It’s funny how shreds of the past come to mind in a new light now that I am allowing myself to recognize the central place the question of planet’s future has in my life. On Saturday while I was making dinner I listened to a Speaking of Faith episode called “Discovering Where We Live: Reimagining Environmentalism.” At the time, I gave it as much mind as I could as I tried to wrap my head around making spaghetti alla carbonara (both because it was one of my husband’s favorite dishes and I wanted to make it perfect, and because I was frying pork and readying myself to eat it – me, vegetarian who??).
The person whose accomplishments and experiences stick with me now is Majora Carter, a native of the of the South Bronx who returned to her neighborhood after studying art in college and, to her own surprise, ended up taking on the environmental issues that detracted the lifestyle of all those who lived in her part of the city. How could I have listened to this story just a few days ago and been largely unmoved? How could I be filled with anything other than stop-in-the-middle-of-the-kitchen-with-my-jaw-open awe when I heard about this unlikely shifter and creator of local culture and landscape? Now that I am staring at this problem as vast as the atmosphere of the earth and all of the oceans combined, I am desperate to find proof that we can make some of difference. It seems that I have more shining examples than I have the ability to recognize. I just may be time to open my ears and eyes wider so I can recognize the radiant hope that humanity still has the power to generate.
Check it out at: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/discoveringwherewelive/index.shtml
Last night, I declared that the thing that breaks open my heart, the thing that wakes me at three a.m. and turns my sweetly oblivious sleep toward the direction of nightmare is the spectre of global warming. A person who I love has lived his day under a bleak cloud after watching the same program on the National Geographic channel that I did last night, Six Degrees Could Change the World. I was able to tell him that such information galvanizes me at this point; I have done my mourning for the devastation that our modern lifestyle has cast upon this earth, now I am ready to act. Of course, I am realizing now that I may have just been trying to comfort him. I know that I will not finish mourning our stifling planet until I can understand what it means when the glacier at the head of the Ganges has melted and the coral reefs around Australia have all died, and how can I ever comprehend the destruction of natural wonders so vast? It is just as difficult as trying to wrap my mind around the forces that created these beauties in the first place.
The decision to really take on this issue, and make it something that I am aware of with each cup of coffee passed to me in a paper cup and with each shampoo bottle I toss into the trash when I see it is not a number 1,2,3, or 5 and the recycling center has no interest in it, will force my everyday life into a new perspective. Am I really ready for that? Can I find a solution to the 37 miles I drive alone each day on my way to and from work rather than just climb into the car guiltily each morning? Can I bear the inconvenience of keeping a plastic mug and silverware in my purse so that I can cut down on at least one cup and one plastic fork everyday? Can I find somewhere other than beneath torrents of hot water that flow from the shower head to do my best thinking?
Situations like these might lead to minor annoyances or changes in behavior; in the end I will probably reap the great immediate gains of feeling virtuous and proactive. The real problem would arise when I begin to imagine how changes I may feel compelled to make in my own life might make those around me uncomfortable or upset. George Monbiot’s 2006 book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning was the first to introduce me to the idea of “love miles” and how those are a part of the environment’s undoing. Inwardly, I “tsk, tsk” at the perpetual business travelers who circumnavigate the globe several times a year in the pursuit of universal capitalism. Monbiot tells his readers that they must accept that one of the great entitlements of western society, air travel, would need to be a thing of the past if we are to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the degree he believes necessary: 90% by 2030. How do I deal with not being able to fly to see my friends in Ireland or that I might be contributing to the devastation of the Amazon if I went on an “eco-tour” there. I am still unready to think that it would be better for Galway Bay if I never went to see it again. What is even more difficult to imagine are those “love miles” that don’t seem like a vacation or a luxury but necessity like the two hour drive to see my grandfather or the four hour ride to the Cape to see my folks.
What would it mean to be of a generation that once had the entire world at its feet, but now may only have it at its fingertips, making the Internet into the only responsible way to reach out and experience the world?
Perhaps we could realize that we are actually creatures who can only truly experience the world as far as the visible horizon like David Abram talks about in The Spell of the Sensuous. Maybe his vision of local culture is not just a quaint homage to the indigenous peoples of this world; maybe their way of life is a model for our future.
And I have not even addressed the idea of action. I am certainly not finished mourning yet.
The dryer is humming in the background, but the house is only lit by one compact fluorescent and the glow of the television and my laptop. There’s a cup of cold, forgotten coffee next to me, but I am drinking water we filter at home out of a Nalgene bottle I have used a thousand times. We went for a nice hike today, despite the gusty wind and the snow, but we drove to the top of the mountain for a change of scenery rather than take the path from the backyard.
My husband is watching a National Geographic special called “Six Degrees Could Change the World” and I am finding it impossible to focus on an Andrew Harvey book about Christ. The idea of the infinite love of God is tough to focus on when a voice is saying that “a change of just one degree could change American cattle country into a wasteland swallowed by drought.” I have never heard Alec Baldwin sound so terrifying – he’s the narrator of this scary little story I find impossible to ignore.
Instead of listening to the proof of “the dangers posed by global warming,” the litany of awe-inspiring changes that could occur with each degree increase in the global temperature I am writing this and trying unsuccessfully to keep my own fears at bay. It’s cable, so I know that this program will be repeated again and again, so later I can catch those details about how many thousands (was it 500,000?) of species that could be lost if one coral reef died so I can rattle off some statistics next time someone speaks dismissively about climate change. For now, I will watch and worry and wonder how on earth I can stop another polar bear from drowning and whether I will bring my grandchildren to my favorite Cape Cod beach someday.
Is this show going to give us any answers beyond reminding us to recycle and walk more and buy a hybrid (or wait, maybe you shouldn’t since there are so many resources already tied up in your current gas guzzler that putting yet another car on the road just makes it all worse)? I’ll keep watching and let you know.
At the very least, I think I can answer the question that Andrew Harvey posits at so many of his lectures “If you wake up at three o’clock in the morning and look at all of the injustices of the world, what is it that breaks your heart and forces you to action?” I cannot pretend anymore that someone else is going to take care of the corners of this earth that I love; I cannot withdraw into the fear that the science is too contradictory for a mere mortal to understand. The disappearing Arctic ice is my heartbreak; the rising seas will not recede into the neglected background of my modern life.
We’d had the disc at home for days before I was ready. In the midst of the pre-Christmas madness I swore to my husband that it was the right time, but wisely he overruled me and we watched something involving guns and bad guys instead. Finally, last night, wrapped in the glow of days full of family and immeasurable fortune, I knew I was actually ready for the polar bear movie. How foolish it must sound to spend days debating over when I could handle a G-rated film, but parts of the March of the Penguins set me weeping and I know I am not ever going to get over An Inconvenient Truth. Is it because watching and interacting with animals connects me to the girl I once was like no other experiences despite my overactive adult brain? Is it because some of the seawater that flows through my veins happens to be of the frozen variety as well? Is it just because I happen have a soft spot the size of the hole in the ozone layer for lost causes?
That’s really the thing of it, what had me wiping tears from my cheeks at the end of Arctic Tale: the idea that these majestic creatures – bears, walruses, narwhals – might truly be lost and that this is a cause I cannot begin to effectively fight for. I think I can generally say that I did not cry for selfish reasons (arctic mammals tend to have little direct effect on human life in the Hudson Valley as far as I have heard) but because it is devastating to think of those great beings starving for lack of ice. And that our behavior as a race is so much the cause of it all. Of course, I just realized in rereading that paragraph that I am clearly mourning my own helplessness because, let’s face it, I will always understand what it is to feel ineffectual while I will never know the texture of a polar bear’s fur. In the end, however, does it matter exactly why we act, just as long as we act?
At this point, there is little to say about the issue of global warming and climate change, as far as I am concerned. Al Gore has a well earned Nobel Prize for bringing the issue to the forefront and books like George Monbiot’s Heat have further proven the science and politics that surround this crisis. I have as much patience for the “naysayers” as I do famous atheists – you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but I really haven’t got the time to consider all of your arguments against what I believe in since I am busy enough with the belief itself.
I hesitated in writing this because it somehow feels like old news. The movies I have mentioned have long since been on DVD and the Live Earth concerts are just so last summer. But I guess that is the biggest danger, allowing our impact on the earth become a phenomenon that captivated audiences in 2006 or 2007 and then settling back with those new compact fluorescent bulbs to wonder if they will make Hummers forever.
On Christmas Eve my father and sister and I got to talking about how incredibly lucky we are. I am always the one to bring up the things that distract me from the “good life,” be it shrinking ice caps or the unsustainable nature of American life and my dad is always telling me not to worry about it – I cannot change it so why let it detract from all my blessings and all that our family has worked for? The only answer I can have for that, even as I have another glass of wine and wonder if we can turn up the thermostat a little, is that there are certain people in the world who have to worry about unseen species and yet unrealized disasters, and at least to some degree, I am one of them. The only real task ahead of me is to sort out how to move from just worrying about it all to actually forging a small aspect of the solution…
Reflecting on my day as I drove home tonight I thought about compassion fatigue, a phrase I was first introduced to while at a disappointing writing workshop that seemed less about language and more about the airing one’s pain. In this situation, the women and I who rebelled and decided to sit in the sun rather than listen to people recount their childhood horrors in prose (which were most probably valid, though such narratives had much more to do with therapy than with wordsmithery and we wished to discuss the latter) really could not stand any more tales of fathers who never told their daughters they were pretty. We excused ourselves by declaring that we had paid for another sort of week entirely and that we fielded quite enough suffering in our workaday lives.
Since I am not actually a professional caregiver, I probably have very little claim to compassion fatigue in what seems to be an official sense (I cannot speak for this website as I just stumbled on it, but apparently people are putting a great deal of thought into the subject). At the same time, I think anyone who pays much mind to the news these days must suffer from at least form of this nebulous syndrome. There are of course two options: absorbing reality television that has absolutely nothing to do with reality but quite a bit to do with avarice and cruelty best left on the playground, and actually doing something about the darkness in the world.
Actually, I take that back, there are many choices that lay between being a couch potato and quitting one’s job to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. I must imagine that there are countless people who, much like me, would consider themselves to be decent creatures hoping to propagate some goodness and peace, yet are conscious of the risk of walking around with an open heart. How can one pass through the day and fulfill family obligations and hold the job that is expected of her if she is constantly consumed by all that is wrong out there? Perhaps these thoughts betray my own cowardice, but I fear I am not alone in my inability to act in the face of so many environmental crises and people in desperate need.
But I had to remind myself that there is so much to do without getting pulled out by the riptide of despair into an unmanageable sea of an imperfect planet. It all starts with the existence I actually do inhabit each day. That was when I started singing “Shape of My Heart” from Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales (an album that, along with Fumbling Towards Ecstasy set the course of my high school soul). Something about love hidden beneath a gambler’s hand, passion masked by a card player’s face… My love for this world buried beneath what is expected and what needs to get done and who needs to be pleased – I am meant to be witty and a bit sarcastic and please the crowd with a punchline rather than with sweetness.
Really though, who is truly served if I berate myself for staying in and writing these words instead of volunteering my time somewhere or sacrificing all that I know for those who need me “more”? Isn’t there enough to do in living the truth of my heart and being profligate with my compassion to enrich the lives of those around me?
I took this photo this summer on Prince Edward Island’s Yankee Beach in honor of Nanna who always took pictures on an angle (now granted, this was in the days of square photos, so she had some noble artistic license on her side). When I came across it today I was struck by the way this picture encapsulates one angle of my world view. I can find myself in great tumults of panic at the state of the world and can start to believe that we are on a steep slide into oblivion. Granted, this wash of emotion is often related to the ocean rising and swallowing the land rather than the other way around, but the spirit is the same.
I am sure that there are basic personality archetypes that make one more or less likely to spin into alternating fits of passion and despair at the state of the wider world. As I have moved from thinking that fiction then poetry then women’s rights then law then environmentalism then spirituality was the most pressing concern during this particular chance I have on the planet, I realize I am most certainly one who cannot get the state of the universe off of her mind. Another aspect of this need to engage with the broken world seems to be the belief that this is the worst it has ever been – I mean look at the carbon crisis and nuclear proliferation and preemptive warfare and global epidemics and the poverty and sexism and racism that just will not go away! While I am certain that many wise people could talk about natural fluctuations in the earth’s temperature and the evils of typhoid and the fact that we have an African American and a woman running credible campaigns and all the rest, for me these issues just will not go away.
When certain members of my family hear about the fact that I have my doubts about saving for retirement because I don’t really think the banking system will exist in the forty or so years that separate me from my 401K (but I save anyway because, as we have established earlier, I am a really well meaning hypocrite – aren’t most of us?) they always tell me that I just don’t know how good things are now. I’m told to consider the politics of assassination or that the Vietnam casualties were more than ten times that of the wars now and that hey, we fixed that hole over Antarctica, didn’t we? (Wait, did we? I remember lots of talk of CFCs and the ozone layer in elementary school, but we seem to have lost interest in that particular angle…) I just leave the conversation wondering who is fooling themselves – those who cannot bear to imagine that we are on the path to a social/political/environmental disaster or those who are desperately afraid we are on a lethal collision course of our own making?
Many times I have tried to sort out why such a big part of me believes we are in such a terrible state. What do I gain from living my life with tinges of Armageddon on the horizon? Does a belief in humanity’s narcissistic penchant for annihilation a) get me off the hook since we are all lost anyway, b) give me a sense of purpose because I have obsession with someday playing some sort of savior or c) is it just an organic aspect of who I am, a(n) (over)sensitivity that whips me into a muted frenzy? And how do I explain that despite this worry and dread, I am still a hopeful creature who believes we can walk through the darkest times and emerge a stronger, more beautiful world?
But as I spend my evening writing this rather than considering how to quit my comfortable job with its terribly comforting benefits package in order to chain myself to a tree along the Amazon or join Mother Teresa’s nuns in Calcutta, I realize that enough of me must be able to deal with the ills listed herein. Or perhaps none of those terrible phenomena have yet hit quite close enough to home…