Stories

My daughter sent me a very depressing link this summer: When Will Climate Change Make the Earth Too Hot For Humans?

This sent me spinning down once again. I didn’t fall quite as low or as utterly unreachable as I had when I read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, but still…

And then, while pondering the bleakness of the end of the world as we know it, I remembered a Star Trek Next Generation episode I had watched many years ago, when my husband and I were young marrieds and date night was a single episode on TV. I don’t think I ever knew the name of the episode, but because the plot was one that was seared into my memory, I knew Google would come to the rescue.

“Star Trek Next Generation episode where Captain Picard lives entire life on alien planet”, I typed into my phone.

And there it was, the answer:  Season 5, episode 25, The Inner Light.

(Can I just stop and say something? This 50-year-old woman, who grew up with all her questions and wonderings left unsatisfyingly hanging, unanswered and unresolved, freaking loves Google.)

So, of course, I had to watch it again, and this time our 12-year-old son joined my husband and me.

This particular episode, in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s mind is inoculated with four decades-worth of memories of a life lived on a dying planet — in which he virtually becomes another man, painfully aware that his children’s and grandchildren’s existence is doomed —  brings all sorts of existentialistic and unanswerable questions to my mind.

What was the purpose of this mind inoculation?

We know that the people living on this dying planet — a planet that had already been dead for a considerable time when the Enterprise happened upon their probe — wanted to ensure their history lived on, wanted to make their once-existence known to others.

But why? Why does the story of their once-existence matter?

And once I voice that question, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to the question, why does our existence matter?

(Hoo boy … This, I suppose, is sufficient to explain my silence since mid-June?)

Pondering this has led me to some deep thinking about stories.

I’ve been thinking about how utterly and completely human it is to share stories: to want to escape into entirely made-up stories, to use stories to instruct and inform; to want others to understand our stories — our personal histories — and to be curious about their stories — their personal histories.

And that, in turn, has gotten me thinking about the way our personal stories have evolved over the course of humankind’s existence on this planet.

Once-upon-a-time, our stories were short tales filled with hardship, disease, injury, and early death, where the mere fact that you had subsisted and survived long enough to reproduce constituted a happy ending.

And now … now our stories — at least those told in vast swaths of the western world — have become complex and lengthy novels. Mere subsistence has been supplanted by personal growth and freedom, with entire chapters devoted to materialistic style, frivolity and convenience, all of us peering through the lens of collective amnesia that shrouds the brutality of our common past and allows us to write deeply personal and oftentimes egocentric themes centred on the words I am, I want, I deserve. 

As I’ve been pondering this evolution, I’ve been considering the very sobering thought that even as short as one generation ago, we could chalk all of this up to progress. We could imagine that there were no bounds to human potential, that the planet was here for us to pillage and that there would be no consequences. Or, if there were consequences, we could imagine that humans would be able to manage them. We could be forgiven for imagining that the Earth was a big enough library to shelve all our unedited and increasingly verbose novels.

But we’re now at 7.5 billion humans on this one planet Earth.

The uncomfortable and inconvenient fact is that there isn’t the room or the resources on this one planet for all of us to live 1000-page western-style tomes. And the corollary is, if we are well and truly fucked, then the stories that my own children will be able to write will be markedly different than the one I am halfway through writing.

This is proving to be a tremendous source of anger, grief and guilt: anger towards those who continue to take and take and fail to understand the meaning of enough; grief for those who are coming along in our wake, the ones who will be tasked with cleaning up an insurmountable mess; guilt for the role I have played in all this.

So I’ve been thinking quite deeply about my own story. About wanting to edit, to keep it concise and to the point. About wanting it to be a small and responsible tale. About wanting to do my best to take only enough, to focus on needs, not wants. About recognizing my 1-in-7.5 billion-who-the-hell-do-I-think-I-am utter insignificance.

Thinking about insignificance pulled this bit of Macbethian Shakespeare from my (very limited) stores:

… all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Which brings me back full circle: if it all signifies nothing, if this once-existence doesn’t matter, then surely that means our 21st-century tales of sound and fury should be responsible ones; surely that means that our collective robbing of future others of their sound and fury will someday be viewed through a very brittle lens indeed.

And surely that means that those of us who care about such things should not stop trying?

All of which is a really, really, really long-winded way of saying I’m going to next week’s PTO meeting. And I will try, once again, to see if I can convince them to please please please think of the environment. I’m so nervous I’m actually nauseous.

(On a more positive note, we’ve just wrapped up yet another crap-free book fair. I’m happy to report not a single child or parent asked if we had any erasers or light-up pens for sale.)

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15 thoughts on “Stories

  1. Marian, you have given me so much to think about. I am of the school that thinks we are just animals, and have no more ‘rights’ than any other. In fact, I think that our superior (questionable) intelligence to most other life forms grants us only more responsibility.
    That our planet is approaching a cataclysmic crisis fills me with terror and guilt. I am a far from perfect citizen of Planet Earth. I buy plastic-wrapped food, it’s difficult not to, I drive to the shop when I could walk, I eat too much meat, I waste water…
    We will ALL have to change our ways. Soon.
    Considering whether there is any point to our existence, I honestly think not. I think it’s all a lucky coincidence. A miracle of chance. But, we do exist and it behoves us to make the best of it. To me, that means making connections, feeling my existence with all my heart and identifying with the existence of other humans., and honouring the equally valid existence of bees and birds and trees and dandelions.
    That’s my two cents worth.
    🙂
    Lynda.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Lynda, for being brave enough to wade into this with me 🙂 .
      I agree with you 100% — we are just another animal inhabiting this planet, and oh yes, we definitely should be using our intelligence (?!) more responsibly than we currently are. I also agree 100% with the entirety of what you wrote about our existence: that it is pointless and without purpose, other than those purposes which we ourselves create and imagine, and that we must find ways to make the best of it. I absolutely love the way you phrased it: “that means making connections, feeling my existence with all my heart and identifying with the existence of other humans, and honouring the equally valid existence of bees and birds and trees and dandelions” — this is precisely how I feel as well. There is SUCH profound beauty and joy to be found in our existence and in the stories we write…

      On being a perfect citizen of Planet Earth … I’m not sure there is such a person anywhere, anymore (unless there are still some undisturbed and undiscovered tribes of people living deep in a jungle somewhere, in complete harmony with nature?). Our very existence requires us to be consumers, and unfortunately, the last few decades have been marked by a spiralling downward to the lowest common denominator, to more packaging, more convenience, more waste. I don’t necessarily think people have changed — we’re now just far more capable of causing lasting damage than we ever have been in the past, due to new materials that we’ve been smart enough to concoct, as well as to our sheer numbers. Although I would never claim to be perfect when it comes to taking care of the Earth, I do think I have an easier time with being green than many other people do, because of what will probably seem a very strange reason: I have an OCD-like attention to detail. (In all honesty, I should just say OCD and drop the “like”, but someone once (rightly) pointed out that DIY psychiatric diagnoses were irresponsible.) This means I see and calculate EVERYTHING, my mind doing a CSI-type analytical tracery from raw material to factory to store to home to garbage dump. This is great news for the environment (because I am SO damned careful) but not necessarily great for my mental health. While I’m at it, I probably should also mention the anxiety and the idealism; they also help me go green. Eco-neurosis, anyone? /raises hand/
      xo Marian

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      1. Hah! Yup, you’re right, ‘Becca — obsessive would fit the bill. I’ll endeavor to use that instead, until such time as I *actually* haul myself off for therapy 😉 .

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  2. It’s so good to hear from you, Marian!! In HS, I painted an abbreviated version of that Macbeth quote on my bedroom wall. I was a little bit goth back then. It’s funny, but I sometimes think HS me “got” things more than grown up me. The idealist in me wasn’t as TIRED as it is now.

    Anyway, I’ve been finding myself thinking an awful lot of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because I am REALLY struggling with some things right now but they’re all top of the pyramid things. I know there are a lot of people in the world worried about safety and survival so I feel guilty worrying about such things as self actualization, but that’s where I am. Anyway, we seem to be thinking about similar things lately though from different angles.

    I hope the PTO meeting goes well! I can’t wait to hear about it!

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    1. Oh Kate … I write yet another depressing post and you say it’s good to hear from me — you’re such a dear friend 🙂 .
      Your telling me about your HS Macbeth quote has reminded me that I had made (copied/plagiarized) a poster with the saying, “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came” (with the letters P-E-A-C-E done in a different colour to spell PEACE). I had that hanging in my room for years; I suppose I’ve been an idealist pretty much *forever*. I get what you mean about being tired though — quite honestly, I am too, but I guess I’m still more dog-with-a-bone stubborn so I’m just going to keep on keeping on.

      I’m sorry to hear you’re struggling with things now. I confess I had to look up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but having now read a little bit about his theories I can tell you that it seems I’m also (while in the midst of all this other stuff) trying to figure out self-actualization. This summer, I did a bit of reading into personalities, which has been a real eye-opener; I also did a little more DIY psychoanalysis, also an eye-opener. And then, in Rita’s last post she wrote “we are all the protagonist in our own lives, right?”, which really struck me as true. All of which is to say, I’m not sure you need to feel guilty that you’re thinking about self-actualization, unless perhaps that thinking is translating into actual harm done to people you love. I actually wonder if there’s a single woman (alive or dead) who HASN’T struggled with thoughts of how self-actualization fits into the framework of everything else we are (ie. mother, wife, daughter, sister, etc).
      Sending you a hug, Kate.

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  3. Hi Mom!

    Sorry I gave you so much grief over the summer.

    I always love reading your posts, and they usually make me cry (this one is no exception).

    I had a thought the other day, while still reeling with energy from last weekend. I thought about how *everyone* (in Western society anyway) wants to be famous, leave a mark on society, etc, but in the process they contribute to and benefit from excessive consumerism. How I want the opposite, to not leave a mark on the planet at all. I would love to live and die without the Earth ever knowing I existed. I don’t want a pile of my garbage laying in a landfill or CO2 in the atmosphere that I was responsible for. So, I’m making it my goal to be more vocal about the things I believe in. Putting stickers on my computer. Sparking conversations. To keep using my reusable mug (I want to use ZERO disposable cups next year). To keep pushing my housemates to compost, turn off the lights, keep the heat lower, and use less AC. To buy fair trade and organic when I can, to eat more local and in-season produce, to keep riding my bike to work even when I have the option to drive. To participate in events run by organizations I believe in, to attend seminars even when I should be studying. To buy secondhand clothes or only from companies that treat their employees (and the environment) right. All in all, to vote with my dollar. And even as students (especially as students), we can do that! And I think by doing these little things (and talking about them) we can all do our part, and hope that is enough.

    (I got halfway through writing this and I was about to text it to you instead, but I got hit by a wave of motivation so I’m hoping my thoughts will help somehow)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Daughter!
      You don’t have to apologize for causing me grief this summer — I would have come across the article sooner or later, even without you sending it to me. I want to apologize to YOU for causing you to cry. I knew that this post would, and I hate that the things that I seem compelled to write cause you pain. I wish you didn’t know I was writing here, that you wouldn’t read my worrying words, that I could protect you from all of this.

      I’m glad you shared your list of all the things you do, and all the things you want to do in order to inspire others. I think this is the only way most of us can make a difference: by voting with our dollars, with our ballots, with our actions, with our voices. Really, every choice we make can be seen as a vote, and every conversation we choose to have can be seen as a refusal to give up, as a stubborn declaration of I-will-never-give-up-hope. I’m not sure you realize how much you already inspire ME, my dear. The way you made a conscientious decision at age 12 to become a vegetarian, which (hello!) COMPLETELY transformed the way we eat; the way you work so hard at school; the cool, calm, collected way you went off to university; the can-do attitude you display when trying new things; the zest for life that gets you joining clubs and signing up for triathlons and buying a hammock so you can hike and bike and be immersed in nature; the gumption it took for you to walk into a bike shop and get a job, to go on exchange, to LEAD outdoor club trips, to participate in seminars like last weekend’s; the thoughtfulness you display in order to avoid excess consumerism. C once got quite annoyed with me for saying I was proud of him (and rightly so, because his achievements are HIS, not mine), so I won’t use that phrase, but my goodness, I’m honestly so awed that you’re my daughter that it leaves me speechless.
      xo Mom

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  4. Marian,
    I love your heart and your earnestness and your passion, even though all of those things cause you trouble. I hope you go to that meeting and raise some hell–in what I am sure is a very soft-spoken, polite, Marian way. (My mother is soft-spoken and polite and hates confrontation–but she is one of the toughest people I’ve ever known, with a strength that can take others by surprise.)

    I want to offer you an article I read last summer, that shifted how I’ve been thinking about climate and what I need to personally do: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/true-north/2017/jul/17/neoliberalism-has-conned-us-into-fighting-climate-change-as-individuals

    It reminds of what I believe about story: There are the facts of events, which are the what of them, and then there are the stories we tell about them, which are the why and how. There are facts about what happened at the end of my marriage that my ex-husband and I would agree upon, but we tell ourselves (and others) very different stories about what happened. I (of course) believe my version is the truer one. So does my therapist–which is important, because I don’t want to imply that all interpretations are equally valid–but there is likely truth in his version, too.

    Sometimes I think maybe part of the reason life is so hard is that we work so hard to figure out what the real story (of everything) is. (Or maybe that’s just for people like you and me? People who think hard about the deeper meaning of everything.) So, what I’m trying to offer you here is an invitation to think about framing the climate story differently. Maybe it is the story the author of the piece in the Guardian says it is. Which doesn’t mean there is no point in going to the PTO and fighting for crap-free book sales and taking your lace produce bags to the grocery store. Because the kind of change that author is saying we need won’t come if there aren’t a lot of people raising our consciousness about the ways in which our consumerist ways are sign and symptom of the larger problems. And, this doesn’t mean that you, personally, alone, must change the huge, systemic problems that (perhaps) have gotten us into this mess. I think that kind of change only happens collectively, one community at a time.

    Sometimes I get so frustrated at my powerlessness, but I’ve been telling myself a different story. I’ve been telling myself it’s OK to do what I can where I can. What I can is defined by so many things, primarily my mental and physical health. Where I can is the communities in which I live and work. I’ve let go of the desire to tell, through my life, a bigger story than the one I am. Like sultanabun, I tend to think that once it’s over, it’s over. I find this not discouraging or a reason to give up caring altogether, but a reason to care all the more. All we’ve got is this existence we are living right now. I can’t know what’s going to happen after I’m gone. It might all turn around, or the existing order might be destroyed and something better rise up in its place. What I’m trying to do now is love the things I love the best I can–my family, my friends, the planet. I’m trying to trust that others will do the same. And if they don’t and we all perish? We won’t know once we’re gone.

    I don’t know if any of this will be helpful, but I sure appreciate the chance to think about these things this morning. I’m really glad when you are able to write. You say things that need to be said.

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    1. Thank you, Rita, for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment, and for linking to the Guardian article. The author makes many good points: we DO need governments to step in, we DO need to collectively pressure companies to do the right thing, we DO need to think less like individuals. It’s this last point that I think perhaps will become the sticking point for so many people: does language like this translate into an entirely new world order with capitalism left behind? How does something like that happen? Can it, without a revolution? (I don’t expect answers and I don’t know either; I’m not an economist or a politician.) Or does it simply mean that capitalism stays, but EVERYONE needs to open their eyes to what they’re doing, and that the natural result will be idealistic and collective responsibility? I do have to say there was one bit in the article that I did take issue with: the author reports that a hundred companies alone are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions. And while that may be entirely true, this does lead to what I consider to be willful blindness and scapegoating: if oil companies are pulling oil from the ground and releasing carbon, it’s because WE, collectively, are buying what they’re selling. We are the ones willingly getting on airplanes and going for drives and buying stuff we don’t need that’s been shipped halfway around the world. No one is *making us* engage in excessive consumerism. Even if we do get to the point where we have renewables (wind, solar, etc) for electricity and gas-powered vehicles are banned we’re still faced with the issue of what are the INTERIORS of our electric car made of? Plastic (oil). What is the road surface made of? Asphalt (oil). What about important, lifesaving things? What would modern health care look like without plastics (would it even be possible?); what about all the petrochemicals that go into making pharmaceuticals? There are, apparently, 6000 products made from petroleum. What would our lives look like if oil companies suddenly stopped pumping oil? Do people fully understand how oil permeates nearly every aspect of our lives?

      I do see what you mean about change happening collectively, one community at a time. (And that someone has to start this, to set the example, and to hope that momentum takes hold.) Related to this, I’ve recently watched some videos about how The Netherlands got to be such a bicycling nation — they were set to follow the same path as the US and Canada, allowing the car to be king, but being a small and densely populated country, they experienced huge issues related to traffic and congestion and accidents. Mass protests ensued, they lobbied their governments, and look where they are today…

      I appreciate your words about how you try to frame your story, and your existence. Maybe it’s a testament to how much I LOVE stories, but I feel like I simply MUST know what will happen with this global story. I know that’s unlikely, that I probably won’t live long enough to see a new world order, but I have enough hope in humanity (in their basic goodness and ingenuity) to know that there will be one, eventually. (A greatly reduced and substantially changed existence, but still an existence.)

      And my goodness, I completely agree — our incessant need to make sense of things, to find the deeper meaning and the story behind *everything* does indeed make life quite hard. It means a lot to me that you’re walking alongside me and working with me to try to figure things out. Thank you, Rita 🙂 .
      xo Marian

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  5. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be more like the Netherlands? My current life fantasy is to live somewhere that I can walk/bike to most everything I need. To live and work in the same place, to have a smaller life and footprint.

    What I really appreciated about the Guardian piece is the way it helped me see that the emphasis on individual responsibility can mask the need for responsibility that’s not individual. I definitely see that both things are needed, though. I appreciate the way it’s given me permission to be gentler with myself about the things that are hard for me to do. (Like, going without AC in the summer. Can’t do it.) I wish the whole world could be more reasonable and kind, with ourselves and each other.

    I’m glad to have you, too.

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    1. I can’t count the times I’ve wished my mother had never left The Netherlands. (The fact that I might not actually exist right now, if she hadn’t met my father, is a mere wrinkle in this wishing.) They are on top of things in SO MANY ways:
      Water management (ie. flood control), as discussed in this CBC Ideas documentary: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/go-with-the-flow-using-nature-to-help-fight-climate-change-1.4167867
      As well as agriculture, as written about in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/09/holland-agriculture-sustainable-farming/
      And the fact that their children and their women are so much happier than in the rest of the world:

      http://www.macleans.ca/news/world/the-feminismhappiness-axis/

      I agree with you about the Guardian piece — there IS only so much one person can do. And yes, I wish there were more reasonableness and kindness too 🙂 .

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  6. Hi Marion, just came across your post, which is really interesting. I’ve just reset my following, as I keep missing your new posts.
    I felt sad reading it that you seem to feel so alone and powerless with all this. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by good friends and neighbours who think as I do, even though our larger community does not, so at least we’re able to inspire and be inspired by each other. But on the other we do have the internet and the community of like-minded people we can find all around the world to encourage, inspire, and support us – something that would have been unthinkable when I began this journey back in the 1970s.
    And look how your daughter has taken up the challenge herself – what an achievement!
    I guess what I’m saying is that when I look back, I can see we have made massive progress as well as horrible messes. Far too slow with the progress, and far too fast with the messes. That is what helps me move on when I feel despair and lack of hope.
    Good luck with the PTO meeting, and well done for finding the courage to go there again. Don’t assume that if you don’t win them over, you’ve lost. Never underestimate the possibility that someone (or several people) there will go away and think about something differently as a result of your intervention.
    My best wishes, as ever, Deborah

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    1. Thank you for all of this, Deborah.
      You’re very intuitive — I don’t think I said I was feeling alone and powerless, but if I had to choose words to sum up the summer months, those would definitely fit. Especially the alone part. I should mention that my husband IS completely on-board with all the ways I work to keep our household as green as possible, but he (fortunately for him) manages not to be consumed with the issue the way that I am. “In real life” like-minded people/friends — ones who truly understand, ones who (unfortunately) also livebreathesleep this issue — are essentially non-existent around here. I definitely need to keep writing here and commenting elsewhere — it’s a relief for this fish-out-of-water to feel understood and to know I’m not alone, that there are many others out there who are equally as concerned and who are trying their best too.

      I so appreciate your encouragement and your words of wisdom — you’re completely right, just because results aren’t immediate, that doesn’t mean a seed hasn’t been sown…

      My best wishes to you too, Deborah.

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