Sus-Days and Climate Despair

(Approximately 7 min read)

It’s a normal Thursday evening. We’ve just completed our early season five-kilometer run-test and have returned to the locker room. As we change for on-ice practice, I pause and reflect on the typical chit chat around me and wonder if I am losing my mind. It all seems so meaningless.

You see, a teammate and I had just returned from the South Tirol’s Sustainability Days Conference. Together, we listened to world renown climate scientists and activists spell out the dire situation of the climate emergency:

  • Keeping warming below 1.5°C is no longer realistic
  • Each tenth of a degree over that threshold will result in staggering increases in the amount of suffering
  • We’ve emitted more CO2 this year than any prior year in human history and are on track to do the same in 2023 and 2024
  • In 2021, we doubled public subsidies to fossil fuels

We are still running in the wrong direction; that was made abundantly clear at the conference.

After four days reiterating how serious the situation is, it felt bizarre to go to hockey practice and act like everything was normal. The reality is I’ve been feeling that strange tug of the world not making sense, climate-wise, for years… since the middle of my master’s degree in Sustainable Energy Engineering, before I quit my “innovation” job at the gas company, and maybe even at Brown while I tried to map out a major in environmental engineering that didn’t yet exist.

Around me, I vaguely feel that most people sense the worst impacts will happen far away and that things will work themselves out. That some smart engineers somewhere will figure out silver-bullet technologies, and meanwhile, we won’t have to change a thing.

Clover Hogan

On the conference stage, global climate activists spoke about this. Clover Hogan, for example, a youth activist talked about eco-anxiety. She said, it’s not just the climate crisis alone, it’s also the cognitive dissonance created by “the adults” saying we’re all going to be okay. I couldn’t help but relate. The paralysis, the hopelessness, and the grief have become unwelcome reoccurring thoughts.

Clover Hogan on the methods of creating cognitive dissonance

The recent floods in Pakistan are part of the horrifying story. An equivalent number of people as the entire population of Canada have been displaced, losing their homes and livelihoods, and over one thousand people lost their lives. Hundreds of children were killed. We are on a pathway of expecting that kind of event, regularly. In the time between drafts of this post, Puerto Rico has been hit by another catastrophic hurricane, the last of which in 2017 killed nearly 3000 people. That scale of suffering is destined to happen over and over again on our current emissions path. And for what?

Gail Bradbrook

Gail Bradbrook, the founder of extinction rebellion (XR), spoke about how our system is designed to make us feel separate and powerless. She claimed that by over-relying on the metric of GDP, the system focuses on the wrong things. The system incentivizes bad behavior by allowing pollution and biodiversity destruction to be externalized costs. When the entire goal of our economy is “more” and extraction it becomes obvious that decoupling growth from emissions has to be a myth (a conclusion backed by the experts).

Gail Bradbrook conducting an audience poll that had a surprising anti-growth consensus

She made a very convincing case for why our modern capitalist system is incredibly corrupted by monopolies and unfair advantages designed to favor large corporations over small businesses. I think we can point to the massive fossil fuel and factory farm subsidies as another example. They falsely prop up the very industries that are causing our demise. She went further still to argue that we have a dysfunctional democracy. One in which billionaire-owned media companies distort messaging to benefit their own businesses and leave people feeling that they have no agency to create change through the voting system.

Her talk was one of the most interesting I’ve ever heard. She touched on the science of civil disobedience, flaws in our economic system, and aspects of human psychology that have led us here, but I couldn’t help but feel dejected by how she framed the situation. We need to change everything if we are going to fix things, and how can changing everything not feel impossible?

When I asked, she was empathetic. She too feels despair.

Daze Agaze

With the despair, I have this strong urge to escape. I want to run off into the woods and build a little self-sustaining cabin and try to teach these suburban thumbs of mine how to grow my own vegetables.

Daze Agaze, a British climate activist, spoke at length about the importance of reconnecting to nature and the ways modern society tricks us into thinking we are “other” than nature. She talked about false sense of success that comes with materialism and consumer culture while at the same time our core needs are left unattended to. But she had my ear most compellingly when she addressed the urge to run away.

She was frank, “opting out isn’t a real choice,” even though she has felt the tug herself. If that isolated cabin could exist, it still wouldn’t feel right to run away. Ultimately it would be allowing others to suffer instead of fighting for what’s right. Underneath the despair, she argued, you have to stay and fight because you have to do what feels right, regardless of how achievable the end goal is.  

The Uninhabitable Earth Panel. From left to right: Daze Agaze, Clover Hogan, Gail Bradbrook, David Wallace Wells, and Giovanni Mori

David Wallace Wells

The moderator of the conference, like a lot of people communicating the climate crisis, repeatedly tried to return the conversation to hopefulness. David Wallace Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth (a must read), and conference speaker, took a very different tact. He laid out the truth. In all its horror.

He provided color to the doom with statistics predicting the impending floods, fires, droughts, and heat waves, and maybe somehow more frighteningly, the likelihood of resource wars, famine, financial collapse. When I talk about those things with family and friends, I get blank stares. Surely, I’m exaggerating or have the facts wrong, they say. Crop failure and wars over water – that won’t really happen, right?

Wallace Wells writes about how those terrible outcomes are already actively occurring in the here and now. At the conference he talked about how directly we are choosing superfluous luxuries over the lives of other people. As one example, for every 1000 people provided with coal electricity, one person dies from air pollution. That direct correlation applies and scales rapidly with the climate crisis. As many of the activists reframed it, each death in the climate crisis isn’t an accident of nature, they are a sacrifice; a choice we have decided in the western world. We have sacrificed those lives in Pakistan.

(Videos of all the talks and this panel can be found, here)

The Wave

When you get diagnosed with Cancer, you don’t hold on to blind hope for a miraculous cure while continuing to smoke cigarettes, and you don’t feel relief if you plan chemo treatment for 2030 or 2050. This is no different. Hope is misplaced if we aren’t willing to act in the truly transformative ways that are required to minimize the suffering.

Asking Bradbrook what to do with the feeling of hopelessness

We do actually have the power to change things. XR cites studies of nonviolent resistance movements and historically as little as 3% of the population has to get behind a cause to produce transformative change.

Gail Bradbrook on the effectiveness of rebellion to create change

I recently read “We Are the Weather,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. He wrote, “Honeybees perform a wave to ward off predatory hornets,” much like fans at a baseball game send a wave around a stadium. “One after the other, individual bees momentarily flip their abdomens upward, creating an undulating pattern across the nest – the phenomenon is called ‘shimmering.’ The collective fends off the threat, something no individual bee could do on its own.” Later Foer goes on to say that despite it feeling like the opposite, “the impotence of individual action is a reason for everyone to try.”

Hope lies in taking action. That’s what fueled the activists. But what action?

It feels ridiculously self-righteous to frame the situation in it’s very real terms. To ask if the meat on our plates is worth the deaths by flood, or if our big houses and trucks are worth the deaths by mega storms and wildfires, but these are the choices we are making. These are the terrible choices I am still making. I still fly home to my family across the Atlantic. I still play ice hockey. None of us is doing enough. But we have to try harder.

Hope also lies in finding community who also want to be in service of the change we need. Another activist, Giovanni Mori, said “no one can take the action that you can take,” emphasizing that we all have a role and perspective that is needed and valuable. I have EcoAthletes and now I’ve joined local chapters of Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion.

At the conference, I took part in my first protest and my first act of civil disobedience. We urged the attending politicians to act faster and blocked parking spots to encourage use of transit. It’s not much, but it’s action.

Hey there!

I’m Jacquie and I’m an American hockey player living in Bolzano, Italy. I write about hockey, sustainability, and food.

More About Me

3 thoughts on “Sus-Days and Climate Despair

  1. Good points! People tend to believe one thing, but then don’t change their lifestyles or actions to correspond. I started asking people I kniwn directly what they thought about climate change. More than ninety per cent were not worried, had not thought about it seriously, or thought we are in a normal weather change patten that human activity has not caused or affected. Their answers were amazing to me.

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    1. Thanks for reading OG. I’m not surprised that so many people were not worried. The oil companies have spent billions to convince people that we shouldn’t be worried. Interestingly, at the conference speakers talked about how the oil company strategy is now shifting from “climate denial” to “climate delay.” The greed (and immorality) of the big players is truly astounding.

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