“What can one person do?” When confronted with the overwhelming challenge of climate change, Grady McGonagill follows Kathleen Dean Moore’s advice, “The first thing you can do is stop being one person; join a group.”
Grady’s credentials, an Ed.D from Harvard and thirty years as a leadership consultant, illustrate his conventional success. However, his life is streaked with unconventional, even rebellious, actions. He hitchhiked from his native Texas to Tierra del Fuego in the early 1970’s. He was robbed once along the way, and held at gunpoint twice. But many more times he was welcomed into people’s lives. “I envisioned myself as a Henry Miller character floating free in the world, but I was more anxious than I cared to admit. It’s easy to romanticize youth and travel.”
Two years ago Grady shifted his personal and professional focus to climate change. He announced his commitment in a New Year’s letter to friends and constituents – publicly announcing a position reinforces it. Now he offers executive leadership and coaching services gratis to environmental organizations, devotes personal time to building organizations dedicated to climate change and participates in environmental protests. “Sometimes, the important thing is to just show up.”
Grady’s dedication to climate change has revitalized his life. He started the Massachusetts Chapter of Elder Climate Action. He’s travelled to Washington D.C three times to participate in demonstrations. Last fall he got arrested for protesting the extension of the West Roxbury gas pipeline. He’s taking an organizational strategy course at the Kennedy School of Government. “I’ve worked with leaders my entire career but have never been a leader. These are new skills for me.”
Although climate change is occurring with unprecedented speed per geologic time, from a human perspective it’s a slow process and our contribution builds over time. It’s difficult to get people to act upon phenomenon that don’t strike with the immediacy of hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods; whose causes are rooted in the fabric of our lives, and whose remedies require dramatic rethinking of how we live. I wondered how Grady maintains his enthusiasm for such abstract work, and how his commitment can grow in mainstream consciousness. “I see this as the contemporary equivalent of the Holocaust. We know what is going on but we pretend not to know. We can’t mobilize the doubters, but we don’t need to. The majority of people believe in human-induced climate change. We need to mobilize them. My daughter is my motivator. I want to leave a legacy for her. When she asks what I did to combat this, I want to be able to say I did my part.”
Grady has a strategic vision for how to mobilize the majority. “We have to build alliances with broader constituencies. Climate change is being reframed as a moral issue, thanks to people like Pope Francis.” It impacts every group and every agenda.
Grady provides a firm, clear voice that the track we’re on is wrong, that we must redirect. But his activism also has personal benefits. At age 70, Grady has suffered some health problems. Since focusing his energy on climate change, both his conscience and his physical health have improved. “I am pessimistic but hopeful. I am energized to be engaged. I sleep better at night.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I don’t think of myself as somebody who has a vision, but I’ll start with my current commitments. Let’s be carbon neutral and work back from that. Does it mean the end of a growth economy? Climate change is just one of the many things that can kill us. An ever-expanding economy will do it as well.
“I’d like to see a combination of what we know from the past, in a nature-equilibrium economy, and what we are capable of now. We are the master species, but have become prisoners of our own talents. How do live with our technology, but in nature, and in community?
“I don’t believe in god but I consider myself religious. We need to revere the majesty of what has evolved. I aspire to a vision of ancient Eastern and Western religions with our technological capabilities.”