A Destructive Force

words by william defebaugh

photograph by Darrian Traynor

 

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

words by william defebaugh

photograph by Darrian Traynor

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“We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.” –Brené Brown

 

There are a number of factors that make the brushfires in Australia so terrifying, but two are chief among them. The first has to do with their proximity to the Amazon fires, and the fact that this is our reality now. The world’s largest rainforest blazing for weeks was not an anomaly. The climate crisis is not a far away scenario of the future: it is a fixture of the present.

 

The second factor is how willing certain governments seem to be in accepting this as normal. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, and yet its anti-environmentalist leaders are denying the role that climate change is playing in its own national emergency. A 2008 report by Australian scientists even predicted that more severe wildfires would begin around 2020, but the government refused to listen. Now, over one billion animals have paid the price.

 

So what do we do when it feels like every day a new part of the world is drowning or on fire? What do we do when this is the note that we are starting a new decade on? What do we do with the knowledge that the sand in the hourglass running out? What do we do when we feel powerless to change it? What do we do with the shame that we carry?

 

In many ways, that last question is the only question. If you are in any way conscious, it’s likely that you have experienced some shame about what’s happening to our world. I feel it every time I scroll through the news and every time I interact with plastic in any way. But as psychologist Brené Brown has dedicated her life to studying and teaching, shame is the greatest inhibitor to personal and collective growth.

 

“The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous,” writes climate essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar. It’s a provocative statement, but what it underlines is true: as long as we are focused on our individual sins and competing for who is the most pure, we aren’t focusing on fighting the systemic issues at hand, and the large corporations who actually got us into this mess. (For more on this, read Emma Marris’s brilliant piece for the Times, “How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change.”)

 

Nothing is heavier than shame, and you can be of no help to the world while carrying its weight. So put it down. Instead, arm yourself with information. Choose a specific cause that you are passionate about and support it. Find an organization of like-minded individuals and join their ranks. Balance out the stories of devastation with ones of hope and continuously reacquaint yourself with nature so that you can remember what it is you are fighting for.

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