Between Pollyanna and Cassandra

Climate Change is, of course, a disaster. As such, it is easy, even reflexive, to wax apocalyptic in every observation or statement about it, or everything we share on Facebook.

Just today I saw these headlines

  • UN Warns of Looming Worldwide Food Crisis in 2013
  • Brazil Plans 60 More Dams In the Amazon
  • September 2012 Tied for the Warmest Ever Recorded
  • Food Scarcity: The Timebomb Setting Nation Against Nation
  • California Expected to Lose 100 Dairy Farms

These are important stories, and we must somehow take in this information, make sense of it and let it inform our plans for our lives. However…

It Is Critically Important to Remember  . . . that people are not often motivated to action by becoming depressed or despondent. Nor is there any use in taking refuge in fantasies or escapism. There is a middle ground between Pollyanna and Cassandra, where we can acknowledge the awful scope of the challenges before us while seeking out and joining those who are taking action to avert or reduce disaster. And we must never forget to take joy in living at the time and place we live, and with the marvelous people with whom we share the planet.

There is a quotation I cherish from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonizing, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But a dance!

The passage just preceding this one is all about his desire for “a world that produces ecstasy and not dry farts.” The Germany of the Nazis, developing as he was writing this next door in France, was a simulacrum of humanity, of the life, passion and fury that Miller craved and grieved for – as an environmentalist would grieve for an endangered species.

Louis C.K. says of our culture that “everything is amazing, and nobody is happy.”

Adlai Stevenson once said,

In classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke,’ but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, ‘Let us march.’


Have you read Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky? It is about the challenges facing women in every nation and culture of the world. Rape, genital mutilation, lack of education or health care, beatings, and on and on. The book is as admirable for its structure as for its content. In each case, the authors relate what the problem is; then they introduce the reader to an individual woman who is representative of that problem, so the reader connects with the lived experience of an individual; then they show, via statistics, how big a problem this is. Just as you are becoming overwhelmed, they tell you who – and sometimes it is the women you have met earlier in the story – is working to remedy the problem. You get a sense of the urgency of the problem, the scale of the problem – and then, how it is being confronted.

I propose that every advocate for every issue adopt this structure for every story. Tell us: Are bird populations plummeting? Is the Pacific Gyre awash with plastics and trash? Are women denied basic education and health care? Then show us pictures, and make us care for an individual animal or person. Tell us how widespread this problem is. Make us feel the enormity of it, and the tragedy. But please don’t stop there.

Tell us who is doing something about it. Tell us, now that we care, that we don’t have to create a nonprofit or a research institute or an army of activists all by ourselves. Tell us where we can plug in, who we can help. We want to help. Don’t leave us hanging, hopeless, despairing, with help to give but no idea of how to give it.

Also, don’t politicize it unnecessarily. Doing so radically reduces the field of support for your cause. If you must politicize, do it precisely. Say “Senator X is opposing women’s access to birth control,” not “Republicans are doing so.” By generalizing, you alienate, in this hypothetical, allies who might be able to oppose misogyny within their own party and help turn more of the party into allies while marginalizing the misogynists. They may not agree with you on everything, but if this issue is important enough, you will want every ally you can get.

I quoted Louis C. K. because we need to remember how wonderful is this world and this time in which we live. There is much for which to be grateful, and so much to enjoy.

I quoted Adlai Stevenson because he reminds us that there is oratory that moves us, and oratory that makes us move. The former is wonderful for the speaker or author being applauded, but the latter is what we need, and depressing people won’t cut it.

We need to find the words, images and actions to uplift, not to depress.

We need to make, and commit to fulfilling, a promise of a better future – not to foster a blinding despondency and hopelessness.

We need to provide the inspiration that precedes purposeful movement, rather than panic that induces chaotic movement. We need a dance or a march, not a melee.

We know there are tasks to be done, threats to meet, obstacles to overcome. We ought not to see them as evils that have befallen us, but as our generation’s opportunity for greatness. The world has not newly fallen into disrepair. This is our “dangerous opportunity,” our hero’s journey. Every generation lives in “interesting times.”

Imagine we are soldiers. We know our enemies, the terrain, our strengths and weaknesses. We know diplomacy and warfare, and respect the uses of both. We do not romanticize our roles, dreaming of the myths and stories told of other warriors of old. We have work to do, and lack of attention to any detail at any moment can be fatal to us, our comrades, and those we are protecting.

Imagine we are mothers. We notice every cough, every cry, every untimely silence, every potential danger in the house in which we live with our children. Smitten with the wonder of the child before us, we are more, not less, aware of the threats and challenges to her, but we are intent on fostering her joy and helping her realize the best future imaginable in a challenging world.

Let us NOT imagine we are superheroes. If we think our charge is to save the world, every more humble – but real, and necessary – goal will seem like a compromise unworthy of our great capacities. So our omnipotence would incapacitate us, and the work we must do will sit undone.

“Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do it.” – Gandhi

We must pay attention to the stories around us, whether the storm clouds of climate change or the goose steps of fundamentalism. We have to be like the iconic WW2 soldier with the picture of his sweetheart in his helmet: Nazis ahead of him, love in his heart, hopes and plans for his future with his loved ones. He trembles at what’s ahead – and charges.

There are 7 billion of us on the Earth. Imagine what we can accomplish, eyes open, informed and inspired, together.

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