By Emily Johnston
â€œIt may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.â€â€Šâ€”â€ŠWendell Berry
When I moved from Portland to Seattle twelve years ago, I was a fiction writer whoâ€™d worked for a long time on a single novel and an assortment of storiesâ€Šâ€”â€Šand had much encouragement about them, but no success in publishing. This is an old story, and not a very interesting one.
But to my surprise, when my life was jarred that year by the breakup of the relationship Iâ€™d moved for and then the death of my beloved young dog, I began writing poetry, and only poetry. It started out being bad poetry, but never mind thatâ€Šâ€”â€ŠI wanted to keep going. When friends asked, I told them I felt like I was sailing into the fog at night. I had no idea what I was doingâ€Šâ€”â€ŠI hadnâ€™t even read much poetry till then, though I began reading it voraciously: Szymborska, Ahkmatova, Gennady Aygi, and more.
I didnâ€™t know what I was doing, or where I was going, but I knew I wanted to keep goingâ€Šâ€”â€Šand eventually, I was writing things that interested me, and that felt, mostly, unembarrassing. Mostly. I was part of a tiny writersâ€™ group, and the father of one of those people was the editor of a small press that was about to re-start its book publishing. Drew thought his dad would love my book of poetry, so he asked if he could send it to him. They published it as their first book, and it became a finalist for the Washington State Book Awardâ€¦.and it turned out, more or less, to be that easy, after nearly thirty years of it being difficult.
Following Another Calling
The travails of writing and publishing are well known. What I want to talk about today is darkness and uncertaintyâ€Šâ€”â€Šbecause we are at the start of a long period of darkness and uncertainty, and if we cannot learn to inhabit them, to be strong and steady in that dark fog, we will not survive.
Iâ€™ve written only a handful of poems in the two years since my book came out; Iâ€™m not even sure Iâ€™d call a single one of them finished. Itâ€™s not that Iâ€™ve lost interestâ€Šâ€”â€Šif I had the time, thereâ€™s nothing Iâ€™d rather do, and the lack of that time writing hurts me like a phantom limb, sometimes.
But I understand the stakes of this moment, and writing cannot be my priority right now.
Climate Change Facts
Most or all of you probably understand something about the dangers of climate change. What you probably donâ€™t know, if you donâ€™t inhabit the world that I do, is that we likely have only about two and a half years to keep catastrophic climate change from being irreversible. This is not the assessment of an outlier scientist with a tin-foil hat; that was the word used, and the time frame used, by Christina Figueres, the former UN climate chief, last June (at that point, she said â€œthree yearsâ€), based on the assessment of many, many scientists. Others use slightly different timing (Iâ€™ve also heard â€œtwo yearsâ€, and that was last year), depending on what benchmark theyâ€™re usingâ€Šâ€”â€Š1.5Â° versus 2Â° Celsius of warming, etc. But all are agreed, we are in dire shape, and our time-window for keeping this from being permanent is very, very short.
We canâ€™t stop climate catastrophe from happeningâ€Šâ€”â€Šas you probably know, itâ€™s already happening, mostly in other parts of the world, like Syria and Yemen and low-lying island nations, but also here: in Houston, in Puerto Rico, even in New York or Oregon or Washington. Whether itâ€™s unprecedented wildfires or storms or oceans so acidic that shellfish are struggling, we have already changed our ecosystems so radically that all kinds of expected and unexpected processes have begun, some of which we donâ€™t know if we can stop.
And all of this will get worseâ€Šâ€”â€Šprobably much worse. We know this for a fact.
But if these scientists are rightâ€Šâ€”â€Šand there is reason to hope that they areâ€Šâ€”â€Šthen we have another couple of years to ensure that these tragedies are not permanent. This doesnâ€™t even require us stopping the use of all fossil fuels at this very momentâ€Šâ€”â€Šit does require us to significantly reduce emissions immediately, because if weâ€™re not on that pathâ€Šâ€”â€Šthat short and exceedingly focused pathâ€Šâ€”â€Šin a couple of years, weâ€™ll miss that turn, and there will be no way back.
The next two years, give or take, are the most important years in the history of humanity. We have the profound responsibility of being perhaps the only people in history to know exactly what threatens the world most, while still being in a position to avert much of it.
When those two and a half years are over, we cannot say, â€œwe did what we couldâ€ and walk away. In our lifetimes, there will be no walking away, because we know that the range of possibility is enormous: at one end, we might lose five or ten percent of species, and tens of millions of human lives, at the other end the Earth might lose 95% of its species, as it did the last time greenhouse gases overwhelmed it. In that case, humans will surely be among them. We know for a fact that this is a real risk.
Thatâ€™s an unthinkable rangeâ€Šâ€”â€Šand we will never have the satisfaction of knowing what, exactly, we helped to save. It doesnâ€™t work like that. But for our lifetimes, at least, there will be the possibility of changing human systems and human behavior so that we work with the necessities dictated by physics, and not against them, and that means we can always help to stave off the ugliest end of that range of possibility.
Inner-Directed and Community-Oriented
So we will live in darkness and fog, not just because the world will be a much harder place in the coming decades, though it will, but also because weâ€™ll almost always be uncertain what weâ€™re really accomplishing, and weâ€™re not used to that. We like feedback; we like praise; we like studies that show what really works. Restoring the Earth to stability, or even to lesser instability, isnâ€™t like that, and if we arenâ€™t inner-directed, we wonâ€™t be directed at all, because these changes will take place on a time frame of centuries and millennia.
Which isnâ€™t to say that this is a solitary processâ€Šâ€”â€Šfar from it. We must join together in our communities, whatever those may be, and support our mutual work in every way that we can, because our political system is as stuck as stuck can be, and the most effective way to change political reality is with powerful grassroots movements. This is not a fight that can be won by changing light bulbs, bicycling, and voting for the right personâ€Šâ€”â€Šweâ€™re way beyond that now. If we donâ€™t make it possible for everyone to get to work and eat and warm their homes without fossil fuels, we failâ€Šâ€”â€Štragically.
No Excuse: Involvement and Action
Which leads me to another short personal anecdote, which is that in all those years of writing fictionâ€Šâ€”â€Šand waitressing, and making web pages, and building thingsâ€Šâ€”â€ŠI was profoundly worried about climate change, but I wasnâ€™t doing anything about it other than reading everything I could, and worrying. Iâ€™m an introvert, and though Iâ€™d briefly been an activist when I was about 20, Iâ€™d moved entirely into a private life for about 25 years after that; I donâ€™t really like crowds and noise, I was terrified of public speaking, Iâ€™m more at home with nuance than slogansâ€¦.I just wasnâ€™t a good fit for the activist world, or so I thought.
But when Bill McKibben asked people to come to the White House to be arrested protesting Keystone XL, and NASA scientist James Hansen said full development of the tar sands would be â€œgame overâ€ for the climate, I could find no excuse not to go, even though I had precisely zero faith that it would be meaningful in any real way. I had been hoping for years that scientists and politicians would consult like grownups, and forestall disaster. But it was clear that wasnâ€™t happening, so I had to try to do what I could.
I went, and was arrested, and then came back to Seattle thinking it was a backwater of a place for climate work. How wrong that was is a funny story, but for now let me just say: I found some people; we banded together to create 350 Seattle; it wasnâ€™t easy; but eventually, after a couple of years, some things started to cohere pretty magically, and I got to workâ€Šâ€”â€Šand work, and workâ€Šâ€”â€Šon the single most rewarding fight Iâ€™ve ever worked on, which was the ShellNo campaign, the Seattle portion of which ended with us in kayaks trying to blockade the Arctic rig. And we won that fight a few months laterâ€Šâ€”â€Šwhich shocked me, to be honest.
And Iâ€™ve workedâ€Šâ€”â€Šand worked, and workedâ€Šâ€”â€Šon many other fights since, and weâ€™ve also won many of those. Iâ€™m still an introvert, though public speaking is mostly fine now; I still prefer nuance to slogans, and donâ€™t like crowds. Nothing about moving into being an activist and organizer was easy, but as with writing poetry, I didnâ€™t know where I was going, but I did know I wanted to keep going. I also met people whose love and intelligence and commitment to this work astonished me, and helped keep me in even when my frustrations with others made me desperate to walk away.
Uncertain and Uncomfortable
One of the benefits of being a writer and an introvert, perhaps, is that we have an advantage over most people in our willingness to be reflective, and sit with uncertainty and mysteryâ€Šâ€”â€ŠKeatsâ€™ famous â€œnegative capabilityâ€. Weâ€™re used to being pulled along by the current of a poem or story without knowing where itâ€™s headed, and weâ€™re no strangers to darkness, as a group. Thatâ€™s invaluable nowâ€Šâ€”â€Šas a culture, we seem to have forgotten how to be comfortable with anything but feelings of absolute certainty (ideally, a certainty shared by everyone in our peer group). Those of us to whom questioning and mystery and empathy come more naturally can bring those qualities to the groups that weâ€™re part of, and maybe help balance them thereby. Internal direction tends to be how we find our way. â€œThe Sailor cannot see the North, but knows the Needle can,â€ wrote Dickinson.
Weâ€™re seldom the engine of those groups, but we can be the steady hand on the tiller, and the ones whose instincts help set the course. Darkness doesnâ€™t make us lose our bearings. Sometimes, our job is to be the needle.
Involvement by Everyone
Most of you are quite young, and the next two years are probably pretty booked. I wish I could sayâ€Šâ€”â€Šdonâ€™t worry, this is the job of the grownups, just finish school and work on climate change later. But I canâ€™t. Your future is at stake, and though itâ€™s not necessary that everyone focus above all else on climate change, it is necessary that anyone who feels even the embryo of an urge to do so, do so. Find a way. You know who you are, and youâ€™re needed by every soul on Earth right now.
As for the rest of you, youâ€™re not off the hook: devote what time you can to this: for some of you, with jobs or families that need you in addition to your studies, that may be a few hours a month. For others, is a few hours a week really asking too much, considering the stakes? And support the ones giving their lives to this, and the fight itself, in every way that you canâ€Šâ€”â€Šargue with your parents and hopeless friends, show up at protests even when youâ€™re not sure if it matters, call every legislator you can find a number for and tell them to act now. None of that requires much time; it only requires that you understand that we are in what may be our last battle for survival, and the least you can do is show up.
Freedom to Dissent, Freedom to Act
With every day that passes, we come closer to the very real possibility of human extinctionâ€Šâ€”â€Šand even if youâ€™re like me, and that doesnâ€™t always strike you as the worst thing for the planet, the truth is that the people who are suffering most, and will suffer ever more, are those who did the least to cause this problem. We, on the other hand, live in the nation that did the most to cause it, and that is also the most resistant to acting appropriately. Itâ€™s our job to change that. No one else can.
Itâ€™s common now to hear people say that weâ€™re living under fascismâ€Šâ€”â€Šbut while there are terribleâ€Šâ€”â€Šand yes, fascistâ€Šâ€”â€Šthings going on in our country now, most of usâ€Šâ€”â€Šespecially people with some level of privilegeâ€Šâ€”â€Šstill have a level of freedom to dissent that could only be dreamed of in Apartheid-era South Africa, or Milosevicâ€™s Serbia, or Ben Aliâ€™s Tunisia. Yet in all of those places, against great odds, it was the people who won: the visionary, hopeful, utterly unrealistic movements that couldnâ€™t be squelched. With our greater levels of privilege, if we cannot successfully change the political landscape so that it is baseline responsive to the requirements of a stable planet fit for human habitation, then who are we? Are we so much weaker than they were?
There are still moments when I feel exhausted and frustrated and aloneâ€Šâ€”â€Šnot a compass for anything but sorrow. But itâ€™s such an astonishing honor to live in this moment, knowing that we probably still have the power to set the world back onto a stable path, and thereby make life better, or at least possible, for countless people and other beings. I cannot imagine anything more meaningful.
Uncertainty is possibility. In the uncertainty before us, in the sacrifices and joy of our connections with each other and every living thing, we have been given overwhelming abundance.
In this darkness, we have begun our real journey.Î¦
Emily Johnston is a poet, scribe, climate activist, runner, and builder. Her book, Her Animals, is out now. (This piece is adapted from a lecture at Willamette University on February 1, 2018â€Šâ€”â€Šsponsored by the Hallie Ford Chair in Writing, the Teppola Prize in Creative Writing, and the Department of English,)