This essay is part of our July 2019 Uncertain Future Forum on the topic: “If collapse is imminent, how do we respond?” The first week featured our contributors’ responses to the topic; this second week features their reactions to—and inspirations sparked by—each other’s essays. We invite you to comment below, and to read the other essays here.
Reading the other essays in this forum has given me a lot to reflect on. The big similarity I see, running quietly between the three of them, is that living in the midst of this crisis requires a certain act of faith. You might call it a practice. And by a practice, I mean a thing that is never finished—something that needs to be done over and over again because it’s the doing of it, and not always the outcome, that matters. For me, a practice is—if not faith in, then at least respect for—a process that is bigger than I am. It strikes me that, in all three of these essays and in the climate crisis broadly, there is room for a committed kind of practice, which might free us from unrealistic expectations about the results of our actions. It might enable us to look with clarity and even a little humor towards the actions we take.
I don’t know if I’ll live to be an old woman; even without the specter of climate change, I couldn’t know that. But these essays, together, offer some ways to think about the practices of living while we are here, given what we face.
Clearly, one of them is a practice of grieving. Dahr wrote about dancing with grief, which seems similar to grieving; having an active grieving practice permits us to live with our grief instead of pretending it doesn’t exist or pushing it away. To me, grief honors an important part of our humanity: our connection to that which we love. Grief acknowledges love, because it is only through love that we feel loss. And if we don’t grieve, we stunt our ability to love in the future. Grieving allows us to live more fully.
The thing that differentiates climate grief from, say, the death of a family member, is immediacy and scale. In this sense, it seems more like living through a war than like losing your mother. The climate crisis represents not the death of one person within a system, which is life’s ordinary amount of grief, profound as it is; rather, it’s the loss of the thread that holds everything together.
And it makes me wonder if we need new and different kinds of rituals for grieving. I’m bad at grieving, in general. I’m a doer, and I often metabolize my sorrow through action (that, or playing my trumpet). At the very least, I’m comforted by the idea that I only had to lose my grandmother once, that this pain was part of the natural order of things. If I were better at processing grief continually, I’d need to make more space for it, both in my life and in my heart.
But here’s the thing: in a climate crisis we all lose continually, and generations to come will suffer more than their parents. That is not the natural order of things. And it means that I—and probably many of us—will have to start thinking about grieving as something we do in an ongoing way.
Taylor’s piece makes me think of a related practice: the practice of holding painful paradoxes close to our hearts, without the need to explain them away or seek out false binaries. It’s a practice to live with the inconsistencies, even as we try to fix them. We tape plastic syringes, mass-produced overseas and ultimately destined for a landfill, into our bodies to deal with illness even as we sit in against pipelines. We drive gasoline-fueled cars to solar siting meetings.
Taylor’s case is dramatic (rendered more so by his telling of it), but the truth is that we are all bound by these dependencies, even as we work to free ourselves from them. My godson lives in Bolivia; my relationship with him and his family is loving and multilingual and mirthful and ultimately, I think, a good and beautiful thing—and currently enabled only by an array of oil-intensive technologies, ranging from Airbuses to WhatsApp. Our job is to clean up our lives and our societies, and harmonize how we live with why we live. But it is not, in my opinion, to pretend that Taylor doesn’t need his catheters, or that nothing beautiful has ever come of airplanes, even if we choose not to ride in them. Destructive things sometimes also bring blessings, and the other way around. Sitting with these paradoxes takes practice—is, itself, a practice.
Finally, for me, there is a practice of hope. Here, Winona’s writing offers some insights on what it might look like to express a vision of what we want to see. I like Rebecca Solnit’s definition of hope, that it “locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen, and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” Hope lives in the unstuck middle place between optimism and pessimism, where what we do matters even though we don’t know if, when, or how our actions will have an effect. Hope matters because, like other practices, it defines the quality and character of the lives that we have.
And part of a practice of hope is the act of imagining the future we want. For without that vision, how do we act? How do we enact? I also like Winona’s imagery of a Sitting Bull plan: a vision big enough and brave enough to get excited about, a plan drawing on collective wisdom and experience. Learning from survivors is a practice related to visioning, and a crucial one for building our resilience muscles: Whether the survivors are indigenous communities, women, or incarcerated people, communities that have had to be resilient often have some good tools at their disposal. We have to draw on each other’s brilliance, get together, set aside our egos, listen with our hearts, and imagine something that’s worth getting up for in the morning.
In the face of constant news about rapidly deepening crises, and the overwhelming pain, grief, and uncertainty I feel in response, sometimes the only things I have to fall back on are the things that need doing. These are my practices of living. There is no way out of this—the only way is through.
Meghan Kallman is a sociologist who studies how social movements succeed, why they fail and how we can sustain social commitment and activism in a globalized world. She earned her PhD in sociology in 2016, and is the recipient of two National Science Foundation grants, as well as grants from the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy, the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University, and others. Kallman’s work uses organizational theory to make sense of social change. Her current research uses a case study of the US Peace Corps to understand how organizations shape the politics of their intrinsically motivated participants. Kallman also works on network theory and social movements. Her first book, The Third Sector, was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2016. Her second book, The Death of Idealism, is in preparation. She is a city councilor in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and a professor at the graduate School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at University of Massachusetts – Boston.