Your outpouring in response to last week’s newsletter was extraordinary. I really didn’t expect the amount and hadn’t twigged to the fact it would start rolling in during Thanksgiving — your thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit were a real gift and left me wishing you could all hear from one another. So I’m going to suspend regular programming and give that a go this week.
In the midst of our planetary plight, it’s no small consolation to find that we are at least “in good company,” as one reader wrote.
It’s clear that many of us could use that consolation. “It’s not the big discussions that we aren’t having that bother me,” wrote Johanna. “It's the way no one wants to talk about it at all beyond the most cursory stuff. I'm bracing myself to not speak as I go to a Thanksgiving dinner.”
The social dynamics can be so isolating. Even though the ecological crises are becoming hard to ignore and we know from surveys that there is widespread fear about our future, there’s still a real discomfort, almost a social taboo against talking about it.
Kathy just recently stumbled across the newsletter and expressed relief because “I don’t have many friends who can discuss these issues with me for more than a couple of minutes or less.” (Welcome to our bleak little lunch table, Kathy. We can actually be a lot more fun than the cool kids — and they may be sidling over for company before long.)
It’s not easy to stay clear-eyed about the state of our little planet for more than a couple of minutes. And I may have put my finger on the “hopium-despairahol” scale (h/t Paul from Whistler) more than I intended: “I’m responding to your somewhat desperate-sounding call for feedback,” wrote Erwin, an economist.
More than a few of you (including several mental health practitioners) reached out to see if I was OK. “The plain fact is that climate anxiety is a psychological reality,” wrote Brian, a psychotherapist in Ontario. “Many people, especially young people, find it almost intolerable to address the scientific realities around climate change and its impact on the human world. Yet, it is an undeniable truth that, if we adopt a head in the sand attitude, and proceed into the future in a cavalier, lemming-like manner — we're done for.”
Overwhelmingly, what seems to keep us going is love (and fear for those we love) For our children, for each other, for the miracles of nature. Even for those awkward, sterile “future generations.” For some of you, that has manifested in struggling over having children at all. For many more, it’s a cocktail of fear, worry and love carried over multiple generations: for young children, young adults, grandkids and, for a few readers, great grandkids.
It really makes me wonder if we’ve lost the thread on that fundamental instinct and quality of humanity. There was nothing goopy in the love so many of you expressed. Quite the contrary — it was a fierce and fiery love.
It used to be much more common to hear demands for action grounded in love and care. And even dispassionate data-crunching on climate finds that love is still the most unifying call to action.
Paula from Sudbury recommends we lean in to love as the answer. “Stay on the positive,” she wrote. “A new read I suggest is: A Future We Can Love by Susan Bauer-Wu.” It’s a book inspired by a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Greta Thunberg in 2021 and leans on other luminaries like Indigenous scholar and artist Lyla June, Joanna Macy, Vandana Shiva, Katharine Hayhoe, Matthieu Ricard and biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger.
It was fascinating to hear from the scientists among us, forced to straddle the sober scientific method and the disastrous implications of their findings. Stephen, a seabird biologist and filmmaker (most recently, the films Albedo and Vanishing Point) spent a season living in a colony of emperor penguins in the Ross Sea back in the 1980s. Last year, scientists estimated chicks in four colonies all died because of disappearing sea ice (probably 9,000 babies in total). This year, the prognosis is worse.
“You could say that I am grieving a new kind of climate sadness,” Stephen writes. “It seems inconceivable that these phenomenally beautiful animals are likely to disappear from this Earth during our kids’ lifetimes. As a prognostication of science, many of us saw this coming. Still, I have to wonder, are people really not going to talk about this? Apparently so. This is where we're at. The March of the Penguins to extinction…”
Stephen sent along a photo from his time in one of the colonies. “Here's a view at the floe edge on the Ross Sea, November 1986 (all eyes are riveted on a spy-hopping leopard seal)”:
Zero Carbon is “a sanity piece,” he writes, “keeping us from losing our minds by delivering the straight goods and affirming that we're not alone in our concern and despair.”
One biologist working with Indigenous communities in the Arctic pushed back on the journalist’s commentary I highlighted last week. “Scientists aren’t downplaying anything,” says Erinn. “They have been seeing a problem since the 1850s.
“Whose job is it to actually make things happen and to communicate to the people? When it comes to actually making a change, at this point, it's up to big companies and the government… It’s a structural problem… We need examples and scenarios presented to people on how our world could look based on examples of leaders that are actually implementing science.” Erinn’s call to hear more of those examples was a recurring theme and we’ll return to it in a moment.
By now, we are all a very few degrees of separation from people just like us, displaced by climate impacts. If we haven’t been forced to evacuate ourselves, we’ve heard from the tens of thousands of evacuees just this summer, just in Canada. I was particularly struck by Carol from Nova Scotia who conveyed a long-term, international perspective: “I am a climate refugee. I moved back to Canada after living for 14 years in the U.S. South, where summers meant you could not go outside because of the heat. But I am just the beginning of what will be a massive movement of people north.
“I would like to see more discussion of how Canada can help climate refugees,” Carol wrote. “Canadians need to realize that refugees improve a nation’s economy, and we should be welcoming of them. The acceptance of more and more climate refugees will require planning and improved infrastructure, as well as social and psychological preparation.”
When there is an opening for conversation, a great many of you acknowledge struggling with the question of how best to frame it. I suppose we are a pretty self-selecting sample of the population but a lot of you answered along the lines of: “I do not need to be protected” and “Please, just the unadulterated truth, hard as it is to bear.” Michael wrote from New York, “It does no good to baby people.”
Don, an Earth scientist, was one of several who likened the task to communicating a medical diagnosis: “It is very much like asking one’s doctor if the diagnosis should be the truth or what the patient would like to hear.”
There was broad agreement on presenting “the straight goods,” but there was quite a bit of nuance on this point and a surprising number of you resurrected that classic spaghetti Western — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Mike wrote in describing “life behind Saskatchewan’s Fossil Curtain” advocating “the good news, the bad and all in between.”
Joan actually sent along the theme music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, writing that we need to “speak MORE about climate chaos… That said, I do think it's important for everyone (especially our next generations) to see what IS being done throughout the world to combat climate disaster.”
It’s really striking how often we seem to be able to hold both outright despair (or near despair) along with committed pragmatism. Katherine from Montreal expressed it beautifully: “I am occasionally overwhelmed by frustration and sadness,” she writes.
“However … the more we know about what is working elsewhere, the better. We can’t always be fighting against our governments or the industries that are causing the emissions, we also need to know what we should be fighting for. I'd like to know what laws, technologies, legal challenges, local policies, etc., are actually bringing down emissions and what we can do to support them.”
That was a stream of feedback that came through loud and clear. “Highlight what is working in other countries that we could emulate here,” wrote Jane.
“More coverage of the practical aspects of the solutions and both good and stupid government and civil sector decisions,” wrote Mark, a former journalist. “That will give readers a more tangible sense of agency.”
Richard wants to get rigorous and practical about electrifying everything: “I have been conscious for some time about the lack of action at scale to construct the necessary electricity infrastructure to enable the output of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, which by their nature will always be intermittent, to be converted into on-demand power, which we need, in order to be able to seriously shift away from fossil fuel sources. I am keenly interested in not only what is happening in this area, but also what additional actions need to be taken at what scale, and where we as citizens and activists could be most effective in pushing for the necessary actions to occur.”
Martin is nearing 70 and spent a career in energy efficiency and the environment, mostly in the private sector. “Let’s stop beating around the bush,” he says. “Capitalism as it exists today is the root cause… It's extractive, consumptive, power hungry, immoral and unequal, among other things.
“Solutions exist,” he says. “Including renewable energy co-operatives, community benefits agreements, resident investment and ownership of renewable energy and so on… Maybe the National Observer can start a conversation about how these and other solutions can grow and expand in what is largely a very reactionary environment in Canada. What are the policy instruments that will create the environment for these models to thrive?”
The critique of “capitalism as it exists today,” is much more widespread than you might expect. “Most Canadians are critical,” according to new findings from the Angus Reid Institute. “In a nation filled with divided discourse, Canadians agree on two significant pieces of the public puzzle… climate change and capitalism.”
Janet wrote in from Calgary also with a critique of conventional economics: “We need the truth about our climate situation.” But she says she’s also fearful about “my children’s despair over the future… Therefore, it is important that evidence of healthy, less-consumptive lifestyles be provided. A vision for a new reality. Despair can be a motivator if given a pathway to work for something better.”
Janet suggests more focus on “Doughnut economics” — an alternative economic model popularized by Kate Raworth’s book with that title.
Raworth calls it “playfully serious.” Instead of just permanently growing the GDP, “humanity’s 21st-century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to health care and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend.”
The Financial Times called it the best economics book of 2017. Pope Francis is a fan and David Attenborough says, "Sustainability in all things should be our species' philosophy; the Doughnut Model, our compass for the journey."
Several cities have embraced the concept as a planning tool, including some that might not surprise (Amsterdam, Copenhagen) and others that might (Cali in Colombia and Nanaimo, B.C.).
Good, bad, ugly, all beautiful (and more doughnuts)
I think we’ll have to leave it there for this week’s newsletter. It’s only been a very small sampling of your advice and responses, I’m afraid. The breadth of your engagement has been amazing to hear — from nurturing native plants to running for office, suiting up to lobby ministers and time in jail for disrupting pipelines, banking towers and business-as-usual. And I want to apologize to everyone I haven’t been able to respond to directly. Please know that I’m reading and grateful.
Next week, we’ll resume (hopefully much-improved) programming. But for this week, I’ll leave you with two bonbons.
If Janet’s doughnut suggestion piqued your interest, there is, of course, Raworth’s book. She’s also done a TED Talk. There’s also a great doc by Dutch filmmaker Alexander Oey that Good Good Good includes among the 15 Best Climate Change Documentaries (available on YouTube).
“Economics that is still being taught in today’s universities is based on theories drawn out in textbooks of the 1950s and they’re based on ideas from the 1850s,” says Raworth in the film. “We have to flip it on its head and start economics from the values we know matter today, like human well-being and planetary integrity. And then we can ask what kind of thinking is actually fit for this century.”
And if you want to see the good, bad and ugly in full splendour, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners were just announced at the Natural History Museum in London (the England one). Two Canadian photographers made the list. Garth Lenz — an old friend from our days blockading old-growth clearcutting in Clayoquot Sound — was highly commended in photojournalism for an early morning shot of the biggest excavation on Earth, the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah.