Floods and Fires at “Five Minutes to Midnight”: The Spiritual Challenge of Climate Change

This is a sweet pea blossom. I didn’t need the climate report to tell me that global warming is real; the sweet peas told me. I grew gardens for years in San Francisco, and my sweet peas usually blossomed in late August or early September when the summer fog finally cleared. The vines died by Thanksgiving. But in 2009, the vines lived through the entire winter. In 2010, I had sweet pea blossoms on the table at Thanksgiving!

A confession: I’m terrified.

I know that climate change is happening now, and the knowledge of what that means for humankind keeps me awake at night. Avoiding depression is a spiritual challenge for me.

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that said that “the earth was set for further warming and more heat waves, floods, droughts, and rising sea levels, as greenhouse gases built up in the atmosphere.”

Rajendra Pachauri, who heads the IPCC,  says that time is fast running out to avoid the catastrophic collapse of the natural systems on which human life depends. His chilling summation: “We have five minutes before midnight.”

The report is most serious scientific warning to date, stating that “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

That old Pogo quote from the 1970’s seems apt: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

A Helping Hand to Victims on the Front Range

Recently, I volunteered to lend a hand to Boulder Flood Relief (BFR), a volunteer that is helping to clean up homes devastated by Colorado’s recent floods. In less than three weeks, BFR has cleaned up more than 150 homes — a handful in context of the damage done by the recent floods here. Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management reports that 1,882 homes were destroyed and 17,500 damaged. Most homeowners did not have flood insurance, and neither FEMA nor insurance will cover more than a small fraction of their losses.

The people who suffered those losses are victims of global warming.

Early victims.

As Thomas Stocker, a German scientist who served as a leader of the IPCC group that wrote climate change report said, “As a result of our past, present and expected future emissions of [carbon dioxide], we are committed to climate change, and effects will persist for many centuries even if emissions . . . stop.”

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council has called the report “a warning bell to the world.” She warns that the impacts are fierce wildfires, drought, floods and storms that will get worse with if we delay.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Our children and our children’s children will reap the whirlwind, the wildfire, the floods, the droughts, the famines. Millions living on coasts will become homeless. The world will see tides of refugees. Wars. Starvation. Disease.

As the social fabric frays, social services and infrastructure will fall apart. Much like the world after the black plague — a downward social spiral like the one that Barbara Tuchman described in her book In a Distant Mirror.

Ruined belongings from the basement of a house on 1200 block of Columbia in Longmont, Colorado. In an epic flood, the St. Vrain River overflowed its banks and swelled to nearly a mile and half wide. Every home on the block, and many adjacent blocks, had piles of ruined furnishings in front of it.

I have had a personal glimpse of what this unraveling of social infrastructure will look like because I have traveled in third-world countries where the phones don’t connect, the planes don’t fly, the railroads don’t run and there is no health care. The government doesn’t work and there is no such thing as public safety.

The social contract doesn’t hold, and it’s every man for himself. (Too true too often; women and children are disproportionately the victims.)

Start Where You Are

When I joined the Boulder Flood Relief volunteers cleaning up Glenn Wright’s slimy, muddy Longmont basement, it was still stinking from the sewage carried by the flood waters. The job of stripping out the ruined carpeting and wallboard was  as dirty and disgusting as cleaning up a toilet overflow. But, like Wright, I often found myself moved to tears by the efforts of those pitching in free of charge to help their neighbors.

Crisis brings out best in the human spirit, as exemplified by the volunteers and first responders, but it also highlights human folly. On the radio news during my drive to Longmont, I heard a lot about the lack of flood insurance, very little about building in flood plains and almost nothing about climate change! But looking up and down Wright’s street at the heaps of ruined belongings accumulating in front of every house, I knew that I was seeing its toll.

Somehow, the time I spent slogging through the mud and volunteering in the Boulder Flood Relief office gave me some respite from the anxiety I feel in the wee hours — the fear I feel about living at “five minutes to midnight”.

My lifespan will probably cover another 20 to 30 years — not long enough to see the worst of the coming crisis. But long enough to challenge my spiritual resources. And long enough to give me time to try and help those who are suffering now. Maybe even time enough to avert some of the suffering in the years to come.

I wish I knew how to do that.

A Prayer: Let Me Be of Use

I have made a lot of changes in my own lifestyle: making my home more energy efficient, limiting my use of air travel and sharing my automobile. I have also been removing big chunks of my fuel-intensive lawn in favor of a xeriscape.

The center stone in my xeriscape meditation garden. The words painted on the stone read, “The earth does not belong to us
We belong to the earth.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life.
We are merely a strand within it.”

To deal with the spiritual challenge, I make a daily spiritual practice of walking in my garden, meditating on the stones that pay homage to all the creatures that lived and died there over the eons — many of them perished due to changes in climate. As I walk, I’m saying a mantra that goes something like this:

So much I cannot fix, so much I cannot save. And so I walk the red flagstone path that spirals into the center of my garden. I breathe the scent of lavender and artemisia. I meditate and breathe. Live. And breathe.

The changes that I have made in my home and travel habits are a drop in the bucket, compared to what I would need to do to truly live sustainably. So I will continue to make more changes. (Solar panels on top of the house are probably at the top of my list.)

My personal conviction as to what we need to do to save ourselves is to leave all the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. No one is asking my opinion about that, and I’m pretty sure that political and economic inertia ensures that humans will keep on mainlining fossil fuels until they are gone. (Economics – that big lever that prompts individual and social change – makes it very tough just to change one’s driving habits, much less to alter the myriad other ways we all use fossil fuel.)

Climate-Change Related Depression?

As challenging as the change of fuel habits is for me, I find the spiritual fight against depression and paralysis is even more daunting.

I haven’t solved that; I doubt that anyone has.

While writing this post, I did Google my term “climate-change related depression” and found that I didn’t coin the term.  Psychologists for Social Responsibility have written about this problem already. Here’s an excerpt from what they have to say about it:

While it’s impossible at this juncture to predict how climate change will show itself and how people will respond to it, already the planet is experiencing historic levels of heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, rising sea levels, and the melting of vital ice resources that have contributed to higher rates of anxiety, depression, conflict, and other behavioral symptoms in Earth’s citizens.

Psychologists for Social Responsibility also include a checklist of “symptoms in response to climate change’s stressors.” I am battling  several of them: anxiety, depression, persistent grief and “avoidance from the awareness of climate change.”

That last one – avoidance – stops with this post.

A Prayer and My Best Prescription

I have learned a few hard-won spiritual and emotional lessons during my decades on this planet. Many of them are related to dealing with crisis, change and managing depression. Here are the anti-depressive prescriptions that have worked best for me:

  • Whatever topic prompts a knot of anxiety in your stomach, that’s the one you must talk about
  • Among best cures for depression and its attendant paralysis are social engagement and helping other people
  • Life’s meaning and purpose is found in putting one’s gifts to use, and people who feel purpose in their lives are happier and at less risk for depression

As I said before, I don’t know quite how to put all this into practice. In times of stressful change, I often remember the words of Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

I’m right here — near Aspen, Colorado and on the internet — and here’s what I have to offer: My gifts include writing, a background in social change, a knowledge of sustainable building practices and the ability to re-design houses in ways that anticipate changes in the human lifespan.

I’m not sure how to bundle all these in a way that is useful, but I am putting out this post as a prayer to the universe, and to all who read these words.

If you know of ways that I may be of use, please let me know.


To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Marge Piercy


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