I have kept a carefully proportioned distance from the whole climate change debate; close enough to keep it within earshot, and far enough away for the words to stay muffled. The point of my behaviour is simple; I’m not a climate changer denier, I’m a climate change avoider. People like me know there’s a catastrophic crisis on the horizon, yet we deliberately keep ourselves in the dark. It’s a foolhardy behaviour designed to alleviate anxiety and ward off terror. It reminds me of the time I was travelling in a jeep in Nepal, heavy rain had fallen overnight and the driver was navigating a mudslide on a precipitous road. I cowered in the back of the vehicle and gripped the door handle with my eyes screwed shut, as if any of these actions would save me from disaster. And here I am again. Meanwhile, Extinction Rebellion, are continuing to organise and inspire thousands to be visible, vocal and non-violent in their attempt to wake the rest of us up.
Recently, I made a deliberate decision to watch Greta Thunberg, the sixteen year old climate change activist, address EU leaders in Strasbourg. I’ve briefly listened to her speak before and, like many people, have been in awe of her intelligence and integrity. But on this occasion I saw and heard more than her signature straightforwardness and clarity. I saw and heard a child’s vulnerability, exhaustion and pleading. I took notice of the red blotches that marked her cheeks and the tremor in her fingers as she read her speech. Greta’s anguish, as she broke down over the violence meted out against the earth, reminded me of a court scene. For the very first time I thought, ‘This cannot be right - this child is carrying the responsibility for all of us.’ In that moment of conviction I feared for her emotional and psychological safety. Like Joan of Arc, her energy catalyses people around her for good or ill, and Saviour and Scapegoat are projected onto her. The question that has troubled me ever since Strasbourg is, what can be done to protect her?
Two days later, on Easter Monday, I woke to the the news that Polly Higgins had died, having been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer a few weeks previously. I found myself crying. I knew as a barrister Polly sought to establish an international crime of ecocide, although I didn’t follow her work closely. This woman was not mine to claim in any way so my tears surprised me. As I wept, I recognised an uncomfortable truth; I’d been depending on her to ‘do something.’ I had unwittingly identified Polly as the full-time carer of the earth, but not myself as the errant sibling who occasionally helped out, as long as my evenings and weekends remained free.
The final event that jolted me out of my willing ignorance, occurred the same day. My granddaughter was staying overnight with me and she began a conversation about what might happen when she grows up. I expected it to be full of bright and naive possibilities that would make me smile. Instead she quickly got to the point, ‘It’ll be alright when it floods Nanny, as long as the water only comes half way up Pen Y Fan, because then I’ll still be able to fish and grow some vegetables.’ My granddaughter is eight. Eight, and making her own plans for climate breakdown while her Nanny has been in the passenger seat, eyes closed holding onto a plastic door handle. Greta Thunberg’s vulnerability and courage, Polly Higgins’ vision and death and my grandchild’s distressing innocence has finally penetrated my bystander mentality.
There is a zeitgeist at large and I am not alone in ceding my shabby mental comfort to its emergent power. Only this morning I received an unexpected email from a woman I was on a course with last year. She described having returned from a ‘little field trip’ to the Extinction Rebellion protests to get a feel for what was happening there;
10 days on....and many meetings with children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, policemen and policewomen. I heard shocking news, hard truths and met the most humbling resolve. I feel fearful and completely lost in trying to understand how to help our children emotionally and psychologically with what all this means. How can the young possibly trust us again?
Since then, the UK House of Commons has been challenged with a different question, “Are we content to hand down a broken planet to our children? Consequently, MPs have unanimously endorsed a Labour motion to declare a formal climate and environment emergency. This is progress, of sorts. As the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has publicly noted, ‘you can’t declare climate emergency and continue business as usual.’ We shall see if words become actions.
For myself, I don’t have the answer to either of the questions I’ve cited above, although I do have some guidance I can depend on. A schoolgirl truth-teller told the EU leaders this, ‘You need to listen to us, we who cannot vote…to do your best is not good enough. We have to do the seemingly impossible.’ I have allowed too many people for too long to confront global warming on my behalf. Most shamefully, until now, I have allowed children to bear this burden for me. My personal starting point is at a low bar. To do my best is a very long way off, and it is better to begin than to barely do anything. Such action now constitutes my penance, alongside my evolving sense of purpose.