I will sometimes love you
Parties over mountains. Unless they're mountain parties.
For my 40th birthday I, without subtlety, hinted to my husband that what I most wanted was a marching band to parade down our street playing Louie Louie. Thankfully, he ignored me, and instead surprised me with a concert. My friends and family rehearsed in secret for weeks, and put on the best show of my life in our backyard. My #hotmoms, fierce beauties each and every one, sang the hell out of my favourite songs. My tiny son, draped in a regal purple cape, pulled off a perfect Gogol Bordello cover. My daughter and her friends danced. My husband, who does not sing, sang. And everywhere I looked, I saw the gorgeous faces of the people I love most in the world, grinning, dancing, or simply looking around in disbelief if they were newer to the mix and as yet unaware of how extra my fam gets about parties. I think of this day often, partly because it happened right before the pandemic, but mostly because it was one of the best moments of my life (birth of my children, wedding, and the day I discovered truffle chips notwithstanding).
Nature was part of this day. I remember the beautiful light, and the lazy summer air. I remember lacy bits of sun dancing over my friends’ and sisters’ babies at the park picnic they had cheekily ferried me to whilst husband and co. set up. But to say that nature had any part in the day beyond being a most accommodating host would be wrong. The day was about the people and experiences I love best.
I’ve been thinking about this in the wake of a much overdue review of the way we have climate campaigned for years, in particular using love of nature as the way to motivate people into action. I built a few of these campaigns and thought they made good sense at the time. But now I think we got a few things wong.
We overplayed love of nature, and conflated it with nature deficit disorder.
I interviewed Dr. Richard Louv a decade ago and fell into profound agreement with his thoughts about the importance of nature, and its healing effects. This is why I kick my children outside every day, and go camping even as 27% of me loathes it.
Of course we need nature in our lives. And nature can act as a gateway to love of planet. And yet it’s not the mountain vista that motivates us to take climate action, but the people we climbed the mountain with, while throwing trail mix at each other, singing stupid songs. Our climate messaging mistake was to make nature the star of the communiqué, instead of a valued member of the ensemble.
It was also both presumptuous and elitist to think that everyone would fall in love with epic nature at first glance. Lots of people haven’t gotten to experience the great outdoors, through no fault of their own. And even if they were to do so, they might need a bit of time to nurture a love of dirt under their fingernails, nevermind using those dirty fingernails to advocate for climate action.
And finally, dividing the worlds we inhabit into buckets is nonsensical. This post from Earthrise is both wrongheaded and unhelpful. Nothing about the normal milieu of our lives is unnatural. Nature is not a pedestal. As the kids like to say, we are nature. Moreover, as we pollute our planet, any distinction between these spaces is muddied. Pristine nature is awash in microplastic and people live in houses full of greenery. There are no silos.
It’s easy to see how we got here. The visual salience of nature is overpowering. While home for the holidays, I’d walk to my fave childhood banyan tree with my kids and niece and nephews each day. I’d admire its new swings and branches and hiding spots, the sharp light only intermittently cutting through the density. Honestly, it’s a tree that you can just lose yourself in for an hour or three. But is my fascination with the tree, or with the tiny scenes playing out across its branches? I think it’s about the interplay — my strawberry-blond niece in her sage green sandals, scampering after my daughter, a fearless monkey. My son, commanding his battalion of cousins. My sisters and brothers-in-law, drinking beers in the crabgrass of its shade, while our geographically-dispersed children reconnect in a melange of languages. And yet, when I look at the picture in my mind, I always see the tree first.
Of course, different strokes for different folks. My delightful friend Isaac (thanks, IK!) pointed me to entomologist Doug Tallamy’s breakdown of human affinities: “I have found that most people fall into one of three groups: they like plants, they like animals, or they like neither.” Bleak but fair. The key is to realize this, while also gently reminding people that nature sustains everything. But also, if people like kittens, that is as valid a core motivation to be nurtured as love of forest.
We pluralized and abstracted instead of singularizing and humanizing.
It’s marketing truism that an appeal must target one thing you can do over many. Help this single orphan, not help these seven orphans. And yet, we everythinged climate. The climate crisis is already a hyperobject, a concept too big to comprehend (as coined by eco-philosopher Timothy Morton, and explored fairly comprehensively in Amanda Hess’ good Times piece last week.) To counter it with a call to action that asks people to summon love for everything seems both unbelievably intuitive and patently idiotic.
In 2013 my favourite professor, environmental psychologist Dan Dolderman, gave a TED Talk in which he said the climate crisis was about Everything You Love. This phrase, which I fell in love with (meta much?) has hummed in my brain for nearly a decade. I wrote about it in my newsletter a few years ago, And I think everything I said, and Dan preached, still holds up, with one absolutely key change – It’s not Everything You Love, It’s Something You Love. Everything you love is a vaseline-lensed montage of the greatest hits of your life that you can’t grab onto. It’s a hyperobject itself, too big to comprehend. Something you love is a moment, a conversation, a party, a game, an embrace that you call up with a vivid clarity that sticks. It’s that singular love, situated in, but not secondary to “nature,” that motivates the action we need to inspire climate care.
How to make this actionable?
Ask people for just one thing they love.
Use that to fuel their climate action.
This week: Singular thoughts
What is that one moment, time, place, person, sandwich that you come back to when you think about all that is good in the world? Let me know.
Last week: Climate is an inside job
Jesse, it was a garbage week for democracy here in Canada, and your email brought much-needed sunshine to my inbox. Thank you!
“I'm a 15-year car-free and newbie vegan elder in Bellingham, WA, a still car-centric little town, and this is my dog and me on my wonderful pedal-when-I-want-to electric trike, my 80th birthday gift to myself.”
Plus, your city’s doing some pretty cool climate work! Bellingham sets strong standards for climate- and health-friendly electric buildings!
“No one is going to look back in twenty years and think our takes were too radical.” A clarion shout of a piece from excellent LA Times journalist Sammy Roth. Wish I’d read that phrase twenty years ago!
A brilliant take from one of my newsletter besties, Stacy Lee Kong at Friday Things: Looks Like the Wellness-To-White-Supremacy Pipeline Is Alive and Well (Interesting unto itself, but all the more so because the Venn overlap of wellness and climate is too big for comfort.)
The NYT article on MMT is really bad. (Noahpinion). I’m susceptible to the no debt on a dead planet argument, so MMT has always been a little bit of a quiver for me. But Noah unpacks some of the frailties of the theory, and what I’ve long feared – that MMT is a meme in search of a model, and one that has no viable response to inflation. Which I knew, but did not want to believe. (Doesn’t mean we still don’t need to open the climate investment firehose tho!!!)
No climate justice without voting rights. Grist goodness.
My husband explores the beautiful words, and tragic life, of Florida writer Zora Neale Hurston in this dazzling edition of Get Wit Quick. (Thank you, dear reader Vicki, for saying you read us both!)
C’mon C’mon. If Don’t Look Up is a movie with the climate crisis at its core, C’mon C’mon is one with climate on its periphery. It’s not about climate, but you feel it in the Ira Glass-ish interviews with kids about the future they imagine. Melancholy, funny, slow in a good way, and so smart.
Thanks to Canary Media for interviewing me alongside the peppy watercolours of Nicole Kelner in today’s Friday Social, a great new climate column from Mike Munsell.
I know we’re not supposed to say “save the planet,” and still I always say “save the planet.” Jenny Price sent me her book, Stop Saving the Planet: An Environmentalist Manifesto, and I humbly vow to excise this phrase henceforth.
The opening credits to Season 2 of Cheer. Slow and beautiful (the song, really). The whole show is such a heartbreaking portrait of America (That said, I may be unduly enamored of it as Season 1 got me through having my tonsils out at 40, which I do not recommend.)
Bonus beauty: “Sometimes I think all I’m ever doing is trying to convince myself I’m climbing in the trees.”
Thank you for reading! As always, let me know how to make this newsletter better.
Wishing you health and comfort and energy and truffle chips,