Loving a vanishing world

Emily Johnston
19 min readMay 10, 2019

I want to talk about power — how much we have, and how we can use it meaningfully.

But I’m going to start with despair. At a beach in British Columbia’s Gulf Islands recently — on my first real vacation in almost three years — I felt much of the loosening that I often feel at the coast. The smell of the sea is home for me, the brush of the waves on the shore, the spark and flutter of sun on the water like innumerable languid butterflies. Breathing at the ocean, I feel different.

I’ve known for a long time that humans and other species are in profound trouble, and that the seas are rising. I’ve known for a long time how much is at risk. I went to BC specifically to have the time to develop my thoughts and write about these risks, and how we can move forward in a way that matters.

So sitting there, on sand and the countless soft shards left behind by clams and mussels and oysters over decades, I couldn’t loose myself of the knowledge that the ocean is beginning to die. There are plastic garbage patches the size of Texas. There are microplastics in almost every tested sea salt. Fish populations are collapsing. Whales and dolphins are suffering profoundly from the din of the sonar used by oil companies and the navy. Seawater is acidifying so fast in the Salish Sea that oysters are struggling to build shells. And perhaps most troubling of all, phytoplankton levels are down 40% since 1950 — and phytoplankton is not only the base of the marine food chain, it also produces most of the ocean’s oxygen, as well as ours (one phytoplankton is so prolific it generates your every fifth breath). This fact, by itself, should be enough to make us address the crises in the natural world immediately.

The truth is that the ocean that looks so beautiful and unchanging is well on its way to becoming a vast garbage dump full of plastic and of heavy metals, where little survives but jellyfish. It will not smell the same. Its colors will change. And most sea-birds, of course, will die with it.

So I want to ask you the same question I ask myself every time I’m entranced by the beauty of this world: what does it mean to love this place? What does it mean to love anyone or anything, in a world whose vanishing is accelerating, perhaps beyond our capacity to save the things that we love most?

Knowledge is responsibility, isn’t it? If we let this world die — if we let it be slaughtered by the shockingly small number of villains who have lied to us for decades — then we become complicit, because we are the only ones with the leverage to help it live again; those who come after us will have far less ability to do so, as we have far less ability than our parents would have (had they known the truth to the degree that we do). For better and for worse, we are the ones at the intersection of knowledge and agency. So how do we best use that leverage, and how do we find the heart to keep going when the realities of loss overwhelm us?

The stakes are unnervingly clear if we look at the Earth’s five previous extinctions, particularly the end-Permian, in which as much as 90% of life on Earth was wiped out. In all of them, greenhouse gases from volcanic activity, and the ensuing temperature rise, were triggers of destabilization. All of them happened extremely suddenly in geologic terms — but with temperatures and greenhouse gas concentrations that were rising hundreds or thousands of times more slowly than we’re causing them to now.

So it’s not just our grandkids; it’s not just low-lying or hot/dry places; it’s not just humans; it’s not just orcas or the Great Barrier Reef or monarch butterflies; it’s not even “just” the oceans (upon which so many species, and people, depend). What’s at risk now, as best we can tell, is life on Earth. Possibly all of it: scientists now know that runaway greenhouse gas scenarios can turn a pleasant, habitable, water-filled planet….into Venus.

The potential loss of all life is clarifying, because there is only one medicine for any of it — for any of us — and that is the restoration of a thriving natural world, beginning with the near-term end of fossil fuel use. If we’re making real progress towards those goals, we can almost certainly tip the balance for some individuals and species — at least for awhile. And that’s surely a good thing: to help some people live longer lives with some stability is much better than not to do so, even if it doesn’t last for millennia, and to save some species is far better than to save none. What could be a more meaningful way to spend our lives?

The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin for “solemn oath” — used by early Christians, interestingly, as the translation for the Greek word for “mystery”. This work is, in the deepest sense, both a solemn oath and a mystery; it is a sacrament. We are walking into great darkness, and the light that guides us must come from within.

But even if we do the right things, the understanding that we saved something is a consolation for our deathbeds. Our goal can and must be far more expansive than that: to use our leverage this week, this month, this year, this decade as best we possibly can. That gives the widest swath of life a chance, and it’s also the only thing that gives humans a chance, because it’s been a very long time since we’ve been nimble, cooperative, and knowledgeable enough about the natural world to survive the diminished Earth that we know is coming.

Would you risk your life for someone you love? Would you work day in and day out to give someone a chance at a decent life?

Then you know what to do — the imperative of it, if not yet the details.

And I want to make a difficult point, but one that I think is also clarifying: We cannot expect to feel hopeful, at least not very often, and having any particular hope is likely to end in heartbreak. We have entered — already, in some places — into an era of chaos and great pain, and if we ask the universe to make us feel optimistic about that somehow, even as others suffer far more than we do, we’re asking for illusion. But our gift, and our task, is far more powerful than sunny feelings, because we still have the chance to make the space for hope — to act in such a way that hope might exist for others who come after us.

Not everyone can focus on this full-time, of course — many people are already full up with the difficulties of their daily lives; they have small children or elderly parents who need care; they work 60 hours just to keep food on the table, or commute 3 hours a day because housing near their jobs is too expensive. But if your school or work leaves you with some time, and you’re not caring for a family member who needs you around the clock; if you’re retired or you can retire, then the world needs you, and it needs you right now, because anything that we do this year or next is worth ten of the same thing ten years from now: nothing has ever been more important than holding the world well back from any of the tipping points that we haven’t yet crossed, and they are perilously close.

This makes us, in a strange way, the most powerful and privileged people who have ever lived. This is true in ways that have been devastating for Earth, of course — nothing has threatened our ecologies more than affluent consumer culture, by which I mean us: the flying and driving, the eating of meat, the buying of things that we don’t need made of materials that nature has no experience breaking down. All of this made devastatingly easy by our living far from the places where our pollution poisons the air and water, where animals are slaughtered, where plastics are made or discarded.

But that negative power is not what I mean here — I mean that we have been granted an astonishingly beautiful gift that has never before been given to humans: the chance to shepherd human and animal life into the coming centuries and millennia, when we know that it would otherwise disappear. That’s a power that should make us very humble, and a privilege that can motivate us profoundly. In a way, our darkness — the knowledge that without great effort, many or most of Earth’s creatures will vanish — is what reveals the light within, the seed of life and possibility that we share with all of Earth’s life, the one that we can carry forward.

Not that it’s something I feel all the time, to be honest. Faced with the knowledge of certain and devastating loss, sometimes it’s a struggle to breathe. But the incredibly freeing truth is that life on Earth isn’t concerned with my sorrows, and those who are already struggling to save their kids’ lives or their homes aren’t interested in whether I’m grieving or uninspired. They need me to do something.

What we do bears some relationship to how we feel, of course — we’re only human — but it’s not dictated by it. I can organize people to go to a hearing to testify for new transit or against a new pipeline even if I feel demoralized — and doing so will likely make me less demoralized. I can make calls to elected officials, even if I suspect it’s not going to matter. I can support migrants by protesting detention and family separation, or by giving time or money to services that support them, even if I know we’re failing countless others. And I can organize my community to support carbon-absorbing forestry and agriculture, even if I don’t honestly believe it will be widespread enough to make a difference.

Everybody has different skills, and different temperaments; I’m an introvert, so organizing didn’t come naturally to me — and still doesn’t, really, but I’ve learned ways I can be effective by leaning on other people and letting them lean on me. We can best use our own abilities within the landscape of our feelings, in other words, by valuing those of others. We have one volunteer who spends a day every week doing our books, another who does all the tricky work on our database, another who writes all our thank-you notes for us. We even have a retired massage therapist who offers us free massages.

All of the work is critical in this moment, and we must do it with humility; learning as we go; taking on both the deeply satisfying and the unpleasant or routine tasks. We don’t have to believe they’re adequate — we only have to understand that not doing them would mean we’d decided not to care for this world, and ceded the greatest power we’ve ever had…In order to what? Watch television? Do yoga? Make really cool apps? How will those choices look when you’re dying, and you know the world is too? How do they look even now, when migrant children wash up on the beach?

Imagine if even ten percent of the country started engaging deeply, even just one day a week. Our possibilities would be — will be — entirely different from what they are now, because our existing system, the one that’s hurtling us towards disaster, depends entirely upon our disengagement from one another, and our belief that we can’t really have an impact on what we care about — that we should all instead simply focus our own personal fulfillment: a thing that isn’t even possible in the absence of deep engagement, with the natural world as well as with each other.

Our emotions matter to us, of course, even if not to those who are suffering the most. Feeling constant despair or becoming automatons will not help us do this great work with love, and thrive, which is what will allow us to do all we can. But we can experience our emotions, and still do the work we need to do. Feelings are not destiny.

When my mother was dying, my grief was profound, and occasionally, I avoided calling her because of it; such complicated feelings didn’t fit easily into a difficult and busy time in my life. But I called the next day. And again the next, and the next. And I traveled to see her, though not as often as I would have liked to. And I knit her an alpaca blanket — in meetings and on car trips and whenever else I didn’t need my hands.

We can feel fear and grief and anger, in other words — we can even feel avoidant sometimes — and still attend to the world’s very real and immediate needs, as long as we don’t let our feelings be an excuse for abandoning our responsibilities. And in truth, serving the world’s needs is the only thing that I have seen consistently lighten that fear and grief and anger in others, and the only thing that has done so consistently in my own life. When the focus is no longer on our own desires, for one thing, it doesn’t matter so much that we’re often uncertain what they are.

In any moment, we can choose to show up.

I’ve been thinking lately about the “campsite rule”, by which we’re supposed to leave a place or a person in at least as good shape as we found them. As a species, this is essentially impossible — if you multiply even a single plastic bottle by 7.5 billion people, it’s clear that we’ve been devastating for the web of life. But not evenly, not by any means. The great majority of those people have done extremely little harm, and what harm they did was outside of their control — they cut trees to cook with wood because it was all they had, or they used pesticide because their family would starve if they lost a crop.

Here in the United States, any adult of working class or above (anyone who travels, or commutes in a car, or lives in a single-family home) could spend the rest of her life planting trees and taking plastic out of the ocean, and as an individual, she would still be far, far in the red to the living world: her campsite would have a stream poisoned by mountaintop removal or fracking, and it would be an antibiotic-resistant mound of plastic and animal remains. Individual actions can slow the growth of that mound, but they’re simply not enough to make a dent in it.

We did not intend this harm, but we have done it; given the reign of neoliberalism and the lies of the fossil fuel industry, living as social beings almost required that we do this harm. But now, if we wish to remain social beings, something else is required of us.

We cannot undo what we’ve done simply by being nice and Earth-friendly people — or by killing ourselves, for that matter. And we can’t leave this world better than we found it — it will be lesser for a long time. But we can change the path that it’s on now, and we know how to start making up for what we’ve done. We have beautiful work to do before we die.

Archimedes knew: give us a long enough lever, and we can move the world.

What can give us the needed leverage? Working together to change the very systems that brought these catastrophes down on us. Jumping in to the tasks, and learning all along the way. How do I know?

This is a story I’ve told many times, but I’m going to admit something new. In 2015, I was part of the #ShellNo fight against Arctic drilling. I had held a vigil with a friend two years before, when Shell’s rigs had also been in town — but this time, we were part of a much larger group, and some experienced organizers came to town, young women who knew so much more than any of us did that it was truly humbling. I threw myself into the campaign, and was aided in my work by virtue of the fact that the same week that our public Port announced that it would be hosting the Polar Pioneer, the journal Nature outlined the energy projects we could not engage in and still hope to avoid truly catastrophic climate change: Arctic drilling was one of these projects. So I pointed out the craziness to every Port Commissioner, news crew, and journalist who would listen: we’ve just been told this is a civilization-threatening project, and the City of Seattle is enabling it. About a dozen of us made up the core group organizing people to go to the hearings, get into kayaks, shut down the Port for two days, and generally put our outrage to good use. For about six months, I lived and breathed this fight.

I did all of this purely because it was the only way I could look myself in the mirror. I did not have any faith that it would “work” in any clear or immediate sense, and I knew that wasn’t quite the point. Still, when the rig was delayed by our kayaks for only about an hour, my heart sank. All of that work and love — for what? I knew that it mattered that we’d drawn an international spotlight to the dangers of Arctic drilling…but it was hard to feel like that mattered as I watched the rig leave Elliott Bay and head to the pristine and fragile Chukchi Sea.

I cheered up notably several weeks later, when friends in Portland stopped one of the associated vessels — without which they couldn’t start drilling — for a full 36 hours, by hanging from a bridge with streamers in the blazing heat — the most beautiful and effective small-group action I’d ever seen, supported again by scores of people in boats.

But the real transformation in my perspective came at the end of September, when Shell announced that it was abandoning its Arctic drilling quest. A board member told The Guardian that yes, they’d been disappointed by how much oil they’d found—but also, they’d been greatly surprised by all the protest, and acutely aware of the risks to their reputation. By which they meant: us. A project they’d sunk years and billions of dollars into, in remote waters far from any population centers, and it had ground to a halt because of a dozen or two core people in Seattle and Portland, and a thousand or so others who participated once or twice or all the way through.

That’s leverage. And the thing I want to admit is that what it felt like, for a month or two, is that I, personally, had stopped Arctic drilling. We had slain a dragon, and for a little while, I felt invincible, a thing I had never felt before. Not in an egotistical way — I knew very well how much I’d needed the wisdom, skill, and numbers of the others; I had, after all, organized a perfectly useless vigil two years before. But it helped me to understand my power — a power rooted in working with others so that we might be greater than the sum of our abilities. Working with this small group of people, I had had a real effect on global climate change, by using leverage: a dozen folks focused more or less exclusively on this, supporting another few dozen giving a day or two a week, supporting another couple hundred showing up every few weeks or month, and several hundred more who probably only came out once or twice, but who thereby made it clear that this was something that many people cared about.

It’s not always that easy, of course — easy being a relative term, since I probably worked on average 80 hours a week in that 6-month period, and many of the meetings were quite painful. We haven’t had such a magical or consequential win since then, and it’s not for lack of trying. We have had wins, which are often — like that one — simply the absence of devastating losses; it’s why an energy insider referred to the Pacific Northwest as the “place where fossil fuel projects go to die”.

It’s not anything like enough to make a real dent in business as usual — but it’s far, far better than not averting those losses. We bought a tiny bit of time. Perhaps we even saved a few humble species — for a few decades or centuries — by making one of the worst projects just a little more expensive, and shifting public opinion just that bit more towards what might be, a couple of years from now, some legislation ambitious enough to finally matter. Perhaps we inspired some of the Sunrise kids, who have made the Green New Deal suddenly seem actually possible.

And you know what might in fact be enough to make a real dent in business as usual? If you were doing this too — those of you who have the space in your life to be one of the dozen, the several dozen, the few hundred, the several hundred. Maybe you’ve already been in one of those outer circles — good, if so — that’s important work. Now move a rung or two closer to the core, please: we desperately need you. This fight is just flat-out too big for the existing folks to do what needs to be done. We are exhausted, and we need you.

I’m not going to lie — we almost never get the kind of affirmation that we got in the ShellNo fight, that what we did had mattered. Usually, the other side does all it can to diminish our work, and say it had nothing to do with anything. Remember, they need us to be disengaged — to give up on change and focus on buying things, taking a trip, living our lives as though millions aren’t suffering from Mozambique to Nebraska, as though the world we’re leaving behind us isn’t going to be radically diminished.

But we know that it is.

Oh, surelike that’s going to stop climate change. That’s what they say, whether you’re organizing a protest, canvassing for a long-shot candidate, showing up for a hearing, getting in a kayak, hanging off a bridge, or turning off a pipeline. Trust me. But the people who say that have a major investment (literally) in discouraging you, and/or are themselves so brittle, so removed from any understanding of their own power to make change in the world, that really, we should just have compassion for them, ignore the taunts, and keep working.

So that’s my story of leverage, and why I know it works. But I want to move this away from the instrumental question of what you can do about climate change, important though that is, and back to the intrinsic value of what it means to love the world (or anybody or anything in it), and how we can think about love and hope and imagination even when the coming decades start looking like the end of the world…because they will. In places like Paradise, California, they already have.

If we can’t metabolize new ideas about hope and meaning, then lists of ways to engage will fall radically short when we’re grieving — and we’ll lose our chance to find or make possibility within that grief.

So, back from my tale of slaying dragons — to the Salish Sea, beautiful but very troubled outside my window a few weeks ago.

It was so beautiful there. At one level of my soul, I can simply appreciate it — we may as well, after all, and loving this vanishing world feels like a kind of prayer sometimes. At another level, I am overwhelmed by the grief of knowing what’s coming — everything from the vast human suffering to the very specific and local near-certain loss of the 75 remaining Southern Resident orcas — creatures so extraordinary and intelligent that I feel privileged simply to share a bioregion with them, and ashamed that I cannot save them. But at the deepest level, I need to invert time and shift metaphors, so that I can see not only loss, but gain. A world with millions of people vs. one with none, or a world where half of extant species survive, vs. one with, say, five percent — these are worlds absolutely worth fighting for — but from this relatively full moment in time, it’s hard to celebrate those millions or that half, knowing what will have gone missing.

When we think about the accelerating extinction, we’re looking at the terrifying narrows of an hourglass, where only a few will slide through. So sometimes, I imagine myself instead on the far side of something more like an ecological birth canal. How many of Earth’s beauties can we help to survive the passage into the next era? Is each one not a gift we can safeguard to the world by our actions?

Isn’t that who we want to be?

Recently, watching On the Basis of Sex, it occurred to me that despite the Hollywood reliance on a lone hero, it has something important to say about social change. In it, Ruth Bader Ginsburg very nearly loses a case that helped to change laws rooted in gender discrimination. At the eleventh hour, after stumbling badly, she finds the confidence to persuasively argue her case — because she finds a way to thoroughly inhabit her imagination: the imagination that the United States was a place where sex discrimination was understood to be senseless and outmoded. That was not the world she lived in, and she knew it as well as anyone, but unlike nearly everyone around her, she was able to see a world in which it was not just true but self-evidently true, completely consonant with our values, and she made that consonance and that world visible to those around her. She breathed it into being for them. That’s what social change does: by our actions and words, we aim at what the world can be, and help other people see it too.

This is also the power that Greta Thunberg has, I think — in part because of her Asperger’s, it is utterly self-evident to her that we must all change our lives to respond to climate change, and the purity of her understanding is transmitted to us.

Bader Ginsburg had found the confidence to keep going — and as a result, laws shifted that likely affected millions of people. They probably would have shifted eventually, of course, but at a minimum, she sped that process up, and thus materially affected lives in those years, as well as deepening the momentum for change. She did not say, I can’t fix millennia of patriarchy, this is hopeless, I give up.

For Greta, it’s too early to identify all her impacts, but we know that hundreds of thousands of students all over the world have followed her example — and that plans are afoot to make sure that adults are not far behind.

What we do matters.

We cannot save the world. We can save a great deal. How much, depends on us and us alone. That is our burden, and our greatest gift.

Do you want to be among those who let the fossil fuel industry kill the world? Or do you want to be among those who did everything in their power to save what could be saved?

In the world of your imagining, can you see that ending fossil fuel use in the developed world in the next twelve or fifteen years is actually far easier and cheaper than the alternative? Can you see that the only sane thing to do is to radically change our agriculture and our forestry to help stabilize the climate — again, knowing that the alternative would be so, so much harder? Can you see children living who might have drowned, reasonably stable communities that might have burned, species and animal individuals hanging on into the coming century and beyond — and understand those as a thing to fight for, for the rest of your life?

We can rejoin the web of life. We do not have to be its destroyer. But our last best chance is now, and countless tasks lie ahead of us.

So when you go home and are tired and unsettled and thinking about all that you have to do; or next week, when this symposium has faded away, and someone asks you to do something you’re not sure you want to do; or better yet, in a few weeks, when you realize that there’s something you could do by bringing a group of people together, remember: in any moment, we can choose to show up.

We can let them kill this beautiful world— or we can get to work making space for a decent future.

from the May 5, 2019 Chrysalis Symposium at OSU’s Spring Creek Project. Video here. En español aquí.



Emily Johnston

Poet, scribe, climate activist, runner, builder. My book, Her Animals, is out now: http://bit.ly/2FjfLLP