There’s No One Right Way to Be a Climate Activist
There is a pit looming in the bottom of my stomach. Some days, it grows. Rarely, it shrinks. Still, it is always there: a sense of impending doom peering out at the world from behind my ribcage. It’s scared, or rather I’m scared that what I see will not be there the next time I look. We have nine years before we reach an inevitable turning point.
Nine years. That’s nearly half my life. When I was only nine, I could rattle off an explanation of the salmon life cycle without a second thought. I knew why warming oceans were harmful to a keystone species of my local ecosystem. See, I couldn’t say it eloquently—being a third-grader, after all—but I could say it nonetheless. Rather than being so afraid of losing the salmon that I refused to talk about the danger they faced, my nine-year-old self took it as a personal mission to be the voice for those fish. Even now, especially now, I admire my younger self for that.
Another nine years later. Not far from the present. I understood the impact that anthropogenic actions have on the atmosphere and weather patterns. I could describe the key moments when we chose a dangerously precarious path towards growth when the one that could save us was clear. I felt a sense of urgency to share what I knew, if also a sense of foreboding. I never suspected how much of my life would be stained by this dread. Sure, I noticed the smears of trepidation scattered across my decisions and my actions. I thought I could outrun them. So, I read and learned and read some more; I shared what I learned everywhere I could. Part of me was sure that by understanding what we were up against, I could help defeat it.
A year later at barely 19, I still talk about climate change. I still read all I can. The only difference is that now when I do, the rift in my chest grows. My feet sink a little deeper into the mud as I watch another corner of my heart rust. Nine years. In nine years, I will be 28. I like to think I’ll have my life together by then; in all likelihood, I won’t. See, it’s hard to spend nearly a decade building something when it feels inevitable that it will end in flames. The tipping point for the climate approaches quicker and quicker every day. There will be no turning back when we get there. We will fall. There will be casualties and loss: immense loss of life, work, species, homes. Truthfully, there already have been. We just cannot see them from our high ground. We are at a tipping point: what will we choose to do?
A shudder. I remember we only have nine years, less than nine years left. The pit widens and sucks anything nearby into its gaping maw: stomach, liver, ribs. As a black hole grows, its gravity increases. Resistance is futile; everything will be captured eventually. Sooner or later, there will be nothing left. No survivors. IPCC report is 'code red for humanity.'
My organs are gone but my feet stay stuck in the weeds knotted around my ankles. It takes surprisingly little effort to step outside my body and walk away. I detach. A gaseous, shapeless form, I watch as the roots crawl further upwards, faster upwards. I need to shout I need to move I need to escape but I-
can’t. I am caught in paralysis. The carbon in my lungs has crystallized so I cannot breathe and still my limbs cannot move. I am stuck. From my vantage point beside my body, I see the pit grow. I witness myself numbly click news article after news article. With each one, my shoulders roll inwards. Another crystal grows. This one severs my vocal cords; I don’t know how to talk anymore.
The dread looms. The pit deepens. I hear the murmurs of the few who scream at the world as though they can alter it with their voices. Maybe they can. I want to listen, I want to believe they can actually do something, but I fear what they say too much. The end of the world is coming if we don’t change a lot of things really quickly. I don’t like the world, not really anyway, but I don’t want to lose it either.
The more carbon I inhale, the more hope gets displaced. Everyone always told me I was too hopeful and too naïve. For once, I wonder if they’re right. It is hard to find reason to be hopeful, after all. This is especially the case when vines have inundated your limbs to pull you underground and geodes have formed in your windpipe. I start to think it doesn’t matter if I cannot move nor talk. I’m too afraid to find the will to do so anyway.
A cheer. Quiet, at first. Soon though, one voice becomes two becomes twenty becomes one hundred voices chanting in unison. You hear a single voice again. This time, that voice is loud because it is not just one, but many. Open your eyes. Take a moment to savor this. Glance at the rag-tag group around you: a boy with ruffled hair balancing a beat-up skateboard under his arm. A young mother lifting her child to marvel at the sea of hand-painted signs. An elderly couple on the sidelines, arms entwined as they mouth the cheers. You do not know them; notice how you love them. Maybe you do know them, somehow. After all, they are each here for the same reason as you.
Your breath catches when you feel your pulse beating in your ears. For a moment, your heart speeds up, then slows. Breathe in. Notice how the crowd inhales with you. Breathe out. You regain your voice, and you whisper. Your words meld with many others. It lifts your heart a little. Together, we can make a difference. A shiver runs down your spine at the notion, and you smile. You start to believe it. We can—and will—be the change. The boy standing next to you claps and soon everyone is clapping and you can’t help but join in. You know they’re right. You start to believe that you can be one of them, too.
Slowly, you grow. You begin to unpack the dirt that piled up around you and stuck you in place. Somehow, you start to see a little bit of hope. A reckless, risky form of hope, but still hope. It pushes you forward. You speak; your voice breaks but you speak anyway. Still, the fear of a desolate future lingers in the space between your lungs, threatening every day to paralyze and consume you. Probably, it always will. Still, you’re beginning to understand that it is possible to drown out the fear-mongering in your mind. All it takes? The voices of the people around you. Maybe it starts with a whisper, but you’ll speak too.
We are all familiar with the statistics and headlines surrounding climate change. Ultimately, they boil down to a single terrifying truth: we are headed toward extinction if we do not immediately change our collective actions. It’s an utterly terrifying thing to think about—we are forced to confront our mortality. We must deal with the repercussions of our actions. When all we ever hear is that our world is ending, it’s impossible to fully close ourselves off from being afraid. And if we could, I’d be worried about more than just our future. Regardless of the degree of fear we feel, it is a completely valid and understandable response to the climate crisis.
Yet, each of us responds to that fear differently. Some of us find ourselves paralyzed by such dread that we are unable to do anything at all. We think we can’t make a difference, so why bother? Or, talking about the real, looming impacts of the climate crisis gives us so much anxiety and grief that we cannot bring ourselves to do so at all. We feel left behind because we can’t or aren’t ready to tackle the climate crisis verbally or actively. This is okay. We are still part of the movement that is making a difference.
Others of us are galvanized by the fear in our stomachs. We are so afraid that we do not worry about the impacts of throwing everything to the wind and giving our whole selves over to the climate movement. Yes, we are afraid, but for us, taking action is not a choice but a necessity. We deal with our climate grief by taking to the streets or the internet to share what we know to be true. This is okay too. We are also part of the movement that is making a difference.
Maybe, you are somewhere in-between. You’re afraid. You whisper. You walk. This is okay. You deserve to be here. You are a part of the movement that is making a difference.
There is no one-size-fits-all way to be a climate activist. Truthfully, that is a good thing. People from all walks of life are and will be affected by climate change—just like our movement. We need public speakers and poets, legislators and artists, urban planners and youth, scientists and chefs. We need diverse perspectives and passion because they are what gives us our power. Most of all, we need you.
No matter how you choose to be a part of the climate movement, we need you. We need you with all of your fear and all of your belief that we can diverge from the dangerous path we’re on. We need your hope, too. We need you.