In August, Iceland unveiled the world’s first memorial to a dead glacier. Okjökull was thousands of years old but succumbed to fatal warming in less than a century. She is survived by countless sisters and brothers, all of whom face the same fate. Her memorial plaque reads, in Icelandic and English, “Ok is the first glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
This memorial moves me. Not only does it insist on the reality of global warming but it also mourns the loss. And it asks the question: What does it mean to mourn a glacier? A entire species of frog? A family of insects? White Christmases? The Great Barrier Reef? Bangladesh? New York City? Because in addition to acting on climate, we will need to learn to mourn, to honor, to remember, to live with so many losses.
At a conference last week I attended a workshop on the climate crisis. My daily work and life often touches on this topic and so I was unprepared for my reaction to what was about to happen.
During this workshop, participants were asked to place a marker on a timeline through 2100, indicating when they thought they would die. I picked near 2070, when I will be just shy of a hopefully-robust 90 years old. This seemed like an aspirational but not ridiculous target.
Then the group read together a futurists’ conservative projection of how the same time period might look due to global warming and the pending climate catastrophe. It was bad. And then we had to place one or two new markers, representing loved ones, on the aforementioned timelines. I selected my nephew and niece. I placed them at 2080, at the height of projected social chaos, when they will be in their early old age. And then I burst into tears, overwhelmed by the thought of their lives—and so many others both human and non—consumed by this crisis.
Debriefing with the group, some in the room felt hope in thinking in longer, generational timelines. Some, like me, were clearly affected by the projected suffering and loss. Others pointed out that the climate crisis is a social justice crisis, caused by global capitalism, and that millions are already suffering from its effects. The group was too small to draw broad conclusions (and I could not see or hear from everyone) but it seemed that the young were the most hopeful, the old held the broadest perspective, and the middle-aged—like myself—felt the most overwhelmed by grief and fear.
The projection was but one of many, no doubt flawed and doomed to imperfection. Nevertheless, the effects of global warming are here and already hurting our world. Some of those effects are now irreversible. If we do nothing, things will get much, much worse.
People often feel at a loss for what to do. Since I started a position in sustainability, I often find myself called upon to hold people’s fears and sense of powerlessness. The funny part is, I don’t think anyone sets out to have those conversations with me, they simply happen because we all need a place to share our fears and anger and sadness and most of us are more concerned than we let on in our day-to-days.
Two books that shaped my thinking on this subject in the past year are Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree browne and Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene by Donna J. Haraway. Both books call for us to sit with the discomfort of our changing world and utilize the power of “science fictional thinking,” to use brown’s phrase, to imagine and then create a different one.
There are also concrete actions that we can all begin taking, and while individual impacts are minuscule, collectively they have power. Moreover, taking action and being upfront about it can bring about culture change, which will perhaps have the biggest impact of all.
Top Actions to Take on the Climate Emergency
- Talk about it – Its reality and the science, but also stories of lived experience and your fears, anger, and grief, which will have greater power to move others.
- Get political
- Vote for politicians who support bold climate action.
- Call, write, or tweet your elected or could-be-elected officials about how you prioritize this issue as a voter. (Also vote!)
- Participate in marches and other visibility actions.
- Advocate for social justice at home and around the world so that changes made factor in equity from the start.
- Refuse and refute efforts to make global warming a partisan issue.
- Contribute to human understanding
- Conduct research.
- Speak out.
- Make art.
- Take personal actions … And talk about them and why you’re doing them
- Food – Don’t waste food, eat a low carbon footprint diet (which does not have to mean vegan although, yes, it does mean less cow products).
- Travel – Drive and fly less.
- Family – Have fewer children, particularly if living in the developed world.
- Consumption – Buy less stuff, re-use what you can, recycle as much as possible.
- Be in community with others.
- Share your triumphs and joys.
- Hold their grief, fear, and anger.
- Let them hold yours.