Felix Carroll: Uli Nagel drives home the point: Let's keep talking to each other

LEE — Distraught, fighting the urge to curl into a ball and weep, Uli Nagel packed up her tricycle a month ago and pulled out of town to go help change the world.

She and her tricycle arrived safely back home in Lee on Thursday afternoon with the prognosis that maybe, just maybe, humanity isn't completely doomed.

Pilates instructor by trade, climate activist by vocation, optimist by nature, Nagel, 57, is also a strident supporter of facing reality. The reality currently consuming her has to do with man-made carbon pollution warming the planet and precipitously and exponentially screwing up a lot of things in the process, including causing extreme storms, flooding, drought, property damage and animal extinctions.

The last straw for her came about a year ago, when she heard a talk by Canadian journalist Alanna Mitchell discussing her book "Seasick." The book outlines in detail by distressing detail the state of the oceans, which, to their own peril, absorb the brunt of our daily 22 million tons of human-created CO2 emissions.

"It just got to me," Nagel says. "This just made me so sad. It's just really bad. You figure the oceans are forever, but they're not. They're literally dying."

While she sought to push her way through incapacitating emotions toward a suitable response, two things came to her attention. The first was the nonprofit, nonpartisan Citizens' Climate Lobby. The second was a funky-looking electrically assisted tricycle called a PEBL, invented by a teenager and his father in Leverett and now being built in bulk in Deerfield.

A client of Nagel gave her grant money for climate work, part of which she put toward the purchase of a lime-green-colored PEBL. With it, she knew she had a conversation piece, and conversations were exactly what she hoped to spur.

"All I could think of doing was `pack up and go talk to people,'" she says. "My main question was: 'What was the best way to speak to people?' Alarmism has not helped the climate movement enough. Just throwing facts at people seems to be equally unproductive."

She and her husband, Rod, wheeled the tricycle onto a trailer last month and pulled it with their Prius down to Florida — a state where freaking out about rising sea levels has officially begun (some coastal towns and cities have begun funding projects to raise roads by a couple of feet). In her maiden voyage, Nagel pedaled 500-plus miles, from Miami to Cape Canaveral and across to St. Petersburg. Along the way, she spoke with people — hundreds of people.

Like a cute puppy, the PEBL drew lots of attention, just as Nagel had hoped for. In and of itself, the tricycle has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of motorists, particularly in suburban areas. It runs on its own power for 100 miles before its battery needs recharging. It travels up to 20 mph.

But beyond the PEBL, Nagel took the opportunity to discuss climate change. Her first priority was to listen, and what she heard was mostly frustration with politicians and fear for the future. Where appropriate, she spoke about Citizens' Climate Lobby, which supports legislation to put a price on carbon at its source and return it to taxpayers as a dividend, rewarding those who take steps to use fewer fossil fuels. The proposal now has the eyes and ears of 35 Republicans and 35 Democrats in Congress' Climate Caucus.

Upon her prodding, she collected more than 200 letters to Congress urging action.

Still, at this point Nagel says she's not certain that we as a species are rational enough yet "to save the planet and our own skin." She says, "Conflicting interests and values hold us back."

Meanwhile, humanity has never faced a problem so dire, so massive, so complex. What she does know is that facing reality — distressing, depressing reality — in and of itself is better than curling into a ball or ignoring it entirely.

"I have a fundamental optimism that if people really face what's true, we'll find a way," she says.

Turns out, the most inspiring moment of her trip had nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with willpower and brokenness and forgiveness.

She was pulled over on the side of the road near Titusville, Fla., when a man stopped to talk with her. She got to talking about about Citizens' Climate Lobby when he said, "My daughter would have loved that kind of thing," adding, "I lost her, last year."

His name was Mark Heyer. He was the father of Heather Heyer, the young woman killed last August when a white nationalist plowed a car into a crowd of people during a neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville, Va.

"He said, `I don't want hate and resentment in my heart,' " Nagel recalled. " `That driver kid did not know that what he was doing was going to change his life forever. He was hotheaded. But all this hate has to end. We are supposed to love and care for each other. Believe me, I'm a stumbling Christian. I know how hard that is. I know myself. But we got to talk to each other. That was what Heather wanted to do — see why these people thought the way they did.'"

Nagel said, "It was a privilege to listen to him, this humble, honest man with a huge heart, with such a level of pain and yet still laugh and be interested and sad all at once."

Mark Heyer confirmed what Nagel suspected: We gotta keep talking to each other — even when our world seems shattered.

Felix Carroll can be reached at felixcarroll5@gmail.com.


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