Climate Dispatch: What do we do, when we don’t know what to do? (Opinion)

Sara Smith / Guest column

As I’ve been writing this piece I’ll admit that I struggled. It was originally meant to be an article on “art as activism,” in particular related to climate, and I made several honest stabs at the topic. I struggled because I like to present a positive face and offer solutions. I struggled because I’m by nature a “do-er,” and when faced with something hard I look for a way to take action in the world to try to make things better in some way.

However, lately the reality is that most days I want to hide from the subject of climate change, especially as so many other pressing issues also present immediate challenges that require time, energy and attention. When I, like so many others, am largely busy considering basic survival, rising costs, and the many (many) existential threats that surround us and profoundly affect daily life (a crumbling sense of shared reality making solution-finding feel even further away, anyone?) everything feels like a pretty big deal, and overwhelming. 

Inviting in the specter of runaway climate change passing the scientific tipping point, marking the end of any hope of real mitigation, companion specters of mass species extinctions, far too little action or even available options for ordinary mortals like myself and my family, and the mass of shades whispering sickly to me that this is the world my son and all the other children and young people I know and love are inheriting … well let’s just say it doesn’t make me want to open the door.

I, like so many others whom I know, feel like the slowly boiling frog that is starting to realize the water has exceeded my tolerance point for life. I find so many things heartbreaking and demoralizing. For years, the powers that be (those with vested interest in the narrative) have sold us a story that we, as individuals, have the ability to change things through mitigating our individual behaviors … effectively implying that it’s actually all our own fault and responsibility and that if we all try just a little harder and recycle every can, we can move the needle … just don’t look behind curtain number three, and pay no mind to the water’s temperature. 

Yes, our choices and actions do matter, of course they do. But mere individual actions, even collectively, are like using a dixie cup to bail out a barge with a house-sized hole in its hull if we fail to institute massive, widespread and systemic changes to the ways that we as a global species live and consume resources. My hybrid won’t solve this, lucky as I am to have one. Without state level shifts, nothing individual will really make a dent, but it can give me a moment of feeling like I’m trying.

I don’t think about “The Big It” all the time, at least not consciously, and yet I can’t not live with my own knowledge of looming disaster as a constant, like a foreboding bass line thrumming beneath each moment and coloring each thought. I also know I’m not alone. 

So, at the end of this cascade of gloom, I’m asking what do you do … the reader who perhaps can relate to my generalized cultural/environmental anxiety and individual dismay? What helps you balance the slide towards nihilism when the facts aren’t in our favor?

For myself, I create; that brings me out of hiding, and allows me to have a different conversation with the specters. I’m heartbroken by species loss so I work with area schoolchildren and create a public art project in collaboration with amazing local teachers and area organizations that gives those kids, the ones inheriting this mess, an ability to learn about and express their feelings around climate induced impacts, including mass extinctions, while exploring large and small solutions.

I’m dismayed by growing human impacts upon our miraculous wilderness, so I create art that focuses on those spaces and its inhabitants, and our intersections … and attempt to reflect back to the viewer from a place of reverence for the things truly more precious than gold and anything it can buy. I see our world filling with the discarded, so I try to refashion discarded things into creative mirrors that ask us to look at what we choose and value, directly or by default. I also engage with and create community art projects for and with organizations like Citizens’ Climate Lobby that are working towards large scale changes in our national systems, and try to meet myself and others with empathy and compassion so maybe we can have a conversation and experience a shared reality, and dare I hope discuss real solutions.

It’s okay to be angry, or grief-stricken or simply weary, or all three, or even more. It’s okay to say that we feel these things, and that sometimes nothing feels enough. But sometimes just showing up when the world has made you bone tired is a radical act. Sometimes finding one single point of connection represents a spark of hope. Sometimes simply drawing, and thereby really seeing and appreciating the miracle of a leaf, or light on water, or a chickadee, is a form of activism, and perhaps, in that moment, enough to do. 

Sara Smith is an artist, mother, community activist and arts advocate, living and working in beautiful North Lake Tahoe and Truckee.

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