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Book cover for Mary Pipher's The Green Boat.
The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture
By Mary Pipher
Riverhead Books: New York
240 pages
Paperback: $16.00; Kindle edition, $9.99
June 2013
Many humans know that when problems are too big to face, the best solution is to grow bigger.
Writer and clinical psychologist Mary Pipher has become, over the span of her career, something of a therapist-at-large to our culture, addressing the stresses that modernity has placed on family life in The Shelter of Each Other and the low-confidence crisis of adolescent girls in Reviving Ophelia. Now Pipher is tackling head-on the most depressing crisis of all: the end of the world as we know it. In other words, climate change.

It's not an easy topic. Those most involved in environmental causes suffer from burnout and depletion. The problem itself is complex and interlocking, with some regions suffering immediate effects and others experiencing—for now, at least—nearly undetectable changes.

We can deal with our cultural and environmental crises only after we deal with our human crises of trauma, denial, and emotional paralysis. This will require that most difficult of all human endeavors, facing our own despair. This involves waking from our trance of denial, facing our own pain and sorrow, accepting the world as it is, adapting, and living more intentionally.
Pipher asks several deep and hard questions in The Green Boat, which you can find under the fold:

How do you get deniers to even "believe" in climate change? How do you keep going in the face of such overwhelming anguish with species dying out daily, with corporate interests and media arrayed against the cause? And even when you do convince neighbors of the importance of local environmental issues, what do you do exactly to make a difference? And, most importantly, how do you resist succumbing to total numbing despair in the face of the demise of the planet?

Pipher captures beautifully the inner conflict climate change creates in individuals:

We humans are programmed to respond threats by feeling or fighting. Our global storm will not let us do either. Our problems feel too big to fight and there is no place we can flee to, so we feel paralyzed. We are in a crisis that is too scary to confront and too important to ignore. "Willful ignorance" occurs when it feels wrong to acknowledge and wrong not to acknowledge a situation. This leads to crazy-making attempts to balance precariously between awareness and denial.
One of the most obvious ploys to deal with the mental teeter-totter of denial and awareness is, Pipher notes, attempting to oversimplify problems in order to dismiss them.
Recently I have noted the paradox that the more complicated our problems become, the more slogan filled and simplistic is the discourse around these problems. Logically it would seem that complex problems call for complex and nuanced thinking, but in fact, they overwhelm people. Politicians and media provide easy and useless answers. A bumper sticker trumps an essay. "Drill, baby, drill."
Matters are certainly not made easier when the overwhelmed/indifferent become mixed up with the outright deniers who have a stake in maintaining the fiction that the old world is doing just fine, thank you. As Pipher points out, we seem to not even have a language in common with deniers, and it creates a very frustrating and dream-like state to even try to engage in a discussion with them.
Even the manner in which Americans discuss global climate change is odd. We don't talk about "believing in" the laws of aerodynamics, the DNA code, or bacteria. By now the evidence for climate change is solid and the scientific community is united. Why do we speak of believing in it as if we were speaking of belief in extraterrestrials or ghosts?
What Pipher does best is assure us that we are not alone, that our feelings of being overwhelmed and defeated are not at all unusual. There are folks all across the nation, she tells us, who feel the same way, who are fighting the good fight, who are each contributing in their own way to awareness, resistance of the status quo and working mightily in ways large and small for change.

But it's not easy, not by a long shot, to be aware of the climate crisis and still keep functioning in daily life as a human being working for change. The Green Boat is structured around the model of grieving made famous by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. In terms of her own acceptance, Pipher recounts getting involved in fighting the Keystone Pipeline with fellow Nebraska activists and how this effort, which ended up building a community of activists who broke bread together, shared dreams and birthdays together, pressured the legislature together and protested, wrote letters, gave interviews and talked with the governor together—ended up giving her more hope for salvation than any one concrete political victory ever did.

When we unite with each other, educate ourselves, share our despairs and our hopes and our victories and defeats in the long, hard journey of saving the world, we learn to live deliberately and thoughtfully wherever we are, in community with each other, Pipher claims. It hurts to see the world in all the places where it's wounded, but it also heals our own selves when we apply ourselves to healing the planet and undoing the damage that can be done—even in small ways that seem insignificant.

The Green Boat is definitely not a book that throws statistics at the reader in hopes of convincing her of the reality change. It also is not a primer on persuading the undecided. Ultimately, The Green Boat is a handbook of hope for those fighting the climate fight. Pipher brings a deep compassion to and understanding of the strains of being committed to a political movement, and an optimism and clear-eyed resilience sorely needed in political activism. Besides her own brand of strength and full-hearted commitment, she shares advice from other activists and philosophers throughout the ages.

I can think of no better way to close the review than quoting one of her favorites, Frederich Buechner: God calls you to the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.

That place is here, Planet Earth, the green boat that carries us all.

The Green Boat will be available June 4 and can be pre-ordered at Amazon.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun May 26, 2013 at 02:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Very helpful review (24+ / 0-)

    Thank you.

    I will have to buy and read this book.

    Join us at Young People's Pavilion for a journey through children's literature. And follow this discussion on Twitter

    by The Book Bear on Sun May 26, 2013 at 02:08:36 PM PDT

  •  Thank you! (6+ / 0-)

    It is also available at Barnes & Noble:

    http://www.barnesandnoble.com/...

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Sun May 26, 2013 at 02:16:16 PM PDT

  •  It's the perfect description of the paralysis (9+ / 0-)

    that inevitably accompanies the knowledge of what is happening to the planet: you can't fight and you can't flee.

    Her conclusion makes me happy for the bonds that are formed in the community diaries here and in the face-to-face meet-ups. It makes it so much easier to carry on when you know you're not alone.

    Oh, I used to be disgusted
    Now I try to be amused
    ~~ Elvis Costello

    by smileycreek on Sun May 26, 2013 at 02:39:41 PM PDT

  •  We Need A 2001 Monolith Moments (6+ / 0-)

    Having seen a lot or crap over 72 years on this planet, I'm more and more convinced that we simply are not a very good idea (and I'm couching that in as positive a manner as I can).

    We need Dave to get in his space ship, travel to Jupiter, defeating HAL in the process, and emerge as a better kind of being.

    Really: Tea Party, Mitt Romney, Adolph Hitler, Ghengis Khan, Mitch McConnell, all the current occupants of the Republican Clown Car and most of the Democrats on Capitol Hill...really, no end to this shit.

    For every Gandhi, there are hundred or thousands of Tim Cooks ($378 million compensation in 2011) while laying off 950 employees last month in PA. Greedheads and overweaning apes, really.

    Beam me up, Scotty.

    What stronger breast-plate than a heart untainted! Thrice is he arm'd, that hath his quarrel just; And he but naked, though lock'd up in steel, Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted. King Henry, scene ii

    by TerryDarc on Sun May 26, 2013 at 02:43:21 PM PDT

  •  kind of along those same lines (7+ / 0-)

    I was just reading this piece (Yes!) which addresses some similar stuff...

    In these circumstances, anxiety is rational and anguish is healthy, signs not of weakness but of courage. A deep grief over what we are losing—and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered—is appropriate. Instead of repressing these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for our own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp. Once we’ve sorted through those reactions, we can get apocalyptic and get down to our real work.
    Maybe a tad more "radical" in tone but much the same sentiments, it seems like. Its a good (quick!) read. Toward the end he says:
    I am apocalyptic, but I’m not interested in empty rhetoric drawn from past revolutionary moments. Yes, we need a revolution—many revolutions—but a strategy is not yet clear. So, as we work patiently on reformist projects, we can continue to offer a radical analysis and experiment with new ways of working together. While engaged in education and community organizing with modest immediate goals, we can contribute to the strengthening of networks and institutions that can be the base for the more radical change we need. In these spaces today we can articulate, and live, the values of solidarity and equity that are always essential.
    I think the feeling we all have in common, besides despair, is the powerlessness. We tried voting, we tried that Occupy thing, what's left? what's next? We don't have the luxury of time.

    Thanks for this review, Susan. Ill look for it to show up at my library!

    If I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution. ~ Emma Goldman

    by Lady Libertine on Sun May 26, 2013 at 02:51:13 PM PDT

  •  I've observed that while the Right has fallen (7+ / 0-)

    prey to Denial, the Left is equally prone to Despair. Climate change is such a grim subject. We need to find that sweet spot in the middle whose name is Hope.

    This sounds like essential reading for those searching for hope amidst rising seas.

    Do the math. #unfrackCal. @RL_Miller

    by RLMiller on Sun May 26, 2013 at 03:06:49 PM PDT

  •  I have to vehemently disagree with this: (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pat bunny, RainyDay, hooper, lehman scott
    We can deal with our cultural and environmental crises only after we deal with our human crises of trauma, denial, and emotional paralysis.
    We don't have to improve ourselves or each other before we become active, whether individually or as a society. We just need to start doing something - virtually anything - to help. Emphasis on the doing.

    It's very late. Anyone who writes on the topic should include an action plan. What's Pipher's?

    "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

    by Bob Love on Sun May 26, 2013 at 03:14:37 PM PDT

    •  That's not the book she wrote (8+ / 0-)

      She didn't set out to write a book that's an "action plan" for getting people politically on board for doing something about climate change. And she didn't write a book about precisely what steps to take politically/scientifically to create change.

      She set out to write a book about how to fight individual despair while being involved in a cause that is huge, overwhelming and frightening. In that, she succeeded.

      •  Action dispells despair. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Bob Love

        Too much attention is paid to deniers, imo.  And Republicans.  We don't need to win them over, we just need to win.  Too many of us are still in our chairs.

        Joanna Macy did much good work that you diary reminds me of.  How is Pipher different?

      •  True, but that word "only" is a call for (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        lehman scott

        inward action before doing anything to fix the problem.

        We can deal with our cultural and environmental crises only after we deal with our human crises of trauma, denial, and emotional paralysis.
        That's an inexcusable mistake. We'll never be psychologically or spiritually prepared to save the planet, but we have to do it anyway. And we have to do it now.

        "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

        by Bob Love on Sun May 26, 2013 at 04:30:35 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well ... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          jan4insight, Minnesota Deb

          If you have paralysis -- are "paralyzed" -- it seems you must deal with that first before you can act. If you're frozen, paralyzed, you cannot by definition act, can you?

          •  No. You can be "emotionally paralysed" (0+ / 0-)

            to use the author's words, and still function. And if you can get out of bed and feed yourself you can do others things.

            People really need to act now. Calls for deeper navel-gazing are part of the problem.

            "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

            by Bob Love on Sun May 26, 2013 at 05:44:33 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I think we'll have to agree to disagree (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              StMunks, Bob Love

              I don't see how an activist can continue to operate efficiently if he or she is traumatized, depleted and emotionally paralyzed.

              The author isn't addressing in this book neophytes; she's addressing those who are fighting and who have fought for decades, who already are taking the obvious actions—recycling, buying green, using public transportation, speaking up, writing letters, informing neighbors, doing all the things in their own lives to leave as small a footprint as possible.

              She's addressing folks who have fought and fought and have become discouraged. They already HAVE acted, many for most of their lives. But when burnout and discouragement sets in, when emotional paralysis sets in, it has to be addressed before anyone can take the fight to the next level.

              I don't think it's navel-gazing to realize that the huge problem  of the climate crisis is depleting when faced head on, and that there are strategies that can help individuals to  regain balance and continue to fight the good fight when they are ready to give up.

              •  I'm sure it's a useful book. (0+ / 0-)

                My only quarrel is with the obvious misstatement that we can't deal with these issues until we deal with ourselves. We can and must. I'd bet she'd agree.

                We can deal with our cultural and environmental crises only after we deal with our human crises of trauma, denial, and emotional paralysis.

                It's easy when writing to be swept up in rhetoric and overvalorize your subject. I'm guessing her statement is simply over-the-top hyperbole.

                But taken literally it says we can do nothing until we heal ourselves, which is a nice call to working on our mental health but a brick wall to action.

                I understand your points perfectly well, and I'm sure the book will be useful for many. Do you understand that taking her at her word would mean bringing a halt to action?

                "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

                by Bob Love on Mon May 27, 2013 at 03:39:43 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  I think you're focusing on the ... (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Bob Love

                  "emotional paralysis" part of the statement to the detriment of the rest. Notice the "denial" part. Surely you have to agree that you can only choose to act once you're past denial. After all, if you deny the climate crisis, you're not seeing it as a problem and therefore would have no reason to act. And I interpreted the whole sentence in that light -- to face the truth, to grapple with it, to not be paralyzed by it, but to find the strength to act, and act wisely, on that truth, taking into account one's capabilities, endurance and strengths. YMMV.

                  •  Denial is one of 3 crises she spoke of, (0+ / 0-)

                    not the only one.

                    I'm not focussing on the "emotional paralysis" part of the statement. As I said, I'm focussing on the word "only". She clearly states we can only act when we're past our crises. At which point it will be too late (if it isn't already).

                    But I tend to get in trouble when I start insisting that people write with precision and care. We all know where she's coming from, and that's enough for most people. For me, though, her use of the word only is a big mistake.

                    "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

                    by Bob Love on Tue May 28, 2013 at 04:12:49 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

            •  Mental health of activists is a practical concern (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Susan Gardner, Bob Love

              Susan put it very well, but let me add something: serious, crippling depression surrounding this issue can indeed be a major problem.

              I can testify to this. I've been heavily politically active since high school - I've gone to countless marches, organized meetings, written to state officials, the usual drill. Over 15 years of dedication on the principle that we need to act NOW, as you say.

              And it's completely drained me. I've gone from being social and energetic to a withdrawn mess. I can't even leave my house on days when I'm not absolutely required to. I just feel overwhelmed the moment I see another person blithely ignoring the obvious signs, and my heart feels like we've already lost, despite whatever rational arguments I'm able to muster up to act.

              Pipher's book sounds like exactly the sort of thing I need to look into. It's funny it would come from her... back when I saw my old therapist back in Lincoln she was sharing a clinic with Dr. Pipher. I spoke to her a number of times... she's a deeply insightful person, but her insights focus on helping people to act.

              We do our movement no favors if we insist that the individuals within it put their psychological health on the sidelines while the cause is still dire. We don't tell veterans with PTSD that they should suck it up and get back on the battlefield, both because it's inhuman and because they would make poor soldiers. This is a practical concern for the movement as a whole as well as the individuals within it.

              •  No quarrel from me. (0+ / 0-)

                I only wish she had written this more accurately:

                We can deal with our cultural and environmental crises only after we deal with our human crises of trauma, denial, and emotional paralysis.
                This is simply poorly worded, hyperbolic rhetoric. Taken literally it says we can do nothing until we heal ourselves, which is a nice call to working on our mental health but a brick wall to action.

                "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

                by Bob Love on Mon May 27, 2013 at 03:44:11 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

    •  You make a good point. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bob Love, lehman scott

      It IS very late. I can't count on our cultural and especially environmental crises waiting patiently for us to deal with our trauma, denial and paralysis. There's no timeout, or pause button on these problems. They will be upon us regardless of our emotional state.
      There are plenty of action plans out there. It's just that the enormity--the global scale of our climate change crisis is unprecedented. We seem to be waiting for large countries and economies to completely fall apart. Which they will because we are so very dependent on stable climate conditions to maintain business as usual.
      Our global economy is so much more fragile than many imagine.

      -4.38, -7.64 Voyager 1: proof that what goes up never comes down.

      by pat bunny on Sun May 26, 2013 at 03:35:13 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Joanna Macy (4+ / 0-)

    wrote about a similar paralysis-terror (from the risk of nuclear war, which feels less urgent than it did 30 years ago).

    As one who is not terribly optimistic about our political ability to do anything significant to prevent catastrophic climate change, I am convinced that we need to get past paralysis in order to at least mitigate its effects. Terror does not lead to resilience; action and community do.

    •  Macy started out with nuclear despair, then went (0+ / 0-)

      on to the ecological situation.  Very good stuff.  

      Psychological systems thinking, in a sense.  If we feel our connection to "all beings", and what it feels like for them and for us as we extinct them, we must act and stop the killing.  Because the feedback loops that would help us self-correct are down due to our numbing.  If we feel it, no more denial.

      So she would help us feel our despair so we could act.  And wow she wrote poignantly about the situation!  Not about our feelings for our sakes, but for the sake of the planet and its critters, us included.

  •  I think Occupy gave folks that sense of (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan Gardner, foresterbob, UTvoter

    community and I think Occupy Sandy grew out of that sense of community. People wear out of activism especially when it becomes too much to bear and there are no fresh supporters willing to shore up the defenses. But just as battle comrades do, the activists have share experiences and shared memories that give them more than just the particulars of the jousting with the ptb over the issues.

    American Television is a vast sea of stupid. -xxdr zombiexx

    by glitterscale on Sun May 26, 2013 at 03:59:04 PM PDT

  •  Very fine review of an important book (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Portlaw, Boston to Salem

    Thank you for this, Susan.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Sun May 26, 2013 at 05:05:33 PM PDT

  •  Right Fighting Climate Change (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    foresterbob

    We've been right fighting the climate change argument rather than dealing with climate change.  We spend almost all our energy trying to convince people that "climate change is real and human-made" rather than actually doing anything about it.  We want everybody to agree before making real changes.  

    There are many, many things we can do that anybody who wants to save energy or money can do that reduce greenhouse gases whether or not you agree that climate change is real.   For instance, black carbon - cleaner cookstoves - pay for themselves in a matter of weeks or months through better health outcomes alone, to say nothing of reduced deforestation and less time spent in gathering fuel.   It also impacts local and global climate in less than a month because black carbon is resident in the atmosphere for only about 3 weeks.

    Start with the poorest people first and let us over-indulged rich folk follow along in their slipstream for once.

    If you want to get comparatively rich North Americans like us here on the Internet involved present them with a practical future that reduces or reverses climate change (which I believe we can do with ecological design) they can actually see themselves living in.  No one has done that so far.  No science fiction writer.  No scientist.  Not any kind of storyteller has begun to tell that tale.  It's a story we need to tell ourselves but there's a hole in the collective unconscious where that story should be.

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