Why I Walked 300 Miles to the Climate Talks
Note: This story was originally written in November 2017, while I was a delegate with youth climate organization SustainUS.
In early October 2017, I embarked on a 300-mile walk from Paris, France to Bonn, Germany, carrying a backpack and a set of intentions. I was making my way to the United Nations climate talks, known as COP23, and I wanted to go slow. Having just graduated from college and feeling called to the urgency of climate change, this walk would be my long entrance into the rest of my life, a life I knew I wanted to dedicate to addressing the climate crisis. Before I could try to change the world, I first needed to accept my place in the interdependent web of all existence. My month of walking opened me in new ways, giving me the trust in myself and for precariousness of the uncertain moment we find ourselves moving through.
Though I left Paris on October 4, this journey began long before that. As I was preparing to graduate from my small liberal arts college in May, I was bombarded with choices: How could I move forward in a way that honored my values? What kind of job would honor my values? How could I even be thinking about a career?
Decisions swirled around me like the green leaves unfurling in the spring wind, and the summer heatwaves left me disoriented. The uncertainty I felt about my own personal future felt like a parallel river to the collective uncertainty surrounding the unprecedented challenges my generation faces to climate chaos.
Walking had become a source of grounding for me, a ritualistic practice to connect my body and mind with the Earth. While ideas about the future — positive or negative — were abstract, walking allowed me to root myself in the here and now. I decided a long walk would be my compass to follow on my free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
World leaders have been negotiating a climate deal as long as I’ve been alive, and it felt right to walk right into the belly of the beast. I intentionally chose to start in Paris, where negotiators released the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015, an international effort to limit global average temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celcius from preindustrial levels. After Donald Trump announced our country’s withdrawal from the agreement, the US is now alone on the world stage as the only country to reject this commitment to addressing climate change. This 2 degree limit has been cited by scientists as liveable conditions, though small island nations say a 1.5 degree limit still leave them underwater. It’s not a perfect agreement, but it’s the best coordinated international effort we have.
Walking in between Paris and this year’s talks, a pivotal moment for countries to continue work towards meeting the goals, I found new ways to trust myself and the global community. My route took me through northeastern France, through the middle of Belgium and across the southern tip of the Netherlands, and finally through western Germany down the Rhine River, and along the way, I stayed with locals willing to host me for free through the website Couchsurfing. Making my way slowly through these four countries, I was bounded by the immense generosity and kindness of complete strangers, and developed a physical and emotional resilience that stood in stark contrast to the hectic and corporatized culture at the climate talks.
Though I also carried with me the story of fear of walking as a woman through the world, I began to embrace my vulnerability. My fierce determination to meet my own needs included an interdependence on others, and I realized the deepest nourishment was trust. It was an infinite and expanding trust, one that helped me believe more than ever that when you give to the universe, the universe gives back.
Because there is no monetary exchange, Couchsurfing encourages a culture of informal exchanges, recognizing that each of us has different things to offer. There is certainly a kind of privilege to this vulnerability; I was immensely grateful to have received a generous grant from my college’s Weissberg program to support this journey. After spending the whole day walking 8 to 10 miles, I ended each day’s journey by knocking on an unfamiliar door and being welcomed with a homecooked meal. In exchange for a warm shower and comfortable bed, I offered deep listening and my own stories of travel, life and the climate movement.
Many people offered me rides, and I politely refused them, insisting that I walk. One man in France gave me walnuts. Sore from a heavy backpack, I finally asked for a back massage in Belgium, and my hosts obliged. A German shopowner gave me a bottle of water on my way out. As I was about to reach Brussels, neighbors invited me in for coffee and chocolate, and I spent the whole afternoon practicing my French and learning about their lives. At a Dutch gas station, one man introduced me to a woman who had built her own tiny house down the road. Most days I didn’t spend any money, as my hosts would send me off with breakfast and a packed lunch.
Moments of connection like these — and so many others — filled me with hope for the kind of world I want to live in.
World leaders tell us there is not enough food or water to go around; we are sold on scarcity. In this groundbreaking encyclical about climate change, Pope Francis warned against the “rapidification” of the world, the quicker pace of our culture that prevents us from taking care of what really matters. Yet my walk taught me to be patient and generous with my time and energy; I began to see my walk as one big offering to the global community. The intimate connections we have as people already hold answers to the climate crisis. The sooner we realize just how interdependent we are, the sooner we can build on a global trust based on abundance.
The alarming urgency of climate change calls for swift action, but this doesn’t always mean hurried. Indeed, these unprecedented times demand a slowness we often don’t grant ourselves or each other. Our steps into the future we need must be careful and intentional. The future may be dark, but we get to decide how we arrive in the darkness. I choose to keep walking, feet planted firmly on the ground.