I recently picked up a book of essays by Portland, OR writer Wendy Willis, and I was moved to quote her on Facebook:
“I grieve over the fact that an entire generation, including me, has been so careless and greedy and addicted to convenience that we have likely doomed the planet and all of its inhabitants to a bleak and catastrophic future. At this point, I am awash in grief that could, and sometimes does, overwhelm all other emotions.” — Wendy Willis
In these lines, Willis speaks for me and for, I imagine, many people.
A friend of mine responded in a comment below my post:
“This is not one but many generations in the making.”
I replied: “Agreed. Perhaps even millennia in the making. Good point.”
Does “millennia” sound like hyperbole? On the one hand, the Industrial Age is only a few hundred years old, but I think the essential human mistake predates technology. I think the collective human heart went badly astray a very long time ago, when the dominant cultures of the world bit down hard on the dream of separation, on the illusion of life as a zero sum gain, on your-loss-is-my-gain, with concepts like land ownership and evil institutions such as slavery. I believe the seeds of catastrophic climate change were sown even during the building of the pyramids.
So maybe I can take a Taoist or Zen-like attitude toward the whole thing and accept that this apparently tragic ending to the human experiment was baked in the cake from the start, because there was really no avoiding all of us having the experience of separation, of being individual egos trapped in discrete bags of skin and bones, seeing through just this one pair of eyes, touching the world through only this particular pair of hands, and so on. It’s an extremely compelling illusion and it’s only natural that most of us have fallen for it pretty hard (as have entire societies, including our own), with the exception perhaps of mystics throughout the ages, and maybe the occasional revelatory altered state or serendipitous moment of awakening.
I walk in grief every single day. It is no use trying to change that. I am not clinically depressed. I have good moments, even happy ones, but there is a shadow over everything and that shadow is climate change and environmental destruction, and all the attendant ramifications. I also grieve the fact that torture exists and injustice persists, but nothing destroys my heart and cripples my sense of hope like the relentless, furious decimation of our ecosphere and apparently inevitable miseries to come, though perhaps I’ll die before the worst of them hit.
Here is a question I was presented with recently:
Is human nature still evolving. If so, how?
I think human nature had better be still evolving because it’s our only hope. And I do believe it is evolving, though I’m not sure it’s evolving fast enough to save us.
As for what evolution looks like, I believe that the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg offers a clue. When she came, with a group of fellow teenage activists, to speak about climate change recently to the French parliament, right-wing politicians boycotted her presentation and mocked her as “a prophetess in shorts” and the “Joan of Arc of climate change.” Her response:
“Some people have chosen not to come here today, some have chosen not to listen to us and that is fine, we are after all just children, you don’t have to listen to us. But you do have to listen to the scientists, that is all we ask.”
Note the simple, irrefutable clarity of her words. Note the egolessness. Read the story.
Incidentally, the scientists are also having a difficult time emotionally.
Meanwhile, one very hot day last summer, I was in a dentist’s office, a coffee shop, a FedEx outlet, a bank and a grocery store, all of which had air conditioning, which felt heavenly. I think AC is probably needed at the dentist’s office; they’re doing precision work there and they probably need to be comfortable to perform at their best.
But I could do with at least a little less AC in New Seasons and the other places. At least somewhat less. I might be less comfortable, but I could look in the eyes of all the other shoppers (or coffee shop patrons or what-have-you) with the shared understanding and knowledge that we care about the future of the world and we are in the midst of an extraordinary crisis that threatens the future of human civilization (and perhaps the human species) and we will have to give up things if we are to have even a remote chance of heading off the worst consequences of climate change for our children and their children, and we’ll be comforted by the certainty that in our discomfort and fear we are at least not alone and our hearts can grow bigger and softer and more generous as we get more and more real with ourselves and each other about this, yeah? Like every single day, walking within the grief, but not alone.
What miracles we enjoy right now! Access to drinkable water everywhere, grocery stores packed with huge arrays of food from all over the world, a convenient medium of exchange (cash) … so many complex systems chugging along constantly that make our lives so convenient. What could conceivably make this way of living sustainable? Probably nothing. We’re on a crash course with disaster, even absent air conditioning. But we have to start somewhere. How do we attune our hearts to the possibility of a sustainable world for our babies … and start putting into place the requirements of that world?
What will we need to give up and what adaptations will we have to make, if we’re serious?