By DEBORAH E. LANS
CHATHAM – Three years ago, author-activist Bill McKibben established The Third Act as an organization to leverage the time, skills and financial wherewithal of older Americans to address climate change. Since then, the group’s mission has expanded to encompass threats to democracy. In October, an upstate chapter, or “working group,” of the Third Act was launched with Chatham’s Michael Richardson as its convenor and facilitator.
Climate change is an issue of international, national and local concern and one that engages people of all ages. A Pew Research Center poll released in October showed that 69% of Americans believe that the country should develop alternative energy sources in order to lessen greenhouse gas emissions, 66% believe that large corporations are doing too little to address climate change, and 58% think that elected officials are not doing enough. “Climate grief” and “eco-anxiety” affect a majority of the younger generation.
The local effects of climate change are palpable. The Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (Cornell CALS) has found that New York State is experiencing climate changes faster than the national and global averages. The upstate area that includes Columbia County will see a 2-7% rise in annual precipitation in the 2020s over the baseline period of 1971-2000; that increase will double by the 2050s. In the baseline period, there were 10 days/year with temperatures over 90 degrees. In the 2020s, that number will rise to 26-31 and, by the 2050s, to 39-52 days (basically, one to two months annually of over 90 degree temperatures).
The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) says that the Northeastern U.S. “experienced a more than 70% increase in heavy precipitation from 1958 to 2010, greater than any other region of the country.” Such storms have only increased in the decade since, making weather that was once freakish into something commonplace.
After a summer of extreme weather, including violent rainstorms and hotter-than-ever heat, and with winters warming and often thin on snow, many of the dry statistics about climate change have now been lived, and they seem undeniable.
With the U.S. Department of Defense citing the effects of climate change as contributing to “political, economic and social instability around the world,” and with political volatility matching the extremes of the weather, the three focus areas of the Third Act seem well-attuned to the times.
According to Mr. Richardson, those areas are: to democratize energy, to develop “fossil free finance,” and to support democracy and voting rights, all by supporting the work of other organizations using the expertise, energy and wealth of older (over 60) people.
As to the first area, the Third Act will lobby and educate about the goals and ways to implement New York’s highly progressive climate legislation, including the many incentives available to homeowners to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. (Currently, according to the Nature Conservancy, New Yorkers alone emit more heat-trapping gasses than all of Central America and Mexico combined.)
The focus of the “fossil free finance” goal is to encourage “big banks” to stop supporting the fossil fuel industry and shift their lending to community projects that use or produce renewable energy, like solar and wind farms.
The third goal is to secure registration and voting rights, in support of a continued vibrant democracy.
Mr. Richardson, one of the organizers of the upstate working group, has a long history in activism, having been arrested “the first time” at age 18. A retired consultant in workforce planning and labor relations, he previously founded Rivers and Mountains GreenFaith Circle, a multi-faith climate and environmental action group, and served on the Chatham Town Board.
He is drawn to climate activism by the belief that “our generation, with its consumerism, brought us to this place, and it is our responsibility to the younger generation to effect a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.”
David and Joan Grubin of Hillsdale are among the volunteers who have been drawn to the Third Act. Mr. Grubin is a retired director, writer and cinematographer who has produced more than 100 films on topics that include history, poetry, art and the sciences. Among his long list of awards are 10 Emmys. Ms. Grubin is a visual artist who has won a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship and was a fellow of the MacDowell Colony.
They were attracted to the Third Act because, “Bill McKibben has been a hero for a long time, a great thinker,” according to Ms. Grubin, and because the group offers an opportunity to act concretely at a local level. The effort “felt real, like planting a tree for future generations to enjoy.”
The Grubins would not say they are “activists by background” but “the world is frightening in terms of what’s happening with the climate and democracy, and it feels better to act, together with others, rather than just get caught up in despair.”
Neither of the Grubins lists The Third Act as their only activity. Ms. Grubin says that as a visual artist she never will “retire,” and she is immersed in the arts community of the Hudson Valley as well as serving as a trustee for the Vermont College of Visual Arts. She says its “low residency” model, which requires minimal time on-campus and hence is tailored for adults, allows older students to have an experience that for her, when she attended to gain a master’s degree, was “intense and life-altering.” Mr. Grubin has also become a student again, studying for a master’s in Fine Art (Poetry). He writes poetry and sits on the board of Poets House.
Another Third Act volunteer is Marjorie McCoy, who says she has actually had many third acts. A comparative religion major in college, she later attained a master’s in social work, spending a number of years at the Berkshire Farm Center. Then she transitioned to the law, obtaining a law degree and working for 23 years at the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, rising to deputy clerk of the court.
She retired due to the long-term effects of Lyme Disease, began working in hospice care, and ended up in a 15-month chaplaincy program at Albany Medical College. She has since worked as a volunteer chaplain at the Albany Medical Center and local correctional institutions. Her chaplaincy work led her to an emerging field — climate change chaplaincy — helping others deal with the shame and guilt they feel about their own behaviors that have contributed to climate change and with their anxieties about how the world will be altered.
Ms. McCoy now lives in Ghent, but her own experience of changes in her Greene County woods — hemlocks dying, butterflies and fireflies disappearing, smoke blotting out the sun — and the fears articulated by the younger generations of her family lead her to climate activism. She is also worried about the future of democracy, even in New York which prides itself on a progressive history that now seems threatened.
As actress and activist Jane Fonda put it in her Ted Talk about her own third act, how people address their aging is within their control, and they can make it a highly productive time. She quoted the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who lived in a concentration camp for five years: “Everything you have in life can be taken from you except one thing: your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”