Climate Corner: Hope (The Pessimist’s Guide)

From left, Carley Wootton, Amalia Axinn, Morgan Healey, Sierra Hubbard-Salk, Natalie White at the 2018 Climate March in Washington D.C. Join in the worldwide protests going on during the U.N. Climate Change Conference (October 31 to November 12). As Joan Baez once said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” Photo by Claire Brennan.

By Jenny Noble

“There are so many stories we can tell ourselves to justify doing nothing, but perhaps the most insidious is that, whatever we do manage to do, it will be too little too late.”

— “Why Bother?” by Michael Pollan

This summer, my 21-year-old daughter, Carley, said, “Mom, you act like buying a bamboo toothbrush is going to save the world.” She told me she was, “done trying to be environmental.” This, from the girl who was president of her high school environmental club and camped outside Parliament in London with the activist group Extinction Rebellion.

Wow. If this one’s lost hope, we’re all in trouble. She’d leap-frogged over eco-anxiety to what can only be called “eco-apathy.” And Carley’s in good company. According to a 2020 survey, 40 percent of Americans feel helpless about climate change.

She went on to explain that all these little things she did felt performative and didn’t really matter, since the real problems came from big corporations and governments that we have no control over.

“It’s going to get really bad. We’re past the point of no return. So I might as well just go dancing before we all die.”

Nihilism aside, what if she’s right? What if everything I’m doing is meaningless? When I watch an iceberg the size of a 20 story building crashing into the Arctic, it’s easy to sit here clutching my tiny bamboo toothbrush, feeling my itty-bitty sense of agency and think, “What am I supposed to do about that?”

When we look back on the summer we just had — record breaking heat waves, hurricanes, drought and wildfires — it’s hard not to join her down that rabbit hole of gloom and doom.

And even when we do give it the old college try, the result of our efforts are intangible. There are no photos of floods that didn’t happen. You never get a thank-you card written in crayon from the planet. We just throw our efforts out into the stratosphere and hope for the best.

But what if a little doom and gloom is a good thing? Hope only exists where there’s no certainty that things will turn out alright. David Wyman, a fundraiser for League of Conservation Voters, whose job I assume relies on keeping the faith, points to how we can harness hopelessness.

“Sure, I have those ‘Aren’t we all f%#$d?’ moments. But, we need to say, ‘We’re f%#$!d’ in order to figure out how to make things better.”

Another way to deal with hopelessness is the Just Do It approach.

Even the smallest choices can change corporations. Plastic toothbrushes create 50 million pounds of plastic waste each year. We have the power to stop this by buying wooden instead. Jenny Noble photo.

“Hope is beside the point,” says the highly pragmatic Dorothy Reilly of Drawdown East End. “It’s not about hope. It’s about action.” I like this approach, because while I can’t predict the exact efficacy of my decisions, I want to at least look back on my life and know that I tried. Carley may not be holding my feet to the fire right now, but the day is fast approaching when her generation will ask the big question, “What were you thinking?!?!?”

We have more power to create change than we think we do. In the book, “Horton Hears a Who” by Dr. Suez, the Whos live on a speck of dust that’s facing an apocalyptic future. Sound familiar? They need every Who to shout “Yopp” their loudest in order to survive. Finally it’s this one little boy bouncing his yo-yo who joins in and saves their spec of a planet. Call him the tipping point.

Our world is full of little voices that can make a big difference. Before we knew the name Greta and she was giving speeches at the United Nations, Greta Thunberg was just a little girl who sat alone on a chilly day with a cardboard sign reading, “School Strikes for Climate.”

We all have the power to “Yopp,” especially at corporations and the government.

Corporations are beholden to us. We control them with the power of the purse. If we only buy bamboo toothbrushes, they’ll be forced to stop making them in plastic. A consumer is a consumer no matter how small.

Despite appearances, governments are also changed by people. Take Biden, for example. He didn’t just wake up one morning and think, ‘I sure do care about greenhouse gas emissions.’ Yet he’s put forth the most aggressive climate policy of any president in history. Admittedly, it’s a low bar, but he’s gone well above it. Public pressure works. If we convince our government to ban plastic toothbrushes, the onus won’t be on each individual to go looking for better alternatives.

Little things matter. The scale of corporate and government misconduct doesn’t mean that our toothbrush-sized decisions aren’t important.

Some changes are definitely more important than others. Lobbying legislators, for example, is much more important than avoiding Styrofoam. But it all counts.

Figuring out exactly how to help can be crazy-making. You buy locally grown apples but drive three miles to pick them up. You want to recycle, but the recycling codes are mystifying. A young friend tells me that when she learned that crustacean have a low carbon footprint, she headed on out to buy mussels, discovered that they’re wrapped in plastic and then spent 15 minutes deliberating whether or not to buy them.

Don’t overthink it. Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got. There are some basic things that are at the top of the list for helping the planet: Driving less, eating more plants and buying fewer clothes. But not everyone has to do everything. If an idea resonates with you, go for it.

Battling the monster climate change is a group activity. When we act together, we have a sense of agency and our power increases exponentially. Plus, it’s a lot more fun. Join one of the powerful global movements such as Extinction Rebellion or the Sunrise Movement. Locally, there are loads of groups that do beach clean ups, animal tagging and politician wrangling.

When you’re still feeling overwhelmed, pay attention to the many concrete reasons to have hope. According to the most recent IPCC report, scientists now know that as soon as we stop releasing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, the planet will not continue to heat up, as previously believed. Nationally, well over 30 states have now implemented clean energy standards, and Texas is almost neck-and-neck with California for solar production. Colorado ranchers are using goats to help prevent wildfires. Cool things are happening everywhere.

The other day, Carley called from her college in Scotland. She told me she’s joining friends to take a bus to Glasgow to be there during the U.N. Climate Change Conference. She might join a march. She wants to hear Greta speak. “Plus, it’ll be really exciting.”

Resources for Hope & Action:

“The Climate Diet — 50 Ways To Trim Your Carbon Footprint” by Paul Greenburg: Small book of 50 really simple ways to curb your carbon emissions.

“Saving Us: A Climate Scientists Case for Hope and Healing In A Divided World” by Katharine Hayhoe Ph.D: Powerful arguments defending hope by a scientist who believes in real, “muscular” hope. No Pollyannas here. (Watch her short and inspiring TEDtalk)

The Natural Resources Defense Council ( Offers guide for lobbying your legislators and much more.

South Fork Natural History Museum ( Take moon hikes, study otters, or join the shark program etc. Climate scientists now know that learning about your immediate natural surroundings is one of the best way to fight climate change.

Peconic Land Trust( Make kimchi, learn about bats, visit a shellfish preserve, and join in larger projects protecting beaches, natural spaces, and local farms.

You: Doing something helpful today could make you feel more hopeful.

Jenny Noble is a writer and mother who enjoys food, water and clean air.