04.01.2020 06:00 AM
It's time to make a commitment to do more for the climate. Do what you're good at, and do your best.
ONE AFTERNOON IN December, I took the 4 train from my home in the South Bronx to an apartment near Union Square. I had been invited to lead a conversation with a handful of artists about the climate crisis and their place in it.
What I found was an intimate gathering of six or seven people. After some milling about over plates of cake and mugs of coffee, we started remembering Hurricane Sandy. We marveled at how much our experiences differed based on the borough or neighborhood we lived in. Sandy turned the Lower East Side—which was originally built for low-income communities but is now fairly affluent—into a place where police cars were submerged and electricity was scarce. Meanwhile, the South Bronx, originally built for the affluent but now the poorest congressional district in the country, came out of the storm relatively unscathed, since it sits on higher ground and is connected to the mainland of New York state. See more from The Climate Issue | April 2020. Subscribe to WIRED.ILLUSTRATION: ALVARO DOMINGUEZ
We wondered how long before another Sandy—or something much, much worse, perhaps something we don't even have language for yet—pushed the masses from Lower Manhattan into the South Bronx. Then where would my neighbors go? From there, the conversation naturally spiraled into the undercurrent of terror that comes with being alive today. Australia was ablaze, and the embers had barely cooled in the Amazon. A typhoon was encroaching on the Philippines. And that wasn't counting the countless other disasters underway in Africa and Latin America that never made the headlines. Even on our way in, we couldn't help but notice that it hardly seemed like December outside. I could tell that it felt good to talk like this: open and honest about the experience of watching the world fall apart in front of our eyes. To say our fears out loud and have them, and ourselves, accepted and understood. It was almost like I could see the weight lifting from our shoulders. But as that weight lifted, it only rose so far. It hung in the air, just above our heads like a heavy ominous cloud, until someone finally popped the question that brought the weight back down on us: “But what can we, as individuals, do?” SOMETHING REMARKABLE HAS happened to the climate conversation in the past two years. It's finally found its way out of the academy, oozed out of the Big Green groups and expert circles, and landed in the streets and on everyone's lips. I hear it everywhere: on the street, in the subway, in the airport, in the changing room at my yoga studio, in the checkout line at the grocery store. It's not niche anymore. It's mainstream. It's beautiful. For me, it's also bewildering. I am what the meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus calls a “Climate Person”—someone whose whole life is bound up in confronting the reality of the climate crisis. I joined the environmental movement in earnest in 2014, when I began working for one of the biggest green groups in the country. About a year ago, I also began speaking out on my own—in essays, on panels, and in Twitter rants. This made me not just a Climate Person but a Public Climate Person. We Climate People are used to being a small group. Marked by our intimacy with one another, our knowing glances across rooms. We're used to being mocked and sidelined as the killjoys, the bummers. In public places, we intuitively gravitate toward one another, carving out our own little corner of the party or our own sliver of the internet known as #ClimateTwitter, where we can rant and rave and scream and grieve together. But our cover has been blown now, and the doors of our clubhouse have been torn off the hinges by hordes and hordes of brand-new Climate People. If I had to guess what did it, I'd say it was the 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which spelled out in brutal and unequivocal—but most importantly, honest—terms the consequences of a runaway addiction to fossil fuels. Finally, the general public got a glimpse of what we Climate People stare in the face every day. Once you see it, as we well know, you can't unsee it. And when the shock finally passes and you find your feet again, you're overcome with the urge to do something—anything—to wash as much blood off your hands as possible.
Suddenly, Climate People are popular! Where we used to quietly lament our lack of dinner party invitations and hold our own parties in secret, we're now the belles of the ball. Before, people rolled their eyes, smacked their teeth, and backed away when I mentioned my work. Now they lean in close. They ask questions and actually listen to my full, uninterrupted answer—men included!
And no question is more fervent, more persistent, more desperate than the one that weighed us all down in December: “But what can I do?” There's probably no question that Climate People hear more, and fear more, than those five words. The askers get more and more frustrated, their newfound sense of urgency threatening to burn a hole in their throats.
They know it's about more than recycling, “buying green,” and turning the lights off when they leave the room. They've gotten the memo that we need structural change in addition to individual change. They've processed past the shock. They're ready to get to work. Why, they demand to know, can't I give a simple answer to such a simple question?
Here's why: Because if you want a real answer—one that won't leave you with tiny solutions that will ultimately disempower you and burn you out—you have to understand that the question is profoundly complicated.
BELIEVE ME, I understand why that question seems so cut-and-dried. But that's just an illusion conjured by several fallacies. And perhaps the first thing a new Climate Person can do is understand them.
Let's start with the first fallacy: that climate action is an individual thing. Almost every time I hear people struggle to find their place in the climate movement, it's because they feel unable to do enough to make a difference. They know that the world needs to essentially bring fossil fuel production to a screeching halt, not just now but RIGHT NOW. And they know that no one action they take can bring that about. So then what?