I do not want to write about climate change right now – though I devote my life to understanding and fighting it. I am in arm’s reach of another crisis. Family members have been or are sick, many friends have lost their jobs, and the entire world is changing at breakneck speed, while I am relegated to a few square feet of apartment.
Many are facing worse and have minimal help, guidance, or leadership. People are in pain and fear is rife. How are we – how am I also supposed to think critically about a different planetary crisis? I do not have an answer, but I want to reflect on what keeps me motivated during this pandemic. Not just to write this piece, but to spend the next few months in the forests of West Virginia collecting data on how trees respond to disturbances like fire, wind, and invasive species; to become some sort of expert on how ecosystems respond to climate change’s destructive mechanisms; to help people navigate dangerous future environments. But anything I write at present is inextricably tied to the pandemic and my fears for the future.
Nonetheless, it is in the present that I find a kind of hope: seeing the buds on trees and shrubs slowly emerge as though nothing were different. Watching through my front window and seeing the kid on a skateboard teach an older gentleman what a kick-flip is. Reading Max Ehrmann’s ‘Desiderata’ for what seems to be the millionth time – and listening to Nina Simone’s cover of ‘Suzanne’ for the two-millionth.
I take a walk around my neighborhood and see window signs supporting essential workers, the oft abused heroes in the seaweed. I browse Instagram to see those who are struggling with quarantine, attempting new hobbies, posting about the golden days of freedom, or trying to convince others of their prodigious productivity. I chat with my grandparents about the minutiae of the day; debrief with my mom about the serious issues of the day. I see families endure pain, but spend more time together than ever. I am reminded of how much I love humanity… Lordy do I love our species.
But my research is entirely focused on that which strains the human spirit and the forest ecosystems we depend on. Continually reading and writing about fires, windstorms, and invasive species, all hellish minions of climate change, is exhausting and terrifying. These stressors will likely become more frequent with a changing climate and cause many forests to become unrecognizable – or disappear entirely. This bodes poorly for the human populace that is beholden to these systems for oxygen, carbon sequestration, and inspiration.
Realizing humanity’s future struggles, I want to preserve both ecosystems and people by studying that which could destroy them. My aim is to hold a mirror up to the future to help build a more peaceable transition to this nearly inevitable climate crisis. Both working for and being supported by the simple, tender things that hold us together in times of peril.
I believe there is good to struggle for in the world, but I am not trying to romanticize disaster. I would prefer to live without a pandemic and a dangerously warm planet. Unfortunately, this is not reality and peace does not come easily – but becoming so jaded that life’s pleasures are forgotten does nothing for me. It would be easy to write about the rage I feel towards the powerful who opt for short-term gain at the expense of people and planet; or to dwell on whether this land was made for you and me. There is a time for that, just not here, as blind anger can muddle good intentions.
So, I will continue to think about the folks who are just caught in the passenger seat of this moment in history. I will steadfastly remind myself of the beauty in humanity and the need for compassion in the face of crises, especially those that are human-caused. And, I will reflect on human goodness – both now and in the future – which is all I can hope to work for.
Sam is a 3rd year PhD student at the University of Minnesota studying how forest ecosystems respond to disturbances like fire and invasive species. He is fascinated with change in societal and ecological systems because it seems to be the only constant in each.