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Global Warming And Visions Of A Sustainable Planet

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SO2012-4Expanding Our Moral Imagination

By Mary Pipher

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.

Sara was devastated. She and John quickly bundled up the baby and said good night. I could see her weeping as she tucked Coltrane into his car seat. I felt anguished, and I wasn't sure I'd done the right thing. Yet Sara was 33 years old. Could I really shield her from what scientific experts were telling us? Would I want to be "protected" from the truth? Wasn't it better if we faced these things together?

That next week, I couldn't enjoy anything. My conversations with my husband quickly fell into what we call "the dumper." I was afraid to be around friends for fear I'd infect them with my gloominess.

I knew I had to find a way out of my state of mind. I couldn't survive with all that awareness every minute of my day. I wanted to be happy again, to be able to laugh, and to snuggle with my grandchildren without worrying about their futures. But I couldn't forget what I now understood.

What pulled me out of my despair was the desire to get to work. I didn't know what I was going to do. I felt unqualified for virtually everything involving the environment, but I knew I had to do something to help. It was unclear how much my action would benefit the world, but I knew it would help me. I've never been able to tolerate stewing in my own anxiety. Action has always been my healing tonic.

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  • Comment Link Sunday, 28 October 2012 17:04 posted by Littlerobbergirl

    I came here via skepticalscience site - great article, thanks.

    Thanks to laura for a new phrase that describes my feelings for the two years after my ' oh shit' moment - 'pre traumatic stress'' (and yes then the anger then the depression - but dont let it slow you down!)
    Laura, hang in there my dear, i think this is the darkest hour ( decade) before the bulk of humanity does finally 'wake up', and the great turning described by joannah macey gets fully under way. Tend your garden, lobby your local politicians, teach your children what it is to be a switched on loving human, a brain cell in the service of gaia..

  • Comment Link Thursday, 25 October 2012 14:24 posted by Harriet Cooke, MD

    Thank you, thank you Thank you Mary, for your eloquence and courage to share this topic. The only thing I would add to your article is the reminder of the deep wisdom and Love behind all things, that some of us call God. Heaven only knows how much the changes we can make in our little slice of life will matter, but Heaven will know if we try.
    I loved so many of your quotes: TNT-" the best way to save the environment is to save the environmentalist. ", and the reminder to savor the world even as we work with others to save it. I think it is not the saving of a world that grows a soul, but the work together toward these goals, particularly in the face of diminishing odds. And to have a good time doing it!
    For Laura and your tender heart, enjoy motherhood! And if you need, try some targeted amino acid therapy to help get you over those deep despairing frames of mind. Having lived too much of my life with them and too exhausted to be very helpful in any way, I found that a little 5-HTP , SAMe, L-tyrosing, and hormone adjustments to be a great help in restoring my ability to work in this work with a lighter spirit.
    These are not replacements for the holy work of social action, but adjuvant therapies that make it both possible, and more delightful, even in the face of what is.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 24 October 2012 11:18 posted by Mary Ann C. Holtz

    Dear editor:
    Six years ago after extensive study of the environmental and economic crises facing our earth community, I experienced my version of the “waking up” Mary Pipher refers to in “Global Warming and Visions of a Sustainable Planet “. I have been a psychotherapist in practice for 27 years, as well as a social justice and peace educator. Facing the converging crises of our planet raised serious ethical issues for me, which have not been addressed in the mainstream of our profession's literature. Many of us who read Psychotherapy Networker would likely say that part of the focus of our work is helping change patterns toward healthy relationships for current and future generations. Yet all of us are and/or will be affected within this generation's lifetime by challenges which our professional training has not prepared us to deal with.
    In search of “best practices” and a “standard of care” for working with my clients in light of these crises, in May, 2009 I convened and continue to facilitate a monthly gathering of psychotherapists in Tampa Bay, Florida. We continue to share resources for study, and to offer each other deep support in the ongoing “waking up” process. We have shared clinical applications we are developing and we have offered continuing education workshops to other therapists.
    Any readers who would like more information about our study materials and/or starting a group like ours in your area are welcome to contact me via email at
    For those who are looking for one book offering a very clear overview, I strongly recommend the same book that Pipher was affected by: Eaarth by Bill McKibben.

    Mary Ann C. Holtz
    St. Petersburg, FL

  • Comment Link Sunday, 21 October 2012 18:08 posted by Brian Page

    Humans have an amazing capacity to rationalize away their behavior, hell even the completely insane can usually pull this off. It should be fairly obvious that opinions, ours or others, are not the best way of acquiring knowledge about the world, evidence is. In science opinions are known as hypotheses and only when a hypothesis passes a test against empirical evidence, called an experiment, is it considered to be valid. At it's heart science is the end result of a historical quest for knowledge. It has proven itself a better method than campfire anecdotes and the myths that evolved into our philosophies and religious beliefs. A set of valid hypotheses that is consistent with the preponderance of evidence is collected into what science calls a theory. Parts of a theory that appear irrefutable and stand the test of time are called laws. These are not theories and laws as we know them in a social context, they are based on a continual process of evidence-based refinement known as the scientific method.

    The prime directive of the scientific method is to reveal the weaknesses of seemingly valid hypotheses, theories and laws. Experiment, the process of acquiring evidence, is the tool for invalidating what has previously been considered proven. Strict control of all relevant variables and the ability to be replicated are basic constraints imposed by the scientific method. To be accepted, experimental results must withstand careful scrutiny by experts in the field after which they are published for all to review and critique. This is how science works, how it avoids falling prey to the tyranny of opinion. Because nature doesn't really care about opinions, it is what it is, and to be understood must be dealt with in an objective and reasoned way. Few claim to deny science, but it's the failure to understand the scientific method that leads to the type of willful ignorance and rationalizations that produce the inappropriate denial of scientific results.

    Those espousing opinions that run contrary to established science usually can't sustain their cognitive dissonance forever in the face continually antithetical scientific evidence. When confronted with facts opposed to a preconceived opinion, a choice between modifying those opinions to accommodate new evidence or simply ignoring any such inconvenient data must be made. Science is perpetually malleable in this way, facts drive opinions, humans are not. What humans are good at is rationalizing away such behavior when it finally becomes evident that they were wrong. There is usually not much harm in this, it is an evolutionary survival strategy after all. However, sometimes willful ignorance has tragic consequences that can't be hidden. It is far more difficult to convince others of the validity of ones rationalizations than it is to convince oneself. So when your children and grandchildren ask you in 10 or 20 years what you did to help prevent the environmental catastrophe that they will be forced to live in, you might want to consider whether they understand the concept of willful ignorance before you frame your response. When will you have your epiphany?

  • Comment Link Thursday, 11 October 2012 14:17 posted by Richard Pauli

    Thank you for this wise article.

    The grinding gears of panic and anxiety was exhausting. Then my despair turned to anger. Now, my anger to disappointment - I think I can work with that. Now is the time for questions and re-engagement with the ruthless scientific laws that govern our world.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 29 September 2012 12:10 posted by Laura Olley

    Mary Pipher's article came to me as I was (and still am) in the midst of panic about the issue of global warming. I could barely read it I am so upset, but I am desperate for community on this topic and to not feel so alone. I am a new mother and I am so angry that the joy I feel about motherhood is mitigated by this sense of terror in regard to the grim future we all face. I believe that I have "pre-traumatic-stress disorder" and find myself considering a return to SSRI's and benzodiazapenes to get through it. But what I really need is community and the strength to take action. I am giving every last penny to groups like Oil Change International and the Environmental Defense Fund. We need a major movement and a call to action on a grand scale. I am distraught. Thanks to May Pipher for helping me not feel so alone.

  • Comment Link Monday, 24 September 2012 12:43 posted by Jennifer Thompson

    Thank you - This is right up my alley. This summer I observed vast landscape changes on the Continental Divide Trail in Montana - having been on a section of that trail in the Bob Marshall Wilderness 15 years ago. Returning to these same places this summer and observing vast change in Alpine environments, the color of the Alpine Lakes, the vegetation, animal habitat, ETC! I had a visceral experience of Global Warming. IT IS HERE. Plus just last night photographing 4 fracking platforms along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana. Global Warming and a continuance of the abuse and destruction of the environment by companies. What to do? Lay on the Earth, forgive each other and ask forgiveness to the Earth, write a poem, get together with others for support. These are the things I am doing to survive. Every act of active compassion is necessary now. Thank you so much for this writing which validates my visceral experience of Global Warming and confirms my need for personal response.

  • Comment Link Monday, 17 September 2012 17:56 posted by Lee Salmon

    Mary's article is one of the best I've ready that addresses how we avoid issues that seem overwhelming yet must be confronted for the surety of our own future and that of others we love. We must step out of our discomfort to address the overarching issue of global climate change which threatens life on this planet as we know it. Nothing else is really that important.

    How do we elevate this to an issue that needs to be front and center in this looming Presidential election and debates? Is there really anything more important?