I have a short list of values, and every few years I write them out and re-evaluate them. For as long as I can remember, “the environment” has been on my list, but it has never risen to the top.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. A few years ago, I participated in a town hall-style community discussion about “what Cape Bretoners love most” about their home, and “where they think their home needs work” or attention. A majority chose the island’s natural beauty as one of the top “things to love” (and with good reason; as I write this, it’s the heart of autumn, and the trees are magnificent). But very few chose “environmental stewardship” as something in need of attention.
We love the Earth, and we want it to remain beautiful and healthy, especially as it provides what we need to live: oxygen, clean water, temperate weather. But most of us don’t feel personally responsible for its upkeep, beyond a few habitual steps like recycling. I think we mostly assume that we’re all in the same boat, but somebody else is steering, and they know which course to chart for a safe future.
I don’t feel that way any more. It changed for me in January, when I did some research about climate change for a play, and I discovered a lot of alarming facts that weren’t making it into the public conversations. I spent most of the time since then reeling—not in denial, exactly, but sort of stunned and uncertain what to say or do.
Last week, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change released a report which not only confirmed my initial research, but also brought the urgent, terrifying facts into the public eye. We’ve got about 12 years to reverse course—to change our economy, our lifestyles, and our consumption levels so they do not all revolve around fossil fuels—before the Earth’s average temperatures rise catastrophically.
That’s as hard for me to write as it is for you to read, but it’s the truth. It’s science; it’s our future. Instead of bombarding you with images of what that catastrophe might look like—you can trust me when I say it’s very, very bad, or you can Google “long term effects of global warming” and see for yourself—I’d rather focus on what there might still be left for us to do about it.
I’m not a climate scientist or an activist. I don’t have leverage with politicians or oil executives. All I’ve got is a 10-month head-start on processing the bad news. It’s allowed me to move through the initial stages of denial, anger, and despair, and to achieve something vaguely resembling resolve.
I’m resolving to believe that humans are capable of fixing the mess we’ve made. It’s partly based on an admittedly selective review of the human track record: if we can turn our backs on dehumanizing and exploitative practices like slavery and totalitarianism; if we can pull ourselves back from the brink of nuclear annihilation; if we can seal a hole in the ozone layer, then we can work together to put the brakes on fossil fuel extraction and other carbon-heavy industries.
But mostly, my resolve is a leap of faith. I have always believed that humans are 99% animals and 1% divine—that we have the spark of something which transcends our base instincts for self-preservation, something capable of acting for the greater good.
Between January and now, I thought I’d lost that faith, and I was convinced that we are just animals, and die out the same way as most species: blindly fighting or blindly fleeing. But we are not just animals, and we are far from blind. In fact, what gives me the most optimism is that in 2018, we know more about ourselves and our planet than we ever thought possible. 100 years ago, we couldn’t possibly have reversed global warming. Now, at least, we know how.
I’m choosing to believe that humans are magic, but the challenge ahead of us can’t be solved with a mere “abracadabra.” It’s going to involve reinventing who we are, most especially those of us who live in developed nations. It requires thinking and acting both locally and globally, sometimes at the same time. It involves learning new skills, some of which will push us outside our comfort zones.
And it will absolutely, 100%, involve giving things up. That’s hard to face up to, because we trick ourselves into believing that everything we have—our phones, our cars, what’s on our plates, next year’s vacation—it’s all stuff that we’ve earned, and it’s ours by right, and it would be unfair to lose any of it. It’s hard to overcome the strength of our attachments. Sometimes it seems literally impossible.
But if you think of climate change as the cancer, and of that process of transformation as the chemo, it can happen. If we make it through, we’re going to be changed by the experience; but we’re going to be alive, and stronger in many ways for the ordeal. If we reject the treatment, we’ll certainly live rich, maybe happy lives… but with a much, much shorter life expectancy.
So, 12 years, everybody. I’m asking you to put the Earth on the top of your values list—if not for the next dozen years, then at least for 1 or 2, because these next couple of years will be the most crucial in changing course. I’m not asking you to leave your family or quit your job. Quite the contrary: we’ll need everyone on board, and it gets easier when you’ve reached out to people around you.
There is a long, long list of things we can do to help; if you’re in, then the first thing you can do is boost this signal, and then keep sharing other people’s research, thoughts, and planet-hacks. Don’t bother reading articles with headlines like, “It’s Worse Than We All Imagined”—you don’t need that psychic poison. But otherwise, research is good, and I’ll keep posting links and facts that will make it easier for us to spread positivity and a call to action.
The second thing you can do is talk to one person every day about climate change. It’s okay if most days it’s the same person, but look for other opportunities when they come up. Here’s a pro tip: Canadians love to talk about the weather. If the cashier at Sobeys gives you an in by saying, “Looks like another cold one, eh?” You can agree, but you can add, “Lately I’ve been thinking more about climate than weather.” They might ask you what’s the difference (Google it, it’s so easy to explain). Or they might agree, opening the door to productive and reassuring conversations.
There’s so much more, but I’ll stop with just one last thing: love yourself. And love your family and friends, and treat yourself and them to good things—beautiful, natural things, not the disposable plastic junk or the crappy farm-factory food that you already know is rotten.
Be good to yourself, because this is going to hurt like hell. But more importantly, be good to yourself because you’re magic; you’re divine; and you deserve to live.
Thanks for reading.