“There should be a regular column on climate change, like there is a sports section,” my friend commented on one of my recent social media posts.
The post generated a lot of debate among my friends. I compared people’s resistance to criticism of their personal acts of environmental degradation to men’s resistance to being called out on sexual assault. It was characteristic of my sometimes abrasive reactions to the desperation and helplessness I feel in the face of climate change.
A couple of weeks before, I read this headline in the Guardian: “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN.” I had no time to read the article, as I was hustling to economics class, where I’m busy memorizing profit maximization formulas — arguably the opposite of fighting climate change.
From a selfish perspective, maybe I should be one of the last people concerned about climate change. I’m already halfway through life, so the real devastation won’t occur until I’m already in the ground (this is the attitude afflicting the Boomers). I don’t plan on having kids. I live in the richest country on Earth. I don’t live in a coastal floodplain. And I’m a middle-class white male urban dweller, so I will likely be in a privileged position when crisis occurs.
But this is the kind of irrational fiction that pervades our thinking about climate change. We have failed to personalize it, to make it real for ourselves. It exists in the world of scientific papers, apocalyptic future warnings and political battles, away from our daily lived experience. Those who have already felt its impacts most severely — farmers, coastal residents and low-income rural dwellers in the global South — are generally not the ones with access to the industrial and political power needed to turn the colossal ship of the fossil-fueled economy.
Among the rest of us there is an awkward schism, whereby a few activists called “environmentalists” are left to push the agenda of, well, saving civilization from itself. To be an “environmentalist” is to admit that we live in a biological environment. In that sense, we environmentalists are truth-bearers, because the Western orientation toward money and material advancement erases the biological foundation that, in the end, truly governs our world. Without the gift of living land, we are nothing. You can’t eat money, goes the Native American proverb.
Now, with climate change, we have no choice — environmentalism has chosen every one of us. But what is our specific individual and cultural responsibility in making the radical transformations that are required of us collectively?
My social media post got pushback. Some argued that individual acts will not solve the climate crisis, that only systemic change will. But are the two mutually exclusive?
I used to fetishize “sustainable living.” For 15 years I strictly avoided flying and took trains and buses for long-distance travel. I was vegan for years, and when I started eating animal products again, I always knew my farmer. I bicycled everywhere and did not learn to drive until I was 23. When I lived in a half-vacant apartment building that my brother owned, I turned the heat down to 40 and heated the back half with the kitchen stove. I even walked from Illinois to Arizona. At the peak of my “lifestylism,” I lived in the boreal forest in northern Minnesota in a land-based collective without electricity. We subsisted on wild rice, wild game, maple sugar, foraged berries and bear fat.
At the time, my friend, a fiber artist in Chicago, was filming a documentary on the effects of agribusiness firms on cotton farmers in Punjab. Many families were losing their land after the promises of higher yields from patented seeds rang hollow. Here I was, a city slicker trying to learn a gamut of rural skills in my late 20s, while communities of rural folk around the world were being dispossessed of their own livelihoods. I decided that I could do more good in the world trying to organize and educate in defense of existing rural communities rather than trying to artificially create one myself.
But was this necessarily the right choice? Is there a right choice? As I attempt to gain institutional credentials, education and work experience, I find myself increasingly sacrificing the sustainable lifestyle choices of my past in favor of the time-saving conveniences of the urban professional. But I am also more engaged with institutions that will, in the end, have a much larger impact than I would hunting grouse in the woods.
Few of us are considering moving to the bush. But just as the challenges of our time force us to grapple with our positions of privilege and oppression with respect to class, race and gender, they also force us to struggle with our place as humans on a threatened Earth. And that includes our institutional and collective behavior as well as our individual behavior.
So where will you find me after that lecture on profit maximization? In my solar-heated home, cooking the local harvest and hanging my clothes on the line.