Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility
April 07, 2023
The grief that comes with climate change is real. But despair is as unhelpful as denial, so we have to hold on to hope, and get to work. A new collection of essays will help.
Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility, edited by Rebecca Solnit & Thelma Young Lutunatabua, Haymarket Books
“Don’t like the weather in Wisconsin? Just wait five minutes. It’ll change.” I grew up hearing this and thinking it was a saying specific to our state. I have since learned it is common across America. But we do talk about the weather almost every day here, and not just because we’re chatty, small-talk-loving, banal Midwesterners. The weather really is ever-changing, and often challenging. It vacillates between the severe and the serene, and it has a huge impact on our day-to-day lives. So talking about the weather isn’t just small talk, it’s real talk. It’s important. It prepares us. We tend to hunker down in Winter, which lasts about half the year here, but when a winter storm hits, we all mobilize and get outside to clear the snow from the sidewalks and streets and stairways so we can continue moving on. When the weather is nice, we all get outside and head to the park, the beer gardens, the restaurant patios. We know we have but a brief window to enjoy it before the weather turns.
But it’s not just the weather changing anymore. Nowadays, we’re talking more and more about our changing climate. We live in what seems as safe a space as any, away from ocean coasts, near one of the largest bodies of freshwater on Earth, already used to some pretty extreme weather even if not plagued by the most extreme, but we still see the effects of climate change and talk about it. And talking about it is important. It prepares us. And mobilizes us to meet it. Like winter storms here in Wisconsin, we all have a role to play, and we can’t do it alone. This is one of the main messages I took from reading a new book of essays edited by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua: that we are all in this together.
Replying to one of the most common questions she gets as a climate activist—What can we possibly do as individuals?—Mary Annaïse Heglar writes:
Well, what if your power in this fight lies not in what you can do as an individual but in your ability to be part of a collective? What if you broadened your perspective beyond what you can accomplish alone and let yourself see what you could do if you lent your efforts to something bigger? Yes, it’s true that you can't solve the climate crisis alone, but it’s even more true that we can’t solve it without you. It’s a team sport.
Julian Aguon reiterates the point when he insists that:
The answer to the question of climate change must come from everyone, or it will come from no one.
Today is Good Friday. Passover ended last night, and Easter is Sunday. I was telling the stories behind these holidays to my children yesterday morning, and realizing how unbelievable it all sounded as it came out of my mouth. But the larger story is one of oppressed people and ideas outlasting the mightiest empires of their day. In the face of climate change, that larger story is one to hold onto. The greatest powers in our world today will fade, and the solutions to these crises they have created already exist, if only we would reach out and embrace them. As Gloria Walton points out, many of them have been pioneered by the communities most affected.
Yet, it is rarely mentioned that these communities at the frontline of the climate crisis are also at the forefront of creating intersectional solutions to tackle an array of issues: protecting their homes and their neighbors; preserving natural ecosystems; building clean and resilient systems for food, housing, energy, and water; and creating local, lasting jobs that pay well and further an economy rooted in care. These communities are showing that a more just and sustainable way of life is practical, affordable, and possible, right now.
It is a welcome and important reminder that “We need to fund the solutions created by the most impacted communities at a greater scale, because those solutions are working.” It is also a helpful counter against the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda that we can’t power the world without them. The truth is that we can, and we must. As Antonia Jubasz notes:
Studies have made clear that the more rapid the transition, the less harm will be experienced.
And that is not just to the overall environment, but to us as individuals—even those who make their living in the industry. The above quote from Jubasz was in response to a question from Thelma Young Lutunatabua about how we can transition away from fossil fuels without harming the everyday workers in the industry. She explains how the industry is inherently harmful even to those who make a living on it:
Seeing the fossil fuel industry as a secure place for workers is false, a myth that really shouldn’t be perpetuated. It has never been safe, has never been healthy.
It is also extremely volatile. I have read many books over the years about the realities of living close to and working in the fossil fuel industry, and it isn’t pretty. Books like Twilight in Hazard, Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia, and The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American reveal the precariousness of exisiting in a part of America dominated by the fossil fuel industry. Countries like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, whose economies are reliant on fossil fuels, tell the same story.
Reviewing Maya Rao’s Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier in 2018, I noted how, “Western North Dakota, if judged by its population, had been in decline since the Great Depression—the harsh landscape shedding more and more people with each succeeding generation.” Yet, “I concluded the book thinking that perhaps the decline of western North Dakota didn’t occur during the generations that people were leaving, but in this one, when so many have arrived,” and ripped apart and polluted the landscape, brought some of the highest crime rates in the country to a once quiet and pristine part of the country. And to get that dirty energy to where it can be burned away, the Dakota Access Pipeline came into being.
There is a part of that story, though, in the resistance to the pipeline, that gives us hope. The events at Standing Rock didn’t stop the pipeline, but they strengthened the movement against fossil fuels. Rebecca Solnit has a brilliant essay near the end of the book about the power of indirect consequences that touches on that story, but there is an earlier essay from her that I think helps explain why it’s so important, in which she writes:
A lot of stories in circulation endeavor to strip you of hope and power, to tell you that it doesn’t matter or it’s too late or there’s nothing you can do or we never win. Not too late is a project to try to return hope and power through both facts and perspectives.
Twenty years ago, I began to speak directly about hope and to what impeded it for so many people: “I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency.”
We are in an emergency. But it is not too late. We can grieve what is already lost, but we must also act to protect and enhance and build on the beauty that remains. As Jaquelyn Gill writes:
For those of us born into individualistic cultures, the vastness of time can be just as terrifying as it is comforting; it provokes our deep-seated fear that we are insignificant and powerless, even as it assures us in our darkest moments that things will not always be as they are now. But just as an ocean is a multitude of drops, eternity is an amalgam of moments: the minutes, hours, and days in which we found ourselves bound together, and to the planet, with a charge to be good ancestors.
Don’t like the climate? Just wait five years. It’ll change. Hopefully not too much, but we are now past the point where we can ignore that reality, and we need to start adjusting our expectations and actions. Asking people to believe they can change the weather is kind of crazy. It is like asking them to smear lamb's blood on their doorways to ensure their firstborn survives, or to believe our beloved can be resurrected. But we have changed the weather and will continue to do so. It is now a decision of how. We need to talk about it. It is important. And it will prepare us. Not only for the changes coming, but for the fight we must join, and the work we must do.