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If Not Urgency, Then What?
Not the thing with feathers but the thing with blood
First, let’s get the argument over, the one about holding hope in the face of the disheartening realization that climate breakdown is the new normal and urgency seeps away in the face of ordinary time. All those essays about how hope isn’t about prediction or certainty, but about a belief in something like goodness or faith in mankind are lovely to read, but it’s far too easy to pitch one’s tent on the high ground of hope that technology will save us, or Greta will save us and then roll over and snooze. I think hope is a way to wiggle off the hook, to pass the buck. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickenson. With apologies to Emily, but these days I hear the word hope and mumble , what are we going to do with feathers anyway?
If hope isn’t going to fix the leak in urgency, what will? I’ve been thinking about this all week, a week when once again the Valentine’s bandit affixed red hearts printed on 8” x 11” white paper to windows all over Portland . It was a week that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the day I stood beside a bowl of red apples set on a long table and served during intermission of a class on racing small sailboats (which we rented for $10 an hour) and the man I would be supremely lucky to be married to for fifty years wooed me with the line, “Good apples, huh?” It was Chicago and it was very cold and the lake was frozen, then.
Maybe love is the way to fix the leak. Not the thing with feathers but the thing with blood.
A few days ago, Bob and I went for a late afternoon walk out on the paved dead-end road beyond our mud-luscious driveway. The sun was strangely warm on our faces for mid-February. He had to stop and sit down along the way as pain triggered by a long-ago back operation troubled his leg. We joked about how we are the old people now walking down the road, waving to the cars, as everyone did years ago when we first moved to Freeport. Time doesn’t stretch out very far ahead of us anymore and we are aware that, if there is to be a realignment of our relationship to the natural world, what Joanna Macy calls The Great Turning, we will likely not live to see it. Earlier in the week, we’d given each other Valentine’s cards and giggled and cooed at how fortunate we are to be together here at the end, sharing this passion for the wounded earth.
We had to step aside to let the late school bus pass. It stopped just ahead of us, red lights blinking merrily. A whole gaggle of parents were gathered at the corner, six or seven cars parked off to the side as many had driven there instead of walk the long block home. The parents looked happy to be coming together at the end of what was likely a workday for some. There was much laughter. But suddenly I found myself thinking about them in the future, for unlike Bob and me, these parents will live into the years when the physical manifestations of climate breakdown are not in the future but are part of their ordinary present: killer heat waves, droughts in agricultural breadbaskets, massive climate migrations with societal breakdowns, flooding and managed retreat happening on a gigantic scale. Suddenly they were no longer just neighbors picking up their children, suddenly their lives looked tainted by tragedy and loss. I wanted to embrace them all.
And then the children get off the bus, their eyes searching for parents, backpacks too big for them wobbling on their shoulders, the high last step off the bus navigated by a carefree jump or a careful hop. And this is when my heart bursts and I start to cry. These children. What will their futures hold?
(The photo is taken from a new exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, titled Sea Change, Darkness and Light in the Gulf of Maine. Two friends, Freeport artists Lee Chisholm and Anna Dibble conceived and executed this exhibit. This little girl tugged on my pant leg and said, “It’s going to flood and the fish will die.”)
The fact that all this is at risk only makes me love it more. I love the staccato call of the flicker in the trees across from Bessies, the black shapes of cows behind a neighbor’s barn, walking circles around my husband so I don’t have to slow down. I love this community and all the people I’m connected to who share this love and this urgency and show up and puzzle and scheme ways to put this love into action.
What wouldn’t I, wouldn’t you, be willing to sacrifice for what you love? For kin? For blood? Isn’t that what love propels us to do? There are so many ways we could be making a sacrifice for love. We could fly less, eat less meat, buy less stuff, generate less food waste, drive less, mow less, use less non-renewable energy, build small houses, pull our investments in bad banks. There is no shortage of acts we could take in the name of love. How is it so few of us are doing these things? I don’t think it’s because we don’t love enough.
Many people tell me that they don’t think their individual sacrifice will make a difference, so why bother? The absence of a feeling of efficacy is surely one of the culprits here and collective action is worth a whole essay. But there’s another culprit, large and all encompassing like a magnetic field, something that guides our decisions and gives us a sense of self-worth and meaning.
We have an entire culture built not on the word less but on the word more, and on the idea that the more of everything we have —land, rooms in our house, “good” furniture, steaks, canal trips along the Danube, designer rugs—the better person we are. We’ve idealized progress and growth, mistaken it for success, dressed it up in fancy clothes and raced it around in luxury cars and sleek yachts and flew it to Paris for April. And if we can’t afford the luxury car and the sleek yacht we’ll try for the next best thing, a couch from Wayfair! All this gives meaning to our lives, plumps our self-esteem like a puffy velvet pillow!
I contemplate the word sacrifice, a word I almost never hear in climate circles. We’ll have to make sacrifice a word that doesn’t diminish us, that instead gives meaning to our lives and connects us to others who are willing to pare down before we use up resources at such a rapacious speed that soon, soon, there will be breakdown of such proportions that we will look back on this moment and say, those sacrifices were nothing.
How do we resist that trip to Paris in April when you have miles on your Citi credit card and you haven’t been to Paris in years? (Can you hear how much I want to go to Paris?) Why should I stay home when my friends are off eating escargot in a little bistro beside the Seine? I know how entitled this sounds and I know that it is those of us who have the most who are responsible for the most emissions, and those of us who have the least who are most effected by climate breakdown.
I haven’t bought those tickets yet. Not because I have a shred of hope that not flying to Paris will change the course of history, and not because our culture has shifted enough that I will get a big thumbs up for not taking that trip, but because I love all this too much to add more harm to the list of harms I have for so long been blind to and have written about in these pages: the brutal heritage of the history of slavery, the genocide and abandonment of Native Americans.
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