No Planet B

It seems like time for another Dunkirk. To briefly refresh World War II historical background before drawing the parallel: In May 1940, Nazi forces invaded Belgium and northern France. The retreat of British and allied troops to the coast of France became a race to evacuate before the Germans could occupy Dunkirk, the only remaining port on the English Channel.

On May 27, bombing by the Luftwaffe destroyed much of the harbor, so that many of the 4000,000 men thronging the beaches had to be ferried out to sea by petty craft pressed into service by the Royal Navy. The British Admiralty had been calling forth every kind of small craft it could find to rescue the troops; a scholar describes how “one of the most motley fleets of history—ships, transports, merchantmen, fishing boats, pleasure craft—took men off from the very few ports left, from the open beaches themselves.” (

In the 2017 film “Dunkirk,” Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) of the Royal Navy sees the desperation of the situation, and hopes originally to rescue 30,000. Then he sees a small dot on the horizon coming from the direction of England; it materializes into the little fleet which with the support of the Royal Air Force, saved 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops.

Climate change today imperils all the people of planet earth. We’re familiar with the litany of devastation, addressed by Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si.” Natural disasters, extinction of species, the damage caused by fires, floods and hurricanes should alert us to the horrific problems caused by global warming and rising sea levels. Some scientists estimate that only twelve years remain in which to make major changes before catastrophic loss. Yet some governments, including ours, seem oblivious to the urgent need.

When the institutions in which we’ve placed trust fail, we look to small but mighty individual efforts. Perhaps these will be like the heroic fleet that saved the troops waiting patiently at Dunkirk. It’s been especially heartening to watch the actions of young people, who will live with the disastrous effects of adult inaction.

In California, young climate strikers skipped school to attend with their parents and teachers the May 8 CalSTRS investment meeting. The California teachers’ pension fund has over $6 billion invested in fossil fuel companies; the students advocate divestment. Their motto: “stop funding to destroy my future.” As a retired teacher pointed out, “we worked for years to prepare students for their futures; how bizarre that pensions are invested in companies that depend on destroying the planet.”

The 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg leads the school strike movement around the world. She stands as a silent reminder outside the Swedish parliament every Friday. Addressing the U.N. climate summit in Poland last December, she asked, “Why didn’t you do anything when there was still time to act?”

In his poem “What Fifty Said,” Robert Frost writes, “I go to school to youth to learn the future.” Following the youthful lead, I’ve divested from gun manufacturers and fossil fuels. May we all learn to launch our small boats towards the Dunkirk of today.

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