Beyond Earth Day: Facing the Challenges of Climate Change

Photo Credit: Michael Shoop

Photo Credit: Michael Shoop

On Earth Day, it’s important to celebrate and appreciate the beauty of our planet, as well as the many successes environmental activism has brought about since the green movement began in the 1960s. In the past year, Sierra Club North Star Chapter members have helped accelerate the transition from coal to clean energy across the state; built support for improved public transit and bicycle lanes; increased awareness about oil pipelines and sulfide mining risks; and marched with over 400,000 activists in the People’s Climate March on New York City.

But if you read this blog, you’re probably still very concerned about the state of the earth right now. Scientific journals, news networks, environmental nonprofits, and even “escapist” movies and TV shows remind us every day that there is a constant onslaught of environmental issues that need to be addressed. Every time one disaster is averted or an anti-environmental law is struck down, three more seem to pop up Hydra-like to replace it. Rhetoric around climate change in particular can bring on a sense of despair, a well-known killer of activism.

This earth day, I want to talk about how to accept the realities of climate change without succumbing to fatalism. It’s a high-wire act, but it is possible, and indeed necessary if the environmental activism movement is to gain strength and flourish.

  1.     Don’t avoid harsh truths

Climate change is hard to think about. At this point, the overwhelming majority of research has essentially concluded that no matter what we do, the earth we rely on for life will look very different in 50 years; in fact, it has already changed in perceptible ways. Planning for life in an altered world is like planning how to care for your aging parents – it’s unpleasant and even frightening to contemplate. It’s tempting to avoid the topic altogether, and at this point it’s still possible, though difficult, to do so. I’ve found myself skipping over articles or changing the channel when global warming is brought up, just because it’s too painful, or I don’t want to spoil a good mood. Don’t give in to this if you can help it. If you want to fight for the earth, it’s crucial to stay well informed about what is happening to it. As Werner Herzog said (originally about the spectacle of Wrestlemania, but I think it applies here): “the poet must not avert his eyes.” We citizens of earth owe it to the planet to remain on the look out for threats to its stability, even if they sometimes seem too numerous to count.

  1.     Spend time in nature

When you learn more about the ecosystems you care for, it can paradoxically become more difficult to enjoy spending time in them as you begin to see for the first time the signs of their decay. Aldo Leopold talks about the agony of the naturalist in this passage from A Sand County Almanac:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

Once you see how diminished it has become, it is tempting to retreat from nature altogether. But just as you wouldn’t avoid an ailing relative because they were sick, you should use your new-found knowledge as an opportunity to spend more time in nature than ever. Appreciate ecosystems as they are now, but try not to obsess over thoughts along the lines of “this will all be gone soon.” Focus on the resilience and adaptability of life, and notice that nature is still beautiful when it’s sick. Remove words like “pristine” and “unspoiled” from your vocabulary. Ecosystems aren’t only valuable for being untouched by humans, but for harboring biodiversity, for being self-sustaining, and for a million other reasons that are not necessarily incompatible with life on a new, warmer planet, or, “Eaarth” as environmentalist Bill McKibben calls it.

  1.     Take steps towards localizing your economy

A big part of why it’s hard to think about climate change is that it tends to inspire feelings of guilt. If you live in an industrialized country, your lifestyle is likely less than carbon neutral, which can make you feel like a hypocrite if you’re also an environmental advocate. Feeling guilty can be a good sign, though – it just means you care. Don’t ignore these feelings; instead, make changes in your life that you can feel good about. Remember that while your individual actions will not tip the earth over the edge, leading by example can start waves of change that really do have appreciable results. Additionally, try to transform some of that personal guilt into motivation to take on large corporations, the biggest drivers of climate change. Even if you aren’t a perfect environmental activist, remember that “very few people on earth ever get to say: ‘I am doing, right now, the most important thing I could possibly be doing.’ If you’ll join this fight that’s what you’ll get to say.” (Bill McKibben, The End of Nature)

  1.     Accept change, but never stop fighting for the cause

At this point we know that the earth is changing. Goals set by environmental groups over 10 years ago to contain warming to 2 degrees this century have, by and large, not been met, and we’re finally beginning to see the first effects of global warming on a personal level. Some species (and people) will do well; many more will suffer tremendously. This doesn’t mean that the fight is over and we lost. The fight will never be over, but we do have to change the way we think about it. It does no good to talk about “defeating global warming,”  because that is a lost cause. Climate change is happening, and the next few centuries will be spent trying to mitigate its consequences while making life possible on a mysterious new planet. Instead of the hulking specter of climate change, focus on addressing the concrete issues that fold into the bigger picture: clean energy, conservation, localizing food systems. It’s easier to see results when you tackle a small piece of the climate change pie; after all, one person can’t “solve” global warming on their own. Mourn the species and ecosystems we have lost, but recognize that there are so many ways to help the ones we still have successfully adapt to life on Eaarth.

  1.     Rejuvenate yourself if you are feeling down

A lot of this post focuses on Facing Difficult Truths and Donning the Mantle of Responsibility, which are both important, but it’s also important to recognize when you have reached your limit. Doctors and veterinarians talk a lot about “compassion fatigue,” which happens when you spend all your time worrying about and empathizing with others until you find yourself just unable to care anymore. The well of compassion is deep, but it’s not infinite, and I think people active in environmental non-profits can find themselves scraping bottom from time to time. Compassion fatigue can have a negative effect on your mental health and your family life, so if you feel drained don’t feel like you can’t take a break. As it turns out, caring too much can be nearly as bad as caring too little, and there are times when a healthy distraction can be a good thing. Ultimately, taking time to rejuvenate yourself will help you become a more effective activist.

We have made a lot of progress since the first Earth Day 45 years ago, but challenges still remain. Our work as environmental advocates is more important than ever, and we should take care not to succumb to fatalistic thinking on climate change. The changes I mention above are small, but if your efforts are joined by other environmentalists and community members, the impact on the community and landscape will be larger. The Sierra Club North Star Chapter will continue its mission to preserve and protect Minnesota’s environment, and we invite you to join us in achieving more victories in the years ahead.

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