Facing climate grief during terrible week Life-affirming work is empowering

by Leslie Layton
commentary posted June 19

The photos this past week that showed tens of thousands of dead fish washing ashore on the Texas Gulf were haunting. Then, reports surfaced that dead wild birds were washing up on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, too.

‘Haunting’ became macabre.

Temperatures around the world soared, breaking records in Mexico and producing the hottest June day on record in Mexico City that sits more than 7,000 feet high. The Canadian wildfires turned some smoke-filled skies in the Northeast an eerie orange, and ocean temperatures underwent a “sudden escalation” because of global warming combined with natural events like an El Niño.

In the midst of waves of depressing climate news, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres gave a press conference in New York, sounding insistent, alarmed, plaintive. “Current policies are taking the world to a 2.8°C temperature rise by the end of the century,” he warned. “That spells catastrophe. Yet the collective response remains pitiful. We are hurtling towards disaster …”.

Governments must phase out fossil fuel products, he declared, that are “incompatible with human survival.”

A few too many times this past week I found myself doom scrolling, watching as anxiety -– on Elon Musk’s Twitter, no less -– turned to alarm or outrage or hysteria. Scientists were talking about record-breaking ocean temperatures and what it meant; environmentalists were talking about what to do (“No more cars, no more planes, no more wars,” pleaded tweeter Ben See).

Meanwhile, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) tweeted June 12 that the climate emergency was a “made up crisis.” Our congressman stewed on Twitter about what is a relatively small number of gender-transitioning youth. He posted a picture of desperate migrants sleeping on the ground at the border, and in response, tweeted with chilling coldness: “Build the wall, control the border.”

I took refuge in my garden this past week in ways that I never have before, cultivating life in small spaces. As I worked, I wondered whether my daughter will love the world as I have over many decades. On one recent June morning in Lower Park, I watched an otter playing beneath the bridge at One Mile, slipping off rocks into Big Chico Creek and then back to warm itself. On another morning, a family of California quail marched across a suburban southeast Chico yard.

In my older age group, many of us have had multiple losses. I’ve lost parents and a sibling, friends, and a spouse barely into his sixth decade. But all that experience with grief hasn’t prepared me in the least for the loss of life and livability on the planet we share. In recent weeks I found myself trying to understand our inability to respond to a world on fire. Is LaMalfa appallingly ignorant, absurdly conspiratorial (does he think the fish were poisoned, perhaps by political opponents?) or simply unwilling to acknowledge a problem that may demand personal sacrifice?

In his decade in office, he’s done so little to improve the lives of ordinary people in the North State. He’s done nothing to help us build systems of mass transit or renewable energy. He represents a district that has undergone the most destructive, climate-driven wildfire in the state’s history, and has introduced legislation to exempt disaster preparedness rebates and PG&E settlements from federal taxes. But he doesn’t even have “climate change” or “made-up crisis” listed among issues that concern him on his website.

This matters, because LaMalfa is a local symbol of a powerful class intransigent in the face of climate catastrophe, a class that prefers to strip away the rights of marginalized people and punish the poor rather than take action to protect our children from costly disasters.

We have no more time for climate-deniers like LaMalfa and concessions to the Joe Manchins. They must be ousted. And given that we can’t count on our national leadership to address this effectively, it’s hard not to filter out terrible news and feel powerless as we hurtle toward what the UN’s Guterres calls, understatedly, a “disaster.”

In his essay, “Why doesn’t the 1% care about extinction?”, British economist Umair Haque describes what he sees as a symbiotic relationship between wealth inequality, environmental collapse and the loss of democracy. He holds out tentative hope that globally, “… democracy will put up more of a fight…”.

That fight -– the one on the ground — is ultimately my source of consolation. In Chico, people build houses and erect shower units for the homeless. In the North State, a fight to save the last runs of Chinook salmon is underway, an increasingly urgent race against time. In other parts of the country, Americans stand in line for five or more hours to vote.

In a time of ecological collapse and political crumbling, these are acts that represent political protest in the face of a system that is hard to budge. It’s work that reaffirms my faith in our ability to care about life in general, democracy-affirming, life-affirming work that we can hope will save some part of what we have. The problem of climate change is too overwhelming for any one of us to shoulder alone, but the problem of powerlessness is not.

Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.

6 thoughts on “Facing climate grief during terrible week Life-affirming work is empowering

  1. So true! Especially loving the last line, “The problem of climate change is too overwhelming for any one of us to shoulder alone, but the problem of powerlessness is not.” Thank you!

  2. “That fight, the one on the ground, is ultimately my source of consolation”……in the North State, a fight to save the last runs of Chinook salmon is underway”. (Do watch the UTube above). Stories like this are as life sustaining as food and water. Thank you Leslie

  3. Great commentary, Leslie! Well written! I couldn’t agree more! A lot of us think about our grandchildren and feel very sad and concerned about what their future may bring.

  4. Thank you Leslie for posting this encouraging , beautiful video. And for your own comments. As Calleen indicates, it is more than technology that can bring balance back to our endangered ecosystem.

  5. speak truth, change the narritive… change the outcome…
    Audrey Denney, a Democrat from Chico who lost to him by about 10% of the vote in 2018 in the state’s conservative 1st District (160,046 votes to 131,548).
    Look at her and his big $ donors…https://www.redding.com/story/news/local/2020/10/28/california-election-2020-assembly-congress-candidates-funding-district-1/3719889001/ then, the covid time vote…. then…

    2022 Candidates Total Votes % Votes
    Doug LaMalfa (R) * 152,839 62.1%
    Max Steiner (D) 93,386 37.9%
    REgroup again….It’s CAN happen to change it next time !!!!

  6. Thank you, Leslie, such an inspiring, hopeful note to end on, as you expressed such deep climate grief. I was feeling that this morning reading about dolphins dying because of toxic algae bloom, it made me so sad. Yet both are happening at the same time -one disaster after another yet one miracle after another also. We’ve gotta keep on giving our best, and not let despair stop us from giving what we can to life!

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