Dear Watching the Catastrophe: A response to a letter to Salon.com

Thank you for writing the thoughts that have been circulating through my brain and keeping me up at night for almost a decade. Thank you for voicing your concerns about the climate crisis from the perspective of an American parent. From what I can tell, you don’t work for an environmental non-profit or have a position in a policy think tank or government agency. You are expressing what a lot of us ordinary people feel, even those who do work in the field, a sense of eviscerating powerlessness toward a looming catastrophe. Even “catastrophe” seems too small and clichéd when you read what scientists are conservatively predicting now. Add to that utter bafflement that world leaders continue to ignore the fate of the planet, and the fate of human civilization, because that is really what we are talking about.

I don’t know how you felt reading Cary Tennis’ response: “I wish I had answers. I am, unfortunately, just a writer.” I felt empathy for him, because like most of us he is out of his depth addressing this issue. I felt empathy for you, and me, because throwing our hands up, embracing the present (a philosophy I do subscribe to under most circumstances) is dangerously inadequate for what we face now. His understandable reaction perfectly exemplifies the problem.

You mention that people you trust believe that the super rich and/or scientists will save us. You don’t agree, and I agree with you. The super rich and the government agencies they influence are already jockeying for position to control shipping lanes through the Arctic when summer ice no longer forms there. They are betting on a world where endless markets will open up to buy their goods. They are blind to the fact that the buying power of the world will drastically shrink when people and governments spend their money dealing with one drought, forest fire, flood, and famine after another.

Scientists can’t save us either, particularly because no one is listening to them. The super rich spend millions of dollars discrediting them in election seasons, launching massive disinformation campaigns, and eroding the public education necessary to create a citizenry that can think critically and make difficult decisions. As we see in areas where we have made progress, bringing back some species from the edge of extinction, for example, science needs public policy, which means it needs the public.

You point out the futility of small measures and individual actions in the face of such monumental destruction. You point out how often we divide rather than unite. Very true. Many of us begrudgingly acknowledge that we are all in this together and we try to do our best in our daily lives, yet we know it isn’t enough. How can we go beyond recycling and compact fluorescent light bulbs? What can we do to stop throwing our hands up?

I don’t have any answers either. Part of the terror of this moment in human history is that given the ever-shortening window of opportunity and the intransigence of so many, there is no way to know for sure how to solve this problem in time. But having read your letter, I am more convinced than ever that ordinary people, not just scientists, have to tell the truth and keep telling it.

No one is going to “save us” from this catastrophe. Among our family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances, we cannot indulge in denial or fantasy any longer. When we do, we need to call each other on it immediately and unequivocably.

Politicians, policy makers, agency bureaucrats, corporate CEOs, anyone and everyone in a position to make a decision that can have a macro-effect on the climate needs to be held publicly accountable for the repercussions, positive or negative, of their decisions. That could mean more citizen petitions, investigative journalism, billboards, rallies, letters to the editor, Facebook likes . . . At this point, I don’t think it matters which of these strategies is most “effective” at building public outcry. The planet demands that we throw the kitchen sink at it to see if we get results.

That means building up our power as citizens, not just consumers. Yes, let’s continue buying organic and installing solar panels, but let’s not shame those who can’t or won’t. We shouldn’t be wasting our time dividing ourselves into good shoppers and bad shoppers. We should be demanding that leaders lead: make it feasible for all of us to manage together with the resources we have on this planet.

Thank you, Watching, for inspiring me to respond to your thoughtful plea even though I am as out of my depth as Cary Tennis.Given the situation though, being out of one’s depth is probably irrelevant. We need to get angry, we need to grieve and admit our fear, and we need to keep doing those daily things that remind us that we are part of a planetary system that is not ours to destroy. We may not know what will work, but we know inaction won’t work. That means letting go of any expectation that our actions will bring results, and doing it anyway. I suppose that is how we let go of control and live in the moment, which is, as you point out, the very thing that the climate crisis makes so difficult to do.

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