Lately, when I hear about coral reefs being bleached, or particles of carbon in the atmosphere, or rabidly migrating invasive species, or any and all of the other news about our changing climate, I find myself a bit numb.
Which is odd. I’ve been so long on the side of the passionately hopeful, believing that if we care enough and act humbly and wisely enough, we can yet pull of this grand trick of saving the world.
And I can still say and write the right the words, but they have an ashy hollow feeling now. I don’t seem to be able to work up a lather for presumed demise and resurrection of the abstract as well as I once could.
What has changed?
Just that I am learning to live with loss and I no longer believe all wrongs can be righted with enough love and elbow grease. My father died in April, my uncle died in December. The shape of my world is vastly altered without these wonderful men in my life.
I hate it. I miss them every day and may never believe that I’ll never speak with either again, never hear my dad’s laugh or make terrible puns with my uncle. I’ll never hug them again.
It is unmooring, to have beloved constants there one minute and then going, going, gone forever.
This, somehow, makes the presumptive loss of life on Planet Earth at once easier to comprehend the scope of and less acceptable to allow to happen unchallenged.
We cannot repeat the past. We cannot turn on a dime to restore old-growth forests, pump crude oil back in the ground, unbleach the Great Barrier Reef, or grow back eroded coastlines. We cannot bring back the dead or live in the past.
Speaking historically and climatically, the past wasn’t perfect. The past was where we learned to haul oil and coal out of the ground and burn it, before we knew what damage it could cause. We learned to put it in our cars and airplanes and factories before we knew it could get in our lungs, before we knew that more isn’t always better. We hunted species to extinction and poisoned our waters. When we talk about protecting and preserving, about re-growing former environments, it starts to sound like an idealized past we are trying to recreate. We’d like, please, a second chance, to hit reset with all of the rainforest, but none of the pollution.
My personal past wasn’t perfect. My father had alcoholism. Living with and loving him was a lot like being in a hurricane zone—the erratic storms of his moods were unpredictable, regular, and unnavigable. I don’t know why he drank—other than addiction is a sort of emotional and chemical parasite that, inside people we love, creates a need greater than any other for whatever substance feeds the monster of the disease. I don’t know if there was anything more we could have done to help him to stop before it killed him. The part of me that may never heal over Dad’s death is that it was preventable, but between his disease and our furious loving ignorance at how to help him, the disease won, rather than all the brilliant and kind and creative and big-hearted parts of my dad. The monster won, not our love. That will always sting.
I don’t want that past back, fully. I want the good parts, with our lessons learned all around, so that we can go forward whole again. I have thought, so many times, that “I get it, I’ve learned how much I love my dad, how fragile and brief life is and how much people matter. I’d like him back now and I know that the man he was in the week before he died learned his own lessons and would like to come back too, please!”
But we don’t get that. No one, no place or species or ecosystem or weather pattern gets to hit restart.
The last thing I heard my father say—almost exactly a year ago—was “it’s going to be okay, it’s all going to be okay.”
As last words go, they aren’t bad. Sometimes I find them comforting, other times so infuriating that I’ll scream. Because it hasn’t been okay, it isn’t okay, and it will never become okay that this was how my father left the people and the world he loved so much.
It has also, with a terribly normality, become okay that he isn’t here anymore. Not always, but the unimaginable has become the daily and the real, and we are all adapting but surviving to this new world.
If my father could have been treated for his disease before it was too late, he would still be here. If there were a treatment for my uncle’s rare and aggressive cancer, he would still be here.
When I think about climate change, I can’t help thinking that we do have all of the information and the science and many of the solutions staring us in the face. And yet we are choosing, with our inactions, not fix the problems before us. I have seen people die for lack of treatment and intervention, and I can't fathom that we're as people letting the world waste away when we have enough of the answers to be smarter.
I think that my numbness at re-hearing the same but worse climate news may just be sleeping fury that what can be salvaged in this world with its biological prerogative for life and survival, adaptation and resilience is not being treasured. Treatments to the causes of climate change are well-known (use less, think more), the science is in that we are doing this to ourselves as a people, life is short and the world beautiful…what else do we need to know in order to act?