Book review: the Green Boat

I had high hopes for Mary Pipher’s book The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture. I’ve been a fan of Pipher’s writing ever since I read Reviving Ophelia when I was 10, so when I wandered into my local bookstore and found out that she’d written a book on healing  ourselves and the earth in the age of climate change, I was excited. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

But like cheap Chinese food, the book left me hungry an hour later.

It does contain some good ideas; I especially like Pipher’s concept of the “new healthy normal” way of being for which we should strive:

In the context of our global storm, the new healthy normal requires the ability to move from awareness to action on a regular basis, to maintain a sense of balance, and to live intentionally. It also requires a particular kind of optimism, a connection to community, and a world-class set of stress-reduction skills. Implied in the term “new healthy normal” is my assumption that it is not mentally healthy to sit idly by while the human race destroys its mother ship. (Pipher, 117)

I also like her description of the coalition she built with other Nebraskans to fight the Keystone XL pipeline–which, thanks to her and many other people’s activism, is still an ongoing fight rather than a done deal. I like her emphasis on community-building, bringing together people from different walks of life, and combining hard work with good food, art, and music.

But overall, although the book was well-written, it just felt…shallow. It didn’t get into the depths demanded by the scale of the climate crisis. I read a Goodreads review by a woman named Megan that articulated exactly what I found so troublesome:

…I think the book fails at its main goal of breaking through the emotional paralysis to help us adequately address our current ecological, political, and social crisis.

Yes, I do believe that taking actions, even small ones, builds hope at those moments when hope itself is what seems in short supply. But Pipher once again offers up the same list of consumerist, individualized actions that we’ve been reading about for years, and which do not aid in overcoming the despair so many of us (who are already doing these things!) feel in light of the increasingly dire news about climate change.

I was disappointed by how much time Pipher spends talking about individual actions like recycling, eating local, planting trees, and using canvas shopping bags. It feels like a pat, easy answer.

It’s not particularly comforting in the face of a society that is barreling full-speed ahead toward an unlivable future. It’s not particularly inspiring in a world where our politicians fiddle while the American West and Australia burn.

We need bigger answers, answers that do justice to the terrifying predicament we’re in–and to the helplessness we often feel watching our leaders and our media all but ignore it. Answers that do justice to a problem that is, as Bill McKibben puts it so well, fundamentally different from all other issues:

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.

It’s no exaggeration to say that climate change is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. It’s a matter of our very survival. And while Pipher claims to acknowledge this, her analyses don’t dig deep enough to truly confront this painful truth. As Megan says:

But the bigger question is still there: how do we manage to find the psychological resources to take action commensurate to the problems at hand – action that succeeds – and that leave us in-tact [sic] as whole and caring people? Can those two things be done at once? These are the questions I went into Pipher’s book with, and they’re still questions that feel mostly unanswered coming out of it.

In addition, Pipher’s small-town Nebraska life–where there’s always an apple pie on the counter and a heron in the nearby lake–feels impossibly far away from my own life and the lives of most USians. I know that her writing style has always involved spinning meaning from her everyday life; I know that as writers, we’re supposed to write what we know. Heck, her descriptions make me want to visit Nebraska, which is an impressive feat.

But as a young person struggling to find a job–going on interview after interview, watching all the “good jobs” disappear and be replaced by temporary or freelance work, dealing with the constant stress and uncertainty of both temping and job-hunting, watching my friends struggle under backbreaking amounts of student loan debt that I’ve avoided mainly through sheer luck,  putting off things I’ve wanted do for years, wondering if I’ll ever be able to afford to buy a home or have children–and trying to make sense of climate change on top of that? Pipher’s answers just aren’t good enough.

She doesn’t speak to my life or the lives of the people I know. She certainly don’t speak to the lives of the many, many people who are stuck working multiple low-wage jobs just to make ends meet. She doesn’t speak to the lives of young people who are seeing our futures erode in so many ways at once: those of us who are exhausted from surviving as individuals, but can’t close our eyes to the threat climate change poses to our collective survival.

It’s not so much that I expected all of that from her book. But I expected more than what was there.

4 thoughts on “Book review: the Green Boat

  1. Couldn’t stand “Reviving Ophelia”…so much shaming of teen girls who didn’t fit the “perfect happy model student never does drugs or has sex always listens to her parents” model. I’m betting the small-town Nebraska Pipher lives in is also full of people struggling with dead-end jobs and despair, since small towns/rural areas are hit disproportionately hard by recessions. I think she just chooses what to see.

    • It’s been a really long time since I read “Reviving Ophelia” (like, 18 years), so I don’t remember any of it, but I believe you about the shaming. Uggh.

      I sort of misspoke when I said that Pipher lives in a small town–she actually lives in a city, Lincoln. And she wrote an entire book about working with refugees from all over the world who have come to Lincoln, which is pretty cool. I don’t think she’s unaware of poverty and despair, so much as she forgets to talk about it because it doesn’t touch her personally. I do like when writers write from their own experiences, but sometimes, when those experiences are pretty privileged…it just gets frustrating, even though I know they mean well.

  2. Laura, I’d like to explicitly thank you for linking me to this. I really have found it difficult to keep up with my reading this month, and when I feel overwhelmed by “what I have missed,” I often just decide not to try to catch up. I probably wouldn’t have seen this post if you hadn’t linked me to it, so I’m very glad that you did.

    Heck, her descriptions make me want to visit Nebraska, which is an impressive feat.

    *pause for quiet hilarity *

    But, yes, you’ve put your finger on something that really grinds my gears – the whole “oh, save paper bags, that’ll REALLY have an effect, yay happy-clappy!” solution to global climate change. It bothers me for reasons that I previously couldn’t identify; like, I am the first person to support Small Acts and Manageable Activism and the Ripple Effect and Pay-It-Forward and Grassroots and all those small-but-powerful agents of change. And you’re right, I deeply agree that “emotional paralysis” is part of the enemy here – I think I’ve bothered you about it in the comments before – and that small, easy-to-process actions are the solution.

    Reading this, I was able to clarify that what appalls me about those “solutions” – they’re painting over the problem with a nice, numbing activity that does not inconvenience people at all, yet provides them with the false feeling that they’re being constructive. It’s like LGBT allies who show up for the rainbows and glitter but are mysteriously absent when one needs to do some difficult work, or who react badly when you ask them to be more inclusive in their behavior. And many people, in many cases, cannot make the choice to be part of the consumerist middle-class – hauling canvas bags in hybrids to the local Whole Foods, and so on. Activism starts small, but it should start in small ways that are accessible, like sharing good content and inspiring others.

    To appropriate a feminist slogan: my environmentalism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

    • You’re welcome! I’m glad you liked it.

      Yeah, I never thought Nebraska could sound appealing until I started reading Mary Pipher’s books. She makes it, or at least its natural landscapes, sound beautiful.

      And yes, I agree 100% with “my environmentalism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!” That’s why I really like the work that the Climate Justice Hub is doing in my neighborhood (which I think I wrote about in one of the other posts I linked you to). I haven’t been quite as involved with them as I’d like to be, because job-hunting/job rejections have been really sapping my energy, but they focus on all the important issues of social justice that intersect with climate change, while still providing small-scale ways for everyday people to get involved, which is really awesome.

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