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Wake Up! Our World Is Dying and We're All in Denial

Had we been in a trance? I wanted to shout, "Wake up! Please wake up! Our old future is gone. Matters are urgent. We have to do something now."
 
 
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We live in a culture of denial, especially about the grim reality of climate change. Sure, we want to savor the occasional shrimp cocktail without having to brood about ruined mangroves, but we can’t solve a problem we can’t face.

I don't like to think about global environmental problems, and neither do you. Yet we can't deal with problems we can't face. Isak Dinesen wrote, "All sorrows can be borne if put into a story." Here's my story. In the cataclysmic summer of 2010, I experienced what environmentalists call the "'Oh shit!' moment." At that time, the earth was experiencing its warmest decade, its warmest year, and the warmest April, May, and June on record. In 2010, Pakistan hit its record high (129 degrees), as did Russia (111 degrees). For the first time in memory, lightning ignited fires in the peat bogs of Russia, and these fires spread to the wheat fields further south. As doctors from Moscow rode to the rescue of heat and smoke victims, they fainted in their non-air-conditioned ambulances. In July, the heat index in my town, Lincoln, Nebraska, reached 115 degrees for several days in a row. Our planet and all living beings seemed to be gasping for breath.

That same month, I read Bill McKibben's Eaarth, in which he argues that our familiar Earth has vanished and that we now live on a new planet, Eaarth, with a rapidly changing ecology. He writes that without immediate action, our accustomed ways of life will disappear, not in our grandchildren's adulthoods, but in the lifetimes of middle-aged people alive today. We don't have 50 years to save our environment; we have the next decade.

Nothing I'd previously read about the environment could quite prepare me for the bleakness of Eaarth. I couldn't stop reading, and, when I finished it, I felt shell-shocked. For a few days, all I could experience was despair. Everything felt so hopeless and so finite.

During this time, my grandchildren came to visit. As we picked raspberries, I thought about all the care we lavished on the children in our family. We made sure they ate healthy foods and brushed their teeth with safe toothpastes. We examined and treated every little bug bite or scratch. And yet, we--and I mean all the grandparents in the world, including myself--hadn't worked to secure them a future with clean air and water and diverse, healthy ecosystems.

Had we been in a trance? That summer, when I listened to friends talking about mundane details of life, I wanted to shout at them, "Wake up! Please wake up! Our old future is gone. Matters are urgent. We have to do something now."

After years of being a therapist and a mother, I've learned that shouting "wake up" doesn't work. One of my most dispiriting realizations was that while I wanted desperately to preserve the world I loved, I didn't even know how to share this fact with my closest friends.

One night, my daughter and her family came for dinner during a record-breaking rainfall. After the baby went to sleep, we watched the wind whip through the pines and listened to the torrents of rain hammer our windows. Sara asked if my husband and I thought the rain was related to global climate change. Jim and I stared at each other, too confused to speak.

My wonderful daughter had the dreams all mothers have for their children. She was already doing her best. I couldn't bear to inflict any pain on her. However, Sara was persistent in her curiosity. In the most positive, calm way that I could, I told her what I'd recently learned.

 
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