A student from my Ethics of Global Climate Change course this fall (2017) wanted to share this, but is feeling a bit shy so I’m sharing it anonymously for her. I’ll try to make sure she gets any comments you send.
Part way through my semester taking Ethics of Global Climate Change—as I began to feel a sense of sadness with being more connected to and responsible for climate change—I wrote down these words in my notebook:
“the tragedy and beauty of our existence is that we may dance and kiss and sing in the most chaotic and problematic of times. And who could ask us to do differently?”
I’ve gone back to these words countless times during the semester because they sum up and relate well to many of the ways this class made me feel with the material we learned. Multiple times during the semester, I became so disheartened by the information we learned—the ways that people and other species will be harmed and already have been harmed, as well as how hopeless it appears to meaningfully address anthropogenic climate change (or even adapting to it in equal and just ways). Despite how depressing the material could be, though, I found it startling just how easy it was to find myself laughing uncontrollably with a friend or smiling at the sunshine a few minutes after leaving the classroom. There is a part of me that felt, and still somewhat feels, that the knowledge I now have of such a huge problem demands me to live in such a way that gives it attention. I almost felt guilty multiple times for being happy or light-hearted because these feel so far from what the truth of the current situation on climate change demands of me. It is difficult, though, when “giving attention” to the problem is so daunting and depressing that it leaves you feeling crushed. When the problem is surrounded by emotions of fear or anger or worry, it makes it difficult to think of the issue in a productive manner … because it makes it difficult to look at the problem at all for a very sustained amount of time. It is here that I often reflected upon the fact that emotions matter so very much within the knowledge that we are given. If you are educated on all of the problems in the world, but crushed by despair from all of these issues, the knowledge does not do much good.
This is why, although it may seem hypocritical to learn of a huge problem and not be saddened by it, it could also be seen as a form of human resiliency. Your words from one of the last days of class lecture really have stayed with me, that it “comes in fits” and “the veil is lifted” for a short amount of time. This, in a way, is problematic because, if we put the cover back over our eyes after learning of something—in order to be happy—it can keep us from addressing the issue. However, if we force ourselves to dwell on the issue so constantly that it causes us despair, we are powerless against what we have seen. The fact that we can hold the weight of the knowledge we have of an issue, while laughing and smiling during our lives, can also be seen as a blessing.
I do not think we were designed to be disheartened creatures. The fact that we can move and find happiness inside a context of great trouble is problematic if we let this human resiliency keep us from working towards a more just world or from trying to address real issues (climate change being a large one). If we let this ability to live in a positive attitude (contrary to our contexts and knowledge) be a sign of hope, then it can be used a skill set for addressing the problem. I think this really goes along with one of the concepts from my favorite class lecture, which was on the need for a more “full-bodied” and positive vision for environmentalism. I realized how true it is that there fails to be an overarching positive goal to work towards. This is so incredibly troublesome. It is too difficult to ask for change in a way that states the problem with despair. Emotions matter, even in this.
Optimism and hope are some very under-valued tools in the environmental movement and things that have definitely not been used in addressing climate change—and I think maybe they should. I think this is mainly where I have ended up at the end of this semester, wanting to use my life to spread a message of hope and optimism in issues that we face (definitely including the climate change issue).
For me, the way that I keep optimism and actively combat feeling crushed by the weight of a problem as daunting as climate change is through constantly reminding myself that I’m not being asked to address it alone. In “The Great Work,” Berry talks about how we are left by the generation before us with both the great work we must carry out and the tools to do this work. The sense of being asked to do something, but that it came from someone who has left us with the tools to do it—and that it can be given to (shared with) those who come after us—is incredibly comforting. I think it is an ultimate comfort of community that comes from being in tune with the humanity of others that I feel from his words. To gain this comfort, you need to feel a sense of connectedness to those who will come after you and those who came before you and those who share the world with you now. This sense of connection to humanity that I am suggesting probably sounds daunting in itself, but I don’t think it means being asked to have a deep care for all of humanity all at once—but rather a genuine love for another human being. To truly love another human being enough to want to make the world a better place for them (and knowing that the world is full of humans who genuinely love others the same) is sufficient for feeling the connection needed for hope.
As a single human being, we can only hold so much. We hold the world in our consciousness for such a short amount of time. Our burden is only so large. However, as a humanity, we can handle much larger issues—perhaps even issues as daunting as global climate change. I think part of the problem is learning about climate change and feeling as if we—as a single individual on the planet for a short amount of time—need to fix it. There is comfort in knowing you can only do so much. The burden we hold as an individual is so small compared to the whole, so it feels less burdensome to carry what it is we are being asked to carry. It is easier to work towards something that you know you alone can’t fix … because it is here that change becomes more about progress. I am very aware, now, that slow progress is not enough to slow global warming enough to keep the planet in a state that is really very livable for people.
This is frightening, but it is not a reason to quit. If anything, it is more reason to keep trying for the promotion of the best possible lives for ourselves and for others. If we fail, what will we have left behind? Why were we here? For me, it really comes down to kindness and love for others. If we “save the world” but were not kind, lived our lives in constant despair, or never loved, it would have all been for nothing (in my opinion). On the other side, if we fail, but were kind, lived our lives in hope (and valiant effort) of progress, and loved, then the human mark we left behind was still a positive one. I can settle very happily with that.