Editor of Facing the Change: Personal Encounters with Global Warming
What are you reading now?
To be honest, these days I read a lot of old British murder mysteries – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Sherlock Holmes. Avoiding thinking about climate change? You bet. Or rather, to be more forgiving toward myself – as a friend says, I think a lot of us would be better off if we stopped “shoulding” on ourselves all the time – I think that even escapist reading can serve a positive function as a sort of tactical retreat, a “time out” for calmness, stability, re-invigoration. Humans aren’t made to live in crisis all the time, and I would never expect anyone to force themselves constantly to address climate change or the feelings it evokes – that way lies burnout and despair; rather, the goal is to work out a pattern that works for you, take it in small doses or compartmentalize your life if you have to, take it in at your own time and pace – but don’t completely turn away, and don’t give up.
What originally interested you in climate change and this project?
As with many people of my generation, I first became really aware of climate change in the late 1980s, especially through the publicity around Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature; but also like many other people at that time (and later), I didn’t know what to do with the information, and other concerns (nuclear proliferation, South African apartheid, rainforests, etc etc etc) always seemed more immediate and urgent, so I put global warming on the back burner, so to speak.
Then, beginning with the heat waves and floods of the late 1990s and on through events like Hurricane Katrina, the evidence of current, ongoing climate change became inescapable; indeed, by that point the mind-boggling, un-understandable thing wasn’t the fact of global warming but rather the continuing unshakable denial of it by the majority of Americans and our institutions, right up to the highest authority in the land, our President.
In the meantime, though, my study of religion, spirituality, and psychology had led me to a set of ideas and practices perhaps best exemplified (as far back as the 1970s) by Joanna Macy and The Work That Reconnects – the basic idea being that the inability of people and society to face up to monumental challenges such as threat of nuclear annihilation stems not from sheer disagreement about the facts and figures, but rather from the emotional chaos that (quite naturally) arises when you realize that the world you love is under extreme threat.
The first, step, then, can’t be more scientific facts and argument, but rather a space in which to feel those emotions, and to somehow move through them; to put it another way, what people need is not to be convinced of something out there, but empowered within themselves. So, it seemed to me (as it already had, of course, to Macy and others) that this emotion-oriented approach was extremely relevant and important for global warming as well; at the same time, and in a parallel spirit, it became obvious that having an experts-only public discussion of climate change wasn’t getting us far, and that there was a need for more and more varied venues for grassroots voices to be expressed. Since I was then working in various capacities as a freelance editor and educator of environmental writing, it was a natural step to conceive of a writing project addressing people’s personal and emotional experience of climate change.
How does climate change affect your daily life?
I remember one of the first times it really hit me, probably around 2005 or so. I was leaving the house one morning, and it was a really beautiful spring day – sunny, warm, a few flowers in bloom, buds swelling on the trees. I looked across the street at the big maple in front of our house, and could just feel the sticky little leaves rolled up inside the gray branchlets, just waiting to burst forth. I was ready to burst forth, too, after the long winter. And then, when the warm sunlight turned full on my face, and my skin seemed to stretch and dry a little from the unaccustomed heat, I didn’t burst – I cracked. This is Boston, I thought, and it’s March. It’s not spring yet. It’s not supposed to be this hot. This is wrong. This beautiful day is wrong.
What do you hope readers will gain from Facing the Change?
Many people avoid thinking about climate change, or even deny that it exists, not because they disagree with the science but because they just don’t know what to do with all the feelings that come up, because they feel drowned and paralyzed by the fear, guilt, shame, anger, and powerlessness that they feel. I hope that the book will encourage and empower readers to pay more attention to those feelings – not to wallow in them or get depressed, but to acknowledge that they are there and that they are valid, to sit with them, to respect them, even to respect themselves for feeling them – what sane and caring person wouldn’t respond with deep emotions when facing as vast and fundamental a problem as global warming?
By hearing the voices of these writers as they struggle with these same issues, and by reaching out to friends, neighbors, and colleagues as well, readers can begin to realize that deep feelings can be a sign not of weakness and confusion but of strength and determination – something not to be avoided but rather embraced, the only pathway we can take to fuller engagement with the only world we have.
While at Harvard, you studied American attitudes toward nature. How do you feel these attitudes are shifting in light of climate change awareness?
I actually think that the basic outlines are still pretty much the same: A lot of people still think the world was made for our benefit, and can and should be controlled by human technology; a lot of people idealize wild nature and see no place for humans; a lot of people look past the natural world completely, to some sort of “world to come” (conceived either in religious or science-fiction terms); a lot of people think that whatever happens will be dictated by someone far above us, a father-figure in Washington or in heaven – and you can find people in all these categories on all sides of the climate-change question.
Meanwhile, most folks are still just trying to pay the rent and feed the family and retain a shred of dignity and aliveness in the face of the humiliations and boredom of modern life. Actually, it seems to me that climate change still takes up a smaller part of our collective consciousness than the latest YouTube cat video – at the same time as climate change is taking up a larger and larger part of our collective unconscious, a huge but unspoken pool of fear and guilt and uncertainty about whether there will be a future at all.
It’s looking more and more like the only thing that will make a difference will be actual events on the ground, and in the sea and in the air – and since we’ve shown as a society that we can pretty easily forget about things on the magnitude of Katrina and Sandy, it will have to be much bigger than that to really get people’s attention and provoke real change. And I won’t make any predictions as to where those changes will take us – another new technological fix, back to the Middle Ages, onward to the Moon colonies … or maybe, with luck, to something completely new.
You have dedicated much of your life to education and helping writers find their voices and bring their projects to fruition. If you were to take time off from this and write a novel, what would it be titled?
Either The Sylvan Wedding Project or The Imaginary Flautist.
Could you share one of your own personal experiences with the natural world, one which perhaps shaped who you are, or particularly impressed you?
Wow, too many: trout fishing with my family in a small mountain creek in northern California, bicycle trips alone and with friends through the plains and prairies of the upper Midwest, hiking solo or with my brothers in the Rockies, discovering early spring flowers with friends in Boston, bird-watching with my partner in Massachusetts, Maine, California, Europe, India … and mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, planting tomatoes and grapes around our house. Each experience has its own depth and importance, and it feels like without any of them, I wouldn’t be who I am now.