#1 — Beyond Despair

Originally published in the March 27, 2013 issue of The Message. If you’re a Vermonter, please thank that local paper for providing the important public service of a monthly column on climate change.

Every day seems to bring more bad news. Superstorms like Irene and Nemo wreak havoc with increasing regularity. From tropical Pacific islands to the mountains of Vermont, people, plants, and animals abandon homes made uninhabitable by climate change. Polar ice and permafrost melt more rapidly than even the worst worriers expected, raising sea levels and releasing even more methane into our already overheated atmosphere.

It’s easy to become discouraged, to assume there’s nothing you could do that could possibly make a difference. It’s even easier to hope that somebody else—maybe some superhero scientist—will come along to solve the problem. It’s easiest of all to just tune out and go about everyday life as if we weren’t in the middle of an emergency.

But here’s the problem: As long as we think we can’t make a difference, we won’t do the things that could make a difference. As long as we don’t do what we could do, the problem will get worse.

Luckily, psychologists do know a little bit about why we aren’t yet doing all we could do:

  • Many people don’t understand the mechanics of climate change. Since they don’t know what causes it, they can’t imagine how to fix it.
  • Many people don’t see how climate change will hurt them or those they care about and thus aren’t motivated to take action.
  • Especially if an action involves some effort or sacrifice, people won’t do it unless they believe that enough other people will join them to make the effort worthwhile.
  • Despair: Deep down, many people feel that anything they do will be futile.

Of these, the first three are easily remedied. Watch this column for news and views that you can use to inform and inspire yourself and others. But before we jump into all of that, let’s tackle the most difficult aspect of the climate crisis—that sinking feeling that nothing we do can make a difference.

If you lie awake at night, tormented by such feelings, you probably push them out of your mind. And that’s fine, in those moments, because we all need a good night’s sleep. But the best way to undermine despair is by confronting it directly, in your own mind and—even better—in conversations with others.

Climate change is really big. It’s a planetary problem. It’s true that no one person, not even a superhero scientist, can fix it. But is it really true that nothing we do makes a difference? No! Everything we do makes a difference, for better or worse. When it comes to climate change, we “vote” with our choices every day. Our choices, combined with the choices of our neighbors, add up. The choices of our community, combined with the choices of other communities, add up. The choices of our country, combined with the choices of other countries, add up.

From our personal choices as consumers to our political choices as citizens, there’s so much we each can do. We just have to have enough hope to take those steps.

Here’s something we learned from the birds at the sanctuary: Hope is something you do. “Spent” hens arrive from egg factories in a state of abject shock, half-starved and barely able to walk. Nothing in their lives has taught them to expect anything other than constricted movement and misery. They huddle, shoulders slumped, in a corner of the barn. But then they take a step. And then they take another step. They discover freedom and their own abilities. They learn to use their wings.

Hope is something you do. We create hope by acting. As our actions create change, our hopes are realized. When it comes to climate change, action is our only hope.

How can we start? Follow the birds. Take a step. Then another step. Then…

Welcome to Climate Connections, brought to you by VINE Sanctuary in Springfield. Each month, we’ll be connecting the dots so that you can see how climate change affects you and the things you care about. We’ll also bring you the good news about innovative projects around the state and around the world and sharing guest columns contributed by environmentalists elsewhere. We thank the publisher of The Message for providing this important public service.