Saving Ourselves

Mark Hertsgaard Analyzes the Psychology of Climate Change Activism

Mark Hertsgaard says an important new book shows what activists have to do to psychologically commit to fighting for the environment.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post, via Getty,Michael S. Williamson

When President Obama, to most observers’ surprise, addressed the Keystone XL pipeline in his landmark speech on climate change on June 25, it was partly because of Mary Pipher. Inside the Beltway, the conventional wisdom was that Obama would not mention Keystone, a pipeline that would carry particularly carbon-heavy tar-sands oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, because he was privately planning to approve the project later this year. In a speech designed to highlight his commitment to fighting climate change, what would be the point of talking about a pipeline that, if the president did approve it, would facilitate burning some of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet?

Yet activists like Pipher had made Keystone too big an issue to ignore. After years of living-room meetings that gave rise to statehouse rallies, mass demonstrations outside the White House, and the media coverage all this engendered, it was simply not credible for Obama to claim that he cared about climate change but not about Keystone. From her residence in Nebraska, Pipher had been one of countless grassroots activists who publicized what the pipeline would do—not only to the stability of the climate, but the soil and water of the Midwestern states the pipeline would traverse—and rallied citizens to demand that this catastrophe in the making be prevented.

Judging from The Green Boat, Pipher never expected to have such an effect. A psychotherapist and writer by profession, Pipher got involved in the Keystone fight primarily as a way to save her own sanity. Author of the mega-bestseller Reviving Ophelia—about the challenges contemporary U.S. culture imposes on adolescent girls—and seven other books, Pipher had been dispensing acute, healing insights for decades. By the summer of 2010, however, she found herself facing a world that “seemed almost too complicated and frightening for me to manage emotionally.” Knowing too much—about apparently endless war, financial collapse, and above all the accelerating danger of climate change—sometimes made Pipher feel “like jumping out of my skin,” she confesses. The Green Boat

emerged from my attempt to understand myself and the people around me. I wrote it for the same reasons I wrote Reviving Ophelia. I sensed that individuals were struggling to deal with cultural problems. They felt alone, hopeless, and uniquely damaged and they didn’t realize that almost all of us felt the same way.

The book is part memoir, part psychological self-help guide, part political commentary. It’s a tricky combination, but Pipher pulls it off, writing with a homespun lyricism, quiet strength, and simple common sense that call to mind her beloved Nebraska prairies and the culturally conservative but far from one-dimensional people who reside there. By recounting her personal struggles against despair and the surprising affirmations she and a band of friends received when they decided to stop moping and start organizing, The Green Boat makes a persuasive case that both our individual well-being and our collective chances of averting disaster are best served not by trying to ignore scary truths but by facing them in the company of others and, fueled by the power of love, striving together to forge a new course.

“I just can’t go there,” says a mother I know about confronting the dangers climate change poses to her young son. Pipher sympathizes. Humans have to tune out a certain amount of reality, or we couldn’t function. We all know we must die someday, she writes, but “for good reasons, we don’t think about this every waking moment.”

Yet reality inevitably intrudes. Children learn soon enough that loved ones die, if only their beloved pets. Television is forever showing us—and who among us turns away?—how hurricanes, tornadoes, and other disasters can leave innocent people injured, dead, or economically ruined.

The psychological twist in the case of climate change is that we inflict the disaster ourselves. Hurricane Sandy was not simply one more instance of nature unleashing its fearsome powers, just as it has done for millions of years on this planet. Humans are now helping to stir the pot.


Two new books bulge with the kind of grave tidings that were tempting Pipher to despair. (And, full disclosure, this reviewer has written more than his share of books and journalism about disheartening environmental, human rights, and economic injustices.) In The Attacking Ocean, Brian Fagan provides—miraculously in a mere six paragraphs—the best description yet of Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm that blasted coastal New Jersey and New York last October. Most of the book, however, digs deep into the distant geological past to describe how earth has arrived at its current configuration of land and sea. Fagan’s chief focus is the last 15,000 years, during which time sea levels have risen due to natural causes by 122 meters—roughly the length of a football field including end zones.

But now, by overheating the planet, humans are accelerating this trend, in two ways. Warm water expands, so hotter oceans rise. Higher temperatures also thaw land-bound ice. Meanwhile, global warming also powers stronger storms. When those storms surge toward land, the higher sea levels in effect put coastal settlements—the roads, the buildings, the people—at a lower elevation, intensifying the damage. Humanity’s exponential population growth compounds the danger. Sea-level rise posed no insuperable dangers for most of our species’s history; the rise was gradual, and our numbers were so small that humans simply retreated inland. Now dense settlements crowd coastlines, and inland areas are no longer empty. Fagan writes that millions of coastal residents will soon have to move to higher ground, “to become climatic refugees,” as he calls them. But where will they move and how? It’s a recipe for chaos. Not only are we unprepared for this future, Fagan argues, “it’s questionable just how much most of us think about it.” Which is why people like Fagan write what they write and environmentalists issue the warnings they do: they want us to wake up and take action.

The Worldwatch Institute has been ringing this bell for nearly 40 years now, diligently describing the decline of natural systems, warning of the consequences, and spotlighting positive alternatives. Its annual State of the World report, which has been published in 36 languages, has broadened and deepened environmental consciousness the world over. Yet who would claim that this and countless other worthy efforts have defused the juggernaut of destruction wrought by a civilization of seemingly limitless appetites—for more money, more growth, more stuff? By now environmental indicators have been heading the wrong way for so long that this year’s State of the World asks plaintively, “Is Sustainability Still Possible?”

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Wrong question, Pipher might say. As a therapist, she learned long ago that simply telling a client to “wake up” doesn’t work. The client must also believe that waking up can actually make things better. “Neuroscientists have discovered that the human mind functions best when it acts as if there is hope,” Pipher writes. Believing that change is possible helps to make change possible.

Pipher calls this process going from trauma to transcendence, and she illustrates its mechanisms by recounting her own involvement in the fight against the Keystone pipeline, which would cross Nebraska on its way to gulf ports. Pipher had no idea how she might contribute to the fight, but she invited eight friends over for a potluck dinner one night to discuss it. That evening marked the beginning of her emotional healing, as she and her friends decided to do what they could to block the pipeline—which turned out to be plenty.

“We had all come into the meeting feeling isolated, hopeless, and disempowered,” Pipher recalls. “But despite the grim content of our discussion, as the night went on, we became increasingly hopeful.” Why? Because, she explains, they were no longer just complaining, they were taking action. “And we had shipmates.”

The trauma-to-transcendence formula is straightforward enough, but putting it into practice requires some courage. You begin by facing your despair, even though “coming out of the trance of denial is painful.” In step two, acceptance, you acknowledge the realities that brought you to despair. It’s critical to take this step with the help of others; the best way for humans to deal with emotional pain, writes Pipher, “is to turn toward other people.” You share your feelings, including your fears, but above all your love—for the grandchild you want to see grow up, for a prairie untrammeled by pipelines, for the right of all creatures to share the bounties of this earth. It is love that propels you toward the final stage, transcendence, for love leads humans to take action for the sake of their beloved, despite one’s fears and the undeniable possibility of failure.

“When I figured out what I could do, I stopped being scared,” Pipher writes. And when one person sees others taking action, that person is more likely to take action herself. When working together, people experience what Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid hero, called “the multiplication of courage.”

None of this guarantees success; hope is not a magic wand; the Keystone pipeline may well still be approved. But without the efforts of Pipher and thousands of others who have spoken out, rallied, and been arrested, the pipeline surely would have been approved by now. And as Mandela’s quote suggests, these activists’ example has attracted many others to the fight. Last month 22 former Obama campaign staff members were arrested after occupying State Department premises to call on the president they helped elect in 2008 to live up to his promises on climate change. And those 22 are but a tiny fraction of the 69,000 people who have pledged to commit civil disobedience to prevent the construction of Keystone.

This is how most of the great struggles for justice have been won, from the defeat of apartheid in South Africa to the winning of the right to vote for women and blacks in the United States. In the face of what appear to be impossible odds often backed by a ruthless status quo, a small number of people start talking among themselves about things they can no longer ignore. Their talk leads to action. Their actions, like twigs unexpectedly bursting into flame, kindle others to join them. The fire grows and with luck and hard work becomes strong enough to pose a threat to the established order. Some fires overturn that order; some burn out before that. All that’s certain is that without a fire, nothing much changes. And whatever the outcome, it is the fire that warms our souls along the way.