Hope, despair, and dandelions

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Last night I was re-reading Megan Mayhew Bergman’s essay about climate anxiety, the one I linked to a while back, the one I related to so much. (How did she get into my head?)

What struck me was the fundamental disconnect between the gravity of our situation and our national response. As Bergman writes about her childhood earnestness:

When I first jumped on the recycling wagon and heard the word ozone, I believed in America’s greatness, as evidenced by Ruffles potato chips, ET, and Bruce Springsteen. I knew nothing of political parties. I assumed that if a serious problem like global warming was facing the United States, someone would approach the President, tug on his sleeve, and whisper in his ear:  It’s time. Roll out the Teslas and solar panels. NASA would press a button and deploy an atmospheric fix. Americans would make sacrifices: driving-free days, a home garden movement, lights-out time. If there was a serious problem like global warming, the right people would step up and solve it.

That’s just it.

On one hand, there’s been so much inspiring action taking place lately. And Obama finally gave a serious, if imperfect, speech about climate change. We’re clearly making progress, building a movement.

But at the same time, the fight against climate change doesn’t feel all-encompassing, inescapable, normality-disrupting the way it should be.

We’ve known about global warming since 1988. I remember learning about the greenhouse effect in elementary school. And yet, we’ve charged full-steam ahead with our carbon-based economy, putting more and more CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

Here in the US, climate change is still something political, something partisan. Nearly all of the representatives of one of our two major political parties don’t even believe that it’s happening. Big money has badly polluted the discourse. And the media isn’t helping; the big three cable networks didn’t even cover more than a few minutes of Obama’s climate speech.

For those of us who do understand what’s happening, it’s too easy to get overwhelmed and paralyzed and push it out of our consciousness entirely. It’s too scary to deal with, when just surviving in this economy is hard enough.

At the same time, I know that the climate movement is still young, and it’s gathering strength. As Tom Engelhardt points out:

On a similarly difficult issue, the nuclear movement, it took literally decades to grow to that million-person march, and even early anti-Vietnam War protests were smaller than the recent Keystone demo.

I’ve seen the growing strength and power of the movement firsthand, in the opening of a Climate Justice Hub here in Somerville. I’m constantly amazed by the dedication and passion of the students running it–at least two of whom are taking leaves of absence from school next semester to continue working on climate activism.

I admire their commitment to intersectionality. They recognize that it’s all connected: environmental racism, immigrant rights, indigenous rights, classism…And just as importantly, they recognize the importance of art and music and movement.

It’s a little head-spinning, in a good way, how many different opportunities there are to get involved with climate activism. It’s a beautifully, brilliantly grassroots movement. The word itself is a metaphor. Grass roots.  Shooting up green stalks in the cracked pavement that is our fossil-fuel-addicted society.

These green stalks give me hope. They don’t always feel like enough, in the face of threats so existential that I wonder why we’re not rationing gasoline, growing victory gardens in every backyard, putting millions to work on clean energy and climate change mitigation (lord knows we could use the jobs), huddling around our laptops to watch the President give regular fireside chats.

What it boils down to, for me, is three semi-contradictory facts:

1.) What we’re facing is seriously terrifying.

2.) Society isn’t responding to such a major threat like it should be, and that’s painful and jarring.

3.) But at the same time, those green tendrils of action are growing.

Growing like dandelions, unwanted “weeds” that are actually resilient and beautiful and blossom into puffballs of wish-seeds.

They give me hope. It’s not always enough hope to keep the despair at bay. But it’s something.

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3 thoughts on “Hope, despair, and dandelions

  1. Movements take a long time to grow, unfortunately. As you said, we’ve known about global warming since 1988. In the life of an activist movement, the climate justice movement is still in its infancy. The civil rights movement began in the 60’s, and yet racism is still rampant. That’s about 50 years versus the climate justice movement’s 25. If you consider that, the movement is right on track for the length of time it’s existed.

    I’m not sure it’s that people don’t realize the gravity of the situation; more that as of yet, we don’t have the resources to do much about it. Those resources are still being developed. Knowledge is still being spread. To go back to the comparison to the civil rights movement, though racism is still a thing, we’re at the same time miles away from the 60’s. If, in another 15-20 years or so, we can be in this place with climate justice, that would be wonderful, and if you look at historical trends there is no reason to believe it won’t happen. It will just take a balance between being passionate and avoiding complacency and knowing that nothing will happen if we don’t take action to make it happen, and being patient enough to allow these actions to take effect.

    Activism is not quite like, say, building a house; you don’t get to see the results of your actions as you are doing them. It’s more like throwing a stone in the water and watching the ripples spread. That doesn’t mean, however, that those results do not exist.

    • This is all true; it’s just that, no matter how normal it may be for activist movements to grow slowly, we don’t have the time.

      Bill McKibben sums it up really well:

      And that’s always been the difficulty with climate change — the greatest problem we’ve ever faced. It’s not a fight, like education reform or abortion or gay marriage, between conflicting groups with conflicting opinions. It couldn’t be more different at a fundamental level.

      We’re talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn’t care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less profitable.

      Physics doesn’t understand that rapid action on climate change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry. It’s implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets. Do nothing and you soon have a nightmare on your hands.

      We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the cost would be terrible — all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years. But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there’s not much reason to act at all.

  2. Pingback: Quote of the day: YES YES YES YES | Tutus And Tiny Hats

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