Holding Up the Sky


Our poplar trees started losing their leaves on July 1st. I stood in our yard and watched the first golden leaf spin down, a daring challenge to Summer at the height of her glory. By the end of the week, the ground was covered with a whole suit of spades, by mid month the wind was blowing them into drifts on the back patio. While the poplars are always the first to announce the arrival of Autumn, this seemed bizarrely early. I examined the trees for signs of sickness, wondered about the new well pump that was put in underneath them in the spring. But when I looked across the fields at their neighbors, I saw that all the poplars were tossing their pages into the wind, telling the same story. 

I began to hear echoes of the tale around town. While gleaning apples with my daughter, the orchard keeper shook her head in wonderment, said she just didn't understand why the Golden Delicious and Romes were beginning to fall before the local Gravensteins, usually the first crop to ripen. At the local brew supply shop, a conversation turned to the grape harvest, due to come early this year because of a cool spring and then three heatwaves, the hottest on record for California since 2006. 

Californians have become weather watchers. On edge from years of drought, seemingly alleviated by a winter of steady rain, we have all developed a new appreciation for water. Yet, as is typical for our species, our attention is quickly moving on from conservation with a collective sigh of amnesiatic relief. 

In general, climate change awareness and activism has seemed to have taken a back burner since the election in November. After the initial months of shock and panicked response, despite our insistence that it mustn't become this way, we have gradually eased into the new (horrifying) normal. Compassion and activist fatigue has set in for many, and I know I'm not the only one who has begun to dismiss her morning text from Daily Acts. For others, including myself, our acts of protest and resistance no longer have a frenetic pace and have once again become part of The Long Dedication...slow and steady wins the race.

As part of my own self-care, I avoid sensationalist news that sends me spiralling out into dystopian hopelessness. I don't need to be jolted by the reality of environmental destruction or racist violence in order to care - concern about such things is ever present. So recently when my family was at the movies and we were unexpectedly confronted with a trailer for the sequel to "An Inconvenient Truth" , my own guard was down and I was unprepared to shield my daughter, who is 7. As an activist family, committed to social, racial and environmental justice, we include age appropriate education that provides understanding without being traumatizing. We don't have a television, she has seen very few scenes of natural disasters, and we are constantly titrating the information she receives from screens and radio. As catastrophic scenarios flashed along with frightening dramatic music, she began to shake and cried out "Is this real? Those poor people! Mommy, what is this?!?". I felt my heart break and I choked back tears. 

I know I am not the only parent who has found herself on the spot in this way (and if you find yourself relating, I have a previous article on how to create eco-resiliency in children. ) In this particular instance, I took a deep breath and whispered in her ear, "This is real, but it is also an advertisement. We've talked before about how advertisers try to get you to feel really big feelings so that you will pay attention. These are real events but they're being shown to you in a super scary, dramatic way." She nodded her head emphatically. "I will explain what this is about, later when we have some quiet time to talk about it. Right now, know that you are ok and safe, and I am here with you. Let's take a deep breath.". Her little chest expanded up and down, and she squeezed my hand. (I don't always get parenting right, but when I do I feel like a super hero). It's been several days and she hasn't asked about it again. I am hesitant to bring it up outside of her own natural curiosity.

In her recent article "We Should Never Have Called it Earth", climate scientist Kate Marvel speaks boldly about her own parenting struggles in the age of climate change,

I cannot deny my son or myself the ease of modern life, and I have no wish to isolate him from friends and family by insisting on radical changes. A carbon-free life seems a solitary one: no travel to see grandparents, awkward refusals of invitations, precious time with friends replaced by gardening, canning, mending, building, working. I search for political solutions, an advocacy muted by the cowardice of my personal choices. In the end, I am responsible for the gases that are changing the climate and, in raising my son in comfort and convenience, am passing on that responsibility and guilt to him...

While I do think that personal choices and consumption changes are necessary and can make a difference, I have grown increasingly wary of putting the onus of ending our reliance on fossil fuels, or cutting back emissions, on the private citizen. This was part of the 80's and 90's greenwashing sensibility, the "50 Things You Can Do To Save The Earth" approach. It hinges on the idea that, once people become fully aware and educated (and appropriately terrified) about the consequences of climate change, they will automatically change behavior. I believe this has fed into the divide between The Right and The Left. If the private citizen is responsible for climate change, rather than industry, corporations or the government, then all my fear, anger and frustration will be directed at my neighbor, rather than the source. The ability to make a decision to "go green" also assumes a certain amount of privilege...the ability to pay for organic food, a low emissions vehicle, the time and space to contemplate anything but surviving.

This kind of individualistic martyrdom thinking is also the survival tactic of the abused child: I can't expect the adults in my life to change, or treat me fairly, so I will take all the responsibility and blame onto myself. As eras of activism have unfolded, as the 60s dream of universal peace has faded, as non-profits, marches, organizing, and campaigns have all led to our present moment and unresponsive government, I think it's fair to say that many people feel the only power they have is their own life, and are also overwhelmed at the prospect of taking the entire world onto their shoulders.

It's too much to ask people to give up their basic comforts. Just like anyone who has ever dieted knows, the biggest torture is going out to dinner and eating salad while everyone else enjoys their steak and fries, and often this type of experience undermines resolve. Most people aren't going to make radical changes in their lives, and not everyone has the constitution to be a maverick. It isn't sustainable to expect that the private citizen (except for a few rare and phenomenally dedicated individuals) can live perpetually outside of the system. Just being a responsible consumer can feel like a full time job.

I'm not advocating that we all abdicate responsibility and start partying like it's 1999. But I do think that our energy could be put to better use. While individual actions matter in efforts to change an entire system, these good intentions also pave the proverbial road. With the Powers That Be out of arms reach, we are left scrabbling around, sorting our garbage and perhaps deluding ourselves that we're making a difference, and I think those in control benefit from our distraction and fatigue. What if we all turned our attention from our own individual bubble of influence and put our efforts towards the larger sphere, starting with our local communities? What if you made an assumption, right now, that buying your groceries at Whole Foods, recycling or driving a Prius wasn't going to be enough to save the world? Would that free up motivation (and your paycheck) for making a bigger splash? 

I would still like to see Americans consume less, Just Say No to plastic, ride their bike more and give up the facade of the English Lawn. Even more, I would like to get the crushing weight of the future off our hearts, but rather than Atlas Shrugged, I'd like it to be like a giant beachball in the crowd at your favorite music festival. 

You'll have noticed that this is a contemplative post and does not contain click bait like "8 Ways You Can Get Donald Trump to Give a Shit". I am asking more questions than I'm answering, in the hopes of sparking your own thought process. In general, people don't like uncertainty and while I wish I could tidy up this article with a pretty bow of "Now Here is What You Do", it would ultimately be dishonest. The truth is that I am one person who cares a whole awful lot and also has serious doubts about how much difference she can really make...and I know I'm not alone. What I do know is that any hope I have for a better world involves all of us, however impossibly, working together.