Re-membering in the age of climate crisis.

I read with great interest Jonathan Franzen’s recent article in the New Yorker titled “What If We Stopped Pretending? The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.” I came away with different conclusions than other environmentalists.

When I moved back home to West Virginia in 2007, I already had ten years of green building experience under my belt, yet it felt like every time I offered a “green” recommendation on a project, an idea to solve a community problem, or suggested a shift in perspective, I was met with the same response: “take baby steps, Jill.” This quickly became infuriating, especially for someone who loves big, bold ideas.

Am I bitter about those early experiences? A little, but I just keep on doing the things that I believe are important, I try to live by my values while at the same time attempting to do better, and I try to educate others on issues crucial to me. I incorporate better environmental choices into all of my interior design projects, which means anything from specifying daylight sensors on LED light fixtures to save energy, specifying furniture made in West Virginia from sustainably-harvested trees, to specifying carpet tile which doesn’t need adhesive and low-VOC paints to create better indoor air quality. I also became a backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, in part so I could introduce people, especially women, to the immersive experience of wilderness.

I enjoy all of these things, but at the same time I have feelings of despair over environmental destruction going on all over the world, sadness for what animals and plants are dealing with now and what future generations of humans will have to deal with, and being overwhelmed by the enormity of the climate change problem.

With over 7 billion humans inhabiting the planet, we are stretching resources to the brink. Real solutions to global warming require systemic changes to institutions over which we as individuals have little control. These include constant land development and unlimited growth that are in conflict with natural systems, rampant consumerism in most developed nations and China, continued mining of fossil fuels at a pace far exceeding the pace at which these materials are being recreated, and huge agricultural operations which contribute 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time do such harm to animals and ecosystems as to be an evil force in the world.

Enter Franzen’s article.

He doesn’t beat around the bush outlining the problems we are dealing with related to climate change, and describes some of the issues I mention above. He says:

Although the actions of one individual have zero effect on the climate, this doesn’t mean that they’re meaningless. Each of us has an ethical choice to make. During the Protestant Reformation, when “end times” was merely an idea, not the horribly concrete thing it is today, a key doctrinal question was whether you should perform good works because it will get you into Heaven, or whether you should perform them simply because they’re good—because, while Heaven is a question mark, you know that this world would be better if everyone performed them. If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever.

It would be wonderful if the environment was everyone’s “overriding priority,” but that is simply unrealistic. However, Franzen goes on to say that while fighting for big climate change solutions is important:

…it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically—a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble—and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.

I suppose we’re back to taking baby steps, but this approach actually makes me feel better. Franzen acknowledges that all kinds of actions are directly or indirectly related to climate change, whether it’s doing work to strengthen a community, supporting small farms, or donating to local environmental organizations. These types of activities positively affect life today. 

If we were all a little more mindful about how our everyday choices affect not only the human community in which we’re engaged, but also the natural environment upon which our lives depend, what would that look like? West Virginia is known for its outdoor-lovers…people who love the woods, streams, and mountains. What’s your favorite natural place? How can you support not only its economic health, but also its environmental sustainability today? Nature is not a place to go to; all life is interconnected, a concept we have forgotten in the age of industry and technology.

Franzen reminds us that “many low-tech conservation actions (restoring forests, preserving grasslands, eating less meat) can reduce our carbon footprint as effectively as massive industrial changes.” Keeping that thought in mind, I’ll leave you with two quotes from The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building by 7group and Bill G. Reed:

According to Gerould S. Wilhelm, there were at one time more than 260 different Native American languages spoken in North America, and not a single one of them contained a word for nature. This is simply because these cultures did not conceive themselves as disconnected from natural systems; nature as a separate and distinct concept did not exist. This indigenous mindset conceives humans as an integral part of natural systems [and] a participant in maintaining and evolving the health of the whole.

A common sentiment among California Indians is that a hands-off approach to nature [has caused humans to] lose the practical knowledge of how to interact with it, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans. We are being called to become indigenous once again – to become living and contributing members of a particular place. We are re-membering.

You can read Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article here: