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Lessons from the Edge

One of the best things about being invited to present at conferences and events is that I get to meet the other speakers, and usually talk with them in at least a semi-relaxed setting. Generally speaking, at a good conference I can count on meeting at least a few people who I’ve never heard of, but should have, at least one person who I regard with a measure of awe (sometimes even more), and a whole lot of just plain interesting people doing important work. I usually come away with at least one new friend (and this should not be regarded as trivial – friends are worth a lot) and often with new contacts for ideas I can pass along, and new perspectives on the movement as a whole.

Thus over the years I’ve gotten to hang out and drink a beer or eat dinner with a whole lot of amazing people – from the founder of freecycle to nobel peace prize nominees, from radical activists to conservative ministers (and at least one who was both), from IPCC scientists and petroleum geologists with maps of Saudi Arabia in their head to poet and novelists trying to make some sense of the stories we’re telling. I’ve met people who have chained themselves to trees and people who do their activism with a pen or in a classroom or on the streets. I have come to believe that Paul Hawkens is right when he writes in _Blessed Unrest_ that the world preserving movement is the biggest single movement in the world – and every time I meet another branch of it, my view of it gets enlarged – and my sense of the heroism involved in telling out story is increased.

I’ve noticed though, that there’s a pattern to these gatherings. In most cases, they are designed to move people, to get people to change, to bring out their votes, their activist energies, the donations, the commitment. The talks always end with what is needed from the audience, with the dance of hope and fear, with how tell enough of the truth and also move people.

And then, often, the speakers retreat with their beer or to their dinner, and something else happens. We start talking about our sense that we have to do this work – and our increasing sense that we are failing, that we cannot possibly succeed – whatever our definitions of success. It is almost invariable – the conversation begins with black humor and jokes about possible solutions and their likelihood of failure, and often rapidly moves towards, well, despair, and how hard it is to convey a way forward that doesn’t sound like a lie.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but telling the truth as you know it, speaking to an audience and conveying your own passion and sense of our situation, while also making sure that you balance their panic, make everyone laugh just enough and give them a sense that they can still act is an awful lot of work. It isn’t just for the sake of the environment that I don’t do it every week. For me, as I step onto the stage, there’s a rush of energy, and I’m in the performance, the dance, modulating my voice here, and raising it here, trying to move people here to laughter and here to sympathy. In a purely physical sense it involves nothing more than standing on a stage or at a podium for an hour or so. In both a physical and psychic sense it is more exhausting than loading hay all day in July, or than chopping wood. When the adrenaline pulls back and the crash comes, the only thing I can ever remember being so completely enervating is childbirth. I enjoy doing it – when it is going well, and my audience is responding, grasping it, going with me, it is stimulating, energizing. But when it stops, so do I.

Many of the people I meet do this dance 50 or 100 or 150 times a year – they are constantly on trains, planes and automobiles, enduring the exhaustion of travel, the rush of doing something important presumably compensating for the physical price. I admire what they do, even though I can’t emulate it. Most of them are driven by the fact that their work matters – and it does. But they also know that most people will say “great talk, really interesting” and go home and live their lives much as they did before. And they will get on a plane and play Cassandra again tomorrow in a different city, or at home in another article, or another paper – and most people won’t listen.

So after the conference, we talk about what it is like – what it is like to imagine things most people don’t want to imagine, or look at numbers that no one else wants to hear. What it is like to try and get funding for research that shows this, or to make governments pay attention. What it is like to be dismissed or reviled. What it is like to do all you can bear, and know that it almost certainly isn’t enough to preserve what you want most to preserve.

But what I never hear – and I think I would – is that it isn’t worth doing the work – spreading the word, working for change, trying to make things better. You’d think that you would hear that – that people who express profound doubt in the efficacy of their measures – or at least whether they will be enough – would consider stopping. But they never do.

We don’t usually see each other long enough to get really intimate – the personal bits and fears you get peripherally. You notice the questions people don’t answer, the hesitations when the talk about their beloved grandchildren and their future, or their kids, the way we all compartmentalize what we’re willing to think about, the way the black humor gets blacker as the night goes on.

Not every event is like this – some are lighter at heart, some never do give you a chance to sit around together, sometimes you come in and leave and barely connect. But often enough you sit around and come down to the brass tacks questions – what do you think will happen? And generally speaking, what comes out is harder than what came out in the presentations and in public. There are arguments and jokes, but when it comes down to it, at the end, I find a remarkable unity of opinion from radical activists and crunchy cons, from Jews, Moslems, Christians, Buddhists and Athiests, from Brits and Aussies and Indians and Russian, from left and right, from men and women – we are headed into dark and unknown territory. And our job is to say so – but gently, and more softly than we will to each other. And even the athiests, asked what they feel we can do, sometimes refer, jokingly, of course, to prayer.

It would be easy to say that it is important to be wholly honest – but I don’t think that what’s needed is a greater degree of bleakness in our talks – the truth is that breaking news to people who may be first encountering it is different than the kind of conversations people who live in the dark have with each other.

But I think it is an important thing to know also how close to the edge we are in the estimation of the people who know the truth best - other writers have pointed out that scientific reticence has not always served us well in the climate change discussion, since many people take the modulated language of science to mean that the issue simply isn’t that serious. So too, I think the language of professional optimism (and by professional optimism I do not mean the mindless selling of optimism documented in Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book _Bright Sided_ but the carefully modulated articulation of things that are frightening to people with a clear set of guidelines for action) sometimes serves us ill, leaving people believing there are lower stakes and more time, that this is just another talk.

Even if I could remember it all, I would not repeat on this blog the personal discussions had between friendly colleagues at these talks – that would be unjust in the extreme and a radical invasion of privacy.

But sometimes when I deal with people who don’t think climate change is real, or that serious, or who don’t think that peak oil will be a big deal, I forget that I have something they don’t have – dozens of backroom conversations with people who care desperately about the mending of the world, who care so much that they are willing to put their family lives, their time and energy and even physical wellbeing on the line to spread the word - even though they know they are likely to fail to protect what they care most about. Not “we’re doomed” but “we’re on a precipice, and we’re not sure which way we’re going to begin to slide.”

And what also strikes me is this – the sheer courage it takes to do this. As I say, I’m a piker – I go home to my kids and my goats and breath deep and do laundry and keep my computer between me and other people. It would be easy to take from their sense of loss the idea that we should stop trying, that it is all hopeless. But that’s not what one gets – at the end of the night the sense is this – that though the odds are increasingly small and the abyss below us increasingly vast, what matters most is that we live our lives as though we can succeed, because every bit of harm we prevent and every blow softened matters, and in the end, how you lived matters as much as the winning. Most of what we do may not work, in the sense of preserving it all, but ought to preserve some -and some is a great deal when measured in human lives and happiness.

I can’t name all the people I’ve spoken with on these panels – or the not famous ones like them I meet who work just as hard and as bravely in their communities - but from them I have learned a great deal about courage and strength, and how to live in difficult times, about the value of work and life well lived, about managing fear and about what to hope for. What I hope for most is this – a planet full of people angry and frightened, telling dark jokes and laughing at them, worried and hopeful all together – people who get up every morning and do their share of this work, even if it seems it might not be enough, even if it hurts, even if they are tempted to let go and give in to despair, even if it means walking on the edge of dark places and along the abyss. I hope for people who do what is right, not matter what the outcome. And I feel I can hope for this among millions and billions, because I have seen such men and women, and I know that they are ordinary and they are real, and if they can do what they do, so can I. And so can you.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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