An alternative title for this post went something like this: “Coping with Climate Change: What to Do When the World Begins to Burn.” That sounds pretty ominous, I know, and while I struggle to be a realist about our current circumstances, it is not my goal to inspire fear or despair. I do not believe that giving up is the answer, nor do I believe that helplessness is a wise response. I believe we need to be realistic about the situation if we are going to come up with realistically useful and effective responses—even if such responses only mitigate the impact, or prepare us to adapt. So I suppose I see an important difference between reasonable, realistic optimism and the blind kind that borders on denial and wishful thinking.
I think I’m past the point of having to justify the authenticity and imminence of catastrophic climate change. As I sit here writing this, the Arctic is burning. THE AMAZON IS BURNING. We’re well past a tipping point (one of many), but I feel like 2019 has been a tipping point of sorts, at least for the general public. It’s the year that climate change went from time-lapsed images of receding glaciers to unprecedented melting at both poles; to raging wildfires across Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia; and to an undocumented temperature rise in the Arctic.
Climate change isn’t a thing that’s going to happen. It’s been happening, it’s happening now, and it’s going to get worse. Even if we somehow stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, there are a number of uncontrollable chain reactions now underway. This is what led Dr. Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, to write his paper on Deep Adaptation to Climate Change, in which he argues that climate change denial is not the problem—collapse denial is. According to Bendell, we’re all (including much of the scientific community) in denial about how bad things are going to get, and it’s preventing us from adequately preparing. It’s a convincing argument, because the science itself is convincing. Extreme (or “deep”) adaptation is going to be required of our species within this century.
Psychologically, this is a lot to handle. The American Psychological Association has underscored the mental impact for years, but it’s no longer just the stress of it all. More and more people are experiencing ecological grief, intense feelings of emptiness and despair resulting from climate-related losses to species, ecosystems, and landscapes. For anyone who appreciates nature, or for anyone who values existence, or their children’s existence, or the future, it’s all pretty fucking sad. I try hard not to panic inside, but I want to. The desolation, the melancholy, they’re intense. I feel like I’m mourning the loss of something that has no name—it’s not a person, or a specific place, or a memory. It’s just everything.
So climate change is here. Now what? Should we fight against the powers that be? Should we take to the streets and protest, or write letters, or publish blogs like this one? What good will it do? Maybe a lot, maybe none. I don’t know. The alternative is to remove ourselves from the politics of it all, and to enjoy the natural world while it lasts. I believe either option is an understandable one, and I would condemn neither. I frequently waver between the two options myself. But there’s another question in all of this, another internal struggle, and it comes from the realization that even with social and political action, significant changes are upon us. Deep adaptation is going to be required. And losses are going to be had—many, many losses. Even if I try to fight it, even if I try to make a difference, how do I manage the inevitable sadness and grief?
Research on chronic pain has shown us that sometimes, in the face of unchangeable circumstances, acceptance of the pain is the only way forward. Yes, I’m suggesting that we accept what’s happening. In line with Bendell’s attempt “to invite a sober acceptance of our current predicament,” I am saying that the best way to move forward and reconcile our existence with the times is to accept climate change. What is most needed at this time (what has been needed for decades) is an accurate perception and acceptance of what we are dealing with. Although we may be too late in some ways, we CAN still mitigate the impact. We CAN prevent some things from getting worse. And perhaps most importantly, we CAN be better prepared. But I would argue that it starts with some real honesty, so that our responses and solutions are valid ones (i.e., so that they might actually work), and so that successful adaptation in the future is possible. On an individual level, acceptance also allows us to move past the anger, perhaps even past the pain and despair, into a new kind of life that is both functional and productive, and that is far more likely to contribute to a sustainable future. Bendell speaks of “new ways of being and acting” in which we will need to find meaning in the future. They come after the grief, but they also require acceptance.
I admit, acceptance is one thing, but finding meaning and purpose in it all is another. Through the loss and grief, and after the acceptance, where will you find your meaning? How will you make sense of your time on this planet, even in the midst of such unimaginable loss? It’s up to you, of course, as it always has been. But there is one thing that brings me comfort in the end. I’ve had the fortune to be given this thing called life. I was one of the lucky ones, like you—one of the nearly infinite number of possible combinations of DNA that came into existence. What I see as meaningful and purposeful (in the midst of climate change, or worse) is the opportunity to connect with other life. Whether it’s the people in my life, my dogs Hunter and Scout, or a tree I rest my back upon, we’ve all been thrown into this with no choice or control of our own. I can’t imagine a more sensible and meaningful purpose than to simply connect. Life and consciousness, these are the things to be valued. They are sacred. And no matter what is happening around us, as hard as we may try to fight it, we’re in this together. And in that connection, there is peace to be had. And there is love.
We are in desperate need of a shift in perspective. The perspective we need is one in which our individual lives are understood to be intricately and deeply connected to our environment, and to the planet. This IS the reality, of course, but it has been overlooked for far too long. Whatever the future holds, no matter what comes of all of this, THIS lesson is necessary. There is no moving forward successfully, there is no deep adaptation, without a recognition of that connection.