By Mary Pipher
Riverhead Books: New York
Paperback: $16.00; Kindle edition, $9.99
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.