Tips for Managing Climate Change-Induced Despondency


I interrupt my months-long writing hiatus to bring you this heartening post on climate change.

Really. Don't leave yet.

Did you see the movie First Reformed? Did it make you sad? Are you reading the news about California wildfires, villages in India that are becoming uninhabitable? And the loads of things this country is undoing, like international accords, laws to protect endangered species, or emissions regulations?

In the car the other day, Wyatt said to me, "The biggest thing I don't understand is why all of us aren't talking about climate change every second of every day. Nothing else matters if we don't do something about that." Amen, 15 year-old.

I've had an incredible summer outside. I saw an Orca whale breach by our boat off the coast of San Juan Island. I've seen the reefnetting boats in Lummi Island's Legoe Bay, the sun setting behind their tall platforms. I've gone swimming in Bellingham Bay, Lake Samish, Ross Lake, Lake Diablo, Lake Whatcom, and various other inlets around the San Juans. I've walked through the old growth forests of the North Cascades. Today, on my quarterly retreat to a hermitage on the Nooksack River, I hiked 10 miles under the shadows of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan (see photo above taken by me a few hours ago. $%*&!!). Just me, no music or podcasts, hearing every footfall and every horse fly. I had the distinct sensation, the whole time, that I was one with the mountains, with the wildflowers, the expansive sky. That I wasn't a horrible human interloper (which I sometimes believe), but that the mountains and I were together, all part of this mystery of life, sharing our limping planet.

I meet with my spiritual director Jillian as part of my solo retreats (you can find out more about this soul food here). Today, I sat in front of her and cried. I told her I was in love with the world and indescribably sad that it was dying. I told her I didn't know if I had any business bringing children into this mess (too late for that!) and that I needed help knowing how to move forward. What follows are some things she told me, or that I've been thinking about for awhile and am finally putting down here. I hope they help you if you are sad.

Humans may be headed for extinction, but that doesn't mean our planet will not survive. Jillian recounted hearing this from a shaman from Greenland at a climate change symposium she went to. This is comforting to me somehow. Maybe our time on earth is limited, just like the pterodactyls' or tyrannosaurus' time was. Maybe we are part of a much larger story, and the story's arc doesn't depend on our survival. Maybe, in some altered state that we'd never recognize now, our planet will live on without us.

Our calling isn't to save the planet as much as it is to reduce our tendency to harm. Our tendencies to harm one another, to harm ourselves, and to harm the earth are killing us. We're locking families up, still fighting wars, polluting so we can manufacture more things that help us feel in control. No one knows what the cumulative outcome of all this is (though there are some VERY educated guesses and models out there), but that shouldn't prevent us from starting now, in every small way we can, to stop harming. Every small action counts.

The evolution of consciousness is also happening. I'm now officially irritated when I hear people make generalizations about how spiritual ideas are still in the shadows or how evil rules the day. From my perspective, that's just not true. I know people--lots of them--who are opening themselves up to love and working for the flourishing of health, goodness, and connection. Now, more than ever, we need this work. That's what we're here for.

Fear of death is one of the strongest barriers to love and intimacy. Sometimes I catch myself not wanting to love too totally or deeply. As Ivor Williams says, "Death involves everyone. Design accordingly." None of us can escape it, and it will hurt even more if we've thrown ourselves into love. But you know what I'm going to say here--it's worth it. Suffering is where it's at--even the joy. Especially the joy. One of the things I've held onto most fiercely is hearing Joanna Macy say, "You’re always asked to sort of stretch a little bit more, and actually, we’re made for that. But in any case, there’s absolutely no excuse for making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health, whether we think it’s going to go on forever. This moment, you’re alive." YES.

Still separate the compost from the recyclables from the landfill. Sometimes, when I'm scraping out the inside of the compost bin and the bacon grease has mixed with the rotten lettuce and it's all topped off with putrid black beans, I think, "What's the point of this when this country is digging up tribal lands for oil pipelines?!" But I need to do it. And other things like buying less plastic crap and  supporting the local businesses and food systems that will keep us afloat once everything else falls apart. Maybe I need a little ritual to perform as I'm dumping the compost: "From dust we came, to dust we shall return. Thank you, universe, for any journey we take between."

Keep becoming a Professional Noticer. I think of Gary Snyder's poem: stay together/learn the flowers/go light. What is more beautiful than that? I recently bought myself a book to identify the native plants and trees I see on my walks and hikes. It's easier to connect to things I can name. There is still so much to cherish, so much to celebrate, so much to SEE. Despair keeps us from doing that. So I'll be carting around that fat book, falling more and more in love.

Feels good to be back here. Jillian and I talked today about putting our work gloves on. These are mine. Lots of love to any die-hard readers out there still.