Expanding 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.