Sleepwalking into Climate Nightmares

By Rivera Sun

How can anyone sleep at night? My first nightmare about environmental crisis occurred in 1990. I was eight years old. In it, acid rain poured from the sky, scalding the skin of humans and stripping holes in the leaves of trees. On either side of a long, ashen-gray street, billowing plumes of smog chugged out of smokestacks. I was running, searching for sanctuary from the toxic waste. Nowhere was safe.

It’s 2022. I’m turning 40 this summer and my bad dreams are nothing compared to reality. The climate crisis is crashing down in cascades of disasters – forest fires, torrential floods, crop failures, ferocious hurricanes, heat domes … the stuff of nightmares. 

And while I wrestle with existential dread and horrified insomnia, our political leaders are asleep at the wheel. They’re dreaming of midterm elections, business-as-usual, yet another war, and hoping to pass the buck on dealing with the non-negotiable need for a swift transition away from fossil fuels.

We’re running out of time.

When I was a teenager, the epic movie Titanic rolled through the movie theaters. Leonardo DiCaprio starred as a doomed, but handsome lower-class artist named Jack who fell in love with an upper-class woman played by Kate Winslet. The ship hit the iceberg. The band played on. The poor drowned in droves. The rich tossed children out of lifeboats to secure their own safety. It was the epic symbol of our times, a powerful metaphorical augury. 

It would take DiCaprio 22 years to find a more apropos image. In Don’t Look Up, he stars as a freaked-out scientist warning of an inevitable collision with a massive, extinction-causing asteroid. In this film, he doesn’t survive either. 

In 2003, Drew Dellinger wrote these haunting lines:

It’s 3:23 in the morning

and I’m awake

because my great great grandchildren

won’t let me sleep

my great great grandchildren

ask me in dreams

what did you do while the planet was plundered?

what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

The poem goes on to ask: what did you do, once you knew? 

Some of us can’t sleep.  We know it’s the eleventh hour. We know we’re 100 seconds to midnight on the Doomsday Clock. We know the ecological debts racked up by our parents and grandparents are coming due. We know the future is increasingly uncertain with every minute, every second spent spewing out more fossil fuels into the atmosphere. 

We can’t sleep … and we need to use our insomnia to wake up those who are dozing in denial. In the halls of power and corporate boardrooms, on Wall Street and on governing boards, we need them to gasp awake and jerk us out of this devastating collision course with proverbial icebergs that are melting and collapsing in skyscraper-sized chunks. 

All my life, I’ve had nightmares about the realities we’re living now. The poets and storytellers are hard at work, screaming for sanity and a swift transition. The activists are mobilizing and turning up the street heat as the climate crisis intensifies. The schoolchildren are walking out of school, demanding that we act. It’s time for the rich and powerful to do their part. We don’t have another decade. We don’t have another planet. We don’t have another life.

Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, has written numerous books, including The Dandelion Insurrection. She is the editor of Nonviolence News and a nationwide trainer in strategy for nonviolent campaigns.

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