Tipping point. It’s no surprise that this metaphor comes to mind so readily in these early (or is it late?) days of irreversible climate change. We might quibble with the necessity or epochal accuracy of the term, or when it began in earnest, but something is happening, and the Anthropocene seems as good a term as any: an age of life on this planet in which ecosystems and climates are radically shaped by human activity and consumption (the term was popularized in the 1970s, but can be traced back a full century, to the 1870s).
You know the list: melting glaciers, rising oceans, plummeting insect populations, thawing permafrost, exponential growth of carbon dioxide emissions. I don’t need to provide a full inventory of projections and prophecies. And I don’t even want to mention all the bookmarked articles on my browser and the dog-eared journal pages that I can’t even bring myself to read because I’m paralyzed just by the headline. That one about the emaciated polar bear. That one about the coral reefs poisoned by acidified waters. It is a cold, hard day when one realizes that “liking” and sharing dire scientific warnings on social media are Faustian maneuvers: empty gestures masquerading as real action as the clock ticks towards midnight and the devil comes for what is due. So I read and shared the article on the Amazon burning — what does that matter if I’m not doing anything to stop it?
I suppose I fool myself into thinking I’m doing my part. I harvest spent batteries and light bulbs with the fanaticism of a post-apocalyptic scavenger. I recycle like a fiend, sorting soft plastics from hard, colored glass from clear. My elation this past summer at finding a local depot that would accept Styrofoam was genuine and heartfelt — I rolled into that parking lot with a three-year stockpile crumbling in the back of my car and unloaded every piece with my head held high. I’m doing my share, contributing to the greater good. Compostable coffee pods and biodegradable garbage bags. Maybe we should think twice about that family vacation. Our next vehicle will be electric, I promise, or at the very least a hybrid.
I make all these tiny moves because I have to believe that when all of our tiny moves are added together it’s going to mean something. We can slow this down, we can fix it.
And yet every day I’ll read or see something that obliterates any sense I have of making a meaningful contribution. Block after block of city garbage cans crammed with plastic cups. Miles and miles of fuel-guzzling cars inching along every morning on my commute, the vast majority of them with a single occupant. Oil spills and tailing ponds. Half empty transcontinental flights. In the face of this, diligently rinsing out yogurt containers seems like a near laughable gesture. This week the The Economist put out a special “Climate” issue and things seem dire beyond all reckoning; there was an obituary on the back page for a glacier that has vanished in Iceland and when I read it something hot and sour caught in the back of my throat.
It occurs to me that the discomfort in my chest might have a relatively simple diagnosis: fear — gristly, hard fear — at the thought of a doomed planet. All of my uncertainties and denials and repressions have metastasized as a lump right where my heart should be. The weight isn’t just fear of what is going to happen. I think it’s also a shameful, lingering awareness that I’m not truly acknowledging this fear. The real fear is that I’m not fearful enough, and I know it.