Seems a difficult year to practice thankfulness, let alone construct a blog post linking Thanksgiving and climate change, and yet I intend to do both.
I’m using my traditional Thanksgiving post as a starting point, so if you’re a long-time reader (thank you!) some of this will seem familiar, but I’m doing more this time than my traditional slight re-editing. This year has not been much like any year any of us can remember, so why should my holiday posts be?
By the way, I apologize for the lack of image descriptions. WordPress has recently changed how it does things, and I haven’t yet located all the features I normally use. I’ll fix it as soon as I can.
Climate and the Meaning of the Season
“It’s that time of the year again,” warns a cynical-sounding blogger, “when warmists try to link Thanksgiving and climate change.”
Nice rhetorical trick, isn’t it? Discrediting us by saying that we’ll even link climate change to Thanksgiving? The truth, of course, is that anything in human life can be linked to climate change, because everything we experience depends on climate somehow. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, in the wind that may be gentle or catastrophic as occasion allows….Climate is already everywhere, and as it changes, so must everything else.
We “warmists” didn’t make that part up. It’s just physics.
So, yes, I’m writing about Thanksgiving and climate change, as I do every year. But this time I and my laptop face a special challenge—how to write about a holiday at all amid so much anxiety and sadness? There are familiar faces who will be missing from many gatherings on Thursday, some because of caution, some because of tragedy. And we know that any attempt to have a normal Thanksgiving will have tragic consequences.
About half of all Americans do plan to travel for Thanksgiving, a figure that is down from last year but still absurdly high given that we know these gatherings are likely to become super-spreader events. Presumably not all of these travelers are anti-maskers—many have probably taken recent COVID tests in order to assure themselves that they will not bring the virus home. But the inescapable situation is that COVID-19 does not show up on tests until several days after infection, and the contagious period begins before definitive symptoms appear. That means that some percentage of those people heading home with negative test results are actually infected and are likely to become contagious just as they sit down to dinner with medically-vulnerable relatives they don’t otherwise normally see because “hey, it’s Thanksgiving!”
So we’re all in the joyous position of having a choice; we can celebrate a major family holiday more or less alone, or we can risk not only our own health but that of those we love.
But I don’t want to spend today writing all the things I wish weren’t true. Nor do I want to write about how climate change might someday raise the price of turkey feed, nor do I want to offer tips on how to talk about climate change with your cantankerous conservative uncle. Other people, I’m sure, have covered those seasonal topics better than I could.
No, I want to talk about gratitude. I want to tell you about abundance.
What Thanksgiving Isn’t
I want to acknowledge, before we get started, that American Thanksgiving is not a commemoration of the thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims.
The historical proviso matters because an increasing number of people are aware that the happy story of the “first Thanksgiving” is more or less a lie, and it’s a lie that sanitizes and glorifies the relationship between the Pilgrims and the “Indians,” a relationship that was soon betrayed by the Pilgrims and never since made right. So there are those pulling away from the feast of Thanksgiving in much the same spirit that more and more communities are jettisoning Columbus Day. But an important part of the Lie is that the Pilgrims have anything to do with the holiday in the first place.
There is no ceremonial connection—the Pilgrims have never even been mentioned at any Thanksgiving table I’ve ever been at, and that includes several hosted by people outside my family. I rarely hear even any reference to the connection except in educational programming meant for young children. Thanksgiving is about Isn’t It Great We’ve Got a Lot of Food, as well as family, friendship, and either Alice’s Restaurant or football or both. And there is no historical connection, either.
Yes, the Pilgrims had a day of thanksgiving. But days of thanksgiving were relatively common at the time and, like our moments of silence, called for as needed for all sorts of unrelated circumstances. Our modern Thanksgiving Day doesn’t recapitulate their celebration any more than the latest moment of prayerful silence recapitulates any other silent moment.
American Thanksgiving—the annual national holiday—began with a proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. Here is a link to the proclamation text. There is no mention of “Pilgrims and Indians” at all.
My guess is that the “story of the first Thanksgiving” was an attempt to shoehorn a bit of history and patriotism in for the benefit of school children. We should not let some teacher’s regrettable and inaccurate lesson plan dictate to the nation what one of our holidays means.
What Thanksgiving Is
Have you ever thought it strange that we give thanks by eating a lot? If anything, American Thanksgiving sometimes seems more a celebration of greed and gluttony, with a perfunctory discussion of life’s blessings thrown in among the other topics at the table. But gratitude is fundamentally a reaction, not an action–it is very difficult to be grateful as an act of will. The best we can normally do is remind ourselves of what we have to be grateful for, and hope to thereby trigger the feeling.
Surrounding ourselves with an abundance of food is a good way to start.
But what is abundance? It is not merely having a lot of something; “an abundance of dirty dishes” sounds, at best, sarcastic, if not outright ludicrous. And many of us know from sad experience that even a lot of dollars does not count as an abundance if one has big bills coming due.
No, to count as abundance, a thing must be not only desirable but also unlikely to run out—abundance is over-flow, surplus, a notable lack of a certain kind of anxiety.
The Thanksgiving table qualifies. The point isn’t gluttony (though the gluttonous are generally free to indulge), the point is knowing there will be left-overs. It’s having, for one meal at least, the illusion of infinite, inexhaustible richness.
We know it’s an illusion. That’s OK. We get the feeling of inexhaustible goodness anyway. It’s a reminder of how love feels, how being blessed feels—how life itself feels for those who cultivate a grateful heart.
Thanksgiving is an exercise.
Gratitude Within Limits
Of course, there is no such thing as a truly infinite resource; use enough of anything for long enough and eventually you will run out. Even “renewable” resources run out if they are used faster than they can renew. Indeed, we are quickly running out of precious things that once seemed limitless—elephants, for example, or clean water.
Is consumption really the best way to celebrate anything right now?
Because the infinite table of Thanksgiving has always been an illusion, and it’s an illusion that can be performed on a very strict budget, as many families know. The holiday is, in fact, proof that the feeling of abundance, of richness, of plenty, does not depend on waste or profligacy—it depends on careful attention to real needs and real limitations. It depends on working within reality.
We need, as a species, to start working within reality. We need to, collectively, use less. But we don’t need to give up abundance.
Thanksgiving Yet to Come
This year, we can still cultivate a grateful heart, but only in the face of want and fear. To varying degrees, there are things we want, need, and do not have. If our bellies are full, our holiday tables are not. That’s real.
The progressive loss of all that makes life possible and beautiful on our planet is also real. Killer hurricanes. Monster fires. Impending extinctions. Famine and the political instability it causes. And, yes, pandemic. They are all symptoms of a problem we understand fairly well by now; the human species is using too much energy, thanks to our harnessing of fossil fuels, and we are destabilizing the planet.
Pulling out of this nose-dive will require tightening our belts and changing our tune, and while the burden can and should be borne mostly by those who can best afford to do so, any transition is unsettling, and we will have to collectively acknowledge limits we are used to ignoring.
But if we can pull this off, if we can stop our slide into planetary entropy, the biosphere will grow. The forests will spread. The animals will multiply. And it is possible, just possible, that our descendants will live to see a more bountiful feast than we ever will.
And that will truly be something to be thankful for.