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.