What if You’re Necessary?

Emily Johnston
Nov 29, 2019 · 17 min read

Here’s what passes for humor in the climate movement sometimes: emailing one of my colleagues a few months ago, in the midst of some strategic questions about a new campaign, I said oh, well, if we get it wrong it’s not like it’s the end of the….

Oh.

It’s not helpful to think of the work in this way too often, of course — it would be paralyzing. It’s also not true; in a wildly complex system with countless actors, one month’s failure by one group, examined and metabolized, might lead to a meaningful success months later, possibly by a different group. But an awkward, unavoidable truth remains: if we here in Seattle get the right pieces moving in the right ways, while others across the world do the same, and if what we do inspires still others and it all alchemizes in the right way, we may be able to preserve a great deal more than currently seems likely. For this to come together, it must happen swiftly and in as many places as possible, so that our successes are visible — and thus known to be possible — in many different landscapes.

So a far greater mistake than assuming our own importance is assuming that our efforts — yours and mine — aren’t important: aren’t, in fact, utterly necessary. The whole world has to aim, however uncertainly, at transformation, and that means that all of us must engage with that transformation in any way that we can. If we all go on as normal for even the next few years — going to work and doing our jobs, spending the weekends with our families and friends — it’s all but certain to result in the end of the world as we know it, quite possibly in my lifetime, and certainly in the lifetime of anyone under twenty.

This knowledge, of course, is a heavy burden — of one kind for those who have found a place in this work, and of another kind for those who haven’t. It’s actively avoided by most people, perhaps out of despair, and perhaps also because we know that if we truly integrate it, it will shift how we think of our responsibilities to others and ourselves. For me, in all honesty, it’s shifted nearly everything. But it also offers an invaluable clarity…and our only hope to choose another future.

It may seem unlikely that we can succeed in this transformation. But how likely is it that the flap of butterfly wings could start (or continue, more to the point) a reaction that causes a storm thousands of miles away? Not at all likely, and yet we know that that is exactly how the world works. In a complex system, it’s creating the chance leading to a chance leading to yet another chance leading to still another chance that we have to metabolize as our task — as well as the awareness that we are never alone in this, however much we might feel so sometimes: we are working in concert with countless others across the globe to keep a space open for that unfolding.

We hold the world in our hands — every sleeping newborn, every orca and thumbnail-sized frog and curly willow — and we must rise to our challenges, while relying on others to do the same. These may not be odds we’re comfortable with, but they’re the only odds we have.

There are those who think that by fighting for change we’re encouraging a hopeful delusion among those less attentive to the cascading horrors of the data points: the startlingly abrupt thinning of Arctic sea ice, the years of drought in Central America, the drunken forests and belching seabed methane and rivers under the Greenland ice cap. Others wonder whether anyone will even get out of bed in the morning if we talk about the possibilities those horrors represent. I believe that we can keep going even without an obvious hope — that it’s our job to be and to make hope for those who come after us, who will have far less ability to change things.

But when normal life seems to be going on around us (and we’d like to have one), when few people are talking about this like it’s an emergency, and when many of those who are, aren’t at all certain it isn’t too late, it’s a heavy lift to ask people to do the right thing, with that slender chance of a chance of a chance of a chance that it will truly help as their onlymotivation for unsettling their own lives in order to agitate for deep changes that they know will further disrupt their lives. Many people, in truth, simply want to hold their loved ones near and do the best they can against whatever comes. And this might be a morally acceptable answer for those whose nations aren’t the primary drivers of this devastation — but ours is such a driver.

So that heavy lift is what we need to ask them to do: join us in agitating for a transformation of the political and economic landscape that will in turn give us something we can believe in and unite around as we transform our own lives. If we don’t organize and cajole and spill into the streets and put our bodies in the way of business as usual, we won’t have the change we need; that may delay the day of reckoning in our own lives for a few more years — and perhaps in some reptilian corner of our brains, that seems desirable. But the price will be unthinkable.

As Naomi Klein pointed out in This Changes Everything, people are reluctant to make changes if they don’t believe those changes are part of a genuine shift: what use is it for you to give up your one annual holiday flight when so many businesspeople fly dozens of times a year? This might be considered the chump rule: we balk at the thought of giving something up (and separating ourselves from our peers, perhaps to be seen as scolds) if everyone else is enjoying it without apparent concern. Yet this discomfort vanishes, even for large sacrifices, when we understand them to be for the common good, and when it’s clear that others are pulling together to do the same.

Repeatedly working deep into the night by yourself, while your peers are out to dinner or comfortably watching a movie, and not even being sure that the work makes a difference? That’s likely to be isolating, and to inspire resentment. But doing the same with colleagues or friends, and being convinced that you’re part of something meaningful? That can be a deeply satisfying experience. Companionship, meaningful work, and supporting one another matter to us — more than anything, really. Without them we wither; with them, we’re extraordinarily powerful.

So while shifting our own habits is good, what’s most essential is to work to change the context — to change history’s habits, so to speak — in a way that will make it possible for us to believe in the individual changes as a broadly shared project. The urgency by itself is not enough for most people: it only makes us feel uncomfortably exposed, and as though we’ve failed before we’ve even begun trying. We also need to feel that there is solidarity in rising to this moment — if we feel that, then what we’re willing to do shifts completely.

Find the place where you have power, and work with others to make it matter.

How do we change history’s habits? One recent example is the Sunrise Movement’s work leading up to the (seemingly) sudden appearance of the Green New Deal. As a result of many months of strategy and a few well-timed public actions, in a matter of just a dozen weeks or so, the conversation that Democratic presidential candidates were having about how to respond appropriately to climate change shifted beyond recognition; the habit of the previous conversations was broken, and something new emerged. If Sanders or Warren wins in 2020 and such broad policy changes begin to take root, it will be increasingly self-evident that (for example) aviation emissions are a threat to life on Earth; choosing to fly much less may still be a source of regret (especially for those far from their families), but if it happens in a context in which everyone understands the stakes and is responding appropriately (or paying a meaningful price when they don’t), it will resonate very differently.

Being as modest in our use of carbon as we reasonably can is the right thing, that is, but we can’t mistake it for our main work, which is to transform the flow of this moment in history.

This represents an overarching theme: to survive, we’ll need to stop being so focused on our own atomized lives (a focus that only ever succeeded in making us insecure and lonely), in favor of the health — and survival — of our communities, and of humanity itself. As Bill McKibben has been saying for years, the “most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual”. But we also have to be honest: if our hope is to let the world re-stabilize and eventually thrive again, then many things that even modestly well-off Americans now take for granted will come to seem unthinkably profligate.

So how do we find the heart to agitate for the deep changes necessary, and to make sacrifices of our time and our choices, especially in light of the dark foreshadowing we’re faced with every time there’s a devastating hurricane or wildfire or drought? For those who have found a role in this work, one great possibility for motivation is the understanding that in this moment, we have an almost unthinkable power for good — more than any human being has had before, because we can be the ones to preserve life, both human and nonhuman. But a simpler way of thinking about it struck me the other day, and it applies to everyone.

What if you’re necessary?

I don’t — necessarily — mean a kind of religious what if you’re here for a reason? I mean: you are a person with family and friends and skills. And this is a crisis beyond measure. How could your ties and your abilities not be needed? If you’re a builder, we need you to help build, probably housing for those who have survived disasters. If you’re a nurse, we need you to tend to those who are suffering, especially those who have been uprooted from their homes. If you can organize your co-workers or mosque or school to transform its responses to climate change; if you know how to research, to clean houses, to balance books, to cook for large gatherings, to walk dogs, or to tinker with solar panels; if you can host people or their pets for a few months while they look for new housing, or while they are themselves doing necessary work somewhere: we need you. We need you to offer this work for free when you can, sometimes for years—and to understand that it’s all part of what’s necessary in this moment. We also need you to talk to your family and friends: they will decide the next election, and thus, quite possibly, whether human civilization collapses or holds together.

Necessary offers us gravity when we rise to an extraordinary challenge: agency and meaning, consequence, an anchor in a world full of currents. It acknowledges the fact that we’re wired for meaningful connection and mutual support. Humans endure terrible jobs or other hardships because we’re necessary to someone, and in every era and culture, many of us have risked our lives because we believe we’re necessary to an abstraction that we have an allegiance to. This is the empowerment in the fact that we’re social creatures (the chump rule is its weakness) — we are willing to do almost anything, if we believe that it’s necessary to someone we care about.

And “those we care about” can be a large and supple category. Inspired by a question Bernie Sanders asked in a speech, there was a social media post making the rounds recently: “I am willing to fight for someone I don’t know.” This is what people are often doing when they fight for justice, of course: the immigration lawyers who fly to detention centers and work 16-hour days aren’t doing it for their children (they may well be asking for sacrifices from their children, in fact): they’re doing it because they know that their work is utterly necessary to vulnerable people who are themselves parents, and children, and otherwise embedded in lives just as meaningful and worthy of preserving as ours. It’s an easier imaginative leap for some people than for others, but our attachment to nations should make it clear that we all have affiliations that are not strictly personal ties; affiliation, a word used mostly for people we are not related to, is rooted in the Latin for “son” or “daughter”.

You could be my child; I could be yours. Let’s keep that in mind.

I suspect that few of us, if told that we could go back in time to stop a worldwide catastrophe, at the likely cost of only a modestly difficult, perhaps somewhat odd or misunderstood life, wouldn’t find that possibility compelling; the urge to save, as much as to be saved, drives our (admittedly problematic) fascination with heroes. But that’s exactly what the overwhelming majority of people are not doing now: scientists have said in every way they know how that continuing on our current path means vast suffering, and the likely end of human civilization. They’ve also made it clear that other paths are indeed still available, but not for very long: perhaps only for a year or two. And yet most of us — including many profoundly moral, dedicated, and loving people — stand like deer in the headlights.

In my lifetime, Washington State summers will seldom again have bright clear air free of the devastating wildfire smoke that fills the Seattle skies for days or weeks on end now, a fact which brings me great sadness. And smoke is a secondary impact; the victims of the actual fires have it much worse, of course, as do the hundreds of millions of humans and countless other animals otherwise likely to suffer early death, the destruction of their livelihoods and communities, forced migration, and political upheaval.

You and I are necessary to those people and those animals; there is a direct line between our behavior and their lives, and we have it in our power to prevent vast amounts of suffering. That’s what gets me out of bed each day — not hope, but love, anchored in responsibility and in the knowledge that whether the difference we can still make is large or small, nothing has ever been more worth doing.

Reading by a river one afternoon last spring, it suddenly occurred to me that a river has little sound on its own. It’s how the river interacts with obstructions that makes the music — the roots and rocks and banks that it has to flow around, or that it gets stopped by for awhile. These are the trials and joys of the water, in a sense: its song. These obstructions also give it its shape. When we say river, do we mean the water, or the water’s history-carved path through the landscape? Or is it both of these, along with the gravity that calls the water home to the sea? Without the first and third, there is no river. Without the second, there is no specific river; terrain is what turns a generic gush of water into the Amazon or the Rio Grande.

It seems to me now that all entities have that same complexity of identity; there is no separating “us” from our landscapes and the forces working on us. You and I are rivers, and so too, in a larger sense, is human history.

You may feel powerless — but like me, like all of us, you’re shaping the river of possibility right now like a rock or a tree shapes the path of water; every day of your life opens up some chances for the world, and closes the door on others. What if you can change how you shape that possibility — by shifting your sense of the responsibilities of being a decent human being in a critical historical juncture, of being a citizen of this moment? What if your community can come together to shape the river like a wild downpour to make it jump its banks and move somewhere new? What would it look like for that community to commit to the preservation of life and its children by moving towards being 100% carbon-free within a decade or so? (And for that matter, being free of other pollutants as well: pesticides, plastics, and much more; climate change is not the only cause of the extinction crisis.)

It can’t happen without you, but it also doesn’t depend solely on you — people are working all over the world to understand how to do this, and we must learn from one another.

As this moment flows past us, we all have a chance to shift it, to stand in the way of destruction and throw our every muscle into the work of creating new possibility: a farm shifting to agro-ecological carbon sequestration here, a sit-in at a fracking well there: a demand for broad system change everywhere. Our task is to help reroute the river — the flow that’s currently carrying us towards a very frightening future. If we don’t, we will disappear, along with a great deal of the rest of this beautiful world.

Whether we are organizers or singers, laborers or writers, bankers or cooks, we are all necessary now, and we need to work towards the same profound transformation of the river’s flow; we need to find time in our lives to somehow dig in to this work and this moment. We all need to sacrifice, and we all need to be willing to be uncomfortable and learn new ways to live our days and our lives, because the one thing we know for sure is that the current ways are dooming us.

Most of all, perhaps, we need to understand that we have a responsibility in these years to give all that we can, because we are fast approaching tipping points that will make the hope of human survival vanishingly small. And not only that: that level of chaos will unleash the darkest aspects of human nature in some people, and there will be terrible and avoidable suffering as well as that which is inevitable.

Many people say, like me, that they came into the climate movement because they were terrified — and they stayed because of the people. The terror recedes — not because the news gets any better (it gets steadily worse), but because the people around us help us believe in the value of what we are doing. Many of those who throw themselves into this work are special people: deeply concerned about others and about fairness, deeply attached to this planet we share, and more than willing to devote their lives to doing all they can to try to make the space for hope. There is no money, status, or power here — except for the power to be one of many millions working to preserve life, a power that seems, most days, quite extraordinary enough.

But doing this work also makes people better, in my experience; most of us come into it, after all, just as blindered and self-absorbed as most other people. There are so many disparate voices here — so many rocks and roots and rainstorms — and yet we have the mother of all problems as a common enemy. So, often, the self-certain become flexible, the skeptical learn to give ideas a chance, the shy become willing to join masses in the streets, the attention-loving learn to support others. And everyone learns to work. Because when we see that the end of the world is possible, we also see that our certainty, our dismissiveness, our discomfort, and our vanity are life-threatening habits of mind, and so we are able — sometimes, at least — to discard them.

What replaces them is a deep sense of purpose, and of camaraderie; we are transformed by this work. This doesn’t make it easy all the time, by any means. Or even easy, any of the time. But the sense of being necessary is a fire that often consumes feelings of purposelessness, anxiety, boredom, and loneliness — and transforms them into a steadfast energy. Anxiety may seem a strange one in that list: the sense of being responsible for life on Earth relieves anxiety? Yes, in some ways — often, not always: because I have a pretty good sense of what to do, and I’ve found (for the moment at least) a niche in which to do it. That took time, but even when I was still quite uncertain, I was willing to keep showing up to try, and I’ve learned that that willingness is itself the muscle that prepares us to rise to this moment.

Just show up in whatever way you can, and begin to find the work that you know is necessary and meaningful. Our failures and insecurities are so dwarfed by the threat we face that when we truly recognize that threat, they retreat to a position of insignificance. Combined with the many satisfactions of this work, that’s…not a bad trade for my time.

And if we’re “too late” and can’t meaningfully stop the cascade of climate tipping points? If what we do is to little avail? Even if these are our last years, even the littlest “avail” (from the Latin, to be strong, or of value) might mean countless lives saved or made more bearable for years or decades — and the connections we make now, the shifts in the way we regard our fellow denizens of Earth, are themselves of the utmost value: what greater strength or value could there be than being responsible to one another, and doing what we can to preserve the beauty of this world for its children?

We will fight for those we don’t know.

The outcome of this work will be unknown to us, and we will see unthinkable suffering and loss; we’ll never know precisely what we helped to save. Because of the egregious actions and lies of the fossil fuel industry, those things are inevitable now, and we have to use our imaginations to see beyond them. But the near-to-middle-term end of human life is not inevitable, although it’s where the river of our history is headed at the moment; the utter devastation of life’s wild abundance is also not inevitable, though it too is where we’re headed.

To reroute that river, I promise, we need you. It’s wide and strong, but we are its landscape; our daily lives are every rock and root and rainstorm that shapes it, and we can shift it.

You are as necessary as any human ever has been: your choices will help others, will inspire others, or will let others continue to sleepwalk us to catastrophe. Our actions collectively will destroy whole communities, or save them. There are people and animals — on the other side of the world, and maybe in your own town — whose lives depend on you, as you may someday depend on them.

Rising to this challenge doesn’t mean you have to give up your whole life; few can. But we must grapple with how we can use the power we have in this moment, because it won’t last very long: a year or two, maybe, a decade at most. At some point, we will likely need to move some of our energies from trying to make political change that helps prevent disaster, to easing the pain of disaster within our own communities. Now, while our leverage is still greater than that, we can do much more: we can help to preserve the abundance of life on Earth.

What if you’re necessary? What if everything that you do matters? What if we can shift the river of probabilities so that your children’s children’s children have a chance at a world as beautiful and nurturing as the one we were born into? What if we can shift the river so that the world tends towards flourishing again, and not towards being poisoned and wrecked?

Life is nothing if not resilient: it has survived supervolcanoes and asteroids, and it will survive us. Sooner or later, the carbon in the atmosphere will again be carbon underground. Marvelous creatures will populate the planet and begin to thrive again, abundant and wildly extravagant in their variety, with a host of ingenious life strategies. This will happen no matter what we do — but if we remember how to be part of the greater whole, our descendants may live to see it, and we may yet save some of the most extraordinary branches on the tree of life: elephants, whales, honeybees, oak trees, corals.

Now more than ever, everything we do matters, and you are necessary.

Written by

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

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