Positive Thinking for the Environment

Because I am an antisocial freelance writer working in my house, every morning I have to take myself out into the world for a walk around my neighborhood to hold on to some semblance of sanity. There’s a wooden box on one of my routes that a neighbor occasionally fills with new poems to read and a piece by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh recently caught my eye. Called “The Good News,” it begins this way:

They don’t publish
the good news.
The good news is published
by us.
We have a special edition every moment,
and we need you to read it.

There is a lot of bad news. I would love to pretend otherwise, but I can’t, and sometimes it feels so bad that it’s paralyzing.

We are here in the northern hemisphere in the depths of winter and it’s dark in so many respects. But there are explanations why many cultures have rituals which point to finding a light. We’re past the solstice, and although we can’t translate the return of daylight into societal or environmental darkness, I want to suspend disbelief, at least for a while, and think about the good news: the wins, the ongoing struggles for a living planet, and the challenges that lie on the horizon now that we’ve rolled into a new decade.

What Are the Wins? 

We’ve passed bipartisan conservation legislation.

Last year, legislators came together across social and political divisions to push through policies such as permanently re-authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (although, ahem, we would like more funding), signing historic compromise on the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, declaring White Sands America’s 62nd National Park, and introducing the bipartisan Non-Red Tape recreation, This will improve outdoor opportunities for veterans and low-income children, promote recreation at federal agencies such as the Reclamation Bureau, and make it easier for outfitters to get permits. Such efforts are large on their own, but more importantly, they set a precedent for consensus, showing the value of conservation across the country and across the aisle.

We are listening to new voices.

Part of addressing environmental issues is unpackaging historical inequity, particularly as disenfranchised communities are usually the ones that are most affected. Slowly — and often through non-traditional channels — previously marginalized voices are being brought into conversation, like those of indigenous and outdoor people who are not white, straight, or competent. It’s not fast enough but it does change.

And across the spectrum, young people are organizing and pushing action on climate change. It’s not just TimePerson of the Year Greta Thunberg: the youth are ascendant.

Science has helped us make smart choices.

Technology is not simply turning us into blobs for screen viewing. Mobile cameras alert us to wildfires, satellites track ocean pollution and now we can see just how much sea ice we have lost. We will fix them when we learn the shapes of the problems and the losses.

Companies are putting their money where their mouths are.

Money drives change, politically and socially, and more companies than ever are starting to get behind the message that what’s good for the planet is good for business. Big corporations, from McDonalds to Microsoft, are shifting their energy use. And the outdoor industry is putting more emphasis on corporate environmental responsibility, including turning to recycled materials and renewable energy.

We’re finally talking about climate.

Until recently, environmental issues were a high-value, low-priority concern for the majority of Americans. We cared about it, but not more than we did about the economy or health care. As we’ve started to see personal impacts, that’s changed. Every remaining Democratic presidential candidate has pledged to shoot for net-zero emissions by 2050.

Where Can We Make a Difference? 

Watching for sneaky rollbacks and negligence in politics on every level

The Trump administration has rescinded a whopping number of environmental regulations—95 and countingshuffled public-land resources to unnecessary locations, and triggered an exodus of employees at federal agencies. To stanch the flow of those shortsighted losses, we have to vote and keep every branch of government accountable.

Figuring out a fossil-fuel-free economy

We have to cut carbon consumption to keep the world from turning into a charcoal briquette. It needs to come from everywhere: holding oil companies accountable, passing legislation, developing renewable energy sources and non-carbon transportation. Many such pathways are often already technologically viable. We have to make sure they are financially stable.

Amplifying the truth

I worry daily about the future of journalism, and with it, the exposure of truth and our ability as citizens to check power. That, to me, is a big, scary environmental issue. So if I can proselytize one piece of advice, it would be to dig in locally. Look for the news outlets spotlighting what’s important in your area, and support them. Subscribe to them. Fund them. Reporting, especially the kind of deep dives that uncover corruption, oversights, and wrongdoing, doesn’t happen without resources.

Where Is the Light on the Horizon?

A national election

November is hurtling toward us, and so much is tied up in the upcoming American presidential election. Pick your issue, it’s on the table: the Green New Deal, the tenability of the Paris accords, clean energy, the ocean.

Translating science into policy and action

That sea-ice thing I mentioned above? Sure, awareness is important, but knowing is much less than half the battle. The science behind our role in global warming is unarguable and has been for three decades. Now we need to act.

Thinking globally

A normal response to any threat is to protect yourself and the people you love. But in the face of climate change, that very human logic doesn’t help in the long run. We need to think globally and fight the urge to draw inward.

None of these things are going to be easy. But I don’t think getting bogged down by the bad news does any good. We have to look for—and we have to create—the light. Like Thich Nhat Hanh says:

The good news is that you are alive,
and the linden tree is still there,
standing firm in the harsh Winter.