“For sometime now I’ve been terribly worried. I wish I didn’t have to acknowledge it, but everything I have feared is happening.”
Dr Sarah Perkins, Climate Scientist
Another day, another climate talk. And as the climate march leading up to it, the summit itself and the various analyses fade into the media background within a week, I sense that I am another day closer to the conversation that, for the last nine years, I have been hoping and praying I would not have to have.
Nine years ago I gave birth to my son. The day he was born I promised I would protect him. I did not have to say it out loud or sign my name in blood. I simply knew with every cell of my body that I would do everything within my power to keep him from harm. In that moment I committed my life to his. After several decades of self-determination and self-centredness I finally understood what it meant for someone else’s life to be more important than my own.
He is like all children, yet he is special. He is cheeky and funny and sensitive and angry. When I look at him I see this overwhelming beauty and at the same time I know that other mothers look at their children in that same way. We are all uniquely the same. All capable of adoring with our eyes.
My son has lots of ambitions. “When I grow up, I am going to be an Olympic swimmer, a dancer, a film maker, a graphic designer, a cook and a Dad.” He tells me he wants to have two children.
“A boy and a girl, no two boys, maybe.”
“What will you call them?”
“Timothy and Paloma.”
“A boy called Paloma?”
“No! A boy and a girl!”
I tell him I will take them off to do naughty things and feed them lots of sweets, because that’s what grannies do. “That’s ok. As long as you don’t make them eat vegetables!” He flashes his cheekiest grin. I tackle him. We roll about on the sofa, laughing.
In those moments I pretend that I don’t know about climate change. That I haven’t read yet another report that states that we need to keep 80% of remaining fossil fuels in the ground if we want to keep any semblance of a liveable planet, that despite these warnings we are increasing global emissions and that if we continue on the same course we risk unstoppable climate change within 30 years. Within 30 years is about the time my son will decide whether or not to have children. He may decide not to. No Timothy or Paloma. I will probably be both sad and relieved.
It may be hard to imagine what a changed climate looks like until you see images of the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan or the extreme floods that killed nearly 6000 in Northern India in July 2013. Climate change is already happening. What lies ahead, if we don’t act, is more of these extremes reaching more areas of the planet. The earth is an interconnected system and the Global North will not remain buffered forever. But I don’t want to think about that right now. I don’t want to think about the things I love being lost. I just don’t want to think.
The fear, love and denial battle it out inside me. In a recent article in the Guardian something Naomi Klein writes captures my eye:
“The more beautiful the experience, the more I found myself grieving its loss – like someone unable to fall fully in love because she can’t stop imagining the inevitable heartbreak.”
The thing is, I have allowed myself to fall fully in love – with my beautiful boy, with the river where we go to swim, with the bullfinches that commune in the tree behind my house, with the sound of twigs breaking underfoot when I walk alone in the forest, with the lone fox standing in a field silhouetted against the sky, with the slow falling dark. I am also in love with the beauty that humans create: the music, the art, the stories we pass on from generation to generation, the food we make to celebrate, the poetry we write, the questions we ask, the way we express who we are in dance and song. With our passing that human gift will also fall silent. I am in love with the abundance of life on this earth and I ache when I think of its demise. Every day the love grows, every day the ache deepens.
I discover there’s a name for this pain. In 2003 Australian philosopher Glenn A Albrecht coined the term ‘solastalgia’.
“Solastalgia is the pain or sickness caused by the loss or lack of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory. It is the ‘lived experience’ of negative environmental change. It is the homesickness you have when you are still at home.”
I don’t know if I should feel comforted that this ‘condition’ has been recognised as such. The fact that we need a new term tells me that this pain has been felt by enough people for long enough to be distinguishable from other forms of anguish, and hidden inside its meaning is the dire admission that these things we love, that offer ‘potential for solace’, have been lost forever.
This week I have been working with a group of sustainability students. Young people in their early twenties, from relatively well off backgrounds who should have everything to look forward to. The matter-of-factness with which some of them speak about human extinction and ecological collapse chills me. I wonder when they concluded that the future had ended. I wonder whether behind the relaxed acceptance they are angry or terrified.
Perhaps it is possible to commit one’s self to life and to living fully within one’s values without the prospect of a bright future. Despite the apparent futility and hopelessness, so many of us continue to find ways to untangle ourselves from the deceptions and distractions of western civilisation and in our efforts we are building something new. From the mess we are attempting to create something of real value, even with what little time we may have. We are waking up to the realisation that the industrial growth system destroys so much of what we hold dear and provides only some of the things we really need – and even those at a cost we are no longer willing to pay. We are gathering together, supporting each other, sharing ideas, offering solace and solidarity. I cling to this tiny bit of hope.
Still, I suspect and fear that one day in the not too distant future I will have to have that conversation with my son. I will have to tell him the truth about the world that he has inherited. I will have to admit that the civilisation he was born into made the accumulation of financial gain more important than life on earth. That it told us that we were lazy and greedy, that we would be happy accumulating more consumer goods and conveniences at the expense of lives lived with effort, but in freedom. We believed it and acted accordingly. So we sacrificed the streams, the rivers, the aquifers and coral reefs and soil, the giant pandas, rhinos, elephants, butterflies, river dolphins, tigers and so many other lives so we could watch television and eat convenience foods. I will have to somehow explain that despite the warnings, the evidence, the protests, the marches, the creative community-led solutions, the devotion and commitment of millions, the scientific knowledge, the technical expertise available – that despite all this – so called democratically elected world leaders refused to take appropriate action.
And I will mourn my broken promise.
Extract from Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism v The Climate www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/13/greenwashing-sticky-business-naomi-klein
Letters from climate scientists answering the question: How does climate change make you feel? http://isthishowyoufeel.weebly.com/
Glenn A Albrecht’s blog http://healthearth.blogspot.co.uk/2008/01/solastalgia-history-and-definition.html