I've been caught in a storm of worry over our climate-frenetic future of late. A handful of people I know and care about are suffering from climate anxiety (what should be a new psychological term, if it isn't one already). We should really all be suffering from climate anxiety. The fact that any of us are sleeping at night, or enjoying the unusually-warm spring sunshine, or gleefully tapping our fingers on the wheel while we drive 60mph is what's weird, rather than the other way around. I do all those things, regularly: cast off into a sea of oblivion where I gratefully forget what's on the horizon, and do so a lot more often since having children.
Before having children I questioned, regularly, whether bringing more humans into this earth was morally sound (for both my children and for the world). I read Bill McKibben's Maybe One: A Case For Smaller Families. I read it prepared to be dissuaded from having any children at all and found myself, instead, convinced by McKibben that human beings need hope--that without it we will slip into the futility of despair--and that the most hopeful thing we can do, biologically and psychologically, is bear children.
And so I did. Two of them, with cheeks like peaches and eyes like sky. They are amazing, these children. They wake me up extraordinarily early with sloppy kisses, breathy giggles and stories of their dreams. They fill my house and my mind with unfathomable amounts of energy. That energy exhausts me, on a regular basis, but it exhausts me in the same way that working in a field all day or hiking mountains exhausts people; it leaves little room for anxiety, doubt or existential despair.
But there's more. They are also just so damn full of exuberant curiosity and hope, how could one not, looking into their eyes, feel the contagion of that innocent optimism? How could the world really be all bad when children start out as these ones do? When the going gets rough, won't the better side of humanity, the parts I see reflected in my children's eyes every hour of every day, also come shining through?
I'm no optimist, but my children do coax me into envisioning a tenable, even joy filled radically altered future. They convince me of the innate goodness of human nature. I have also adopted a few "hope bibles" during this time of radically uncertainty. One is Paradise at the Gates of Hell by Rebecca Solnit, who is no romantic innocent. In it she demonstrates how disasters, rather than bringing out the worst in human nature, as we all presuppose, actually bring altruism, solidarity, purpose and joy. I've also returned several times to the article, "Dark Ecology" by Paul Kingsnorth in Orion Magazine. Kingsnorth is self-designated pessimist. He doesn't believe in the neo-environmentalists' assertions that technology will save us. He doesn't believe that activism will bring change fast enough. But he has, out of that wasteland, culled five things he does believe are worth doing. Those five things have become my little private bible, and so I'm sharing fragments of them here with you:
One: Withdrawing. If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out"....Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray...Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.
Two: Preserving nonhuman life. The revisionists will continue to tell us that wildness is dead, nature is for people, and Progress is God, and they will continue to be wrong...Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place...
Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one.
Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be.
Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature. In this context, ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm? Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?
My personal goal is to create one of those refuges, in one way or another. I'm still figuring out what my role in all of this will be, and how to best use my particular blend of skills and passions, as I hope each of you are working out how to best use your particular blend of the same. What a maze we are all in just now, blindly seeking the light. I am so utterly glad that you are all on this path with me, amidst this still astonishingly beautiful, blessed and--call me crazy but I have faith--resilient green earth.