I sat down to write another encouraging post about self-actualizing in retirement and couldn’t do it.
Several thoughts entered my brain this week that reduced personal development to a quivering nub of inconsequentiality. (It will come back, I’m pretty sure.)
One: A millennial of my acquaintance rightly pointed out that life is a lot tougher for that generation, and while making sweeping statements is almost never reliable, it seems that an inordinate number “kids” who are the age of my children are heading toward 40 with shrunken prospects and, in case we haven’t noticed, a badly compromised planet. So the gifts to be opened by us, the fortunate ones in later life after a productive middle life — the gifts of freedom from toil and the luxury of emotional refinement — seem like dim and distant stars to toiling, worried millennials. As to who or what can be blamed, Heather Mallick, the blunt Toronto Star columnist, wrote this last April:
More than half of all the carbon damage inflicted by humans on the planet’s atmosphere has been done in the last 30 years. Anyone alive after 1990 joined in by driving, flying, air conditioning, cremating, tar sanding in Alberta, clear-cutting, buying trinkets from China, eating beef, keeping pets, beheading mountains for coal, fighting wars for fun, and living like lords.
Two: This week, the Amazon is burning and Greenland is melting, and the specter of eco-war is suddenly on the table with Emmanuel Macron’s G7 statement that “our house is burning.” (You can argue convincingly that Syria is an eco-war.) But what stuck, for me, is that these days almost anything can be denied. With regard to the global climate crisis, epic denial is painfully true in conspicuous nations (Brazil at the moment, USA always, Canada for the most part). It’s everywhere, really — including in my brain and probably yours, because unless we’re acting we are denying.
Three: I saw six of my seven grandchildren this week. They could live for another century. In a decade or two they will most likely live in an increasingly heat-stressed world full of emergencies and dire trajectories, and they will probably have some pointed questions for me (and their parents) about why this generation seemed to sit by and watch the burning and melting. They will have every right to be angry, or in the least, gravely disappointed. That makes me uncomfortable. Hopefully, uncomfortable enough to start acting.
Last Thursday, Bernie Sanders released a $16.3 trillion blueprint to fight climate change. The number is inconceivably large, in keeping with the problem. Deniers will see it as ridiculous. Sanders, 77, said, “I have seven grandchildren, and I’m going to be damned if I’m going to leave them a planet that is unhealthy and uninhabitable.”
That’s the point, right there.
Next week, I will haul this blog back to the importance of developing oneself as an older human. That too is worth talking about. But this week, no. This week, I’m pissed off. Mostly at myself. I don’t think I can keep making excuses or being culpable in my silence any longer. Thank you for bearing witness.
I need my goggles adjusted regularly.
We all have our interests. Mine happen to include aging wisely and trying to develop as human being in ways that I might have neglected while I was busy making money and raising kids.
And… in the meantime… the world is in deep shit. The Amazon we all know to be unique, fragile, and magnificent is on fire. The Arctic is warming to a scary degree not imagined even five years ago by experts. Mass migrations are happening over water shortages. Most of the rest of the world’s water is harboring plastic micro-particles. The air in most Asian cities is literally poisonous.
We all know these things because we are all plugged in…
… and yet tuned out.
I do that. I tune it out. It feels too big. How irrational. How insane.
A friend who’s worrying in the same way said this by email a few days ago:
The burning planet is ignored. How can an issue so big be affected by the individual? Worrying about it doesn’t do anything —and even if everyone in Canada changed, we still wouldn’t make an impact. So we shouldn’t do it with that mission but rather because it is the right thing to do. People’s desire to ignore difficult or complex issues is why I used to say, “Don’t try to be sustainable. Just try to be happy.” People can grab on to happy and will engage with it. To be happy, you need to have less stuff, to stop over-consumption, be healthy by eating good food and not meat, to make connections, to create connected/walkable communities, and to give. All of this makes us happy. But at the same time, it creates a much more sustainable world.
Wise words. Less stuff. Less consumption. Less meat. More connecting. More happiness. Then he added, “The climate issues need to be translated.”
So true. We can’t hear the same words anymore. They seem to bounce off our ears. That’s how I plan to help. Throughout my adult life, I have volunteered with words and persuasion for dozens of causes from mental health to food security to political campaigns and fund raising.
Raging Bull Elephant
Now, the largest bull elephant in the room is climate catastrophe. We are in it. It’s no longer coming. It’s here. Because of it, our grandchildren will live in a far more threatening world.
What can people our age do? Is my friend right when he says we pretty much can’t do anything?
I have to believe that’s not true. Yet… living this many years, we see patterns in human nature. One undeniable pattern is denial.
Our denial is aided by fear and ignorance and love of convenience. It is convenient not to interrupt our peaceful lives with the unpleasant work of knowing the hard truth and acting on it.
That’s my problem. You?
The Starting Line: Knowing
I’ve been wondering where we can start. I think it has to be with knowing. What we don’t know, we can ignore, until it’s knocking at the door. If we know, it’s harder to hide. (For people who live on waterfronts around the world, the start will likely be the denial of insurance that is barrelling down the pipe right now.)
It would be disingenuous of me to recommend books on the coming disintegration. I haven’t read any. I’ve been avoiding them, like you. Instead, I’ve been reading about mindfulness, psychedelic research, and art appreciation. Those words seem tiny at the moment.
But I have been reading book reviews, so if you want to know what to read, these four books are recent and well reviewed.
The Uninhabitable Earth, Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells
Losing Earth, A Climate History, by Nathaniel Rich
Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, by Bill McKibben
Ends of the World, by Peter Brannen
And if you want to pluck one media article — just one — from the river of articles, this one, from New York, grabbed my eyeballs this week:
Prefer a visual approach?
Watch the Netflix series Our Planet by filmmaker David Attenborough. The suicidal walrus will yank at your denial.
The Trap of the Quick Tip
We all want someone else to make it easy — sign this electronic postcard that will go straight to Justin Trudeau. There, done.
When you’re reading something like what I’m writing here, the tendency is to scan for quick action tips. There are endless quick tips about what you can do at home. I’ve come to see them as almost worthless, unless it’s obvious stuff like “Don’t pour used motor oil down a city drain, you idiot.”
But okay, here are four quick tips:
Don’t get comfortable with things that really don’t matter all that much. Like recycling. I believe that millions of people our age have spent years thinking they are helping the planet by putting contaminated plastic bean dip containers in a blue bin. The truth is that most of what goes into those bins gets landfilled. Yup. Sorry. It’s true. So take no refuge in such a scam.
Don’t buy the bullshit anymore. Words about the environment have been misleading us for the past 25 years. “Sustainable development,” a prime example, was coined in the Eighties to make corporations and governments comfortable with an uncomfortable idea: that they are destroying the environment. It was a way of sanitizing that reality. It was PR of the highest order. Polished fakeness. The key word is “development” because it’s well understood. It says “keep doing what you’re doing.” The token word is “sustainable” because no one knows what it means. It has, from the beginning been open to interpretation. Most corporations and governments have interpreted it so loosely that it has had very little positive impact on the environment over the past 35 years. In spite of gobs of sustainable development, the planet has suffered dreadfully, perhaps to the brink of horror.
Don’t think that a quick tip implemented earnestly will do the trick. That also applies to a one-time donation. We assuage ourselves with such things. They are self-deceptions. Sure, do them. Just don’t think you are saving the world.
Don’t Do It Alone
When it comes to frightening stuff, there’s comfort in numbers. I had a wacky idea this week that perhaps my book club could reposition itself into a climate book club. A climate club. We could read those important new books, plus maybe a dozen seminal articles. The discussions would certainly be lively (if anyone showed up). We could become semi-knowledgeable. Maybe we would devise some ideas for action. Maybe we would start acting. Think of how proud our children would be, because rather than just reading entertaining novels, we would be getting our collective teeth into what matters more than even art itself (and art matters a lot).
To learn, take notes, review them, and say things out loud. Check your facts because fake news is everywhere. Gnarly old billionaires like the Koch brothers (one down lately) spend millions trying to twist reality toward their polluting profits. I read recently that green meat is the latest PR approach to countering the hideously undeniable fact that meat production is an environmental disaster. McDonald’s is trying to buff up beef just by slapping the word “green” on it. It’s an old, tired, sadly misleading joke on all of us. Here’s why:
An influential study in 2010 of the water footprints for meat estimated that while vegetables had a footprint of about 322 litres per kg, and fruits drank up 962, meat was far more thirsty: chicken came in at 4,325l/kg, pork at 5,988l/kg, sheep/goat meat at 8,763l/kg, and beef at a stupendous 15,415l/kg…
To put these figures into context: the planet faces growing water constraints as our freshwater reservoirs and aquifers dry up. On some estimates farming accounts for about 70% of water used in the world today, but a 2013 study found that it uses up to 92% of our freshwater, with nearly one-third of that related to animal products.
That’s from: “What is the true cost of eating meat?” The Guardian, May 7, 2018
Oh, and here’s what The Guardian had to say this week about the legacy of grandfather gazillionaire David Koch:
David Koch died as the eleventh-richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of $51 billion. His name is plastered on the facades of New England cancer centers and Manhattan hospitals and performance halls. But these historical imprints are temporary and relatively inconsequential compared to his lasting legacy, something far more significant, and terrifying. Koch’s never-ending quest for obscene wealth no matter the consequence — and that of his brother, his fellow oligarchs and his political allies — will be part of every future climate change-intensified weather disaster; every city undone by catastrophic sea level rise; every animal species that goes extinct because of warmer waters, desertification, or biblical floods; and every desperate climate refugee.
Death and destruction. That is David Koch’s legacy.
Crafting Your Retorts
I don’t know about you, but I get tongue-tied when I try to express climate change as an outrage. It’s so big that I feel like I have to summarize the Bible in a few sentences. So if we want to join the conversation, in addition to knowing a few things, we have make our words acceptable to most people. That’s not easy. I’ve spent my career trying to do that. It gets harder all the time. Spoon-feeding seems to be the only way if you want mass understanding. We have to have accurate sound bites at the ready — little razor-sharp retorts in our back pockets.
Start with maybe three or four retorts you can sling at defeatist deniers.
If someone says, “What can one person do?” say, “It has to start somewhere. One person is actually the only way. If we all step forward that’s how change happens. If we don’t, it won’t.”
If you hear, “How do you know it’s caused by human activity?” fire back that, “There’s no other explanation that makes remotely as much sense. Of course, we caused it. Thousands of scientists are not wrong. The opportunists and deniers are wrong.”
Or just ask a question in response: “What do think your grandchildren will say in the future if this kind of fence-sitting goes on much longer?”
I know, it’s hard to imagine being so… provocative. There must be gentler ways. I’m just not in the mood. I think the time for that has past.
Hopefully, you won’t be talking to your family members when you use these tools. But you might. Like Trumpism, accelerating climate change will cleave families and friendships. If you start spreading the word, even gently and with wry good humor, people will run away from you. Count on it. I know it’s hard to lose friends, but what if we lose everybody?
(I mentioned this before in another email: A city councilor I know told me that when she’s walking her dog with neighbors in a local park, if she brings up anything to do with city affairs — any small thing — otherwise friendly people will glaze over and soon thereafter walk away. That actually chills me. Darkly, I picture vast suburbs absent of care.)
One Question for Every Politician
Once you get a little bit of climate-crisis knowledge tucked under your belt, start asking questions of the people who are in charge or want to be in charge. Ask every politician what they plan to do about climate change. Not the policy of the party. Ask what they personally plan to do. If the answer is watery and full of reassuring nothingness, tell them that. Say they aren’t going far enough, that the deadlines have shrunk. Tell them that your grandchildren can’t wait any longer. If the politician or candidate can’t give you a real action plan with real prospects of working, consider not voting for them. Consider telling them politely and firmly that they should be ashamed of themselves. I have a retired friend who’s doing that locally. He and his small group are interviewing the candidates running federally in the coming election. All the answers he’s heard are either pathetically inadequate or just marginally better. None are convincing. My friend is doing his bit because he couldn’t sit by and feel happily retired any longer.
Too Old To Fight?
There are two deadlines here. One is on the Earth’s own hurtling agenda. The other one is our deadline as elders. It might be ten years for me. I hope not to be dead. But I’m not counting on still being an effective fighter. We get tired in older old age. Many of us get preoccupied with health issues. And we will, with few exceptions, be marginalized by perception. Younger people will see us as too old to matter or be useful in a fight. A combative 80 year old is an off-putting sight even to other octogenarians. For some of us, that might be a relief or a final refuge, if fighting is distasteful. But if our moral outrage finally ignites at 75 or 80, it will probably be too late. The fight will have been taken out of us largely against our will.
So now’s the time.
The tough part, once we know something outrageous, is to manage its effects on our lives. It also becomes our responsibility not to get ruined by awareness and action, not to let it eat us up or turn us into ineffectively shrill complainers and guilt-trippers. The best action figures know how to continue living while fighting on methodically. They can put the fight in a box while they enjoy themselves, and this still-miraculous planet, then pull it out again when there’s more work to be done, which there always will be.
If you are one of those older people who don’t believe that the climate is changing or just don’t care, I don’t know what to say to you, except perhaps ask your grandchildren or the kid down the street what they think, once they understand the gravity of the situation. Ask them if they are likely to admire someone who didn’t give a shit about the real problem looking at us all like Godzilla before dinner.
The rest of us, really, have to help find a way out, even if it just begins with knowing, then intelligently, calmly, persistently spreading the word.
Good luck to us all.
P.S. Here are some people, many of them older, all of them local to where I live, who are fighting Nestlé for its shameful taking of our groundwater and selling it in plastic bottles. Good on them. Their children and grandchildren will be proud.