I know how lucky I am to have been born and raised in New Orleans. No other city on earth can match the diverse, rich and sometimes peculiar cultural heritage that we cherish so deeply.
In just the last couple of months I’ve experienced everything from Mardi Gras Indians dancing in the streets on Super Sunday to Carnival parades rolling down St. Charles Avenue to second lines in the 7th Ward to a brass band playing on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres to viewing a beautifully traditional St. Joseph’s Day altar at the International House Hotel. I washed down a hot-sausage po’boy with a Big Shot soda at my corner store the other day, and you better believe I’ll be feasting on gumbo z’herbes at Dooky Chase on Holy Thursday.
None of this should be taken for granted — but here’s the reality: Our culture, our city and, indeed, the whole region are nearing a vanishing point, given the clear and present danger posed by climate change.
I will never shake memories of the shock and horror I witnessed during two recent climate-related cataclysms: Hurricane Katrina and the BP disaster. During Katrina I witnessed people crying out for help, bodies floating in the streets, neighborhoods emptied of the residents who are their heart and soul.
In 2010 I witnessed pelicans choking to death on oil, dolphins washing up dead, shrimp boats trawling for oil instead of shrimp, and the look of utter devastation on the faces of so many people whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed. As climate change worsens, we are faced with the high probability of even more powerful storms and the certainty of sea-level rise that has already washed some communities off the map. More Gulf oil gushers are just as likely.
I ask myself every day, when will New Orleanians wake up and confront this reality. When will we rise up and tell the oil and gas industries and their lackeys in government that enough is enough?
With impunity they have devastated our wetlands — the nation’s most productive fishery and a linchpin in our defense against storms and surge. When will local residents take to the streets by the tens of thousands, like people did last year in New York and Paris, to demand that we keep fossil fuels in the ground?
Recently, I signed on to a letter to President Obama stating that sales of publicly owned fossil fuels contribute significantly to global carbon emissions and contradict the administration’s pledge to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels. I signed this letter because if we do not end offshore drilling in the Gulf, New Orleans and our cultural traditions will disappear.
But letters alone are not enough.
On Wednesday, right here at the Superdome, the federal government is auctioning off 43 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico to the oil and gas industry. It’s the largest single lease sale by the Obama administration and the first since it unveiled a five-year offshore drilling plan that protects the Atlantic Coast but leaves the Gulf and Arctic open to dirty and dangerous fossil fuel extraction projects.
It’s beyond surreal — a cruel joke, in my view — that this auction is being held in the very place where so many suffered in Katrina’s aftermath, the collapse of the federal levee system the decimation of our wetlands.
Thankfully, for the first time ever Gulf Coast residents are joining forces with local and national environmental and social-justice groups to oppose this lease auction. We are also demanding that the industry create thousands of jobs to address its aging infrastructure and toxic legacy, particularly in communities of color.
On Wednesday at the Superdome we will put forward our vision for a Gulf region powered by solar and wind energy and a phase-out of fossil fuels. We will encircle the giant stadium and demand an end to new drilling and new leases. We will stand united in our solidarity with communities and regions worldwide that continue to suffer the destructive effects of drilling, mining, fracking, refining, and all other forms devastation induced by extractive industries.
We need to stand together. I know it’s a big ask: early in the morning on a weekday; no floats, no marching bands. But, if we want to continue having festivals and parades, and you want to keep having a job and a home in this city, you need to show up.
Visit nonewleases.org for more information.
Jonathan Henderson, JD, MBA is the founding director of Vanishing Earth. Prior to launching Vanishing Earth in 2015, he spent over seven years on staff at the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network.