The Darkness and the Needle

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.” — Wendell Berry

When I moved from Portland to Seattle twelve years ago, I was a fiction writer who’d worked for a long time on a single novel and an assortment of stories — and had much encouragement about them, but no success in publishing. This is an old story, and not a very interesting one.

But to my surprise, when my life was jarred that year by the breakup of the relationship I’d moved for and then the death of my beloved young dog, I began writing poetry, and only poetry. It started out being bad poetry, but never mind that — I wanted to keep going. When friends asked, I told them I felt like I was sailing into the fog at night. I had no idea what I was doing — I hadn’t even read much poetry till then, though I began reading it voraciously: Szymborska, Ahkmatova, Gennady Aygi, and more.

I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going, but I knew I wanted to keep going — and eventually, I was writing things that interested me, and that felt, mostly, unembarrassing. Mostly. I was part of a tiny writers’ group, and the father of one of those people was the editor of a small press that was about to re-start its book publishing. Drew thought his dad would love my book of poetry, so he asked if he could send it to him. They published it as their first book, and it became a finalist for the Washington State Book Award….and it turned out, more or less, to be that easy, after nearly thirty years of it being difficult.

The travails of writing and publishing are well known. What I want to talk about today is darkness and uncertainty — because we are at the start of a long period of darkness and uncertainty, and if we cannot learn to inhabit them, to be strong and steady in that dark fog, we will not survive.

I’ve written only a handful of poems in the two years since my book came out; I’m not even sure I’d call a single one of them finished. It’s not that I’ve lost interest — if I had the time, there’s nothing I’d rather do, and the lack of that time writing hurts me like a phantom limb, sometimes.

But I understand the stakes of this moment, and writing cannot be my priority right now.

Most or all of you probably understand something about the dangers of climate change. What you probably don’t know, if you don’t inhabit the world that I do, is that we likely have only about two and a half years to keep catastrophic climate change from being irreversible. This is not the assessment of an outlier scientist with a tin-foil hat; that was the word used, and the time frame used, by Christina Figueres, the former UN climate chief, last June (at that point, she said “three years”), based on the assessment of many, many scientists. Others use slightly different timing (I’ve also heard “two years”, and that was last year), depending on what benchmark they’re using — 1.5° versus 2° Celsius of warming, etc. But all are agreed, we are in dire shape, and our time-window for keeping this from being permanent is very, very short.

We can’t stop climate catastrophe from happening — as you probably know, it’s already happening, mostly in other parts of the world, like Syria and Yemen and low-lying island nations, but also here: in Houston, in Puerto Rico, even in New York or Oregon or Washington. Whether it’s unprecedented wildfires or storms or oceans so acidic that shellfish are struggling, we have already changed our ecosystems so radically that all kinds of expected and unexpected processes have begun, some of which we don’t know if we can stop.

And all of this will get worse — probably much worse. We know this for a fact.

But if these scientists are right — and there is reason to hope that they are — then we have another couple of years to ensure that these tragedies are not permanent. This doesn’t even require us stopping the use of all fossil fuels at this very moment — it does require us to significantly reduce emissions immediately, because if we’re not on that path — that short and exceedingly focused path — in a couple of years, we’ll miss that turn, and there will be no way back.

The next two years, give or take, are the most important years in the history of humanity. We have the profound responsibility of being perhaps the only people in history to know exactly what threatens the world most, while still being in a position to avert much of it.

When those two and a half years are over, we cannot say, “we did what we could” and walk away. In our lifetimes, there will be no walking away, because we know that the range of possibility is enormous: at one end, we might lose five or ten percent of species, and tens of millions of human lives, at the other end the Earth might lose 95% of its species, as it did the last time greenhouse gases overwhelmed it. In that case, humans will surely be among them. We know for a fact that this is a real risk.

That’s an unthinkable range — and we will never have the satisfaction of knowing what, exactly, we helped to save. It doesn’t work like that. But for our lifetimes, at least, there will be the possibility of changing human systems and human behavior so that we work with the necessities dictated by physics, and not against them, and that means we can always help to stave off the ugliest end of that range of possibility.

So we will live in darkness and fog, not just because the world will be a much harder place in the coming decades, though it will, but also because we’ll almost always be uncertain what we’re really accomplishing, and we’re not used to that. We like feedback; we like praise; we like studies that show what really works. Restoring the Earth to stability, or even to lesser instability, isn’t like that, and if we aren’t inner-directed, we won’t be directed at all, because these changes will take place on a time frame of centuries and millennia.

Which isn’t to say that this is a solitary process — far from it. We must join together in our communities, whatever those may be, and support our mutual work in every way that we can, because our political system is as stuck as stuck can be, and the most effective way to change political reality is with powerful grassroots movements. This is not a fight that can be won by changing light bulbs, bicycling, and voting for the right person — we’re way beyond that now. If we don’t make it possible for everyone to get to work and eat and warm their homes without fossil fuels, we fail — tragically.

Which leads me to another short personal anecdote, which is that in all those years of writing fiction — and waitressing, and making web pages, and building things — I was profoundly worried about climate change, but I wasn’t doing anything about it other than reading everything I could, and worrying. I’m an introvert, and though I’d briefly been an activist when I was about 20, I’d moved entirely into a private life for about 25 years after that; I don’t really like crowds and noise, I was terrified of public speaking, I’m more at home with nuance than slogans….I just wasn’t a good fit for the activist world, or so I thought. But when Bill McKibben asked people to come to the White House to be arrested protesting Keystone XL, and NASA scientist James Hansen said full development of the tar sands would be “game over” for the climate, I could find no excuse not to go, even though I had precisely zero faith that it would be meaningful in any real way. I had been hoping for years that scientists and politicians would consult like grownups, and forestall disaster. But it was clear that wasn’t happening, so I had to try to do what I could.

I went, and was arrested, and then came back to Seattle thinking it was a backwater of a place for climate work. How wrong that was is a funny story, but for now let me just say: I found some people; we banded together to create 350 Seattle; it wasn’t easy; but eventually, after a couple of years, some things started to cohere pretty magically, and I got to work — and work, and work — on the single most rewarding fight I’ve ever worked on, which was the ShellNo campaign, the Seattle portion of which ended with us in kayaks trying to blockade the Arctic rig. And we won that fight a few months later — which shocked me, to be honest. And I’ve worked — and worked, and worked — on many other fights since, and we’ve also won many of those. I’m still an introvert, though public speaking is mostly fine now; I still prefer nuance to slogans, and don’t like crowds. Nothing about moving into being an activist and organizer was easy, but as with writing poetry, I didn’t know where I was going, but I did know I wanted to keep going. I also met people whose love and intelligence and commitment to this work astonished me, and helped keep me in even when my frustrations with others made me desperate to walk away.

One of the benefits of being a writer and an introvert, perhaps, is that we have an advantage over most people in our willingness to be reflective, and sit with uncertainty and mystery — Keats’ famous “negative capability”. We’re used to being pulled along by the current of a poem or story without knowing where it’s headed, and we’re no strangers to darkness, as a group. That’s invaluable now — as a culture, we seem to have forgotten how to be comfortable with anything but feelings of absolute certainty (ideally, a certainty shared by everyone in our peer group). Those of us to whom questioning and mystery and empathy come more naturally can bring those qualities to the groups that we’re part of, and maybe help balance them thereby. Internal direction tends to be how we find our way. “The Sailor cannot see the North, but knows the Needle can,” wrote Dickinson.

We’re seldom the engine of those groups, but we can be the steady hand on the tiller, and the ones whose instincts help set the course. Darkness doesn’t make us lose our bearings. Sometimes, our job is to be the needle.

Most of you are quite young, and the next two years are probably pretty booked. I wish I could say — don’t worry, this is the job of the grownups, just finish school and work on climate change later. But I can’t. Your future is at stake, and though it’s not necessary that everyone focus above all else on climate change, it is necessary that anyone who feels even the embryo of an urge to do so, do so. Find a way. You know who you are, and you’re needed by every soul on Earth right now.

As for the rest of you, you’re not off the hook: devote what time you can to this: for some of you, with jobs or families that need you in addition to your studies, that may be a few hours a month. For others, is a few hours a week really asking too much, considering the stakes? And support the ones giving their lives to this, and the fight itself, in every way that you can — argue with your parents and hopeless friends, show up at protests even when you’re not sure if it matters, call every legislator you can find a number for and tell them to act now. None of that requires much time; it only requires that you understand that we are in what may be our last battle for survival, and the least you can do is show up.

With every day that passes, we come closer to the very real possibility of human extinction — and even if you’re like me, and that doesn’t always strike you as the worst thing for the planet, the truth is that the people who are suffering most, and will suffer ever more, are those who did the least to cause this problem. We, on the other hand, live in the nation that did the most to cause it, and that is also the most resistant to acting appropriately. It’s our job to change that. No one else can.

It’s common now to hear people say that we’re living under fascism — but while there are terrible — and yes, fascist — things going on in our country now, most of us — especially people with some level of privilege — still have a level of freedom to dissent that could only be dreamed of in Apartheid-era South Africa, or Milosevic’s Serbia, or Ben Ali’s Tunisia. Yet in all of those places, against great odds, it was the people who won: the visionary, hopeful, utterly unrealistic movements that couldn’t be squelched. With our greater levels of privilege, if we cannot successfully change the political landscape so that it is baseline responsive to the requirements of a stable planet fit for human habitation, then who are we? Are we so much weaker than they were?

There are still moments when I feel exhausted and frustrated and alone — not a compass for anything but sorrow. But it’s such an astonishing honor to live in this moment, knowing that we probably still have the power to set the world back onto a stable path, and thereby make life better, or at least possible, for countless people and other beings. I cannot imagine anything more meaningful.

Uncertainty is possibility. In the uncertainty before us, in the sacrifices and joy of our connections with each other and every living thing, we have been given overwhelming abundance.

In this darkness, we have begun our real journey.

(This piece is adapted from a lecture at Willamette University on February 1, 2018 — sponsored by the Hallie Ford Chair in Writing, the Teppola Prize in Creative Writing, and the Department of English)

Like what you read? Give Emily Johnston a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.