Having belief in a better tomorrow
The spring day is cool and clear, the bright sunlight emphasizing the pale green of new leaves against the bluest of skies. Where a few weeks ago, fields and lawns lay brown and soggy, grass has reached knee height as it sped into the season of growth. I drive along dirt roads, passing Amish farms where barefoot youngsters in hats and bonnets skip, and work horses gratefully ease their eager muscles into service behind plows after the cold, stiff winter. I notice blooming lilac branches and evergreens swaying in the breeze as I pass a rural cemetery. My young granddaughter chatters and sings in the back seat about unicorns and magic. I feel a pang of anticipatory grief as I witness the beauty of this day, and my deep love for this child, because of what I have learned about the future we collectively face.
There was a time when my focus centered on my personal relationships, problems to solve, plans to make, goals to work at achieving.
I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, and became involved with environmental actions early in my life, thanks to my parents’ deep reverence for the natural world. It was always clear to these deeply religious conservatives that we humans have a responsibility to steward earth’s precious resources carefully, in gratitude for all that the Creator has given us. My father gardened and studied the ways of the trees and woods, my mother hung our laundry out to dry, composted scraps, preserved the vegetables we raised, and used strips of old clothing to make rag rugs. We saved and recycled anything we could, before recycling was popular. We had one vehicle, and it was mainly used for my dad to travel back and forth to work.
Over the decades of my adult life, I became steadily more dismayed as I learned about anthropogenic climate change. I read books and viewed films about the topic, listened to interviews with researchers I respected, attended lectures and conferences, marches and protests. My husband and I and three children lived for several years in a remote, wooded area in an off-grid home. We bought a hybrid vehicle.
Despite our personal efforts, I came to understand that sweeping societal buy-in is necessary for the changes we need to make if we are to slow or stop the racing progression of climate change. Eventually I decided that the only way to avoid my own paralysis was to subscribe to the view that even when the future appears hopeless, we must continue to hope: to put one foot forward at a time, embracing a vision of a habitable earth in the future. I recognized that our future depends upon elected leaders all over the globe who face the facts, share this vision of a habitable planet, are willing to educate and inspire the public about the regulatory changes that must take place, and are unafraid to enact those changes.
Maintaining hope has become more difficult for me as political polarization and misinformation have led to suspicions about the findings of science. In spite of increasing extreme weather events, fires, and floods, there is denial. On the road I travel now, I see the signs of climate change denial all around me, in the gasoline guzzling riding mowers and huge pickup trucks, home gas meters — evidence of fossil fuels for heating, and yard signs objecting to the use of wind turbines.
Broken down trailer homes and other evidence of abject poverty remind me that there will be those who suffer the effects of climate change more than others, simply due to the economic realities of their lives. Limited financial and personal resources will prohibit personal steps toward change.
When I consider many affluent people I know, I understand that the reality of the climate crisis is just too difficult for them to face, as they continue to live their lives without acknowledging that there’s a problem, pursuing the same weary paths of materialistic consumption. Others I know see no point in even trying. For example, one of my relatives, a school teacher in a large city, laughed at me for recycling because she saw so much waste in the public school cafeteria.
To be fair, there are homes with solar panels and EVs in their driveways scattered throughout the countryside, and I see wind turbines spinning on hillsides. There are brilliant scientists and activists and environmental advocates working tenaciously, and every day there are more people who awaken to the reality of the crisis. There are young people such as Greta Thunberg who bravely challenge powerful figures with an urgent call for change.
The phrase “Think globally, act locally” was popular when I was a young adult. When I make an attempt to think globally, I see a world in chaos. I see wars and human migration fueled by climate change. I see government leaders who are drunk with power and don’t act for the good of their citizens. I see powerful corporate interests adding confusion to every conversation for the sake of profits. I see media with the ability to twist the truth, using AI technology or simply lies. So where do we go from here? How do we act locally in ways that make sense? Unanswerable questions revolve in my mind.
The pendulum swing of public opinion is mirrored in my energy for action. There are times when I feel inspired, fired up to do the work to educate and advocate. There are times when I have to pull back, wrap myself in a cocoon of solitude, slide into the slow mindful steps of living.
Admittedly, I see the urgency of the climate crisis as a dark shadow that looms over every other issue, and I know there are a multitude of issues to be concerned about, many characterized by human violence and inequity. I also see the glorious green of this spring day.
They say where there’s life, there’s hope. I cling to hope, even as I feel it pulling frantically away. For me, perhaps the most effective way to convince hope to settle in, to stay awhile in my frightened heart, is to focus on the ways I can dedicate each moment to love and gratitude. Maybe when I feel discouraged, each mindful, selfless moment can create the ripple I need to find the strength to go on, one step at a time. Maybe when I look at my grandchildren, I can forgive myself for not always having the strength to continue the difficult work of paving a path for their healthy future, and just celebrate their existence. Maybe.
Mary Jane (Janey) Wagner is a Fredonia resident.