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I don’t often do despair…

September 12, 2011

It’s taken me six hours to get out of bed. I know everybody has these days – when the side of the bed that faces the wall is the only comfort you want. Sometimes it’s after a heavy night, which ends with words erupting, smeared all over the caring eyes of the person you love. I’ve been there. Off my head at three in the morning and on a mission – wanting my love to know how great and solitary that mission was. And then I woke the next day, and she was next door and I felt so stupid to have thought anything could be achieved without her, alone. But by then it’s too late. You’ve hurled arrogant despair at the person you like best. They’ve withdrawn from you and it won’t be the same again.

Today I woke up in a cargo ship on my way to the High Arctic and shoved my face into the crack between the mattress and the wall. When I did turn my body round the sad fact of bright September sunshine and 14 degrees Arctic temperature was too much so I reverted to the edge of the mattress. When nature called I finally got up and sat heavy on the loo. I knew that around me stranger sailors were getting on with their jobs and further – some hundred miles north – a Greenpeace boat was measuring the lowest volume of Arctic ice since records began. I cried for the first time in months with my elbows on my bare knees and my temples in my hands and tears being squeezed out desperate to make some sort of physical sign acknowledge that this moment had happened.

A friend of mine once bought a book about living in this society whilst being hyper aware of its contradictions – that there are 9bn people on one shrinking planet and we all want – and are told it’s right to want – more. I wish I could remember what the book was called.

I’m out of bed now and writing because every day of this trip the number one item on my to do list has been:

write a ‘what are you doing?!’ inspiring and condemning call to arms, or manifesto, or letter or anything that people will read and will motivate them to risk everything to push our leaders, communities, families into preparing for climate change.

And I hadn’t managed it, but I hadn’t yet woken up in tears about climate change, so perhaps today’s the day. Problem is I don’t know what to say. In a way since I left university there’s been a lot of attempts to ‘raise awareness’ and ‘motivate change’. There have been small inspiring moments when my involvement in the ‘green movement’ has been a good thing (and moments where my ambitious careerism has made me, and others, question my motivations for caring at all) and then there’s the general fact that fewer people care about climate change than did when I began, that people I met along the way who inspired me have now given up their public fight and that many of those who do continue to campaign are feeling exhausted – and here I am on the trip of a lifetime weeping at my computer.

Today I don’t much want to go to the Arctic. After two weeks on various boats I’m just 5 hours away. In the seas around Svalbard it’s warmer and calmer than the Captain has ever known it to be so late in the year – and I’m getting sadder by the mile. Visiting the Arctic which is disappearing because of climate change – no not climate change – but because still we do nothing to limit our impact – turns out to be the most depressing thing I’ve ever done. It isn’t helping me ‘accept’ that we’ve changed the climate, nor is it wowing me in any way that isn’t sorrowful. It’s just scary and fucking sad that people with power and influence have flown here and seen this and still climate change is bottom of their agenda; that Greenpeace have a ship here and a dedicated comms team pushing messages to global media and yet it’s unreported.

I don’t know what it will take, or what all those people who graduated with me – and since – and before – are doing? What’s anyone doing who wants to grow up with comfort? I don’t know where to fling myself to make a difference, but there’s no way I could stop flinging. Since I was taught about the very simple facts of climate change (go to NASA’s climate website), and worked out their significance to now and the future, I’ve taken opportunities where they’ve opened. I’ve reacted to public and political debate. I’ve tried to coax people into an ‘exciting world’ where we don’t need fossil fuels – where something other than money, things and economic growth has value.  I go for coaxing because somewhere along the way I was told that fear doesn’t motivate change and that speaking apocalyptically turns people off.

Arctic ice is melting, the Greenland icesheet is retreating – all of it – all of the global glaciers that have been there for hundreds of thousands of years are turning to water. And what where it’s hot, or where low-lying states are susceptible to flooding?

We know the things we do that make climate change irreversible (it involves burning fossil fuels). We know the things we do which use up limited resources (it involves free market consumerism). We can predict what will happen if we have increased natural disasters and fewer natural resources. It’s such a big turnaround that’s needed – heroic really – and instead all of the nations who make the problem are refusing to acknowledge that the decisions they make are the only solution. The people in charge put off the difficult debates and painful decisions so that our parents – their voters – can continue to live well, our parents who will not live to see the consequences of this neglect.

We need to build resilience. We need to consider how our society will cope with immigration when we make Africa uninhabitable, when Pakistan is under water (with current UK debates about immigration and international aid this is my most depressing thought). But instead international negotiations have stalled and climate change is not a mainstream problem or debate.

I’m in the Arctic and I will keep trying to see it with the enchantment it deserves – especially as so few are going to be able to see what I will. And yet – even that – is just another reason to mourn. 

Can I make the ‘call to arms’ when I get home? It hurts too much here and I don’t know how to write with hope. Promise to be upbeat again soon, probably when I see Svalbard and remember how natural it is to be part of something. 

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2011 8:41 am

    That’s a really moving piece, Tamsin.


  2. Laurie permalink
    September 12, 2011 8:58 am

    Hi Tamsin,

    I’m glad you found the will to express your feelings in this heartfelt and moving reflection. We’ve only fleetingly met at a Climate Rush event but when I saw your post on fb I felt compelled to read it, and then to respond, as I’ve found you to be such an inspiration; your enthusiasm has helped to get me through similar and regular periods of despair! I’ve quite often experienced a loss of hope since becoming driven to turn my attention to doing whatever I felt I could to push for an adequate response to the problems we face.

    I think it’s rational for anyone looking at the facts and all the indicators which show we’re heading in the wrong direction so quickly, to become depressed and fall into despair. There is of course some progress – an increasing focus upon effective behaviour change and the adoption of renewables with a sprinkling of energy efficiency measures – but on balance the picture is overwhelmingly bleak, particularly as the main cause of our problems remains intact. HOWEVER, thankfully there is a positive side to the double-edged sword of human irrationality which has got us into such a mess – hope! Although hope seems pretty irrational given the circumstances, whenever I’ve found things too bleak, I’ve reminded myself that the choice is ultimately between hope and total despair. I think what has pushed me time and again towards hope is that, in the past, hope has helped people to achieve incredible things despite overwhelmingly poor odds, against which the only ‘rational’ response would be to admit defeat. WWII and the film Touching the Void spring to mind.

    To be more specific, I think hope lies in taking the most effective measures to address the problems we face. I now believe this involves mass awakening or liberation from the egoic trance that has led humanity to the brink of runaway climate change and species extinction, and to the creation of a world so full of riches yet where so many don’t have their basic needs met. Perhaps this might sounds a bit left-field to you, I don’t know. But my hope lies with the prospect that, by showing people that true happiness can be achieved internally (and only internally), an ever-increasing number of people can become free from the egoic ‘matrix’ which creates false external reality and identity through unbounded consumption, self-image etc. I think this path will be effective because it will lead to happiness (e.g. see Happiness by Matthieu Ricard), whereas trying to find happiness externally is so enduring precisely because it is so ineffective – it always leaves us wanting more.

    I hope you have a wonderful time in the Arctic and perhaps if you still need a hope-booster when you get back you might find ‘A New Earth’ by Eckhart Tolle a good read.



  3. September 12, 2011 11:17 am

    Dear Tamsin,

    Your words express my feelings so well.

    For a variety of reasons, I’m re-reading (re-skipping would be more accurate) Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, written immediately after WWII. I don’t think it’s because I imagine we’re going to enter another period quite like that, but with #gfc2 and the breakdown of international consensus – which meant, anyway, the rich getting richer etc – anything may happen.

    But Arendt was an amazing woman. She devoted herself to attempting to make sense of what is going on, of what we are doing. She taught, she lectured, she was courageous and determined and she had lived on the edge of hell.

    Climate change (and peak oil, and the two combined, together with financial chaos and all associated) is more than enough to make us cry and your tears are on behalf of us all: anger, rage, grief, despair….

    How best to use our time, our short lives?

    Your trip and your journal seem to me an excellent, amazing contribution.

    Here, (in UK, US, probably most of Europe) we have been through a most odd, hype-ed ‘celebration’ of 9/11, designed for what? To increase fear, distract us from the ‘now’, scapegoat Islam? Who knows? Totally ignoring the number of civilians (3 million, I read – could that be right?) who have died in Iraq.

    I know how worthwhile what you are doing truly is, when I read Laurie’s response and know your words are able to evoke equal depth and honesty in response to your own.

    Much of your exasperation is with the politicians and the media, who ignore Greenpeace, who know what is going on but still leave the truly important at the bottom of the agenda. How can this happen? Why are we so short-sighted?

    I rejoined the Labour Party because I’d heard Ed Miliband speaking and thought (knew?) that he’d really ‘got it’ and wanted to vote for him as leader. You can imagine my present disappointment; or is he very, very clever….?

    On the whole, you have gone beyond thinking that conventional politics are able to bring about the necessary changes but rather, that we need to change conventional politics. I suppose that’s why I’m reading Arendt and Hobsbawm.

    I’m sure that Laurie is right to depend upon hope and action to counter despair. I now think of it as radical hope, in that it has to be born out of confrontation with the bleakness of the facts.We have to go through despair – over and over again.

    But, while we are reading and writing, you are sailing to the Arctic, going through moments of total despair and taking us all with you. All we can do is live, moment by moment and hope that we will know gradually what we are called to do next.

    Plan for today as if you will die tomorrow, plan for tomorrow as if you will live forever: Ibn Gabirol (but I might have got it wrong!)


  4. September 12, 2011 8:16 pm

    Moving words Tamsin,
    Big hug, Ja

  5. September 13, 2011 7:24 pm

    You’re not alone. I’ve cried buckets and buckets the last 4 years over this. It’s nice to see others acknowledge this as well, but scary that we’ve had to come this far to do so. Hold tight. It’s going to be bumpy, but I think we might just make this. Btw, I write a blog that solely deals with the psychological repercussions of seeing climate change right before my eyes. It’s good to get it out.

  6. Jaci permalink
    September 14, 2011 1:15 am

    Chin-up Tamsin, you’re doing a great job! Hang in there, people are still listening.

  7. Linda Whitebread permalink
    September 15, 2011 12:11 pm

    Your words have reached me via Elisabeth. You are an inspiration; please keep doing what you are doing and know that many of us are thinking of you and sending our support. Good luck.

    • October 4, 2011 6:40 am

      thank you! pleased to be feeling about a million times more excited, energetic etc after a month or so at sea – it’s funny the perspective big ocean and high mountains can give.. last night i dreamt about the cambridge rendezvous!! hopefully meet you there

  8. September 20, 2011 9:54 am

    Beautiful. I should be there too, but can’t be….and this has me wondering even more how i’d be feeling if I was…it must be strange being so close to somewhere/thing that makes some of the things you believe even more real

    Hope it’s magical and fun too


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