I recently overheard a climate scientist say this zinger: “This may be the coolest year of the rest of your life.”
Ooof. The weight sank heavy. To hear such a comment in the middle of a heat dome, the worst air quality in the world, flooding and resultant mudslides, and August heat—well, it hurts. More than that, it haunts.
I’m not interested in substantiating his statement—rather, I just wonder: What if it’s true? What if we’ll remember this as the coolest year of the rest of our lives?
Should we sit now in the cooling crepuscular hour and simply take note?
Can we lodge the cool days into our memory, so as to conjure them up later?
And how will our expectations and language change accordingly? Just like the pre-pandemic is now referred to casually as “In the Before Times,” I suspect our language will now adapt for this ever-changing “new normal” on our hotter planet.
“In the Before Times, we could get by without AC.”
“In the Before Times, being outside in the summer was glorious. You could see the stars at night!”
“In the Before Times, our lives felt lighter and clearer, like the skies used to be. Do you remember?”
Now, I fear, we are in the After Times—or rather, approaching them.
And thus it might be time to prepare for massive changes and dislocations and chaos, and one part of that is simply bearing the eco-grief, the heartsickness and anger and guilt.
In that regard, I’ve noticed one thing: I can’t seem to cry.
I wish I could. It would be cathartic and a real manifestation of my emotions—but I can’t. I’m no psychologist, but my guess is that humans aren’t able to cry during great duress; we can’t cry and run from the saber-toothed tiger. We run. And only when we’re safe in a cave somewhere can we release our pent-up sorrow. Right now, we are all metaphorically still running—away from a virus, wildfires, smoke—but ooof, again we experience that gut-punch feeling, because there’s nowhere to go! Not really. I don’t know about you, but after the ethical disaster that was the Trump years, the ongoing human suffering of the ongoing pandemic, and the environmental disaster of wildfires, flooding, and heat—well, many of us are collectively stunned, and still looking for a metaphorical cave to weep.
While we’re in this surreal moment, done with the “Before Times” and approaching the “After Times,” one thing we can do is this: Bravely take action. Speak up more vehemently, to the choir or the non-choir, to family and friends who are listening and to those who aren’t. Talk about solutions—of which there are many. Change things up. Come up with a family or personal list of concrete actions to do now—eat less (or no) meat, buy less stuff, make better consumer choices, travel wisely, and good grief, just generally agree to forgo some of our privilege for intergenerational equity—to care for those who come later.
On a larger scale, we need to push our politicians to ban the fossil-fuel infrastructure and slash our greenhouse gas emissions now. To my mind, that has a lot more to do with global regulations than it does the occasional flight to see family, though we can examine that, too. We need to get behind Biden’s plan, then push it farther, and shift to renewable energy, improve our energy infrastructure, and rethink how we live on Planet Earth. That means electing those with better ideas and more backbone, as well as calling our current reps and telling them to “build back better.”
And yes, though controversial, we can consider carrying capacity, and mindfully and compassionately ponder global human population numbers, since consumption of some sort is simply part of living. I respect climate scientists far more than some economists on this matter—hard to care much about workforce shortages on a chaotic, suffering, climate-devastated planet.
On this point, we can take actionable steps too: fund education and reproductive rights and birth control for everyone (men included) and we can at least talk about it, since what doesn’t get talked about doesn’t get fixed. (Just as a reminder of this growth, there were 3.7 billion people on Earth when I was born and 7.7 billion today, and I’m not that old).
Time is short.
We know it, we have known it, and let’s be honest—most of us didn’t do that damn much about it. We’ve known for at least three decades what would happen if we kept adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—and we’ve been pussy-footing around ever since.
We are flying blind into the future. We don’t know if indeed this will be the coolest year of the rest of our lives, but we do know it has the potential to be. We do know that this climate chaos is the rest of our lives. What the “After Times” looks like is dependent upon what we do now. This is the conundrum of eco-grief: how do we mourn, and respectively respond to, something that hasn’t happened, but instead is happening, with the severity of what happens next being dependent on how we act now?
I’m glad I’ll have a memory of the Before Times, when the world was easier and the skies bluer. I hope I’m wrong and that I get to see you in such times again. I hope to soon cry. In the meantime, we must do what we can—not only will it help, but we can avoid regret and instead feel the peace of knowing that we really, really tried.
Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the WILLA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the High Plains Book Award, and several Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More at www.laurapritchett.com.
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