapple with them. This gives the children an urgent motive to act, and we must let them do it.

But we can offer some boosting droplets wrung from experience.

The apocalypse loomed as the year 1000 approached. Either the End would come or the Lord would return or both together. Neither happened. As the next millennium approached techno nerds panicked. They feared a mass computer coma in the switch of dates from 1999 to 2000. That didn’t happen. And various cults have prepared their members for the Big Goodbye. They calculated the arrival of this event by vague signs in the skies and fanciful readings of religious texts. And they’ve been wrong every time.

This history could stoke doubt about the impending global climate crisis. The difference now is that the predictions of wreckage are drawn from current, observable data and from projections of that data into the near future. And those inclined to believe the ancient expectations of ruin should recall that most of those terminal visions involved floods and fires and suffocating fumes enveloping the helpless cursed – which is exactly what the best available science says we are facing.

Years ago this prospect was called global warming. But that phrase didn’t convey all that would occur as greenhouse gasses built up in the atmosphere. Besides rising temperatures in most places, some would get colder. Both rain and drought would increase. Also storms and calms.

So the term climate change has become the common description. It more accurately conveys the complex phenomena underway. But it can be mistaken to suggest that the things happening now are just another episode in the constant flux of climate throughout all time. That’s not true. The changes snaring us have no precedent in the geologic record for their speed and intensity.

This is societal suicide, and the proper name for how it comes about isn’t global warming or climate change but climacide. The convulsing climate is not something just happening on its own. This is being done by somebody. Climacide.

Lately capitalists and capitalism have often been fingered as the chief culprits. This accusation can easily overlook the energy and innovation that capitalism has brought to the world, which has served very generously those positioned to take advantage of the benefits, while leaving many others behind.

But the very name of this system tells you the main value it serves—capital. And when capital is invested it demands a return on that investment in the form of profit. All of you trying to pay off student loans understand this. Somebody invested in you by providing a loan. Yet when you pay it back you owe not only the loan but interest too. Over years of paying interest, plus the loan itself, you might deliver to the lender once-and-a-half or twice what you originally borrowed. The same applies to your credit card, and your car note, and your home mortgage.

Multiply that by millions of other people doing the same thing, and you have a system that requires constant economic expansion. This is the only way of generating enough resources to pay back one-and-a-half times or double the amount borrowed on all the outstanding loans.

And our leaders certify this system by making it seem essential and inevitable. As governor Ivey said about the proposed I-10 toll bridge and bayway: this project “is critical not only to Mobile and Baldwin counties but the entire Gulf Coast Region and would be important for the continued growth of all Alabama.”

That is an entirely familiar and normal demand for perpetual growth on a finite planet, which is unsustainable and insane. This form of capitalism must end if climacide is to end.

Some alternatives are reformist, others would be abrupt and wrenching shifts of systems. Some have been outlined in detail by sober visionaries. For an example Google steady state economy and Herman Daly.

But no purely economic alteration of systems can fully address climacide. Also implicated is the compulsion to treat the world like a warehouse of resources for extraction and use. This attitude has produced abundance and luxury for those able to reap the rewards, although it has left the rest deprived. But it is also laying waste to the biosphere upon which all life depends.

Climacide will continue unless this warehouse attitude surrenders to one that restores humanity to its place as a creature among the multitudes sharing the planet, rather than the Supreme Being ruling and exploiting all else. Many of us elders are dinosaurs, unable and uninterested in adapting to this necessity. We and our clotted notions are bound for extinction.

The children will have to take our place and set the pace. We will be, at best, foot soldiers following the youngsters’ vanguard.

In some versions of the Pied Piper tale the children marched off to their doom. In others they simply vanished. And in some they migrated to a more hopeful and promising place than the one they left.

The outcome isn’t ordained. Fate is chosen. It would be an uplifting honor to follow the children in the reverse Pied Piper throng."