These days, when I’m at home in between my frequent travels, I find myself lingering longer, trying to absorb something I can’t quite name. After returning from the airport late at night I’ll stand outside the car for a few minutes, gazing up at the countless stars you can see in the darkness of rural Vermont. In late fall I’ll stay in the river next to our house long enough for the intensity of the sharp, cold water to wear off and I start to feel numb. I’ll crouch while hunting deer until I realize my knees are throbbing and my pants frozen.
At times like these I feel somewhat like a squirrel, gathering nuts for the winter, not knowing how long it will be until I eat again. But I know that next time I travel I’ll be back home before too long. And I know, no matter how bad global warming gets, that there will probably be brilliant night skies and deer left in Vermont (if not the same sugar maples, cold September water, and vast amounts of snow). I often think that my lingering, semi-trancelike ways have to do with a fear that my father will die before I get home to see him again. Or sometimes I think they have to do with the joy of escaping from the urban bustle of Washington DC and connecting to the land and life I understand and admire. Or simply that I am seeing things differently with the distance of space and time I have acquired since I left the Upper Connecticut River Valley seven years ago.
While I know that each of these thoughts is true, they still don’t explain this overwhelming sense I have of something I can’t quite give words to — foreboding? loss of innocence? — that has little to do with me, my dad, or my childhood. Because the images that enter my head most of all in those moments are of babies and children that I don’t even know yet, children I haven’t yet begun to conceive mentally, let alone biologically, who I know will live in a fundamentally different world.
The closest literary approximation I can find to this feeling, albeit in mirrored form, comes from the character Jonas in the book The Giver, by Lois Lowry. Jonas lives in a world with “no snow or sunshine, no colors or music, no animals or nature.” He is assigned to be the “receiver of memories,” so that his sterile, conformist society has some repository for what feelings felt like, what tastes tasted like, and what sights looked like.
A world in climate crisis will still have all of these sensations, many of them in even more profound ways than today. But I can’t help sensing that something that is central to what makes us human will be gone, missing. So the next time I’m home I’ll once again try to absorb that which I still can’t name but that I must save somewhere in me for another thing without a name: my future children.
This echoed how I feel – made wistfully – and yet with a lessening hope.
As a woman of 74 I will be gone before calamitous change, but your essay leaves me feeling sad – sad for all the children.
Brilliantly captures the loss of innocence of humanity in our betrayal of the natural world. It underlines the failure of the amazing bipedal primates evolutionary gift of intellect to protect future generations.
Perhaps that sense of an unnamable loss that Jared refers to is loss of place. His returning, again and again, to rural Vermont reflects this silent calling. Yet he (as so many environmentalists) fails to notice that it is his commuting to the country which is destroying the country he loves.
When those who love the Earth no longer feel the need for unfettered mobility and ground themselves once gain in place, perhaps there will be a possibility for healing and restoration of both ourselves and the planet.
The sense of wonder and connection to landscape, so well portrayed, in this piece cannot be something that one must leave the city to find. After all most of us, even on a global scale, now live in cities. We must strive to find the green spaces within such environments that foster the same connections. I think, or at least hope that it is possible.
Frank is right that one might find a thin thread of connection to wonder in the world’s cities, perhaps by looking up to the sky (if the pollution still offers a view). But the other urban “greenspaces” are often as artificial as the urban lifestyle itself.
A city is – by definition – a human habitation which exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment and requires the importation (and typically the exploitation) of resources from someplace else.
Civilization, in fact, defines the problem. The answer, then, is one most human beings don’t want to contemplate.
Even “artificial” or fractional ecologies, can offer a view of processes that foster understandings of natural systems. After all, as a kid S.J. Gould was able to find interest even in the roaches of NYC. Once he got to snails our understanding of evolution changed.
It sounds like a dichotomy, an internal discord of desire: wanting to live the great big life, since our stupendous wealth has brought the whole world within our grasp, and yet wanting to keep in touch with small and ordinary things, the simple treasures and pleasures of life that have until now been quite sufficient for a satisfying and fulfilling existence on Earth.
I agree with Riversong, quit flying around the planet in jets, stay grounded, start walking wherever you need to go. The dichotomy and discord will come to an end as you walk a little slower into the future with the children.
Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments.
When I wrote this piece almost ten months ago now, it was right after I finished my tenure as Director of the Sierra Student Coalition, the national student chapter of the Sierra Club.
Before moving to DC to direct the organization, I had indeed spent all of my life in smaller scale parts of New England – growing up in Vermont and New Hampshire and then going to school at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.
The only reason I moved to DC was to help build the movement to solve the climate crisis. I worked with high school and college student organizers across the country to make their campuses models of sustainability and to build public will for clean energy solutions.
If I had just stayed grounded and at home, surrounded by mostly progressive people in Vermont, I fear I would have made far less of a positive impact than by working to build campus movements in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Iowa . We do desperately need people to go around the country and the world, rallying and organizing communities to the cause of solving the climate crisis. For myself at this moment in time I would feel selfish living in Vermont when there is so much work to do elsewhere. Yes Vermont still has a ways to go on climate and energy policy (especially with Gov. Jim Douglass being so shortsighted) but VT is still far ahead of most other places in our country. So yes, I felt I had to move to DC (where, for the record, I do walk and bike to get around) to have an impact on national scale work.
So I think the advice of “ground yourself” and “quit flying around in jet planes” is a bit simple doesn’t get at the complexity of this.
I travel to do the work that can help retain the kind of world I grew up in. When I travel, it’s almost always to organize or speak on these issues. It’s not that I want to live a “big life,” its that I want to make a big impact because I care about the way I grew up and want to preserve it in some way for future generations.
That’s not to say that that travel does not leave me feeling ungrounded – it certainly does at certain times. However, I think the real point of this piece is something i’ve only since been able to figure out.
As humans, we have always been obsessed with the idea of redemption. From our religion to our politics to our families, we have always been able to believe that no matter how much we have sinned, how badly we have erred, or how tragically we have failed that we still retain the hope of redemption.
The sinner can repent and begin anew, a failing politician or party can be voted out of office and better policies can be implemented. Someone who grew up in a broken home can break that cycle and start a loving family.
And it’s been the same with pollution. When previous generations went to excess in the pursuit of progress, we’ve been willing to go back and clean up their mess with Superfund sites and the like.
What climate destabilization threatens is the loss of the possibility of redemption.
Once a certain amount of greenhouse gases are up there, we could cross tipping points that would irrevocably shape the world of future generations, leaving them no recourse to fix it. No matter how much they would desire to redeem past generations, we will have set something in motion that can not be changed for thousands of years.
That’s the true exceptionalism of global warming – unlike any other issue on the political agenda today, there is an end point at which we either solve it or we fail because we’ve passed future-determining tipping points. With bad decisions about health care or education or anything else, while people unarguably suffer in the short term, we are not condemning future generations to live with those mistakes in perpetuity.
That’s what my piece was trying to get at. If we pass those climate tipping points – and we are coming so dangerously close – I want to retain somewhere in myself the memory of what life was like before the possibility of redemption was taken away.
One last point – shortly after I wrote this article I found a piece that is connected to the comments about “loss of place” that I would highly recommend in exploring this issue further.
It’s titled “Global Mourning” and is about how changes to the environment due to global warming are causing a loss of a sense of place, even when you stay in that place. Check it out at http://www.wired.com/images/press/pdf/globalmourning.pdf
Thank you Jared Duval for your thoughtful comments which I found even more profound than your original article. And the “Global Mourning” link is quite sobering. I pray for a global shift in consciousness that will save us before it is too late. Thank you for your good words and your good work.
While I have great respect for both your dedication and your thoughtfulness, I believe you’re still somewhat mired in old paradigm thinking (when it is our cultural atmosphere, we don’t even notice it).
You say you moved to DC and flew around the world in order to make a big difference. Our fixation on “bigger is better” is, in fact, what got us into this mess. Small, local, personal and neighborhood change is no less important – perhaps much more important – than sweeping policy change or institutional reform. Ultimately, the only change that will really make a difference is change of heart.
And if we are to be agents of authentic social or cultural evolution, then we must learn to differentiate between what is urgent and what is important – and not let the apparently urgent distract us from the long-term commitment to what is truly important.
Yes, global climate change is a looming crisis that we yet don’t sufficiently understand enough to predict. But every age believed that armageddon was close at hand, and that belief – or its consequent fear – often led us to foolish or counterproductive responses.
Redemption is actually a rather new human cultural ideal, popularized by Christian religion and its foundational notion of original (and ongoing) sin. If we are to redeem ecological balance (Garden of Eden), we must return to the ageless human belief in original harmony. And that requires deep connection to people and place, and an abiding desire to change one’s self – for that is the only thing we have any power to do or any need to do.
Echoes of my own lingering looks at the stars and drawing in the cool air when it comes. Can’t quite name it either. The future seems to be casting a shadow that is some how benumbing and makes you want to hold the moment, the breath as long as possible. As long as we can draw strength from these precious moments their is some hope.
Don’t think that bigger is better, however understanding connections, impacts and problems at the appropriate scale is important. Vermont is beautiful, but those living in cities have a much smaller footprint. Travel well Jared.
Thank you Jared and commenters for beginning to name and describe something I’ve been suffering with more intensely each day. Distraction no longer works. It comforts me to know I’m not alone. But it underscores the reality of that which we sense. The metaphor of the future casting a shadow is terrifying and potent.