Lewis the Koala is this week’s face of the climate emergency

Australian koala
Australian koala Image by Claudia Beyli from Pixabay

Last week, a video of an Australian grandmother taking the shirt off her back and plucking a koala from a tree, as a bushfire engulfed the area around them went viral. The koala was taken to a local koala hospital where he was treated. The rescuer named him “Ellenborough Lewis” after her grandchildren. Everyone hoped the little guy would make, but sadly his story didn’t have a fairytale ending. After it was determined that Lewis would not be able to recover from his injuries, he was euthanized.

One story is powerful

CNN reports that koalas are likely dying by the hundreds as the bushfires destroyed their homes. Those koalas didn’t survive. We couldn’t save them. Why is the story of just one, Lewis, so important to us? Why does the video go viral, and why are we so sad when little Lewis dies?

It’s obvious, you might think. We are truly compassionate at heart and when we see another human showing this kind of selfless compassion for another species, we are touched. Maybe it tugs at the heart story we tell ourselves, we care. And, koalas are so dang cute. It’s easy to feel for cute cuddly vulnerable Lewis and want to save him.

But despite the valiant efforts of this rescuer and of the medical professionals at the koala hospital, we did not save Lewis. Do these heroic efforts to save Lewis make his passing hurt more? Yes, probably. We are invested in his story and hope for a good ending. Reality can hurt.

If Lewis had just been a number like the other hundreds dying, his death might just cause us to shrug. Hundreds of dying koalas might be an amalgam too large for us to feel real compassion. And when the numbers are so large, the effect of witnessing one death does not seem like the same level of tragedy. But, when we’ve named him Lewis, it hurts.

Some numbers seem too large to wrap our brains around

 40%              – of insect populations in decline

3057              – official death toll from Hurricane Maria

3.8 million      – deaths every year as a result of household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels

4.2 million      – deaths as a result of ambient air pollution each year

If we could just save one life

Lewis is this week’s face of our climate emergency. We can’t bring him or those other koalas back. We can’t bring back the people who died from climate-intensified events like 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Nor can we bring back all those millions of people who die from ambient air pollution each year.

But, through our collective and individual actions, we can create change by transforming our lives, our communities, our workplaces, our countries (policies), and our world.

As the climate crisis intensifies, don’t ever believe the false story that you- one person- cannot make a difference or that the numbers are too big to fix.

Transformational change comes when we do incremental change really well

When you think about this, picture the Australian woman, Toni Doherty, who saw Lewis the koala running toward the fire. At that moment, she made a choice, a choice to save a life. Can you make the same choice to save a life?

Every day, you have an opportunity in what you eat, how much and what you buy, use, and waste, how you get around, what you talk about with your friends and in your workplaces, who you vote for, and the policies you advocate for. In short, you have an opportunity in almost everything you do. Inaction is also a choice. In today’s world, do no harm, means making conscious choices that create the change.

When a choice seems distant from a threat, understanding the connection can be difficult

For example, if while in the middle of a crosswalk, you see a car speeding toward you, then jumping out of the way seems like an obviously good choice. But, connecting our choices to the actions it takes to mitigate climate chaos, can seem more remote. Our challenge is to make those remote feeling outcomes, feel very immediate and important. We have to act with the understanding that these actions are no less important than running into the burning forest to save the koala or jumping out of the way of the speeding car.

Scaling our choices

Expanding our actions in our communities matters even more. For example, I compost my food waste in my home. But, if I can talk with others and implement a composting program in my child’s school, or in my workplace, or in my city, then I’ve multiplied my action many times forward. The reduction of food waste is number three on the top solutions list (see below).

Composting goes beyond just reducing waste. It’s creating nutrient-rich soil that can grow crops and sequester more carbon. So, my seemingly small action becomes a powerful tool to fix the problem when done to scale.

Project Drawdown was founded in 2014 by visionary Paul Hawken to be the world’s leading resource on climate solutions. By looking at Drawdown’s rankings of solutions, we begin to see where our actions are most effective.

Project Drawdown’s Top 10 Solutions By Total Atmospheric CO2 Equivalent Reduction

RankSolutionSectorTOTAL ATMOSPHERIC CO2-EQ REDUCTION (GT)Net Cost (BILLIONS US $)Savings (BILLIONS US $)
1Refrigerant ManagementMaterials89.74N/A$-902.77
2Wind Turbines (Onshore)Electricity Generation84.60$1,225.37$7,425.00
3Reduced Food WasteFood70.53N/AN/A
4Plant-Rich DietFood66.11N/AN/A
5Tropical ForestsLand Use61.23N/AN/A
6Educating GirlsWomen and Girls51.48N/AN/A
7Family PlanningWomen and Girls51.48N/AN/A
8Solar FarmsElectricity Generation36.90$-80.60$5,023.84
9SilvopastureFood31.19$41.59$699.37
10Rooftop SolarElectricity Generation24.60$453.14$3,457.63

So, next time you got to the grocery store, picture Lewis and remember that every day you are choosing the world we create.

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