Sunday, June 30, 2013

Things to Lose

When I started writing this post, it was about fear.

I've spent the past year thinking about climate change for a large part of every day. (This was, of course, following on an adulthood of thinking and worrying about climate change at least once, most days.) For the first several months of my awesome new job as a full-time climate organizer, I came home every other night and cried my eyes out from sheer terror. This historical moment is such that one cannot confront the facts of climate change -- to say nothing of the worst-case predictions -- without being deeply, existentially afraid. So I'm interested in fear: how to process it, how to live with it, how to not be overwhelmed by it. How we might lean into it and use frankness about our fear as an inoculant against despair.

But: I just got married! I'm coming off a month of celebrations. I spent June surrounded by family and friends and showered with love. Right now, as I type, I'm on my way from my honeymoon on Cape Cod to join my team in Turkey, where they've just wrapped up a conference to train rockstar young climate organizers from 130 countries to stir up beautiful trouble around the world. In Istanbul a peaceful, youth-led popular uprising is challenging the kind of top-down economic development that bulldozes parks and leaves people behind. My world is changing under my feet, and I find that fear isn't exactly what I want to talk about -- or not the only thing.

According to the The Way Things Ought to Go, now should be the time for making plans. As young newlyweds, my partner and I should be talking about houses and kids. We should be shopping for furniture. We should be settling down. Of course, we do talk about these things, but it's with a kind of ambivalence that I feel sure our parents' generation didn't have to navigate. They had their own troubles. They had the Cold War. But they had nothing like this.

This is what I'm afraid of: That the chaos and destruction of the next decades will somehow -- there are so many ways! -- prevent Jacob and I from building a happy life together. That the island I grew up on will suffer a cascading series of losses: its trade winds, its beaches, its economy, its stability. That I won't be able to take care of my family when they need it. That I won't be able to choose freely whether or not I want to have kids. That the world won't be beautiful anymore. That there won't be anywhere to go.

In Jacobin Magazine, Alyssa Battistoni makes the case that despair can be freeing. She compares the movement to confront climate change to the HIV/AIDS fight of the 1980s and the groundbreaking work of direct-action organizations like ACT-UP. We climate activists share an up-against-the-wall clarity with those gay men surrounded by dying friends and lovers. This is life-and-death here. We have nothing to lose now, and it makes us stronger.

Battistoni quotes Tim DeChristopher, who has become a sort of folk hero for the climate movement: “Once I realized that there was no hope in any sort of normal future, that there’s no hope for me to have anything my parents or grandparents would have considered a normal future — of a career and a retirement and all that stuff — I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back. Because it was all going to be lost anyway.”

Having nothing to lose changes what you ask for and how you organize. Seeing the End of the World bearing down on us from this closer vantage, with better science in-hand, has at least shaken us free of the inside-game incrementalism that paralyzed the environmental movement for decades. Catastrophism is a delicate hand to play in terms of social change-making, but it can make way for a new sort of Utopianism -- a harder-edged sort, bounded by the constraints of a physically compromised planet, yet unmoored from the demands of "political realism."

That's where we're at: the tectonic plates of the possible are shifting, even as our window to take meaningful collective action grows smaller. I don't think despair fully describes it, although some days it's close.

Oddly, I personally have more to lose now than I ever did. Rather than risking it by taking action, however, I'll lose it for sure if I do nothing. I won't have a house in the suburbs, a comfortable retirement, college educations for my kids. But the basic needs of loved ones, a good life in reasonable comfort with my partner, the chance to do good work -- these things are precious and still mine to lose.

It's been a lot of months since I came home from work and cried. Living with this kind of terror and grief, it's like living with any other kind of pain: you do it. Work helps. The chance to fight this good fight is truly a privilege and a gift. I still read the climate newswires every day, and our prospects are still bad-and-getting-worse for sure. But I also spend a portion of each day looking at pictures from the front lines of this battle, and those pictures are fucking beautiful.

There's a tattoo I've seen on several First Nations activists engaged in the fight for their sovereignty and against Alberta's tar sands: Love is the movement. I like that. I like the way it rolls off the tongue. And this movement, this fight for a livable planet, this bending of that stubborn arc of history -- it really is like a marriage. It's hard work, not a static state that you can rest in, and no kind of happily ever after. But it's love.

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