The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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On Needing a Village

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about therapy. He pointed out that–with the exception of a few individual therapists–psychotherapy has been and remains all about the individual or, at most, about couples, families, or small groups. The field doesn’t address whole human communities or the relationships between communities and the land, although that is precisely where much of our sickness and pain live.

It is an empirical fact that over a century of psychotherapy and many decades of psychologically-inspired self-help groups and books have not saved our world from teetering on the brink. Collectively, we make very, very bad choices. Individually, far too many of us are deeply lonely and battling despair.

Something important has been left out.

There is, indeed, a movement within psychology to take the mental and emotional dimensions of ecological issues seriously: ecopsychology. I have discussed before the mental health implications of climate change, and there are psychologists looking to use their expertise to help society make more sustainable decisions, both individually and collectively. But all this remains a minor voice in the field.

What occurred to me yesterday is that the problem may be less philosophical than practical. Society may be sick, but society can’t sit down on a therapist’s couch. Even couples therapy is difficult to arrange–for both partners to simultaneously agree to counseling requires a minor miracle. More often than not, it is a single person sitting on the couch seeking guidance from the therapist, so is it any wonder that therapists focus on treatments that can be given to one patient at a time? And part of that focus means defining problems in terms that allow individual solutions. An understanding of the role of context, of the community dimension of mental health, of the importance of the relationships between people and the land, all of that becomes collateral damage to the unavoidable limitations of the therapeutic relationship.

I’m speculating, of course. I further speculate that the focus on the individual by therapists may be one of the factors that has been eroding community over the decades, teaching us all to believe that the individual, and only the individual matters.

Consider:

We need each other to be happy–and others need us.

Societal problems and the actions of others can impair our mental health and our ability to function.

Where we live–whether our surroundings are beautiful, ecologically intact, and deeply familiar–matters to our mental health. Where we live matters.

Even saying those words feels transgressive because therapists, self-help groups, self-help books, and inspirational internet memes all declare the exact opposite. The zeitgeist and the experts seem to agree that each of us can control nothing besides ourselves and therefore must learn to depend on nothing but ourselves to be happy.

I agree about the impossibility of control–actually, I can’t control myself, either. Willpower is effective only over a very narrow slice of human experience and behavior. But the fact of the matter is we need lots of things we can’t guarantee ourselves. We need food and water, yet some of us can’t get either and so die. We likewise require intact bodies, yet injury and illness can’t always be avoided. Is it too far-fetched that we might also need love, community, and an intact home to survive?

The appalling truth is that all of us are two things most of us don’t want to be; vulnerable and morally obligated.

Perhaps I’m digressing a bit.The point is that an expanded understanding of our mental and emotional needs is important, both from the perspective of supporting mental health for its own sake, and from the perspective of understanding how to solve the various environmental crises we face, most critically, climate change.

But how is that to happen, given that it’s still almost impossible to get more than a few people on a therapist’s couch at once?

The therapist must come out of the office. What we need are communities organized around supporting both individual and collective mental health. Healing and happiness needs to be part of how we live.

All of which stands parallel to another principle–that it’s all very well and good for an individual to make more sustainable lifestyle choices, but ultimate success depends on society-wide change made possible by environmentalism at the ballot box.

The bottom line may be that we need to become a society that takes care of ourselves, each other, and the planet–which reminds me of something a different wise friend once said:

It’s not enough to try to conserve the environment; we have to conserve the human community that conserves the environment.

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Responding to Greta

Greta Thunberg can’t save the world. She doesn’t claim that she can. In fact, the whole of what she is doing is to beg other people to act. She is telling the truth, and doing so with an unapologetic stridency that resonates–and many others are joining her, giving the issue the importance readers of this blog know it deserves.

If her actions carry a hint of hope, if we see in her some suggestion that perhaps we might still pull this thing out of our hat, it’s because the climate strike movement is new, and anything new is good.

But calling for change alone can’t save the world; the powerful still have the option to ignore the call. And frankly, many of them still are.

Last week, I posted a list of things you can do–it’s not my first such list, and I’m not the only one drafting such lists. Lists are good. But mine and those I have read have all so far missed an important distinction, an important way to be relevant to the specific challenge we find ourselves facing today, the challenge posed by tens of thousands of young people marching in the streets.

The thing is, Greta Thunberg can’t save the world, and those of us who rely on her to do so, responding to her with admiration only and not action, betray her as surely do the haters.

She can’t save the world, but we can.

The Powerful and the Powerless

In the realm of climate response, a continuum exists between the powerful and the powerless. It’s true that no one is so powerful as to be able to end anthropogenic climate change by an unaided act of will, and no one with the mental capacity to understand the problem to even the simplest degree is entirely without resources–and yet it’s also true that we’re not all alike. We’re not equals.

And the thing is, different strategies apply to different points along the spectrum.

No matter how much or how little power you have, you can make a difference, but not if you deny the reality of your position. If you put all your energy into changing the things you have direct control over, and all you have control over is what brand of toilet paper you buy, then you won’t get very far. It’s not that personal lifestyle changes don’t make a difference, they do, but they depend on the coordinated action of many people, and rarely succeed unless some other strategy is also being carried out. If personal lifestyle change is all you can do, go ahead and do it, but you also need to join Greta in the streets calling for change. On the other hand, if you happen to be the head of a multinational company or the prime minister of a whole country, joining the marching strikers is silly at best–you’re demonstrating against yourself, you know that, don’t you?

In either case, to act as though your power were something it isn’t is to refuse to act.

The Power of Direct Action

“Direct action” has a specific meaning in activist circles, but I mean something slightly different here. I am referring to actions that you can take on your own authority, actions that definitively reduce emissions all by themselves. For example, if you are the sole owner of a car company, you can decide to produce only fuel-efficient vehicles.

Everybody has some power of direct action. Greta Thunberg, for example, has decided not to eat meat. You can lead a kid to a hamburger, but you can’t make her eat it. Meat, especially beef, does have a large carbon footprint, so in and of itself, hers is a step in the right direction. But we all know it’s not a very big step, that’s why she’s striking–to make sure the bigger steps get taken by the people in a position to take them.

It is, as I said, a continuum, not a binary distinction between the powerful and the powerless, but it’s still important to recognize that not all steps are equal. When drafting a list of the “50 simple things you can do to save the Earth,” there is one very important thing to know; who are you?

Are you a 16-year-old kid? Are you a working stiff struggling to make rent? Do you own a house and a car and take regular transcontinental trips? Are you a business leader? A US Senator? The President of the United States? The more power of direct action you have, the more of your time and energy must be taken up by taking climate-friendly actions.

It’s possible you have more power than you think you do. It’s easy to fall into the habit of doing things as they’ve always been done, without realizing they could be done differently. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I ever make purchasing decisions for anything larger than my household?
  • Do I ever make investment decisions for more than a trivial amount of money?
  • Do I ever create plans that a team of people will follow?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies at my place of business?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies for a government agency, whether local, state-level, or national?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, how anything will be built?
  • Do I have the authority to decide how policies will be enacted?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, what someone else will be taught or notified about?

A yes to any of these questions indicates a place where you may be making climate decisions for more than your own personal lifestyle–a place where pleas to save the planet might actually be addressed to you.

You can make a climate action plan for your team, your organization, your event, your town, your state, your nation. Then enact the plan.

Go.

The Art of Influence

Most people, even if they can take some direct action, are going to be frustrated by the limits to their power. To one degree or another, part of your effectiveness is likely to depend on convincing someone to act. You can begin by turning up at rallies and demonstrations, and of course voting (and donating time and money to campaigns and registration drives). But the next step is to target specific people whose actions you want to change.

Who has the power to take what direct actions? What can you do to influence those actions?

The flipside of asking what unacknowledged power you might have is asking who else around you might have the power to change something. Once you have identified someone who can make a change, you can go about providing the necessary combination of pressure and support to make that change happen.

Here we have traditional political activism–marches, emails, petitions, coupled with lawsuits, whistle-blowing, boycotts, and civil disobedience. If you have the talent for organizing, you can get involved with strategy, or you can find existing campaigns to join. It’s not that activism is less powerful than direct action, it’s just that it is a different kind of power and requires a different strategy.

One or the Other

Greta Thunberg is saying some important stuff. Each of us has a fundamental choice in how to respond: we can join her in calling the powerful to act, or we can admit to being the powerful and respond to her call with action.

Do neither, and you are part of the problem. Don’t feel guilty; fix it!


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I Am Not Greta Thunberg

Last week, we joined the local iteration of the Climate Strike. Sort of.

The thing is, you can’t really go on strike if you’re retired (as my husband is), or self-employed (as I am). Anyway, our local event wasn’t organized as a strike–as far as I know, nobody walked out of work to attend. It was instead a demonstration or, probably more accurately, a rally.

I’ve talked about the distinction between strikes and demonstrations before. A rally is something else again. In a demonstration, the focus is external–you want someone, the media, the government, or, broadly speaking, “the Man,” to notice that you’re upset about something. In contrast, a rally has an internal focus–you’re coming together to show each other how you feel. The point is motivation, encouragement, and sometimes organization. An event can be all three at once, of course, but this was a rally.

A Day in the Park

We met in a local park, perhaps a hundred and fifty of us, to listen to live music and to various speakers, as well as video recordings of Greta Thunberg’s speeches and interviews. Local organizations had tables set up offering information and voter registration cards. There were tables of food, mostly donated but some of it brought by attendees. There was plastic cutlery. There was talk of how Friday afternoon is such an inconvenient time, we can’t really expect a lot of people to show up.

Which is about when I started to cry.

Something to Cry About

The advantage of having just lost my sister to cancer, if there is one, is that when I break down weeping in a public place, nobody really holds it against me. And I admit if circumstances were different, I might have held my composure better. But I wasn’t weeping for my sister. After all, lots of individuals die, and the rest of the world goes on. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it should, but it does; life as a whole gets over individual tragedy pretty thoroughly. An entropic biosphere, on the other hand, is something else.

I didn’t weep for my sister but for everyone and everything else. I wept because I didn’t feel free to shout “plastic cutlery? What the hell were you thinking?” or other such railings at the business-as-usual tone of the whole event. And I wept because I am not Greta Thunberg.

A Personal Note

The thing is, that was supposed to be me. I had the same commitment to environmentalism from an early age, and at 16 years old I was making personal lifestyle changes and anticipating a life as an activist. I understood the science of the crisis. I wanted to change the world and I expected to.

Did I?

Not yet, as far as I can tell. In the 36 years since I was 16, the environmental crisis has gotten substantially worse, while most of my time and energy have gone into my personal concerns. For all my good intentions, I have become one of the adults who let Greta down.

It’s true it’s not exactly from moral laziness on my part, and it’s certainly not due to greed or selfishness. I didn’t lose my ideals or abandon my dreams. Instead, the issue is that whatever mental ability allows most people to look at a situation and find their role in it, it’s an ability that I appear to lack. With certain rare and limited exceptions, I just don’t know what I can do to help. And no, pamphlets entitled “What You Can Do” don’t solve the problem. So far, nothing does. So I get very little done.

But the validity of my excuse does not make any practical difference; the climate doesn’t award anybody E for Effort, it just keeps getting warmer until someone succeeds.

If I had started shouting about the plastic cutlery, I doubt I would have been understood. The others would have protested that they have good intentions and frustrating limitations, too, as if I don’t understand, as if I don’t appreciate what they are doing. And it’s not true. I do understand–and I do appreciate. Maryland is taking some real and important steps towards environmental stewardship, and it’s happening through the efforts of remarkable activists–and voters–some of whom were with me that day in the park. These are people who are, overall, more effective than I have been. These are people who organized a successful rally for the climate, something I, honestly, probably could not do, or at least could not have done as well. It was a step in the right direction, one of many steps being taken, and it was a good party. I cheered up eventually, had a good time, and found some organizations that can use my skill as a writer to accomplish something.

But if the climate strike is going to mean anything, it has to include honesty about the crisis we are in. It must include a restless, focused urgency, and–for anyone who is already an adult–it has to include some soul-searching. Who among us can really say “I have done enough” when the biosphere is still dying?

Frankly, I don’t understand why everyone else isn’t weeping, too.

A Shot in the Dark

Greta Thunberg is telling the truth. She’s demanding action, enforcing a kind of societal honesty. The fact that she can get other people to listen to her and join her in her demands is extraordinary. The fact that she can stay focused on her message in the face of hostility, apathy, and flattery is also extraordinary. Very few people could do what she is doing.

But it’s worth taking note of what she isn’t doing, too. She’s not organizing. She is an independent public speaker and climate striker, and while she sometimes cooperates with various groups, she does not lead any organization herself. She doesn’t organize the international strikes and demonstrations that she has inspired–other people, mostly other teenagers, do that. She also isn’t offering or enacting any solutions.

I don’t mean that as a criticism; fire alarms seldom also put out fires, but fire fighters still rely on alarms to wake them up and get them moving in the right direction.

But it’s important to recognize that Ms. Thunberg can’t, all by herself, save us. She is, in fact, begging us to save her.

If we respect her, we have to take further action.

Solving the Problem

Climate change is both a simple problem and a very complex one. The simple part is that burning fossil fuels, plus certain activities that fossil fuels make economically viable (such as destroying the Amazon rainforest in order to produce beef for export), is destroying the world. We have to stop doing those things at once.

But the complex part (aside from the details of the climate response; they don’t call climates a complex system for nothing) is that if it’s done the wrong way, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is likely to cause other problems–some of them  drastic. And it’s not altogether clear what the right way to do it is. We know where we need to go, but how best to get there isn’t obvious, even supposing we were all trying to get there. Then, too, “keeping fossil fuels in the ground” is not something that can be done by a single person acting alone. Large numbers of people all have to act together, each in their own role–political leaders, economic leaders, diplomats, activists, consumers, voters, educators–and all more or less coordinated.

And of course, we do all have to attend to other elements of our lives simultaneously, striking balances among competing interests that we don’t actually know how to balance.

While I believe I do have unusual difficulty with finding a place to be of service, I’m clearly not the only person who looks at this mess and says “I don’t know what to do.”

But we must each do something, and do it hard and fast and well.

Steps to Take

I am not Greta Thunberg. I don’t have the abilities she has. But I have the abilities I have, and I also have a blog. And I also have the power to use language to explore options–I can, perhaps, help with charting a solution.

I therefore offer the following suggested actions:

  • Weeping It’s impossible to act as though something is important without feeling as though it’s important, and feeling as though the planet is important entails rage, grief, and fear. It also tends to involve guilt, shame, and frustration, helplessness. While sitting at a picnic table and literally weeping in public might not be everyone’s style, it’s important to let the uncomfortable feelings happen. Be where you are.
  • Community It’s very difficult to accomplish anything in isolation. Most of us need social support and affirmation. That includes not just encouragement and reassurance, but also actions that might on the face of it seem critical–calling on each other to do better, letting each other know when we’ve missed something. We need to form friendships in which climate action is a shared and acknowledged priority, even when it means not being polite. We need more parties, too.
  • Local Action Many of us are in positions where “green” lifestyles aren’t really an option. There isn’t enough local food production, there isn’t energy-efficient mass transit, there isn’t renewable electricity, communities aren’t walkable, there are laws that make “green” lifestyles difficult or impossible. These challenges are places to start, places to get to work.
  • Political Pressure Much of the work that has to be done requires the leadership of elected officials. We need to make such leadership politically expedient. Send emails, make phone calls, turn up at demonstrations, make sure that friends and neighbors know about demonstrations and help them get there. Make it obvious to our leaders that climate is important to the people.
  • Focused Flexibility We need to hold ourselves and our leaders to a high standard, but we also can’t let rigor become an excuse for inaction. We can’t refuse to take action because the action plan isn’t perfect. We can’t refuse to work with allies because those allies are also our adversaries on other issues. We have to embrace a certain pragmatism. Purity won’t win the war.
  • Voting We have to become single-issue voters. If a candidate is not a climate hawk, we must not vote them into office. We need to contribute time and money to candidates who are climate hawks. As more climate hawks run, we can choose among them based on their stance on other issues we care about.

It’s not that climate is the only important issue, it’s that all the other important issue depends on this one.

 


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Strike!

For years, now, I’ve been wondering why nobody’s organizing climate demonstrations. Seems a bad time to let the pressure up. Or am I just out of the loop? Are demonstrations happening without me? As far as I can tell, in recent months, most of the energy has indeed not been going into marches but rather into “direct action,” either strikes or deliberate attempts to get arrested in a good cause. And unfortunately, I’m not really available for either. The nature of my work means that for me to strike would hurt only me; writers occasionally change the world by writing, but never by not writing.

But now, apparently, there’s a march scheduled–lots of them! All over! On September 20th!

To find an event near you, please click here.

I have to say this one looks a bit odd. For one thing, they’re calling these events “strikes,” when they are clearly demonstrations or protests. The difference matters.

To strike is to walk off the job in order to force change. We’re most familiar with strikes against specific employers, where workers cease work en mass in order to shut down the company until management agrees to workers’ demands, like pay raises and better working conditions. A general strike shuts down an entire economy for the same reason. For a strike to work, it has to hurt, or threaten to hurt, somebody with the power to make the changes the strikers want. It is a species of force, like boycotts and sit-ins, a non-violent means to take control of a situation and make someone else comply. Such force can be countered with force–not all strikes succeed–but cannot be ignored.

In contrast, demonstrations and protests can be ignored. When they succeed, it is because someone in power decides the protestors are right, because someone in power takes the demonstration as a warning that force will soon be used, or because someone uses the political cover provided by the demonstration to seize power.

Both work–but which one are we doing on the 20th?

Of course, there will be some of each. I plan to demonstrate. I may take the day off work to do so, but none of my clients are likely to stop climate change if I miss a deadline, so I won’t miss any. Others will doubtless suspend work for a day, and some strikes may be genuine applications of force, while others will be symbolic. But I’d like to see the distinction acknowledged as a matter of strategy–because demonstrations don’t always make good strikes and vice versa. And we need both to work right now.

The question is further complicated by the fact that, strategically speaking, the children’s strike for climate is itself a demonstration–for kids and teens to walk out of class doesn’t hurt those in power, it simply grabs their attention. Grabbing attention can be a very powerful thing to do, though. Demonstrations have toppled dictators. They have started wars–and ended them.

Either way, all of us need to know what our mission is on that day, and how what each of us is doing contributes to the whole.

I’ve written before comparing the children’s climate strike to the move, “Amazing Grace and Chuck”. In that movie, children quit their extra-curricular sports in order to demand nuclear disarmament–an effort that, in the movie, eventually proves successful. Now, in our real children’s strike, Greta Thunberg is our Chuck.

My guess is that our objective on the 20th is to flush out Amazing Graze.

 


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Spock Is STILL Right

I’m going to need to research and write about the fires in the arctic, the rapidly melting glaciers, the latest legal/political developments and so on, but I still lack the time and energy for a well-researched “explainer” post. But I have reached a conclusion I would like to share with you; Spock is still right.

A Moment of Star Trek

About two weeks ago, I went over to the house of my sister and brother-in-law. My sister was asleep, but the others were watching an episode of Star Trek (the original series). It was the one where Spock and a shuttlecraft full of people get stranded on a planet with hostile natives–meanwhile, the Enterprise is urgently needed elsewhere and must leave in just a few days. The stranded group know they must repair their shuttlecraft by a certain deadline or there will be no ship waiting for them. The deadline comes and goes before the shuttlecraft finally makes it off the surface with only enough power for a couple of orbits. The Enterprise has already left. Things seem hopeless. But then Spock, the logical one, does something very odd–he ignites the last of their fuel all at once, producing a large, green flare, trying to signal the ship. He has no reason to believe the Enterprise is still close enough to see the flare, and using all the fuel means they will de-orbit and crash within a few minutes–and yet the Enterprise DOES see them (it was traveling much more slowly than it had been ordered to) and rescue them. Later, the other officers razz Spock on his illogical, emotional action. He insists he had acted quite logically. They tell him he is stubborn. He agrees.

“Spock is right, though,” said my brother-in-law, afterwards.

He explained that when you’re facing certain disaster, putting everything you have into an extreme long-shot possibility of survival is entirely logical. Given a choice between no chance and a small chance to get something you really have to have (like life!), the small chance is better than none–and it is worth all available resources.

I agreed, but I also understood the unspoken subtext. I knew that a hospice worker had come to visit that morning about my sister and that my brother-in-law was still researching possible cures.

Back on Earth

Last night, I found myself sitting on a Greyhound bus next to a talkative and friendly–but very drunk–thirty-something man who told me all about his dreams for his future, expressed interest in my new book, and paused about every twenty minutes to tell me how smart and wonderful he thinks I am. There was nothing scary or obnoxious about him. In fact, he reminded me very much of a young child, and I like young children. I gathered that he’s had a hard time of it lately, and that getting drunk and hopping on interstate buses in the middle of the night is probably not his normal mode of operation. I doubt I saw him at his best and I hope he ends up OK.

But somewhere around Dover we got to talking about climate change and he admitted that he is very sad and very scared. He wondered if it might be too late to do anything.

I told him it’s never too late to try, and advised him to study up and get involved. Maybe he will. If you ever find a food truck in South Carolina serving Spanish/Asian fusion and advertising organic, low-carbon-footprint, locally-grown food, tip generously and tell the owner I said hi.

You never know from where the help we need might come.

Endings

Spock was right to trigger the flare because the Enterprise saw it and saved the day. If the ending of the episode had been different, if the Enterprise had not seen the flare, would Spock have been wrong?

In fact, my sister never woke up that night. The Enterprise didn’t come back. The landing party are all dead.

Spock is still right.

Because the logic actually is impeccable. What else are you going to do, sit around doing nothing in the face of disaster? Why?

Hope is not a technique for making what you want happen, so when you act on hope and the thing you hoped for doesn’t pan out, it’s not that your hope didn’t work. But while to try is no guarantee of success, not trying does pretty much guarantee failure–and sometimes miracles do happen.

So is it too late to do something about climate change? You’re still alive, aren’t you?

Go ahead, give it what you’ve got. Make a green flare.


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Still Can’t

I’m having a rough time. Some of you know why. I sat down to write a post today and an hour later nothing has been accomplished. So here is a re-post instead.

…………

Tilting Windmills

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My friend says she’s sometimes not sure activism is worth it anymore, because the world is about to end. I don’t share that problem. My problem is I don’t know how to choose among the many possible forms of activism, when I believe they might all be fruitless anyway. Six of one one, half a dozen of doing not much. Also, sometimes I get so anxious I can’t do anything at all.

A few days ago, my friend posted to Facebook, attempting to start an “informal dialogue” about how to cope with climate change psychologically. How to deal with the often paralyzing and exhausting fear that awareness brings, especially when the surrounding society offers so often the tempting narcotic of pretending it’s not happening, or is happening only in a distant and mild way. As if we had fifty or a hundred years to sort all this out. As if climate change weren’t especially important. It’s lonely, as she said.

I thought I can help! I have a blog about this very thing! But, when I looked, I saw no entries that really suggested a solution. And when I searched online, while I found confirmation that the discipline of psychology is, indeed, tackling the issue, I saw nothing of particular immediate benefit to me.

Enter the Man of La Mancha

Coincidentally, into my doom and gloom, came an email from another friend about something totally different. Among other topics, he referred to some of his own environmental work as “tilting at windmills.” Of course, that’s a reference to Don Quixote, the classic figure of fiction who deluded himself into believing he was a heroic knight and who attacked windmills, believing them to be fairy-tale giants. My friend is doing nothing in any way similar–the giants he is attacking are all very real–but he has a self-deprecating sense of humor.

But what occurred to me when I read his email was the following:

Alternative Energy Revolution

From: https://xkcd.com/556/

 

If you can’t see the comic I’ve pasted for whatever reason, it starts out with a picturesque landscape of modern wind turbines silhouetted against a peach-colored background. In subsequent panels, two people (rendered as stick figures, this is XKCD, by Randall Monroe, and he mostly does stick figures) admit that the turbines look disturbingly like the tripodal monsters from certain sci-fi stories–and the turbines promptly grow legs and become exactly such monsters, ravaging the landscape. Their huge legs pound the ground with calamitous thunder. The terrified humans despair–but a voice calls “stand aside!” and there, on a hill, lance at the ready, stands DON QUIXOTE!

The “mouseover text” is “The moment their arms spun freely in our air, they were doomed–for Man has earned his right to hold this planet against all comers, by virtue of occasionally producing someone totally batshit insane.”

When my friend mentioned “tilting and windmills” I also thought of Quixote’s story from the character’s own perspective. To others, he seems simply to be having a mental health problem–and that is part of the truth, as the book makes clear. But the deeper, more complicated part is that Quixote is attempting to live by the rules of a vanished, and perhaps always fictional world, a world characterized by honor, nobility, and bravery such as most people now ignore. He is not so much fighting against windmills as fighting for the proposition that there is something worth fighting for, that a man on a horse and with a sense of honor can make a difference in the world.

In the actual book, that fight is a losing proposition. Quixote’s attempts to be a hero all backfire, he helps nobody, and ultimately he regains his sanity and disavows all interest in the romantic stories that used to fascinate him. It is Randall Monroe’s contention, however, that crazy Don Quixote is still out there somehow, and that there will come a time in which we need him.

When we need precisely someone who is crazy enough to believe that he or she can make a difference, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Is the real question, then, how do we maintain ourselves as the right sort of “batshit insane”?

Some Provisional Answers

I’m hardly an expert on how to solve the world’s problems. There are days I can barely manage to clean the cat box. I’d be much more comfortable if I could have Googled up some DIY tips on how to fight the good fight, recommended by a successful activist with a background in psychology besides. But that didn’t happen. So, instead I’m presenting a couple of ideas of my own. After all, I’m going to be forty next week. I figure that after forty years (less one week) on this planet, I’ve learned a few things worth sharing.

1. You Can Only Do What You Can Do

A primary struggle for me is finding myself mysteriously unable to do things. I mean I intend to do it, I plan to do it, I mean to do it, and I don’t. “It” could be anything from losing weight to cleaning the toilet, but the most relevant example is the expansion of this site that I began soon after the election and have not yet completed. Why not?

I’ve tried on a lot of explanations, mostly revolving around quirks of my brain that really do make a lot of things harder for me, but none of those explanations suggested a solution. I suspect I’ve simply been engaging in my own version of what my mother does–calling herself lazy when she finds she can’t work more than anyone humanly could (she’s retired now, but still busy with four grandkids and a big house and yard, plus volunteer commitments). Both of us are under the persistent delusion that we have super-powers, and we set goals and priorities for ourselves accordingly.

I mean, here I am, working as a free-lance writer to pay the bills, plus maintaining three unpaid blogs and writing multiple novels all at once, and I’m down on myself for not also building this site into a major online resource for activists?

Maybe if I sat down and made an honest assessment of what I can do, and then re-prioritized, I’d be more successful at meeting my goals.

I’m not just talking about time management, here. I’m talking about energy. I’m talking about money. I’m talking about resilience in the face of stress. I’m talking about physical and mental health. I’m talking about ability, which, yes, does vary. All of this varies, from person to person and from day to day, often for reasons we do not and cannot know. To some extent we may be able to change our reality–I may be able to do things tomorrow that I can’t do today–but we can’t just wish it away.

If you only have ten minutes a day to devote to saving the world, then accept that and make your ten minutes count. Develop a plan you can actually enact.

2.Don’t Ask Whether You Can Do It–Ask How

I realize this point and the previous one look like contradictions, but I’m actually addressing two different aspects of “can.” There is choosing an achievable goal, and there is choosing a workable method.

For many years I confused the two. When I despaired of achieving something and people told me to believe in myself, I thought they meant I should make like the Little Engine That Could and motivate myself to the top. And that just made me feel worse, because while strong motivation can indeed unlock hither-to un-guessed-at possibility, I knew that real limitations exist also. Sometimes, even the Little Engine can’t.

Maybe that’s what they did mean–the idea that attitude is everything is a very common fallacy, and it results in people not only feeling terrible for not being good enough, but also torturing themselves with the thought that somehow they must not have wanted it badly enough.

But eventually somebody nudged me into realizing that there is a better way to think about goals; don’t ask whether the goal is attainable, assume that it is–then ask what method is workable.

Maybe the Little Engine can take a different way up the mountain.

There is no logical reason whatever to waste time and energy wondering whether we can still prevent climate change disaster. We know that this goal is worth everything we can throw at it, and that if we are to succeed, we must throw everything at it. We will get up that hill or we will die trying, because the alternative is to die without trying and that is worse.

The real question is how are we going to try getting up that hill?

3. Just Pick Something

Ok, but how are we going to attack that hill? Let’s be honest; there are days when each of us thinks we may be facing a no-win scenario, here. And when you believe that you’ll fail no matter what you do, how do you pick a thing to try to do anyway?

I have lots of experience with this conundrum, because I have a really hard time making seemingly arbitrary choices. There are days I do no housework at all because I can’t decide whether to clean the kitchen or the bathroom first. Based on my extensive experience, I can offer two suggestions:

  1. Pick something. If it doesn’t matter which you pick, then you can’t pick wrong.
  2. Once you pick, do something to make it seem less arbitrary, like investing money in your choice, or commiting to a friend you’ll stick with it.

4. The World Usually Doesn’t End

This one’s pretty simple. Yes, it seems plausible that everything we hold dear is about to be destroyed, especially this week, as the leaders of two nuclear-armed nations engage in what might even charitably be termed a pissing contest. But the end of everything has seemed plausible before and the world didn’t end. It usually doesn’t.

5. Don’t Dis Despair

Another friend of mine insists that despair is a useful state, not to be resisted. I don’t really understand this. I trust him to be wise, however.

I do know that temporarily giving into despair can be useful if only in that it allows a rest from the work of resisting despair. Rage, cry, curl up in a fetal position, and then pick yourself back up and get on with things again. I also know that giving up on one thing can be the first step to trying something else–a different, more workable method, perhaps.

How to…?

So, how to keep it together in the face of climate change, or at least fall apart in a useful way? I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t found anyone who can tell me. But at least part of the solution, in my experience, involves the following:

  1. Honor your own situational and personal limits
  2. Choose ambitious, pie-in-the-sky goals and practical means of reaching those goals
  3. If no course of action looks better than any other, choose randomly
  4. No matter how bad things look, remember the world usually doesn’t end
  5. And if you do get caught up in despair, give in to it occasionally–you might find something useful down there in that pit.

That’s what I’ve got. Let’s see how it works.


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The Power of Individual Action?

This past week, I saw an interview with a man who encouraged individual efforts towards personal sustainability, but also asserted that it won’t do anything–but voting will.

I agree about the importance of voting, but why encourage the pointless? And is individual action pointless? I think not.

Here’s why.

First, individual lifestyle choices, like individual votes, add up. If enough people decide to prefer certain business practices over others–less carbon-intensive practices–industry will follow suit. Such principle-driven market choices obviously can’t solve the problem alone (or they would have already), but boycotts have changed history before.

Second, lifestyle choice can become an important point for discussion, both as a way to educate others and as a way to explore what kinds of policy changes might help. If low-carbon transportation is not a practical option in a given area, for example, perhaps sustainable public transit would be an important policy goal?

Third, trying to make one’s own life as sustainable as possible is an important exercise, a way to practice commitment and a way to develop one’s own environmental consciousness.

That has to be worth something.

But yeah, don’t get distracted. VOTE.