words by willow defebaugh
photograph by michael hauptman
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.
“I don’t have hope. I have something better: certainty.”
By now, if you follow our work, you have read about the latest alarming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the one that has issued a “code red” for humanity. Since its release, I have been struggling to find the right words to express how I have been feeling. I wanted to write something helpful or even hopeful. But I couldn’t get past the stark dichotomy I was witnessing on my feeds, between those urging action and those acting as if nothing was happening. When I sat down to write on Monday, I could only manage a single, inescapable line: I don’t know how to convince you that this world is worth saving.
In almost every way, it’s unfair to put that on people, some disembodied “you.” As many have been right to point out, “we” did not cause this mess. The problem is, nothing about climate change is fair. It’s not fair who it disproportionately impacts, and it’s not fair how we have been framed for it, when this crisis is a crime that was knowingly caused by the fossil fuel industry. It’s not fair that generations to come will pay for that crime, should we fail to act bravely enough. But as Mary Heglar writes: “The climate crisis is not our fault, but it is our responsibility.”
This week I have been thinking about the question that is most often asked of—and dreaded by—environmentalists: “What gives you hope?” On the one hand, I’m a believer of Pema Chödrön’s teachings on the dangers of hope, how hope steals us from our present reality by placing all of our stakes in a distant someday. Hope gives us license to carry out our lives as though nothing is wrong, living in the belief that someone else will figure it out. As The All We Can Save Project’s Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson recently put it: “When I hear the word ‘hope,’ I think, I hope someone does something about that. Or I hope that works out. And I’m just like…What are we going to do that we don’t need hope?”
This relates to why I have always struggled with the term “environmentalist”—a struggle that The New Standard Institute’s Maxine Bédat put into words this week on social media: “Someone introduced me as an environmentalist the other day. It took me aback, I didn’t like it…I think that description, I read into it that she was saying, She cares about the environment, so I don’t have to.” Hoping someone else will save our world breeds a burden that is unevenly distributed, one that would be much lighter if carried by all. The environment is not an area of interest, a career, or even a movement. It is what ties us all together—and we all have a duty to defend it.
On the other hand, I understand the argument for hope and the power it has to mobilize. The last IPCC report in 2018 galvanized a generation of young activists to skip school and take to the streets, sparking climate conversations among adults around the world—many of which were built on the misguided belief that this next generation might save us. Hope is tempting in that it’s a quick fix for despair, and despair represents one of the greatest threats we face because when people become overwhelmed, they dissociate. That’s what trauma does. And dissociation is at the heart of what we are talking about here, the disconnect that colonization created between ourselves and the rest of nature and the trauma that caused.
Hope may be a quick fix for despair, but quick fixes don’t heal—they provide an escape. And no trauma can be healed until it is faced. We have to acknowledge our despair so that it does not swell up and swallow us. Because what we repress, represses us. If we do not accept the reality of climate change in the present moment, then we cannot act on it. And we desperately need action. We need to take all of the small measures in our daily lives to reduce our impact, yes, but more importantly, we need to put collective pressure on our representatives and world leaders for policy reform (reform that doesn’t include $25 billion in subsidies for the fossil fuel industry).
Remembering we are nature is a continuous practice. And so I would like to make a revision to my earlier admission: I don’t know how to convince you that you are worth saving. In fact, I don’t think I can. You have to make that decision for yourself. As for me, I have decided that the question of hope is irrelevant—because I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you and I and everything else in this world are worth saving. I know that we are alive at what is perhaps the most perilous time in the history of humankind, and that I could see that as either unfortunate or an opportunity to make the biggest difference. I know what I’m choosing. How about you?