Sometimes life feels meaningless to me in the face of climate change. How can any action I take, or any project I value, have any meaning in the face of the imminent destruction of human civilization we know it?
Jonathan Franzen is a great American author. If there is an American future, he will be remembered the way people like Mark Twain and Edith Wharton and Herman Melville are remembered now—GIANTS of their time. Franzen’s human insights compel and amaze. Of course his novels are controversial, just as is this essay he recently published in the New Yorker. A lot of people don’t like it. They contest his logic; they find it presumptuously pessimistic.
To my mind, it’s brimming with illumination and it’s a soul saver.
Franzen’s point is that everything matters. Especially right now.
If we can stave off one hurricane, that matters. Just a few extra years of relative stability is, as Franzen notes, a “goal worth pursuing.” But more than that, Franzen points out:
Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.” (emphasis mine)
As an example, Franzen points to:
… an organization called the Homeless Garden Project. On a small working farm at the west end of town, it offers employment, training, support, and a sense of community to members of the city’s homeless population. It can’t ‘solve’ the problem of homelessness, but it’s been changing lives, one at a time, for nearly thirty years.…. There may come a time, sooner than any of us likes to think, when the systems of industrial agriculture and global trade break down and homeless people outnumber people with homes. At that point, traditional local farming and strong communities will no longer just be liberal buzzwords. Kindness to neighbors and respect for the land —nurturing healthy soil, wisely managing water, caring for pollinators—will be essential in a crisis and in whatever society survives it. A project like the Homeless Garden offers me the hope that the future, while undoubtedly worse than the present, might also, in some ways, be better. Most of all, though, it gives me hope for today.”
Reading that last sentence sparked a shift in my mindset. What does this mean? “Hope for today.”
Simply that today matters. At least as much as tomorrow.
As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.
And maybe, in the long run, the habits of resilience are comprised as much of empathy and tenderness and tolerance as of muscle and expertise …
We are living in a dark mystery. We simply don’t know what will be possible for humankind as the Earth inexorably reorders herself, but we know that everything matters, because the world is alive, as are we. Everything we do matters right now and perhaps for the future too. We don’t know if it matters for the future, but it might.
These are urgent times, and I think we must all strive to waken. No time for small thoughts. No time for the wormhole of melancholy. It’s a sharp blessing to be alive in this fragrant, pregnant moment.
I don’t think we all have to be thinking about “making the world a better place” every second. But at the very least, what’s truly important right now? What really matters?