Climate, Crisis and Conversation
Nine months into my course on climate change and sustainability, on the cusp of what promises to be exciting research, I am plagued by constant anxiety and helplessness. It’s a strange and unsettling sensation, to be sobbing over the contents of academic papers. There is a term for this apparently: eco-anxiety, unhelpfully defined as “feeling overwhelmed by the existential challenge of climate change.” And It certainly doesn’t help that our newsfeeds are slowly turning into slow-motion frames of the most expensive, drawn-out production of this fucking horror movie.
It is anger, not hope, that I feel anymore. Anger at the fact that I have to compromise because of decisions that were taken, are taken and will continue to be taken, regardless of the number of people that are suffering. Decisions that I have no control over, but the consequences of which I will have to suffer. Anger at the systems, at society, at myself, because I too am complicit in this wave of consumerism and self-destruction that we continue to ride. Anger that I will not be able to change much, and that even if I say “I did my best” twenty years later, it will not make much of a difference. I opened myself to this opportunity to learn, to help bring about change, but I’m so much more cynical than I was nine months ago. And it begs the question: do we even deserve it?
The world is urbanising faster than ever before in history; the current 3.5 billion urban citizens will grow to 50% of the population in the next 30 years. If you think it doesn’t sound that bad, keep in mind that the world population is going to grow by an additional 4 billion people by 2050. And really, where is the space? As a citizen of a megacity- classified as such when it contains more than 10 million citizens- I have witnessed landscapes and social fabrics deteriorate as a result of overpopulation in my own lifetime. Resources are spread thin, lakes and green spaces are disappearing, pollution is becoming quite literally choking life around us, animals and plants are going extinct, traffic is becoming the easiest conversation starter, and the list goes on. But we know all of this. We know!
The climate crisis is not a new one, for decades now, scientists have been looking into the effect of humans on the environment. Report after report is published on the way our behaviour is altering natural systems, and how the consequences of it are going to be nothing short of a shit show. But where are these conversations happening? Which brings me to my dilemma; how does one have this conversation about climate change in a way that is constructive, and ultimately transformative? How do you get people to engage and give them opportunities to be better? How do I take what I have learned and turn it into something that is meaningful? A few weeks ago, I was confronted with the harsh reality of this responsibility: “don’t become an activist, I don’t need it from you.” It was a punch in the gut; a disappointing response to what I looked as a learning experience. And this is representative of a much larger problem: do people even want to change?
The past 2–3 years have seen a surge of awareness that surrounds climate change, and people are waking up to the idea that it is no longer something in the future that ‘might happen.’ It’s not the stuff of science fiction anymore, we’re probably going to Mad Max hard. And for some of us, who have piggybacked on systemic privilege for most of our lives, for whom water scarcity is not something that we are forced to deal with, for those of us who can turn the AC up when it gets too hot, it is simply something that we can choose not to deal with. But this dystopian future is already a reality for many, especially those living in developing countries, where the ones that contribute least to climate change are affected the hardest. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, drought, famine; these are faced by people every day and becoming more of a regular occurrence around the world. We are being forced to witness, and accept, that what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas anymore.
There is a term for this, beautiful and ambiguous: complexity. It is a theory that proposes that everything is more interconnected than we realise, where nothing happens in isolation, but is a consequence of innumerable forces, human and otherwise, that shape our current reality. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, on an expedition to Greenland, researchers discovered tiny black particles layered on top of ice that spans across the Arctic. Now, mama earth is ingenious, we know that. The pristine white surface of the ice reflects a majority of the sunlight, to prevent melting of the ice caps. These black particles, however, were discovered to be soot from factories as far away as China! Think about that for a second, pollution travelling thousands of kilometres to land in the Arctic, causing the ice to melt at a staggering 12.8% per decade. And this is not the only problem; until recently, scientists were looking into the surface melting of ice caps, there was something far disastrous happening below, they’re melting from underneath. This ice, that has taken millions of years to form, where it is thickest and most robust at the bottom, is melting because of warmer ocean currents. Nowhere else in the world are the effects of climate change felt as intensely as they are in the Arctic. If you’ve bawled your eyes out at the shot of walruses falling from cliffs, as I did, in the now infamous episode of Our Planet, you know what I’m talking about.
You might be thinking, we know all of this, what’s new? I’ll tell you, connect the dots. Understand that our actions- and by extent consequences- are no longer contained in the space around us. It is one thing to say, “climate change is bad” but it’s another thing to make changes to our behaviour and choose better alternatives, even if they are not convenient. Sustainability is more about a higher number of alternatives than simply a this or a that. It’s not going to make a difference if you post memes about climate change but continue to take flights indiscriminately because it gets you where you need to go faster. It’s not going to make a difference if you attend workshops on ways to become more sustainable, but then go shopping every 2 weeks to buy a new pair of shoes or that dress that you absolutely ‘need to have.’ It’s not going to make a difference if you recycle if you’re still ordering parcels from Amazon every week. The effectiveness of one choice depends on so many others.
This brings me to the topic of the article: climate, crisis and conversation. If at any point in the last paragraph, you have thought “hey, how can you be telling me to change this when I’m sure you do the same”, and to that I can only say, I’m trying my best and I make more conscious decisions than I did previously. And if I need to give up more, to have more credibility in this conversation, I will. sustainability is a spectrum, it is not divided into two camps. And I recognise my privilege in being able to access these alternatives. I haven’t been in a car in 8 months because I have bike lanes that are safe and well connected. I don’t order things online because most things are available in stores around me. I haven’t gone shopping because second-hand clothes and clothes-swaps allow me to change my wardrobe without taking it out on the environment. I too escaped my circumstances, but I understand that I am still accountable, and responsible.
And look, I understand. As people, as a society, as a country, we want to feel like we have progressed, that we have escaped the circumstances of our history and forged a path for ourselves. We want to visit those places that we see on social media, we want to eat those exotic foods that we have worked hard for, we want to buy those clothes that tell people “hey, I have arrived.” But where is it that you want to go? Are these unilinear models of development still going to take us to a place where we can be proud of how far we have come? Isn’t it time to redefine what development is? This is our time. Our time to be radical, to be inclusive, to re-imagine what the future is going to look like and break free of the limitations that are imposed on us. It is the time to do better, to be better and YOU need to demand it.