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Climate Action is Due Now

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

We are warned against exaggerating, against hyperbole, against seeing events in the worst possible light. “Stop catastrophizing,” we’re told again and again. Things aren’t that bad. In fact, things are better for more people now, we hear, than in any time throughout human history.

But are we catastrophizing if we’re truly in a catastrophe?

Just how dire the threat of fascism is in the U.S. might be debatable, but that debate feels semantic. Perhaps the barrel hasn’t gone over the edge of the falls just yet, but the fact that it’s only 200 yards upstream doesn’t quite prevent the situation from feeling serious.

With homelessness rising and rents increasing, with more people declaring bankruptcy because of medical debt and more young people afraid of earning degrees to avoid a lifetime of student loan debt, with the richest corporations gaining record profits while small businesses continue to flounder, perhaps it’s an “exaggeration” to say that late-stage capitalism is a catastrophe.

We’re in the middle of a disaster of catastrophic proportions. Let’s choose a course of action. And let’s act. And act. And act.

Yet even that term feels a bit like saying a car accident victim with seven broken bones, bleeding in the brain, and kidney failure is in “stable” condition because we don’t want to overstate the situation.

Perhaps we look at our home and see a few missing shingles. Maybe we see peeling paint and a leaky gutter. A chip on the front steps. And we say, “What a disaster.”

But is that really the same as seeing flames shooting out the lower windows, with our family beating at the windows upstairs, their escape blocked by iron bars?

As climate activists have repeatedly pointed out, we’re acting as if the climate crisis is equivalent to peeling paint when instead it’s a burning house.

We’re told we’re being melodramatic, that we’re neurotic to see the climate crisis in such dire terms. We’re paranoid. We’re mentally unwell.

But isn’t it crazier to insist that things are OK, that we can work on the fire destroying our home a little at a time, while the flames consume our curtains, our sofas, our children?

Is it crazy to pick up the spray bottle we use to chastise our cat and think we’re doing something constructive to save our house?

Is it crazy to sit at our computer typing a letter to the editor or signing a petition while the flames shoot through the doorway into our office?

When do we justify catastrophizing?

More importantly, when—and how—do we convert the recognition of catastrophe into constructive climate action?

The metaphor, as useful as it is, can only go so far. We aren’t all going to run “out” of the environment screaming. We can’t just grab the baby, a handful of mementos, and meet other family members in the prearranged safe place.

There is no safe place. It’s not our “house” that’s burning. It’s the entire neighborhood. We’re the Marshall subdivision near Boulder. We’re Abbotsford in British Columbia. We’re Paradise in California.

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And even this isn’t a perfect metaphor. But let’s not allow that to trap us into inaction.

If our house or our town was literally on fire, a school strike wouldn’t really be our immediate course of action. Neither would a climate conference. Or a rally in front of City Hall. But all these things are important if insufficient.

Personal sacrifices aren't the answer, either. Even if everyone who believes the climate crisis is real takes the action to never fly on an airplane again, are we all going to give up our cars? Almost none of my friends who understand the gravity of the situation are willing to do that.

I’d certainly encourage folks to promote public transit, but I started doing that two decades ago, as have thousands of others, and there’s been virtually no action on either public transit or climate policy in the years since. Much of what we try may not work.

But if we’re trying to escape a burning building and one pathway is blocked, we don’t give up. We keep looking for another pathway.

We push for divestment from fossil fuels. We stop electing politicians who are not fully committed to meaningful action on climate. We stop making excuses for politicians who promise but fail to deliver, who “compromise” our future into mass extinction.

And if there’s no one better to elect?

More of us need to consider running at least in local elections.

We can’t rely on others to do the job for us. A heartbreaking video shot on a cell phone shows South Korean students on a sinking ferry discussing the instructions they’ve just heard over a loudspeaker to remain in place and wait for further direction.

“In movies,” one of the students says, “the people who follow instructions end up dead and it’s only the ones who disobey who survive.”

Over three hundred students who followed instructions and waited for rescue died.

Our house is on fire. Our town is burning. Our ship is sinking. Whatever metaphor we choose, we can’t accept, “Hang tight and wait for rescue.”

There’s no one right answer. The problem is so large it will require multiple approaches simultaneously.

But let’s not catastrophize about our chances of winning an election or how our visit to speak with our elected officials will go. That kind of catastrophizing drains energy from actions we need to take.

And let’s not feel so insignificant that we excuse ourselves from the battle. To throw out yet another metaphor, it might well be our work, being added to that of millions of others who are already working, that becomes the straw to break the camel’s back.

Or breaks a glacial dam, allowing the glacial lake behind it to wash away denial downstream.

Our efforts matter.

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We’re in the middle of a disaster of catastrophic proportions. Let’s choose a course of action. And let’s act. And act. And act.

Johnny Townsend