I had the honour to participate in an inspiring story recently. A young lady named Jennifer wrote me last month, saying she was concerned for her friend. Her friend was active in ecological issues, Jennifer said, but knowledge of peak oil, climate change and other problems brought her down, and she was losing hope for the future. For her birthday, Jennifer asked, would I write something about what gives me hope, and could she publish them online?
I was honoured and wrote something as best I could and sent it off to Jennifer, thinking it would just be my writing and maybe a few others.
When the birthday came around and I checked the link I received, I was amazed. Jennifer had written dozens of people across the world – scientists, activists, authors and bloggers, all working in some way on the Long Emergency, all explaining to an (apparently) young woman why we need to keep going. It is, hands down, the best birthday present I’ve ever heard of.
The list includes many names I knew well, and whose books fill my shelves: rural America chronicler Richard Manning, “Long Emergency” author James Howard Kunstler, climatologist Mark Lynas, anthropologist Joseph Tainter, permaculturist Su Dennett, writer Dmitri Orlov. There were people who organized towns around the world, people who saved vst areas of rainforest, people who inspired their own small movements. In fact, there are a few people here who might have won the Nobel Peace Prize.
This is what I wrote:
If you often feel troubled about the world’s future, then I feel like we are kindred spirits. Every day I wonder about the future of my little girl during the long emergency ahead. And I suck it up and continue with my day job or volunteer group or bedtime story, knowing I can rarely tell anyone who would understand.
Today we diagnose such compassion, and prescribe medicines to remove it. But we should feel troubled, to a point, because the troubles exist, no matter how many people ignore them. It is what the medieval monk Isaac of Stella called the hell of mercy, what all dangerous saints feel to be inspired to do good things.
You see, people who care about the world’s future have two big problems – what to do with all that despair, and where they get the energy to do all that activism. And the two problems solve each other – that feeling of powerlessness can be a most powerful fuel, if you put it to work for you.
Because if people were irredeemable – if we really didn’t deserve to be saved – you wouldn’t feel this way, and millions of others wouldn’t either.
And I remind myself of a few things. I remind myself that we are not destroying the Earth – she has been through worse than us, and will heal. I remember that, when human societies collapsed before, Nature grew back fast. For us it may take 50 years or 5 million, depending on how much we destroy now – and that is what we are fighting for, for the damage to be only superficial, and Nature to return in profusion for our grandchildren. But however long it takes, it will happen.
I am concerned for the many people who might die in the coming decades, if we don’t live on less. But I also think of my grandparents, or the elderly Irish around where I live now, or most people in most eras, all of whom lived on a fraction of the energy Westerners live on today, and sometimes lived long and happy lives. They were delighted to get an orange for Christmas or walk miles to the village to call on neighbors, and if they were healthy and loved, they did not consider themselves to be living terrible lives. When things get bad people are often wiser and more neighborly in real life than they are in action movies.
Remember that you are not alone. The world is teeming with people who care as you do. They might be homesteading, or forming unsung community groups, or meeting in church basements, or learning how to turn compost into electricity. They might look like everyone else, and you have likely passed them on the street without knowing. But they are all around you, and they are on your side.
Also, remember that all movements were pathetic and hopeless until they won. The idea that women might vote was considered a ridiculous idea almost until it became law. No one thought race laws in the South could be repealed, until they were. Revolutions seem to happen suddenly because the people in power, who write the histories, ignored all the previous steps – decades of patient work from forgotten heroes, many of whom must have despaired and given up hope. And there is much that is wrong with the world that was never righted, because too many people gave up.
Realize that the numbers required to make these sweeping changes were tiny. Only a few thousand people at any time were active in getting women the right to vote, or repealing race laws, among a population of tens of millions. I once compared the budget of anti-environmental corporations and groups to the small number of truly active environmentalists, and found they must be spending tens of thousands of dollars to fight each activist – more money than those activists probably made in a year in their day jobs. It costs powerful people a great deal to fight you. You have more power than you realize.
Keep in mind that you are important. Unlike most people on Earth, you live where we can make tens of thousands of dollars a year rather than a few hundred, as in Africa. You have medical care – expensive, but available. You have access to colleges and free community courses. You have community-access television whose cameras can be rented for a small fee. You have restaurants whose owners throw away tonnes of food each night – some of which could be eaten by people, some by household chickens or other animals. You live in a place where the garbage cans are filled with things that can be reused. You live with libraries, internet cafes and a surfeit of cheap stuff. It means there is much that can be reused, and that it is easy to live cheaply while using up few resources. It means you have power that most people in the world will never know, and that you are too important to lose.
Remember – and I’m sorry if this sounds cheesy, but it’s true – that there is no one else in the world like you, no one who sees everything you see, and the world would be a worse place if you gave up.
Keep in mind that we already know how to cope with the Long Emergency – and many people are already growing their own food, re-using other people’s cast-offs, learning to build and heat in ways that do not waste. If things ever do become desperate, each person who is learning such skills can become a teacher. Every such shelter can be a headquarters. Every homestead that saves its heirloom seeds and saves a surplus for the neighbor can be an ark during the flood – and if we have enough of them, no one ever need drown.
Finally, be good to yourself – don’t beat yourself up over things for which you are not responsible.
Thank you, Jennifer, and to your friend, Happy Belated Birthday.