Signs of Sustainability: Climate Despair, Climate Hope, Climate Courage

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By Wendy Skinner

At the behest of a friend, I recently hosted a group at my home to talk about “climate change despair.”

Many of those present expressed feelings of depression and defeatism. One person broke down and cried as she talked about her deep love for the earth and her sense of loss.

A debilitating kind of despair is reported by those who work in fields that research and see first-hand the devastation caused by climate change, and if I list even some of that here, I will probably start to cry as well. Humankind is facing the biggest, most complex problem of our lives and the lives of generations to come. Even the most well-off and sheltered individuals have one foot in the climate change apocalypse, whether they acknowledge it or not. Others around the world are fully engulfed in apocalyptic ruin.

Scientific predictions of the end of our universe are measured in billions of years, the planet in millions of years. On our current trajectory, human life on earth is measured in mere hundreds of years. Left unchecked, we’ll overpopulate, deplete resources, poison our water and air, and wage war endlessly. We’ve already embarked on this frightening journey.

I accept that these are terrifying times, but as I listened to the outpourings of despair, I wondered if this emotion wasn’t out of sync with what lies ahead. Despair generally presents itself when all hope is lost, at the end of a long exhausting struggle. Most of us are at the beginning of the struggle and have barely begun to fight.

The term “climate grief” might be more useful. Grief can paralyze, but it can also empower. To those who feel despair over climate change, I recommend working through that emotion toward more positive states of mind. Allow your grief to empower you. Open yourself up to hope, and from this cleansing emotion, become courageous.

As our society becomes more fractured, we humans might be better served by referring to ourselves and all living beings on this planet as Earthlings, the ultimate unifying term. As Earthlings, our struggle for the future can be fair and reasoned, smart and innovative, committed and steadfast – but it must resonate from a core of hope and courage.

A dozen years ago, I was searching for a way to actively join the sustainability movement. I attended a talk by author and activist Sandra Steingraber, who said that everyone could work toward sustainability regardless of profession or avocation. I remember her listing farmers, engineers, designers, teachers, office workers, mothers.

Inspired, I took stock of my own career attributes. With the help of others, I found the hope and courage to apply my talents to something that continues to influence and educate.

Wendell Berry has suggested that we try to “live savingly” on the earth, as opposed to trying to “save the earth.” I discovered a path to living savingly that reached beyond my home and family. Ithaca is the perfect place to live savingly, and it may be – with apologies to Mr Berry – the perfect place to work toward saving the earth.

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This is the latest installment in the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit SustainableTompkins.org. Wendy Skinner is the founder of SewGreen, a local resource for textile reuse and landfill diversion since 2007.

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