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On Pretending That What’s Happening Isn’t Actually Happening

"Unbelievable Winter Color" by Albert H. Krehbiel
Des Plaines River, 1928

Deep Winter Ruminations

In December I found myself sliding into a state of extreme unwillingness to take on new projects, to continue work on those in hand, to write, or do much of anything else, really, at work or at home. I found myself prodded awake in the night by worries about global warming, the tides of war and migration, the ramifications of random, dismal environmental facts come upon during the course of a day’s work, or of social justice problems encountered in the news and on the streets of Chicago; about any of which I can do very little to help. There were too many meetings with environmental groups, and no time for walks. I could not look at a tree without wondering how its species would fare in coming, climate disrupted years. I had reached a state of incipient burnout. 

Thus, for a few weeks--a month and more, actually--after the solstice, I went into a state of semi-retreat. I did this by allowing myself to hope that COP21 would help bend the climate curve, and by pretending that our ongoing environmental catastrophe, of which climate change, is, after all, only a pernicious, deadly symptom, isn’t happening. I also attempted to pay less attention to the ever increasing spate of bad news, from war, to race relations, to migration, to the grim presidential race—and on and on and on, much of which is at least partly related to said catastrophe, with some industrial civilizational collapse, resource depletion and overpopulation thrown in.

I cooked and baked; had family over for meals; helped my mother with projects; visited with my children; went to a party; accompanied my husband to concerts that featured unamplified voices and acoustical instruments; saw friends; wandered through art exhibits; cleaned out a closet; finished one crochet project and started another; and read books whose vocabularies did not include the words “ecology,” “habitat”, or “ecosystem.” I went so far as to go to a movie, watch a TV show, spend time on Facebook and make an effort to listen to people talk about football without wishing I were somewhere else. Most of these things I’d do anyway, but the difference was that I determinedly wasn’t thinking about ecological collapse and the need for ecological restoration all the while earnestly pretending I was too busy to take a walk through the cold, leafless woodland savannah along the gelid Des Plaines river near my home.

In short, I made an effort—attitudinally, at least—to live what I imagine to be “normal” life: at least as an educated, white, fairly-comfortably-situated American might, and as many people I know seem actually to live. So many are so deeply immersed in their private lives and, whether by press of circumstance or by willful turning away and emotional dissociation, manage to express concern but are too busy to do much about larger issues at hand, not to mention attempting to recognize and ameliorate their own complicity in same. We Americans are very busy.

It couldn’t be a full retreat: my day job requires ongoing understanding of, engagement with, and action regarding environmental and sustainability issues ranging from climate change to ecology, from transportation to recycling, with some energy thrown in. My day-to-day lifestyle continues in semi-collapsed mode, as in John Michael Greer’s half ironic, half serious slogan “collapse now and avoid the rush.” Various family responsibilities (and finances) preclude my hying myself off to some Benedictine monastery, Zen-flavored spa in beautiful scenery, or rural artist’s retreat. But I told myself the story that I could, for awhile, at least, stop paying attention to the matters that concern my relationship with those whom the Potawatomi language calls “the standing people” and all their friends and relations. For a while, at any rate, I could turn away from concern with Gaia. I told myself that this would somehow make me feel better. I stayed indoors. Kept my walking confined to neighborhood sidewalks. It should have been very easy.

Everything about American life is geared towards this kind of pretense. It’s so easy, when online, to choose to spend hours down the rabbit hole of surfing, shopping, reading feature articles about fashion, health, exercise, or what have you, not to mention politics. It’s so easy to get obsessed with handbags or shoes or celebrities, watch sports on TV, movies on Netflix, so easy to get in the car and drive somewhere instead of taking public transit, walking or biking, easier still that it’s winter. It’s so easy to buy packaged food, to imagine that organizing and decorating your house will transform your life—and give you more room to buy more things!—so easy to go out to eat, so easy to “be concerned” about the environment, but keep your own house warm enough to wear a short-sleeve t-shirt when it’s 10 degrees (F) outside, or fly, without thinking about it, somewhere for business or pleasure. It’s so easy to separate one’s professional life—no matter how “do goody,” from one’s personal life of comfort and consumption. It’s so easy to live a life separate from the natural world and thus from its concerns. Yeah, global warming is terrible, have you joined Amazon Prime?

(It is also incredibly easy to be judgmental about all of the above, as though one were not, oneself, present and participating in American culture, one way or another.)

To not do those easy things, to avoid falling into those easy habits takes a certain kind of discipline. In here somewhere also is a question of balance. How is one to balance family, work and calling? How does one stay dedicated to one’s calling and still keep friendly relationships with family, friends and colleagues who mostly don’t think about trees, rivers or birds? Who mostly think, in fact, that paying attention, spending time outside at the expense of more practical matters is somehow self indulgent or evading responsibilities? How does one do what one can do without burning out? How does one carry out a spiritually and practically earthcentered way of life while living in an American and global culture—in which we all are embedded, willy-nilly, no matter how disengaged—dedicated to ignoring the true environmental costs of the ways in which it keeps itself going? How much of one’s own “private” life does one sacrifice? How much do one person’s actions count, anyway? What constitutes private life? How on earth does one keep up good relations with Gaia and the standing people?

I understand I can ask these questions because, as an employed member of the shrinking middle class in the US, on a global scale I am incredibly privileged. I can choose how high to turn up the heat, have enough nutritious food to eat and can go to sleep at night without worrying that my neighborhood will be lit up by gunfire and/or cratered by bombs. There is enough water and it is more-or-less safe to drink. I can decide to pretend everything is ok and maintain the illusion pretty steadily. But for me, this pretense of living the good life doesn’t work. Most available electronic entertainments and on-offer material appeasements to our craving—for what, exactly?— get tedious and do nothing to calm the underlying nature-and-environment-related, deep structural anxieties that I believe infect our culture like a disease, disturbing even the most willfully dense, even the richest and most powerful among us.

Besides the distractions of entertainment, there are other ways of displacing, rather than attending to this often unacknowledged anxiety; there are, for example, the high abstractions of ideology, and, regrettably often, the run-of-the-mill blaming of those of another religion, color, political party, nationality, or what have you for whatever social problems there are. This is not to say that politics don't matter, that discrimination and poverty don’t need to be ameliorated, because obviously they do: societal injustice and inequality are terribly real; destructive things happen, terribly, in the name of one social worldview or another. Rather it is to say that ideological thought often confuses an abstract model for the messy reality of complex systems, in its believers, at any rate, and often results in an effort to make the messy reality match the beautiful abstraction to often brutal results. Ideologies thus become a distraction from, and symptom of, our separation from the natural world and, crucially, because of that separation, from the truly existential environmental problems that do already or soon will afflict us all. Even more crucially, they can separate us from the possibility of developing regenerative ways of life. From this perspective, one could even say that the most extreme and violent ideologies, religious or not, are fueled by the most extreme refusal to see what the real, actual problems are, much less grapple with them in constructive ways that would benefit people, other species, and the biosphere as a whole. There is no lack of examples, but no point in naming them.

I haven't yet worked out an answer to my own dilemmas and possibly never will. I have started to read natural history again and a few days ago spent time outdoors. Alone, loafing about, as Thoreau or Whitman might put it, though never out of earshot of traffic noise. In the morning light early groups of sandhill cranes made their way north in that raggedy, glittering way they have. Later, two red tailed hawks circled over woods and fields in ever widening, ascending spirals. A chickadee called. I ate lunch sitting on a log in a sunny space. I walked along a muddy path, collecting dark goo on my boots, appreciating the soft, non-concrete feel of it. Sunlight shone on the smooth ripples and white-capped riffles of a noisy creek littered with boulders left by the last glacier. The bare trees were every imaginable, glowing shade of brown. Flat, shelflike fungi gleamed on fallen, crumbling logs. Two cardinals sat on a branch overhanging the water, watching me approach for a while before deciding to change trees. Unseen woodpeckers announced the news that a human was in the vicinity. Before returning home, I picked up a couple of spherical seed clusters from beneath a sycamore tree and a few clean, white and black mussel shells from a miniature sand spit. The shells will stay in my jacket pocket for awhile, as reminders. Some time this spring I expect I’ll be watching a clutch of baby sycamores unfurl their new leaves in a nursery flat. I’m looking forward to it.

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