In Boston last summer, my children and I walked along the harbor and encountered signage telling us that where we were standing might not be there in 20 years because of sea level rise. My kids were like “What?”
I couldn’t help but tell them some of the terrifying predictions: Each year of the 21st century has been among the hottest in recorded history. The glaciers are melting. The ocean is acidifying. There will be mass human migrations, great floods, and horrible fires. “Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction,” paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey has warned, “but also risks being one of its victims.”
The most important climate talks of our age are now being held in Paris, just weeks after one of the worst terrorist attacks in modern European history. The hope is that the world’s scientists come together as a community vaster than countries and stronger than religious ideologies to make a change. It’s the 11th hour.
While acting now is essential, the problem with fear is that it dissipates. I believe that to get anywhere lasting in our response to climate change, we must alter the language we use to talk about it. We have to get emotional and channel the environmental movement of the ’70s.
We have to remember how to talk about love.
Call me a hippie tree hugger, but I believe that we all have a sense of wonder as our birthright. Awe, an emotion that psychologists say is linked directly to happiness, is primarily elicited by views of the natural world. I had a lot of those feelings when I was 10 and my parents sent me to White River Junction, Vermont, to help my aunt at her natural foods store.
Yes, it was the ’70s, and my aunt’s store had a living, yeasty smell. When I helped her wrap slabs of cheddar in brown paper, I felt as if I were practicing stewardship of the planet. People were talking like that. It was not twee to wear your heart on your sleeve. My Aunt Betsy listened to whale songs on a cassette player.
From my cot on the storeroom floor between the cheese wheels and the hummus mixes, I could hear my aunt and her friends talk about agriculture, DDT, E.O. Wilson’s study of the sociobiology of ants, Rachel Carson, interconnectedness, and unadulterated appreciation for Gaia, our Mother Earth.
They were so earnest. So transcendentally Thoreau-vian. They wanted solutions to our dependency on fossil fuels, just as we do today. Yet their method was not scare tactics but an invitation. Won’t you forage for mushrooms with us? Come outside and breathe the fresh air?
Today, “environmentalism” as it’s taught to my children is stripped of any emotion except fear. It’s about problem-solving. Finding “solutions” by the application of human smarts and STEM. The impulse to hug a tree? Goofy. Spending an evening gazing at the stars? Waste of time. Our kids need to be on the fertilized and manicured soccer fields to get the college athletic scholarships. And they need to be in front of screens to learn the code to get the jobs.
Yet when I visited my aunt, there was a consensus: The planet was precious and interesting in its own right. We fringed-suede-wearing upright apes were a part of nature, not its masters of carbon capture. We still learned our stars.
This perspective is important again, but it’s twisted. The Naval Academy in Annapolis has renewed the teaching of celestial navigation. Not because the stars are beautiful, but because cyber warfare may one day destroy GPS satellites and we’ll need to find our way somehow.
I have taken this tack with my own kids — interesting them in the earth by means of fear — and, sadly, I’ve found that they’re all ears. Suddenly the geese are fascinating if they might be the drones of our enemy. Our coasts are flooding because of melting glaciers, and we are running for our lives for higher ground, and . . . it’s like a video game. I have been teaching my kids which dogwood berries are good to eat in case of the climate-change “zombie apocalypse.”
But there is evidence that love of the natural world can grow from fear, even during a time of war. Two centuries ago, while the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars ravaged Europe, the father of environmental science, Alexander von Humboldt, posited a startling new conception of nature: that we’re all connected — you, me, animals, plants, all of it. “Nature must be experienced through feeling,” he wrote, insisting that those who wanted to describe the world by simple classifications “will never get close to it.”
When I think of Humboldt, for whom an ocean current is named that may one day be disrupted by climate change, I consider how nature obeys no country’s borders and how, in order to save ourselves, we are going to have to return to loving the dirt and the stardust we come from.