Tag Archives: nature

(Don’t) Panic: A hitchhiker’s guide to climate anxiety

In late March, I gave a presentation on fear and hope and helplessness in climate communications at a local Climate Change summit. There was supposed to be a video at some point, but I’ve (temporarily) given up on ever seeing it; but here’s what I said, with a picture of me saying it, in a handmade dress no less.

I’d love to hear what you think . It seems to be a bit of a Rorschach test: people hear what they think they’re going to hear, so far. Something like, “I loved your speech! It was about [climate communications preconception,] and that’s awesome!” And I say, “Thank you!” And I think, “Interesting, that’s not what I was trying to say.”

(As presented)

So climate experts are sniping at each other on Twitter again.

What about, you ask? The remaining carbon budget? Sea level rise? Hurricane projections? Oh no. None of that. There is only one subject I’ve seen continually spark fights between distinguished climate scientists on twitter, and it’s this:

Should we do everything we can to scare the bejeezus out of people to get them to act on climate change? Or, if we want people to act on climate change, must we do everything in our power to avoid scaring the bejeezus out of people?

I used to be on Team Fear, partly because fear was key for me. I grew up in a house stacked with books about Armageddon, full of lurid details about how the world was sure to end in fire in the 1980s, proof being Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark. Which meant I grew up thinking I wasn’t going to high school.

It’s not so different from Greta Thunberg and the school strikes. That’s it, folks. At the same age I was when I had my daughter, you will see human civilization begin to irretrievably crumble. We messed up. Sorry. Also, here’s a large student debt. And are you saving for your retirement? The seniors’ colony on Mars is not going to be cheap, so you wanna get started.

As it turned out, Gorbachev wasn’t the antichrist. He was just a guy who tried really hard to bring democracy to Russia. Climate models, however, consistently underpredict impacts, so the wildfires and hurricanes and sea level rise are all ahead of schedule.

You would not believe the number of people in the last year who, when I tell them I work in climate change, say, “tell me the truth. Are we screwed? Should I just get drunk and wait for the end?” The titanic comes up a lot.

Fear got me into climate change, just like fear got me into church. So if other people weren’t engaged, they must not be scared enough. So I scared them.

We haven’t had this much carbon in the atmosphere for millions of years! I said. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying from climate impacts every year! YOU HAVE CHILDREN! If you’re not doing something, YOU’RE KILLING THEM!

No, I did. And it never, ever worked.

Why weren’t people responding with more enthusiasm to my terrifying mountain of facts?

Because fear doesn’t work, the research said. It paralyzes people. They hide from the issue instead of engaging with it.

Huh. Really? That’s weird. It didn’t do that for me.

Or, well.

Am I the only one who hasn’t yet packed an emergency kit for the next major blackout or extreme weather event?

I’m a type 1 diabetic. Ask me how many cookies I’ve eaten this week.

(The cookies here have been delicious, by the way, as always–so I guess you know the number’s not zero.)

Friends, I’ve had 100% cookie-based meals.

The complications of type 1 diabetes are objectively terrifying, and this means nothing in the face of a homemade chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven. Which I take the time to make myself. Partly to manage the stress of working in climate change. I should see amputations sliding off the cookie sheet, instead, I see endorphins.

OK. We’ll scrap fear. We’ll focus on hard work, optimism and hope. Hope is big. Hope is printed in really big letters all over this Summit, for instance.

I tried really hard. It went something like this:

Don’t give up! If we pull together and have some lucky technological breakthroughs, things will only get worse for another 50-100 years, and then, assuming we don’t skip merrily past any invisible tipping points, we can stabilize at a level that supports human civilization! Take transit!”

That didn’t work either!

When I tried to scare people, they called me an alarmist; when I tried to inspire people with hope, they called me an alarmist. Then Greta comes along and sparks an entire mass climate movement with five letters:

P A N I C

I give up. Or, no, I don’t give up. That’s incompatible with hope-messaging. Wait, what are we doing again?

The facts of climate change are objectively terrifying. What kind of hand-waving could we do to make that disappear?

Susanne Moser is a climate communications expert and the author of a textbook on the subject (that I read for fun). Here she says there are seven parts to an effective climate communication:

“a minimum amount of information, a realistic assessment of the threat, a sense of personal control, a clear goal, an understanding of strategies, a sense of support, and frequent feedback.”

What do they get?

That it’s possible we are ending the ability of the planet to support human civilization. Doomed cities, doomed countries, doomed cultures, deaths numbering in the millions—or more, the loss of entire branches of the tree of life within our lifetimes, wars and mass migrations caused by human desperation. –information and threat

That if we don’t decarbonize by 2050, our goose is cooked. Literally. —goals

That strategies like renewable energy and electric cars exist, but we haven’t been able to deploy them at sufficient scale.

That carbon levels are still going up. —feedback

And that it’s all in the hands of people they don’t know, don’t trust, and have next to no influence over.

It isn’t just that people aren’t given a sense of control in these media messages, but that they’re actively told that they’re powerless.

No wonder people so often tell me they’ve already given up.

Or I hear: “Andrea, I’ve changed my lightbulbs. I can’t afford to fly. I tried the community garden and everything died. The gardening class was $800. I already vote. I’m not an expert—I don’t know what to say—there was a community meeting at 3 pm and that’s when I pick my kids up from school. I’m terrified. I need to do more but what?”

We in this room are in a position of immense privilege. Working in climate change is, yes, stressful. I have a whole new appreciation for bourbon in my forties. But it’s also a gift: when climate news is scary, we can use it to fuel our work. It isn’t just that fear got many of us here, but that being here gives us a tool to manage that fear.

Most people don’t have that.

Still, isn’t it odd, that citizens of first-world democracies feel so powerless? How have our imaginations failed so badly?

What if stop worrying about whether we’re scaring people not enough or too much? Can we talk instead about this pervasive powerlessness?

Because they’re not. Social and economic transformations have always depended on political will, yes, but it isn’t a thunderstorm, arriving out of a clear sky, leaving a new world in its wake. Citizens acting collectively produce political will.

Every project we work on does two things: it reduces GHG emissions or makes our communities more resilient, and that’s critical, that’s why we’re here. But each also tells a story about whose work this is. Does the community have a role to play, or are they observers only?

Here’s what excites me about the Bay Area Climate Change Council: it tells a story about our community’s agency. Community feedback, community priorities, and representatives from community organizations created the work plans. Action is local: we will see and touch it. It widens the road to action for more people, which boosts the climate conversation, too. Someone who sees and knows they can help create the political will needed to make change won’t—hopefully—need to ask if they should give up before they begin.

Most Boring Post Ever

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Look, everyone! I made more StyleArc Jasmine shorts! Fiddled with the pattern a smidge more (lengthening the crotch curve, mostly) and got it just perfect. Used leftover stretch pique from the sheath dress, which is super comfortable but stretches out quickly.

Went on a hike with my camera and thought, what the hell. So here you go.

The Back. Plus lots and lots of green.
The Back. Plus lots and lots of green.

This makes my fourth use of this pattern, so I’d say I got my money’s worth.

These pictures were taken in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area, which is enormous, and a five-minute walk from my front door. It still took me about an hour of hilly hiking before I got to the spot with the big mossy rocks, but it was worth it for this.

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I’m very lucky to live where I do.

Fireflies!

The Royal Botanical Gardens is an extra treat for those of us who live nearby; it has the gardens, yes, but also many kilometres of hiking trails through nature preserves and active nature education programs for artists, adults, kids and families. Naturally Frances has been a constant attender of the daycamps since we moved here a few years back. This past weekend we took advantage of the other programs and attended their Fun with Fireflies evening.

The RBG staff started with a presentation on fireflies (fun fact #1: fireflies aren’t flies. They’re beetles) a few games outside while waiting for the sun to set; then we set off on a short walk to the shore to see if we could find any fireflies, bug nets in hand.

Did we ever. There were hundreds of them, twinkling in the trees like a fair city. Frances didn’t manage to net any, but I did get one exceptionally blurry photograph.

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Besides stalking fireflies in the woods in the dark, which was pretty fun, I loved learning about their deceitfulness. No, really. They use their flashing butts to talk to each other and find mates of their own species, as you probably already knew. But females will also use the flashing patterns of females of other species to lure in those males, and then eat them (yes, fireflies can be cannibalistic). And, in a lovely mind-bending twist, the males will sometimes use the flashing pattners of females of other species who are pretending to be his species in order to convince the males of their own species that they are in imminent danger of being eaten, to frighten them away, so they can have the territory and the females to themselves. Amazing.

Fireflies are declining in numbers and becoming endangered, due likely to light pollution (hard to talk to each other when they are being washed out by streetlights everywhere) and habitat loss. If you’d like to learn about how you can help them, or about the different species of fireflies, check out firefly.org. You can even contribute your firefly sightings to help scientists further their research into these important and beautiful insects.

Nature Photography Day

So did you get out to take pictures?

(I know at least one of you did. How about the rest? I may not be getting a lot of traffic here but I do have more than one reader for a fact. So.)

1306_nature photography day_042The Ebony Jewelwing damselfly picture in the background on the front page is the favourite so far, but if you want to see some other shots, they’re all on my flickr stream. And just as I said, I looked for things that most people would be able to find within a walk of their home, no matter where they live.

Like … bugs! Surely there are caterpillars and beetles in your vicinity. (Fun fact: beetle species make up 40% of all insect species and 30% of all animal species. That’s a lot of beetles! But by weight the ants win; if you took all the ants in the world and weighed them up together, they would weigh as much as all of the people in the world put together. That’s a LOT of ants. There are probably at least a few ants within a few feet of you right now, whether you can see them or not.)

This lovely fellow is a six-spotted tiger beetle; very common in woodlands in these parts and easily seen because he likes to sun himself on paths, rather than in the foliage.

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And garden flowers. I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere that didn’t have at least a windowbox growing something with petals–and very likely there is a front stoop or boulevard garden with roses growing nearby.

The deer, turtles and frogs I admit you may not see on a stroll around your neighbourhood.

But by far the best part of Nature Photography Day was getting out on a gorgeous afternoon with enough time to poke around and discover some previously unexplored corners of the trails near my home. The first led me to a small, shallow pond full of tadpoles; the second to a larger, deeper pond full of frogs, with turtles sunning on a log and dragonflies (mostly Common Whitetails) and damselflies (mostly bluets) darting around the edge like WWII fighter planes. It was Happy Season for the Whitetails; I lost track of the number of mating sessions I saw in the two-hour span I sat there for, the bright bluish-white males and the golden-brown females flying by, joined in a heart-shaped loop, then the females laying their eggs in the pond while the male guarded them from above. I did try to get pictures but they all turned out blurry. Maybe next time.

Overhead, flycatchers (I think) swooped over the pond in low arcs, while woodpeckers called from the trees. It was odd to think that while I sat there, taking some time away from any kind of work and entirely at peace, I was surrounded by animals busily at work providing for themselves and their families, largely by eating each other. And yet it was perfect. I somehow doubt that our human, urban environments provide our non-human neighbours with the same sense of calm.

Nature Photography Day is Tomorrow

I write a lot–when I have time to write, which lately happens to be more often, hurray!–about how nature is everywhere and everything, and you don’t need to go far (or anywhere) to find something beautiful. Tomorrow, on Nature Photography Day, I would like to challenge myself and you to get out there with whatever camera you have and take a picture of whatever nature you have close to hand. Your finger counts, if you’re really stuck, but also consider:

  • weeds in the sidewalk or growing through your driveway
  • street trees, living and dead
  • grass, other things that grow in grass
  • bugs
  • a puddle
  • gardens, flower or vegetable
  • windowboxes and flower pots
  • nurseries and garden centres
  • stormwater ponds and drainage ditches
  • overgrown lots

If you want to participate officially, join the Nature Photography Day facebook page, and then post one photo you took on Saturday June 15 of a natural subject. You’ll have a few days to upload your picture afterwards. It’s not a contest and there are no prizes; the goal is simply to enjoy the nature that we have all around us, all the time.

I am planning on getting out to a Conservation Area tomorrow to see some of my favourite green kin and non-human neighbours for some (hopefully) good shots, but I’ll also take a few of the kind I list above. I’d love to see yours too, whether you post a link in the comments below, post it to the facebook event page, send me an email, or however suits you best.

The picture in the background of this post, by the way, is a little spider on the petal of a gerbera daisy I planted in a flower pot. You don’t have to go anywhere to find nature, or something beautiful. If all else fails, take a picture of the sky.

may apples

The may apples are finally blooming–now that it’s almost June, thanks I’m guessing to the chilly spring. I wouldn’t blame you for not noticing, though …

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…since when they bloom, they look like this. Go ahead. Find them!

A large field of flat-topped five-lobbed leaves, and underneath every plant with two leaves, growing from the joint between them…

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… one hard, waxy, white flower with a bright yellow centre.

As is common with other spring ephemerals (trilliums, trout lilies, bloodroot, etc.), may apples reproduce both sexually (through the flowers & fruits) and asexually (by spreading roots underground and forming colonies). The colonies can be quite large so while it is difficult to see the flowers when they’re blooming, it’s impossible to miss the leaves! And if you scootch down on the ground and take a peak beneath, you’ll see dozens blooming all at once, a whole dimly-lit wonderland of lovely ivory flowers.

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Later in the summer they’ll become small fruits, which are not poisonous if eaten when ripe in small quantities. The leaves and roots, however, are toxic, although First Nations would use the extracts to treat stomach aches.

May apples are another way nature has to reward those who are willing to take their time and really look. No one ever saw a may apple, while distractedly rushing through the woods.

Anthropomorphism FTW

I am taking it as a propitious sign that, my first spring in my first house, there are not one but two robin’s nests on our outside lighting fixtures: one in the carport, and one by the front door. We have watched since April as the nests were built, the eggs were laid then hatched, and now the baby birds are being raised by their Mama Birds (with some help from Papa). It has become, temporarily, a three-family home.

My daughter is ecstatic. The light fixtures are a metre or two above the ground, and even I can only see into them by way of a stepladder and a carefully angled cell camera. She loves these pictures, and I send them to her when she’s at her Dad’s house; when she’s at my house, and the weather is nice, all she wants to do is sit outside and watch her “favourite TV show”: the nests. “Mummy! I see heads! Oh, she’s stretching! What a cute little baby bird. I see beaks! They’re chirping! Oh, here comes Mama Bird with some worms! Hungry babies. Aww, now they’re snuggling.” At times she becomes quite indignant: “Mama Bird, where are you! Your babies are hungry and asking for food. When is she coming back, Mummy?” (When she finds some worms, I’m sure.) “Well, how long can that take?”

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Mama Bird II, by the front door, has her work particularly cut out for her, as she takes flight whenever my daughter or I enter or exit the house. “Sorry, Mama Bird!” we say. “We won’t hurt your babies, promise.”

We are all about anthropomorphism, at our house.

Look: if you believe that we evolved, along with all other animals, from common ancestors, then our emotions are not a gift that arrived precisely at the moment we became homo sapiens sapiens. Our emotions, too, evolved; and we have them in common with our non-human kin. The relationship between mother and child was first; all of our relationships–father and child, mother and father, nuclear family, extended kin, tribe, friendship, and on and on–are built on the basis of the feelings and patterns of care that first developed between mother and child, millions of years ago. Whoever you love and how much, and however you express that love, is all possible because millions of years ago, an ancestor distant beyond knowing looked at her babies and first felt that she would die for them. That ancestor was not human. She was not even mammalian.

One of those first mothers began the time-honoured tradition of chewing up her baby’s food and spitting it in to the baby’s mouth, soft and somewhat pre-digested; it is from this that our kisses have evolved. Even sex, as much as we like to keep it as separate as possible from any tinge of maternity–all of those good feelings use hormones and chemicals that first evolved in the context of maternal care.

hatchling

For the newer nest, by the front door, when I first carefully angled my camera phone to take a picture of the first newly hatched egg, that little naked blind bird, so much smaller than even my hand, reached its head up to the camera with beak open wide for food. That helplessness and vulnerability struck me as so essentially the same as our own babies, that dependency on unearned trust because it is only by trusting in the adults nearby that there is any hope of surviving–even if sometimes, even if often, the trust is misplaced and the hovering shadow is actually a snake or a rat, or the adult arms reaching to pick up the wailing infant mean to leave it on a hillside to die. Babies can’t afford to be choosy. They so need care, that they must trust that the care will come, even when it doesn’t.

But the care came for these little robins, with the dedicated and hard-working Mama Birds hunting and bringing back pre-chewed treasures to vomit in their hatchlings’ mouths. And the hatchlings became baby birds, little brown heads with yellow beaks propped on the nest’s rim, waiting for Mama and–possibly–wondering when they get to do more than just stretch their wings. The first nest has already fledged.

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I’ll miss them when they go (though we already have plans to take their nests into the house as souveniers, since robins won’t re-use a nest). My daughter will miss the babies, the daily dramas of their feedings and stretchings and growing, their cuteness and compactness and how they are all snuggled in the nest together. I will mostly miss the Mama Birds, how they would scold me from the shrubbery if I ventured too near the nest while they were watching, their effort in hunting the tastiest morsels for the little beaks back home, the solid white chunks of poop they would scoop away in their beaks to keep that nest clean and comfy, their snuggling in with the growing birds–giving them a hug. Because we’re not so different, those Mama Birds and me, and I know they love their babies just as I love mine.

my open-window policy

This isn't my house, no, but you get the idea

I have been thinking, lately, about weeding my driveway.

It is paved, yes; and apparently the impermeability of asphalt has been vastly overstated, as there are weeds growing through the cracks all over the bloody thing. Oddly, I don’t want to weed it. I like it. All of those supposedly fragile bits of green cracking their way right up through our technological magnificence. Take that! they say. Ha! Some Masters of the Universe you turned out to be.

I have been thinking about raccoons, too.

We have no garage; therefore, the garbage is kept outside; therefore, raccoons eat it. This does not philosophically bother me. After all, simply by putting something in the garbage, I’ve declared it to be a useless thing of no further value to anyone, and as such, I’d rather it find a good home in the warm belly of a living creature than sit, unrotting, in a landfill for 500 years. That this places me outside of mainstream North American opinion I am well aware. I don’t like the mess, but honestly, how can I complain? We came in, chopped their homes to the ground, and now we expect them to slink away quietly like friendly and cooperative wildlife and make a home for themselves somewhere we don’t have to be inconvenienced by the needs we prevent them otherwise from filling. I say, if our occupied human communities showed this grit … actually, when our occupied human communities show this grit, we call them terrorists and blow them up. In any case, my sympathies are firmly with the raccoons.

Which doesn’t mean I enjoy scraping rotting food off of the patio stones once a week, so I caved eventually and found a heavy rock to place on the lid. The raccoons, clever devils, chewed a hole near the bottom of the plastic garbage can and spilled it all over the patio stones anyway.

Frances says that raccoons are “messy little composers” and that if she were a raccoon, she would do the considerate thing and take away what she’d like to eat in a garbage bag, and eat it neatly after climbing through the crack in the front steps where we suspect the raccoons hide out in poor weather. That would be very much like a Frances-raccoon, but it’s not like the actual raccoons, who make a mess.

I admire them. They’ve made a life for themselves in hostile surroundings, and proven to be clever and much tougher than we are.

My home was never going to be separate from nature anyway. There’s bugs in the walls, eh? Ants, spiders, millipedes. Let them stay. Why not? There’s air–air’s nature, right?–there’s water, and water’s definitely nature, even chlorinated and filtered. There’s Frances’s little pots of half-starved seedlings on the windowsill. There’s the wood beams in the walls–that’s nature–the steel posts–nature too. Gypsum, concrete, cotton; nature, nature, nature. And, of course, there are the warm animal bodies themselves: two guinea pigs, two primates. And apparently a couple of raccoons eating silently under the front steps.

I am a sorry excuse for a suburbanite. I like my civilization happily permeable, hopelessly intermixed with nature–because the suburbs are nature, just mangled to within a bare millimetre of their lives. I like to think of the human nature of my little home and the non-human nature of its surroundings knotted together like the warp and woof of a woven fabric.

I’m not going to keep non-human nature out of ‘my space’ no matter how hard I try, so why not welcome it in?