Reckoning With Personal Responsibility In The Age Of Climate Change

As someone who loves traveling and going outdoors, I struggle with balancing my hopefulness and my despair — and my culpability — regarding an imperiled earth.

A couple weeks ago, I made the mistake of watching Netflix’s new documentary series Our Planet after hitting a friend’s weed pen. Even though I knew that famed naturalist David Attenborough’s latest project aimed to explicitly address the effects of climate change, I was still expecting to (mostly) enjoy a big, splashy nature doc, letting myself become fully immersed in the overwhelming beauty and vastness of life on Earth — especially since, someday all too soon, many of these glorious scenes will be lost to us.

What I didn’t expect were the horrors awaiting me at the (now-infamous) end of Episode 2. A huge group of walruses congregate on a tiny stretch of land because they can’t gather on swaths of Arctic sea ice that no longer exist. Forced to find space from the crowd, some of the poorly sighted animals climb up steep cliffs — then, sensing other walruses below, fling their bodies off the edge. Somehow I’d missed all the coverage of Netflix’s warnings to animal lovers about this particular moment. Even if I had, I don’t think anything could have prepared me to see these gentle, gigantic animals tumble to their deaths. I started to weep; I think being stoned could only partially account for my spiral.

Piles of walrus bodies, smashed and bloody, will now join the morbid climate change gallery I keep on shuffle in my brain when I’m, say, trying to go to sleep or otherwise enjoy my life: the endangered orangutan trying to stop a bulldozer and save its home, or the polar bear mother and cubs crowding onto a tiny block of ice in the environmental advocacy commercials that used to play, over and over again, in my childhood. Even worse: I picture the growing number of human climate refugees, driven from their homes by droughts, flash floods, and fires, a tableau of mounting apocalypse on a near-biblical scale.

Walruses aside, some critics don’t think that Our Planet goes far enough. Yes, we see a fair bit of animal death, in addition to ghostly forests of dead coral and crumbling glaciers; but “the camera still captures life on a grand scale: Wildebeest herds are enormous, penguin colonies stretch as far as the eye can see, millions upon millions of ants inhabit jungle floors,” writes Brian Resnick at Vox. He wishes that Our Planet had fewer Planet Earth– and Blue Planet–style scenes of grandeur and more moments that convey “a visceral sense of loss.”

I appreciate that criticism. But there was also a part of me (maybe a horribly naive one) that was glad Our Planet took the time to capture the world’s still-thriving habitats — especially since it focuses on a number of areas and species that have been recently rehabilitated by human efforts to curb deforestation, overfishing, and the effects of climate change. Siberian tigers are slowly crawling back from the brink; blue and humpback whales have seen dramatic recoveries thanks to international efforts to save them. Maybe, if we act in time, not all of this will be lost. Do we dare to dream?

Like the producers of Our Planet, who had to balance making an entertaining program with warning its hundreds of thousands of viewers about oncoming global peril, I struggle in my daily life to juggle my hopefulness and my despair — and my culpability. How am I supposed to weigh my overwhelming fear and guilt and anger and sense of powerlessness about climate change against the hope that, through aggressive collective action, we can demand a better future for ourselves, for future generations, and for a planet’s worth of precious species?

As the world continues to burn, I think a lot about a Supreme Court case that made a big impact on me when I first learned about it in a constitutional law class in college. Before their case made it to the Supreme Court in 1992, the Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental organizations rallied against new regulations applied to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which required federal agencies to consult with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure their actions aren’t likely to threaten imperiled species and their habitats in the US or at sea. Organizations committed to conservation filed an action against the secretary of the interior, hoping that the new regulations could be discarded in favor of the original interpretation of the ESA, which hadn’t involved such a limited geographic scope.

The main question the court would be answering in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife: Did environmental organizations, made up of people with a vested interest in keeping endangered species outside the US alive, have standing to sue for the right to protect them? Put differently — do we, everyday American citizens, have the right to some legal assurance that, somewhere very far away, endangered animals and their precious habitats aren’t being annihilated with the support of taxpayer dollars?

Turns out, we don’t.

The plaintiffs tried to propose that anyone part of a “contiguous ecosystem” who would be adversely affected by a federal agency’s actions has standing to sue, a theory the court rejected. Even if the court assumed that federal agency–funded projects might pose a threat to an endangered species, the justices saw no proof that those projects would produce a “factual showing of perceptible harm” to the members of environmental groups, who might wish to one day visit other parts of the world and find the wildlife there unsullied by the tireless and maniacal reach of American industry.

I’ve always found this question to be a philosophically fascinating one, almost poetic. Do I have the right to the knowledge that the incredible biodiversity of our planet is going to keep existing out there in the big wide world — particularly without being fucked over by the people representing me in our federal government? It’s a different question than whether these endangered species deserve to survive on a habitable planet in the first place, one that’s intertwined with the other most pressing questions of our time: whether Americans have the right to prevent our government from furthering climate catastrophe for the globe’s most impoverished communities, who have contributed the least to climate change but most keenly feel its effects; or whether we have the right to demand our government take action to ensure that we Americans too might survive current and forthcoming climate catastrophes.

Still, it’s a question I keep finding myself coming back to: Do I have the right to feel comforted by the existence of a natural world that, however indirectly, I’ve helped to destroy?

For the past few years, I’ve seesawed between feeling compelled to drastically reduce my carbon footprint and throwing up my hands in defeat. What does it matter anyway? I eat meat, though lately less of it. Jury’s still out on children. I fly too often — sometimes for work, but most of the time to escape my urban environment and vacation in the great outdoors, grimly and guiltily aware that, to enjoy the natural world, I’m contributing to its demise.

Last winter, my partner and I took our most ambitious trip yet: a week to visit family in South Africa, then another week of game drives and boat rides in the national parks of Botswana and Zambia. It’s been a dream of ours, to see elephants and other incredible creatures in the wild.

One evening, during golden hour, we were bobbing with our guide on the banks of the Zambezi river while a herd of elephants swam-stepped across the water in front of us — using their trunks as snorkels — before they clambered onto the shore, rising mud-slicked behemoths. A crocodile lazed in a sunny spot a few feet away from us, its mouth disconcertingly open to regulate its body heat. And in the distance, on a stretch of grasslands only revealed during the low season, hippos and their babies lumbered lazily in the setting sun while a gust of birds in every color streamed by overhead. I’d probably never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Perhaps I never will again.

But our moment of rapture came at a cost. We’d taken jumbo jets for nearly 24 hours to reach the continent, then a car, a ferry, and a terrifying little biplane to bury ourselves this deep in the wild. Our massive carbon footprints trailed along behind us like a shameful veil.

That night, sleeping in a tent on a raised platform in the woods, we woke to the sound of something inconceivably huge moving just beyond our tented walls in the darkness. Tree boughs snapped; the platform beneath our bed shifted. We went still and held each other while my heart rattled around in my ribcage. At the time, I was petrified, but in the morning, when we poked around outside for evidence of what turned out to be an elephant or a rhinoceros getting comfortable for its few hours of sleep right beside us, I felt humbled and awed. Nothing else has better reminded me that I share the earth with giants.

Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife was on my mind again when I was watching Our Planet. Nature documentaries in general bestow a precious knowledge, which is that all around the world, every single day, remarkable things are happening. And documentaries give us these reminders without actually having to go and see for ourselves. I love to travel, but I also have to come to terms with the fact that my lifestyle isn’t compatible with sustaining life on earth. In a future where (hopefully) carbon taxes make air travel more costly and difficult, I’ll be grateful for the existence of programs that can give me a decent, high-definition dose of reverence without the high environmental price tag attached.

I remember being particularly tickled by the flamingos in 2016’s Planet Earth II, which (like Our Planet) was narrated by Attenborough, whose soothing British accent has accompanied many of the most stunning nature documentaries ever made. Thousands of feet high in the Andes mountains, a huge flock of flamingos takes shelter in a remote lake that freezes overnight, trapping them there by their long legs. In the morning, warmed by the sun, the birds slowly defrost and break themselves free of the melting ice, after which they march in a giant goofy group back and forth across the water, in a mating march intended to get them all “in the mood.”

It fascinates and delights me to think that as I’m puttering around New York City, each day filled with the small joys and dumb frustrations of my ordinary life, there’s this wild group of flamingos being constantly frozen and unfrozen in a remote corner of the planet, surviving in a comically inhospitable climate. I find it soothing, these windows into the goings-on of a diverse range of extraordinary animals, all of them ignorant and uncaring of our silly human foibles.

Of course, the natural world isn’t all sunshine and roses, and hasn’t been for a long time. Nature documentaries in particular have allowed us access to our planet’s natural wonders without forcing us to reckon with the fact that human actions — particularly the actions of humans in the industrialized world — are contributing to the quickening death and destruction of these wonders. (You wouldn't know it from Planet Earth II, but those Andean flamingos are currently listed as a vulnerable species.) Our Planet, finally, aims to correct that legacy.

“I find it hard to exaggerate the peril,” the 92-year-old Attenborough recently said. “This is the new extinction and we are halfway through it. We are in terrible, terrible trouble and the longer we wait to do something about it the worse it is going to get.”

But what’s one little human on this giant earth supposed to do? Even scientists are divided on questions about personal responsibility in the face of climate change. Having fewer children, cutting down on car and air travel, and abstaining from meat won’t really change all that much on a global scale — but making these choices can also be a way to cope, to inspire hopefulness, to feel like you’re making the world the tiniest bit of a better place. I can’t say I’m going to stop traveling to visit some of the earth’s most beautiful places while there’s still time — how much, really, would that help? — but I can say I’ll vote to make those trips as difficult and costly as possible, so that they’ll become as rare and as precious as they should be.

In an excellent recent story for the New Yorker about “the other kind of climate denialism,” Rachel Riederer spoke with a number of environmental scientists, psychologists, and reporters about how to inspire action in a public that has generally moved from one unhelpful extreme to the other: “uncertainty and denial” about climate change to “similarly paralyzing feelings of panic, anxiety, and resignation.” Some experts, like the conservation psychologist John Fraser, believes in going beyond terrorizing people with tales of disaster: “What we need to promote is hope,” he says. “The first step to a healthy response is feeling that the problem is solvable.” Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist and founder of a climate advocacy organization, believes the opposite — that fear can help inspire people to take action. “It’s important to feel afraid of things that will kill us — that is healthy and good,” she says.

Lately I’ve been energized by the prospect of the 2020 primaries; incredibly early as we still are in the process, I believe that political and community action, not just at the federal level but all the way down to the local level, are our best chance at survival. I send long, rambling emails and texts to my relatives who, I worry, aren’t quite freaked out enough yet. I write and share articles like this one.

I’ve also been trying to hold competing stories in my head at once. I refuse to look away from scenes of climate destruction and terror. But I’ve not yet allowed myself to let go of the overwhelming feelings of peace and calm that can wash over me when I experience or even just think about the pockets of the earth still bursting, against humanity’s best efforts, with liveliness and splendor.

I think, often, of Mary Oliver’s famous poem “Wild Geese,” in which she assures us that we don’t have to be good: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” It’s a lovely comfort, despite everything that has happened, everything that will happen: to be but a speck in a teeming ecosystem, just one among many in the family of things, all of us just doing our best. All of us just trying to survive. ●

For more from this series about climate change, click here.

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