The Climate in Emergency

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


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Feedback, Please

Hi, all,

Don’t worry, I do plan on writing a “real” post also, but right now I have a question for you.

The thing is, I can’t tell whether the visitation records I get for this blog actually include all my readers. I suspect it doesn’t, since some posts are listed as having zero views and I happen to know my mother reads every one (hi, Mom!). So who else isn’t being counted?

So please, you who are reading this post, leave a comment. Just say hi. I want to see how many of you there are.

It’s important, and not just for my own ego–I’m working on setting up partnerships with other organizations, and if I’ve got a large readership I make a more appealing partner.

Thanks!

-C.


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A Climate for Reading: Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change

Long-time readers will remember that I not-infrequently post essays about my own mental state, or the mental-health dimensions of the climate crisis more generally. The bottom line is that it’s difficult to take effective action when one is anxious or depressed, but climate change itself exacerbates mental health issues. There’s a vicious cycle at play, here.

So, I’ve started looking for solutions in books, and here I am, ready to cautiously recommend the first title.

The cover image of the book, Emotional Resiliency." It is a mix of dark blue and light blue with some irregular yellow and orange spots--possibly a satellite view of deep water, shallow water, and islands. The title, author's name, and related information are in the lower right-hand quadrant of the image. Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change:

A Clinician’s Guide

Leslie Davenport

2017 Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Emotional Resiliency is a slim, easy-to-read book filled with lots of practical tips and some interesting information. It’s written for professional therapists as a guide for working with clients, but because the author expects those therapists to also work on developing their own emotional resiliency, it works as a self-help guide too, in a pinch.

Each chapter covers an aspect of the psychological dimension of climate change, such as denial, grief, or the trauma around disasters, and then presents a worksheet designed to foster introspection and growth. The latter half of the book is devoted to presenting 12 practices, mental and emotional exercises designed to help patients–or the therapist reading the book–to grow. The recommendation is to do each one regularly for a whole month.

The resiliency in the title is an important concept. The objective of the book is not simply to help people feel better but to help people remain mentally functional in the face of the various kinds of stress that climate change presents–that way, we don’t take refuge in denial, or get overwhelmed and just down, or any of the other things stressed-out people do other than take care of the problem at hand (achieving climate sanity and coping with climate disasters).

The assumption here is that stress will keep coming, and it may at times be severe, but we have the power to strengthen ourselves against it so we can be part of the solution.

I have not yet put the recommended exercises into practice, so I cannot vouch for them; they do look worth trying.

My reactions to the rest of the book are mixed.

The author has a pervasive problem with clinging to a highly simplified, feel-good narrative where personal growth (assisted, perhaps, by a skilled clinician) appears to be the only thing a person needs to effectively tackle the climate crisis. While I definitely see the need for focus, it’s possible to focus on a topic without denying the existence of other topics.

The fact of the matter is that some people’s efforts towards climate action are complicated by poverty, by ongoing abuse and injustice, or by physical or other disability. Can people who are poor, oppressed, or disabled still become effective climate activists? Yes–many have, but only by negotiating layers of additional obstacles.

I wish this book included information on how to deal with those obstacles.

The author not only fails to even acknowledge the existence of problems such as poverty or disability (which cause their own stresses that a therapist could indeed address), she also fails to acknowledge that climate denial isn’t an exclusively psychological problem. I can see an argument for a book like this not getting too deep into politics, but the fact that climate denial is being deliberately propagated and is not an inevitable outgrowth of human psychology is important to acknowledge  particularly for a psychologist.

Further, the phenomenon of climate denial exists in a political, cultural, and economic context and is by now firmly wrapped up in issues of personal and community identity. A therapist who fails to recognize the reality of that context–and where the client fits in to it–is not going to be able to serve many clients well.

The third permutation of the book’s weakness may be harder for some readers to identify because it is pervasive throughout our entire culture.

I’m talking about frequent references to tribal culture that are little more than vague platitudes or bits of supposedly indigenous wisdom passed along by white people. She never mentions tribal peoples in any context other than as sources of mystical wisdom, and certainly never acknowledges any Native person by name or references any issue that Native people deal with in the here and now.

It’s racism. It’s also a serious problem for the author of this book to seem unaware that her readers might have Native people as clients or as colleagues or collaborators–any of whom might have trauma histories, perspectives, or resources related to their being Native and related to climate change

But all that being said, Emotional Resilience defines important conceptual territory–the idea of developing resilience, as opposed to simply coping with grief or fear, of building capacity like a muscle, is an important one. I found some of the information important food for thought.

And personally I find the reminder to attend to grief quite timely.

So for all the complaints that I have, I’m glad I’ve got the book. I intend to try out the exercises. And even the effort of sorting out which of her ideas are useful and which might not be–and what might be useful despite being couched in questionable ways–is itself a useful exercise.

On balance I recommend the book.

(Just remember the name of the author; the phrase “emotional resiliency” or “emotional resilience” occurs in the title of multiple books.)


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The Fog of…Fog

Looking down a quiet, narrow paved road with no sidewalks in a fog-filled forest. The trees are leafless, except for a few small evergreens on the edge of the shot. The fog is very thick and the whole image is dim and mysterious.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’m not feeling well. I’m on the mend from a stomach bug last week and still tire easily, so the intricate science-explainer I’m looking forward to writing will have to wait another week. But that’s how I’m doing–how’s my little corner of the Earth doing this week?

Well, it’s not on fire, so that’s good, but winter seems to have taken a break–we’ve had days of borderline T-shirt weather recently. I know that climate and weather are different, and cold weather in my neighborhood doesn’t mean climate change has taken a breather, but I still would prefer it. I still find warm winter days discouraging. I also can’t quite shake the feeling that if I complain about the unseasonable weather enough, climate change will hear me somehow and go away.

We do what we can to maintain our sense of normality in times when normal is rare and crumbling.

I took my dogs on a walk in the late afternoon. It was cold enough out to require a jacket, at least, and the rain had stopped, or maybe paused. A thick fog had settled in, putting halos around the headlights of the cars of people returning from work–rush-hour, of sorts, on our quiet street. We live among woodlot and farm field, among deer and turkeys who never let us see them (some of the neighbors doubtless hunt), and among vultures who come here to roost, rustling huge wings with a sound like shuffling paper as they get ready for sleep. The world goes silver and quiet on wet winter days around here, the fog against the muted colors of field and forest.

I heard the honking of geese and looked up. I couldn’t see them at first, but then they went right overhead, flying low, but almost hidden in the fog anyway, as if they’d been partially erased. The movement of their wings wasn’t visible in the blurry gloom, so they scooted across the sky with no obvious means of propulsion, like Star Trek shuttlecraft.

This is the world we live in. Won’t somebody make sure we get to keep it?


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Three Views of Life on Earth

Stuff is happening in the world–fires in the arctic, notably, though there is other important news to cover. But for me to cover it myself would take time that I don’t have free this week for sad reasons that some of you already know. So instead I’m giving you this repost of a piece originally written for college some years ago but posted here back in April. I find it relevant today.

-C.

Just before Yule this past year, I was chatting on the phone with a friend of mine, Robert, while doing some sewing. I turned to do something in the kitchen only to discover upon my return that my cat, her ulcerated tumors bleeding again, had covered my workspace, including my dress pattern, with irregular, red spots. I hustled around trying to separate my patterns so they could dry and protect my fabric without interrupting the flow of conversation, whose subject seemed bizarrely civilized under the circumstances; we were discussing the genome of the grape and the proper ways to serve different kinds of wine while I stared, transfixed, at the red, Rorschached blotches like footprints, stalking, taking, slowly, my cat.

Here, observe, three views of life on Earth.

One:

Saturday morning in January, warm, hot as May; the breeze moves, gentle, as I stand on the sidewalk waiting for the bus by the Ethan Allen furniture store and St. Phillips Lutheran Church, chickweeds growing in delicate riot by my feet, so far so good, but also dandelions, clover, greening grass, while the trees stand mute above like skeletons. This isn’t right; though the air is pleasant on my simple skin I can’t enjoy it. This weather is as apocalyptic as last summer’s heat waves when I lay, sick and dreaming, too hot to work, all thought, all feeling driven off by the eternal, heavy, heat, save one; this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but this is the way it is going to be, more often now, because of us. A funeral procession drives by, headed by slowly flashing police escort, dozens and dozens of cars of mute, hard-eyed people. Most of the cars have only a single passenger, or at most, two. An oil truck cuts through the line to make a delivery to the strip mall behind me, its presence as lyric to the day as a line of poetry. I wonder, whose funeral is it?

Two:

My cat wants to go out, and I can deny her nothing, except for all the things I have denied her and all the things it simply isn’t mine to give; this leash, for example, is a compromise between her exuberance and her body, too sick to take a rabies vaccine. She has never gotten fully comfortable outside and never developed her body to its feline potential; as far as I know, she has never climbed more than a few feet up a tree. Probably, she never will, now. Maybe she might have if I had simply let her out and hoped she didn’t get bitten, or maybe I should have gone out with her more, for longer. Who am I to draw this line here? Who am I to bring a cat in out of the sun just because I have something else I need or want to do? These are judgments I do not feel competent to make and I never have felt competent to make them through these long years of one kind of leash or another hanging between us, yet make them I must. Nothing that I gave her could ever have been enough to absolve her of further desserts. We walk, and she pauses to scent-mark the bottom twig on the lilac bush, rubbing it with her nose, her gums, sniffing it delicately. I sniff it after her and compare the scent to that of one higher up, above the reach of cats and foxes. I fancy I can detect a difference. She stalks a bird in the ivy bed, and I flatten myself out behind her, trying to move forward without frightening her quarry, giving her as much range as possible with the leash, my arm, and the length of my outstretched body. The bird must have flown while neither of us noticed, for now it is no longer there. The day is fine and high and blue, and she doesn’t seem to know she’s sick. Or, at least she doesn’t favor herself, she goes full-bore, always, along her small, plucky way. I mean, what else does she have to do? It’s not like she’s going to get better, it isn’t like she has time to spare in self-pity. She just plays the cards she’s dealt. This animal is a carnivore, whose kind prune and in so pruning, create the reproductive exuberance of small rodents and birds. Fed on organic ground beef through the agency of human loyalty and partisanship, this cat has lived almost nine years. In that time, how many steers have died young for her?

Three:

Walking through campus I can see that the remaining old elms are dying; they have brownish yellow stripes running up the grey and furrowed trunks. My Dad told me about Dutch elm disease when I was little; I have never known a time when its inundations were not part of my history, but as I’ve been watching, over the better part of thirty years, the pandemic has progressed and more of the great cambium fountains have come down. When I was little, I remember, the elms met over the walkways, across the greens. I remember walking, on Community Day, a visceral memory; the smell of cotton candy and funnel cake, a grown-up hand—whose? I only remember the hand—in mine, and above an arching green roof full of multicolored balloons escaped from the careless hands of other children. The greens are open, now, the places of most of the giants taken by smaller trees, another kind of elm, I think, their stems slowly thickening into adulthood. My friend, Robert, is an ecologist who is busy mapping the community types of my state. When I brought him here, on the way to a coffee shop, he remarked that the campus probably counted as Modified Meadow or Modified Hardwood Forest. He’s grasping at straws; this isn’t altered, this is new: American Collegiate, typified by dying elms, manicured grass and a fauna of Frisbee players, grey squirrels, and playful dogs. No matter how aberrant this slow death of trees seems to me, the elms would never have died in such numbers if they hadn’t been planted unnaturally thick to begin with.

Humans are capable of a certain impartial perspective, but at heart we’re partisan animals living in a non-partisan world. Global warming and human-associated habitat destruction are surely no more radical than the asteroid that marked the KT boundary. Life recovered, growing even more diverse in time, and will again; nothing stays the same for long. Similarly, the birthrate of any given species is adjusted to its mortality rate; if it takes three dozen mice born per one that makes it to adulthood to keep even with the hunger of cats, then that is the number that mother mice produce, yet every pup is an individual. One could say each mouse deserves a full and happy life, just as every cat does, but it is the nature of both cats and mice, in their fullness, to produce more than can so live; to lower the mortality rate would require lowering the birthrate which would change the nature of the animals’ lives. Anyway, which individuals don’t get born in that case? Isn’t it better to live for at least a little while? Like climate change and disaster, death and even personal tragedy are just part of how things work; if these things did not exist, life as a whole would be different and probably the poorer for it.

Yet we are partisan, and we must behave in partisan ways; we act, we do one thing rather than another, and so we must make choices based on some judgment, some assessment of value, even if the value is a purely private priority. Mass extinctions happen, and in the grand scheme of things may not actually be a problem, but I must throw my small weight either for this one or against it, and I do not want a mass extinction on my watch, on my conscience. Plants, animals, and diseases do invade each other’s territory; humans may be causing an unprecedented invasion, but we are not causing the only one. Communities adapt and change. Diversity will recover. Nonetheless, I want my trees not to die of some imported disease, even if their gothic branches were themselves an artificial presence. And I want my Gertie to have not had cancer to begin with, I don’t care if she’s no better or worse than a mouse or a beef steer–or me, for that matter, I wanted this one, this particular one, to get the proverbial sun, moon and stars. That I, a mortal human, couldn’t reach them for her does not reduce the injustice any less.

We live in a world of change and transformation; one thing eats another, one thing subsumes another, one thing takes another’s place. Even if it were possible to pick sides, once and for all, on moral grounds, it would not be possible on physical grounds, for not only does the success of a predator mean the failure of a prey animal–and vice versa–but it is the very opposition, the very dynamism of the system, that makes the system in the first place. Under whatever happy façade of civilization or rationalization, we are incontrovertibly members of a system where things break and change and die as an inevitable matter of course, without violating the integrity of the whole. Under whatever veneer of educated perspective, however, we remain organisms who fight and try to win.


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Moving Landmarks

I have spent the past weekend traveling—a few days in southern New Hampshire, and now in coastal Maine. I have been experiencing weather and, by extension, climate not normally my own.

Of New Hampshire….

The Ashuelot River looked like an overfilled bathtub. The swimming beach at the nearby Swanzey Lake (which is more properly a pond) looked as though the tide had come in. Puddles escaped out of ditches and inched across trails. Everywhere throughout that part of New Hampshire was water, water, and more water. I used to live thereabouts, which is how I recognized the water level as unusual, but I have seen the rivers high before. The odd thing is that when the Ashuelot runs high, it usually turns a chocolate-milk color with eroded sediment. Most rivers, in my experience, do.

This time the river ran dark, its standard low-water color.

The paradoxical color told me that the high water wasn’t the result of rapid storm runnoff but of the slow, even seepage of the water-table, the low-water pattern of movement transposed to a much wetter version of the landscape.

Indeed, friends reported that it had started raining back in November and more or less never stopped, although the air was dry during our visit. One said she’d heard that although the rain has been deeply and dramatically unusual, the water-table is actually normal, now. So many years of drought had actually dried out the land so much that it took a six-month-long flood to make up the difference.

But if the water table is normal, is the high river and everything else likewise? Was the Keene area as I knew it always warped by drought?

Of Maine….

Here on the coast, now, the story is cold. The neighbor who brought his child to see our dogs told us he couldn’t work this spring—he digs clams, and otherwise harvests the sea—because until recently the harbors were frozen. This was the first week of the season temperatures rose above sixty degrees. Everybody’s talking about the cold, late spring.

My question is—is the spring really cold and late? Or is it a version of normal we haven’t seen in a while?

Of Normality….

I don’t know whether the wet and dry of New Hampshire or the cold and warm of Maine are especially symptomatic of climate change, but this uncertainty regarding normality certainly is.

Emotionally speaking, we recognize climate change is a sickening, frightening abnormality. The heat wave in January, the drought that eats whole reservoirs, the hurricane making landfall where no hurricane should be. But to recognize the abnormal, one must have a feel for the normal, and “normal” has been a moving target for decades, now.

It’s not unusual for winters warmer than the historical average to feel cold and long and hard because recent winters have all been warmer yet.

When your landmarks are moving, how can you be sure where you are?