Finding Climate Courage
When approaching an almost inconceivably huge and far-reaching issue like climate change, it’s often helpful to start where you’re at and go from there.
I live in a smallish college town named Carbondale in Southern Illinois. Given the size of this town, I’m often impressed and amazed by how many interesting, exciting, and meaningful things are going on here. We have a lively music scene, a community radio station, dozens of good non-profits serving the community and region, an amazing national forest and other natural areas, and many other odds and ends that make this a charming, quirky, and enjoyable place to live. (That is, if you can find a way to make a good living here, which is often easier said than done.)
But whenever I visit “The Big City” — whether it’s St. Louis, Memphis, Chicago, or rare trips farther from home — I find myself blown away by the sheer energy of the place. Huge steel beams rise all around, anchored deep in the Earth, reaching high into the sky. An exceeding complex blend of steel, glass, brick, mortar, concrete, wood, plastic, blacktop, and other materials give solid form to this buzzing mass of frenetic human activity. People zip to and from home, work, school, stores, restaurants, bars, libraries, museums, churches, synagogues, mosques, shrines, and just about every other conceivable human structure and activity. The city, especially in its modern technologically advanced form, is a remarkable achievement of human civilization. So much happens there — and it seems as though anything is possible there.
When I first started learning about the environmental impacts of our infrastructure and ways of life, my newfound knowledge added shades of discomfort and downright horror to my experience of this intense city energy. Yes, these cities are a tremendous achievement for the many laborers, architects, designers, planners, and dreamers who made them possible, and the untold millions who breathe life into them on a daily basis. But what about the embedded energy of these physical and social structures? Every steel beam is formed from ore torn from the Earth, refined and delivered using the energy of burning fossil fuels, planted in the scorched Earth that used to be home to indigenous peoples and whole communities of living organisms that have been mostly eradicated from the area, and in some cases wiped out entirely. Every physical structure and human activity all around me in the city is, in a very real sense, the embodiment of mass destruction of human and non-human life.
Seeing the city in this light was enough to make me want it all to go away for a while. Let society collapse; let the cities fall back into the Earth; let the few remaining wild areas and wild people reclaim it all from the ashes. Let the ruins of the cities be overrun with thorns and thistle, making way for a new wilderness. Let the Earth-loving people run feral through the empty streets, finding their way back into the natural balance of life outside of human civilization.
But you know what? The more time I spent among my fellow humans, and the more time I spent exploring the complexities, diversities, and wonders of human civilization, the more I found a renewed sense of appreciation, understanding, and empathy for humanity and human civilization, flaws and all.
We are amazing creatures capable of amazing feats of creation, innovation, and discovery. We are also plagued by a long and sordid history of letting pathological individuals and oppressive institutions channel this creative capacity in some very destructive directions. In light of this fact, we need to do some serious soul-searching about what exactly it is that we’re creating.
My newfound appreciation for human beings and human civilization has strengthened my resolve to act on climate change and other environmental concerns. Even if I didn’t care at all about humans, I would still carry on for the sake of protecting the other species and ecosystems of this planet from our mad spree of wanton destruction. But you know what? Caring about the particular humans who I know personally, and humanity in general, makes this a very personal struggle for me. It inspires me to feel a great sense of urgency, both because of the human lives that are being disrupted and because we are disrupting an entire world’s worth of living creatures and communities. It’s not an either-or proposition; I feel a sense of care and concern for both the human and the nonhuman communities that surround me.
I want to stop the wanton destruction. I want to protect it all. I want to stop our oppressive social, economic, and political institutions from destroying the rainforests, the coral reefs, the many other communities of life at risk from climate change and other environmental concerns. And I want to protect my fellow humans from those very same destructive forces. It is, in fact, the same basic institutions of power that are oppressing human beings in many ways, tearing apart living systems, and disrupting the climate of our entire planet.
The people who will suffer the most and hardest from climate change are the ones who have the least responsibility for causing it: the indigenous, island nations, women, people of color, and everyone living below the poverty line. So in light of this suffering, I find myself driven to resist institutions of destruction and domination, and support institutions of co-creation and cooperation, all in pursuit of climate justice.
If we don’t take dramatic action on climate change — right here, right now, with every ounce of our strength, intelligence, and wisdom — human civilization as we know it will be at least as severely disrupted as the climate, if not more so. These amazing cities that are increasingly the defining trait of human civilization will be brought to ruin — and some are already well on their way there. The cities on the coasts will be flooded and battered by storms and sea level rise. The cities near forests will be devastated by wildfires. They will all be touched in some way, and the grief and loss in the hardest-hit among them will spill over into the rest.
We are all being harmed by climate change — and the harm is rapidly getting worse.
It’s not just the big cities that will suffer. Smaller cities and towns may suffer worst of all because they tend to have fewer resources and less resilience, especially if they’re not actively preparing for the likely (and in some cases inevitable) consequences of the climate crisis. These smaller cities and towns in more rural inland areas will be devastated by floods, droughts, crop failures, and mass migrations of people leaving areas that are no longer livable. It will change all of our lives, and not in a good way.
The good news, though, is that there’s still so much we can do about it!
Believe it or not, I don’t like framing climate action in terms of hope. On most days, I don’t feel particularly hopeful about the prospects for climate action on the scale needed to avert 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius of warming this century. The push for climate action is a desperate struggle of underdogs against some of the world’s most powerful people and institutions. Even as climate action intensifies, emissions are still rising, not rapidly falling as they should be.
If hope is our primary motivator, then we’ll only act when we feel hopeful — when our prospects look good, or when we feel good enough to take action in spite of poor prospects. On days when hope seems to be lost, we’ll feel lost too, unable to find it within ourselves to take action on climate.
This is why instead of grasping in vain for climate hope, we must enliven our hearts with climate courage.
Climate courage is relentless. Climate courage is undaunted by long odds, fluctuating moods, and the nigh-inevitability that the climate crisis will get worse before it gets better. Climate courage means taking bold, aggressive climate action — even in the face of overwhelming odds, even in the face of feelings of discouragement and despair, even with the knowledge that no matter what we do, some disastrous consequences of past and present emissions are already locked in. Climate courage is the unwavering inner voice that inspires us to keep doing as much as we can to respond to the climate crisis, regardless of whether or not we feel hopeful about the outcome.
Dr. Kate Marvel, climate scientist and climate communicator, recently wrote a good commentary on the subject of climate courage titled “We Need Courage, Not Hope, To Face Climate Change.” The following quote from that post spoke well to the grief we feel living in a troubled world and the courage we can find to take action in the presence of such grief and uncertainty:
“We need courage, not hope. Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.”
What we need in 2019 is climate courage. We need to act boldly and decisively for climate justice. Climate justice delayed is climate justice denied. Let’s not wait another 12 years, or 2 years, or even a single day. It’s time for climate action now.
Where do we start?
Start by ending the climate silence. Learn about climate communication. Talk about climate with your friends, your family, your community. Learn about Global Warming’s Six Americas, and consider what you can do to shift “Cautious” and “Concerned” audiences into the “Alarmed” category. (Shifting half of “Cautious” and “Concerned” audiences into an “Alarmed” attitude will ensure that over half of America is on board with emergency climate action.) Start a #ClimateCafe or similar local climate discussion and action group. Look into solutions groups like Project Drawdown, Transition Towns, and the Solutions Project. Look into resistance groups like 350.org, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, the Valve Turners, and Rising Tide North America. Read and share the work of literary and artistic movements like climate fiction a.k.a. cli-fi (which I write), solarpunk, climate music (some of it based on climate data), and climate art. Narratives have the power to change the world, so reading, writing, and creating new narratives can help us create a new world together.
Let’s all get together and figure out what actions we can take, individually and collectively, that will have the most impact on the climate crisis. And let’s find the climate courage to take those actions today, and every day, until the crisis is resolved.