Brooke biking between Dilkon and Flagstaff. PC: Parker Feierbach
A Long Bike Ride
On Day 28 I stopped counting. At first, counting the oil rigs diverted my attention away from my burning thighs and sun baked arms. When biking fifteen hundred miles around the Colorado Plateau in the heat of summer, games of distraction are necessary. However, once I reached northern New Mexico and oil and gas wells consistently surrounded me, counting was no longer a game.
The Colorado Plateau is known for its wildness. This high desert at the upper end of the Colorado River Basin is home to some of the country’s most loved national parks—from Arches in southeastern Utah to the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. However, not far from these protected lands and sometimes even within them, another story exists.
My long bike ride took me through frontline communities and hubs of resistance, rarely the protected places and more often the forgotten. I camped near the tar sands mine in eastern Utah and hiked among dying aspens in southwest Colorado. I biked through fracking fields in northern New Mexico and learned of the impacts of coal mining on Black Mesa from Navajo elders and the indigenous youth continuing the resistance. I was in a national sacrifice zone.
I sought out climate stories and found rampant injustices and loss. I biked past dense ponderosa forests near Flagstaff, Arizona with tears in my eyes at the knowledge that the trees will likely die in my lifetime. I still hear the voice of Kendra Pinto, a young Diné woman whose home in the Greater Chaco area was just leased to frackers, questioning, “Why do they say we are unimportant?”
I felt a constant sadness. When friends asked about my journey, I had no easy answers. I already knew the facts of climate change on the Colorado Plateau, but statistics only ask of our intellect. Listening demands empathy, immersion requires vulnerability. The people I interviewed carried a subtle anxiety. Some cried and most were exhausted. They asked for reciprocity, needing proof that sharing their story would help their community. I listed off the ways I intended to support their work, but I often felt like a fraud, questioning if my efforts would help at all.
At some points I mistook my grief for hopelessness. However, as Rebecca Solnit says in Hope in the Dark, “grief and hope can coexist.” For Solnit, hope is about action, not naïve optimism. She says, “The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.” The people I met with felt grief, but they chose hope and their stories are calls to action.
Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder
For some, the act is counting deaths that most never see or hear. Bill Anderegg, an ecologist at the University of Utah, studies the tree die-offs in the San Juan National Forest outside of his hometown of Cortez, Colorado. He is a young climate scientist who received his Ph.D. in 2013 and is a father of two-year-old twin girls. He has scruffy blonde hair and it’s clear he chose his research not just because of an interest in climate science, but also a love for the outdoors.
During his first summer of grad school he returned to the areas in which he grew up camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing and found a lot of dead aspen trees.
“Even some of the campsites where we took family pictures were just completely dead,” said Bill. “That was one of the biggest triggering points—realizing, wow, there’s something big going on here, it’s visible and it’s visceral and it’s during my lifetime.”
The drought in the early 2000s that led to the aspen die-offs was significant not because of precipitation levels but temperature; it was two to three degrees centigrade hotter than previous droughts.
Bill took me to some of the plots he’s studying and they ranged from healthy, dense stands to dead stumps. To the dead plots Bill responded, “I guess I don’t have to come back here.” As we walked away, each step felt heavier.
When I asked Bill how he copes with measuring the death of his childhood forest, he shared a term used among climate scientists: Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Bill leading the way through the Aspen groves. PC: Parker Feierbach
Bill said, “It feels a bit like the plot in a Hollywood movie where there’s a scientist that sees something coming towards earth or knows that something is going to happen and is trying their best to scream it to the government officials and nobody is listening. The climate change story feels like that but there’s tens of thousands of scientists trying to make the case.”
His solution? Take it day by day, measurement by measurement, throw yourself into the work and try to avoid thinking about how depressing the big picture is.
“I think of it as an opportunity story. There’s a lot of bad things happening but that means we have a huge agency on the world and we have a responsibility and opportunity to fix this,” Bill said. “Having that hope and that inspiration is probably much more important than feeling concerned or worried or depressed. We can certainly fuck it up, but we can also try our hardest and end up with a lot better world at the end of it.”
We can accept the invitation to act.
A Sense of Humor
People’s decision to act isn’t just prompted by current or future loss, but rather sparked by generations of injustice.
Diné CARE (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment), a Navajo organization that preserves and protects the Diné way of life, has been fighting environmental injustices for three decades. Established in 1988, Diné CARE successfully prevented a toxic waste incinerator from locating in the Navajo community of Dilkon, Arizona.
I met with the past and current directors of Diné CARE, Anna Frazier and Carol Davis, at their homes in Dilkon surrounded by miles of open land punctuated by volcanic buttes.
Brooke speaking with Anna Frazier and Carol Davis. PC: Parker Feierbach
When I asked Anna what motivates her, she responded, “It’s the way that our people were treated. A lot of injustices have been going on for years and years. It’s very frustrating to know that the injustices are still going on.”
However, Anna and Carol don’t just feel grief. They also choose joy.
“Navajo people like to tease one another. We’re always laughing,” Anna said.
“We have a sense of humor built in us. I think that’s what really helps.”
Carol explained to me that humor is part of the Navajo language. “There’s sometimes when we’ll just all be upset about something that didn’t go the way we had hoped but somebody will say something in Navajo that’s just hilarious.”
Humor feeds joy which sustains hope. As Solnit argues, “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”
I hear sorrow and anger in the stories I recorded, but I also hear laughter. I see the smiles through the audio and I remember jumping in rivers and standing in awe among purple, yellow, and blue wildflowers thriving under dancing aspens. I remember singing.
Sometimes the will to laugh comes from an ability to recognize uncertainty. Hope depends on accepting the unknown. Acting for climate justice does not guarantee a stable climate, and I have little belief that we can prevent complete climate catastrophe. Across the Colorado Plateau, climate change already reveals itself in drying river beds and dying aspens. The endless oil rigs I passed didn’t just symbolize injustice now, but future climate chaos. Though I stopped counting the oil rigs, I didn’t stop listening. I heard our capacity to create beauty, a beauty rooted in community inspired by our stories.
In 2009, the Maldives government held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Eight years later the image of the Maldives government sitting underwater in scuba gear is still potent, as it symbolizes not only the urgency of climate change but the power of creative action. Island nations like the Maldives know rising seas will one day drown their home. The 2009 climate conference was a failure, but the actions of island nations helped build the momentum for the Paris Agreement and the current global climate justice movement.
Dr. Ibrahim Didi at the underwater Maldives Cabinet meeting prior to the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference. PC: Daily Mail.
The climate science is only getting stronger, and there are some future realities we know with fair certainty. A recent study said the American Southwest faces a 99% chance of megadrought. A drier, hotter Colorado Plateau is near definite. Death is guaranteed. But we do not yet know our response. Loss invites regenerative solutions and creativity.
The drying of the Colorado River Basin will take place on a longer scale than the flooding of the Maldives. But slowly our rivers will run dry. What will our act be? I imagine us laying in a dried river bed holding hands. The movement for climate justice on the Colorado Plateau will emerge when we recognize our struggles are connected.