(Tompkins Weekly, 8-9-23, by Peter McDonald)
The feeling often begins as a knot of disbelief when the climate crisis comes up, as if the world we grew up in is now in the grips of some dangerous fever that is far larger than we can grasp. Often this disbelief transforms into grayer palettes of other emotions, first among them grief. For others it is anger, then quiet despair, and with still others it’s deep sadness. I’ve even had a few friends for whom it is a cloying sense of helplessness, as if the future they longed for is now suddenly slipping from their grasp. But for all of us, these are the existential questions: So how do I deal with all this? What are my options? Where do I turn?
In 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, I turned eighteen with the whole wide world and my whole life ahead of me. By the second Earth Day, now all of nineteen, my father and I attended their small celebration at our local Audubon Center in Sharon CT smack in the bucolic beauty of the Berkshire Mountains. There were the usual upbeat exhortations, folk musicians, donkey rides for the kids, and a palpable and pervading sense of hope for a sunny future for all of us. Had not President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in his first term? There was high expectation that an historic Clean Water Act would soon pass Congress and many of us trooped around with the Whole Earth Catalog under our arms.
Fifty years on, few things in our future seem remotely rosy, and for many of us, seem downright scary. Daily catastrophes pile up like a multi-car wreck on the freeway. Stories of destroyed communities, vast forest fires ravaging regions, floods inundating once rock solid towns, and hurricanes now turned to hypercanes with projected arms eight-hundred miles wide, all these disasters inundate the nightly news. Here in liberal Ithaca, spared to date the worst of it, nevertheless choking smoke last month from boreal conflagrations in Canada six hundred miles away had us behind locked doors. More disconcerting still, reputable thinkers throw out the possibility of human extinction this century, or at least the collapse of modern civilization.
And so, understandably, the dark knots of disbelief gather within us like a sea of grief. In her marvelous book, Hope in the Dark (2004), author Rebecca Solnit describes hope as a high-stakes gamble on a bet for the jackpot of a meaningful future for all of us. “To hope is to give yourself to the future,” she writes. “And that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” But the next day we hear youthful climate crusader Greta Thunberg declare to the world: “I don’t want your hopes. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act.” This in her impassioned cry to the United Nations General Assembly.
Caught between these two visions, uprises within us anew more gnawing uncertainties, different shades of grief. Newlyweds, suddenly, are asking how can we morally bring a baby into this uncertainty? Does it make sense for us to buy this dream home situated on a flood plain, when floods are ravaging Vermont, and so on. For the first time in our history, humankind as a whole is asking such existential questions as these.
But I don’t think there’s an irreconcilable dichotomy between Solnit (who is almost my age) and Thunberg who is just twenty. What both are saying clearly is that if we hope, then let us embrace an even bigger hope with real agency. A hope that drives us toward communitarian purpose with families, neighbors, our hometowns to act to make things better. This surely is the greatest hope of all. But where can I turn my hope to action, you ask? So glad you asked.
For those of us in the environmental trenches, that hope sure ain’t urging folks to go on a bucket list eco-junket before that destination too burns to the ground. Instead, to paraphrase JFK, ask not what can Earth do for me, but what can I do for my only home planet? If you have kids or grandchildren, petition school superintendents to include climate change into the curriculum for all ages. Seriously, call your elected representatives on all topics related to the environment. Google Sustainable Finger Lakes or Seneca Lake Guardian, NY Renews or the Sierra Club of the Finger Lakes and discover how you can get involved. Start a salon instead of a book club and discuss topics related to climate change with an eye to building your own embracing community of resilience. These are the very real, living tonics for climate grief.
Peter McDonald was a lifelong librarian until his retirement in 2020. He is now treasurer of Sustainable Finger Lakes.
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