"The Green Boat" by Dr. Mary Pipher is a beacon of hope in dark times, encouraging individuals to transform their grief into action.
Do you ever feel like the weight of the world is too much to bear? From melting polar ice caps, ocean plastic pollution, and rampant deforestation, to vicious politics and refugee crises, the world's problems seem so immense and complex that one can't help feeling overwhelmed. These emotions are a daily occurrence for me, as a writer for an environmental news website. I spend my days immersed in negative news and it feels impossible not to be affected by it.
So, when I picked up Dr. Mary Pipher's latest book, "The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture," I felt as though the book had been written for me. Although "The Green Boat" was published in 2013, which is a lifetime ago in political and environmental terms, its focus is on conquering our fears about climate change, which is more relevant than ever today.
Pipher is a psychologist and author of nine books who wrote the bestseller "Reviving Ophelia" years ago. She also wrote "Writing to Change the World," which influenced me greatly in university. Now "The Green Boat" may save me (and you!) from losing our minds during this period of time she calls "the Great Acceleration."
The Great Acceleration is defined as all the interconnected changes that are happening to our planet. These include global climate change, drought and famine, overpopulation, diminishing resources, peak oil, the sixth great extinction, financial panic, and the spectre of war. While humans have had to deal with some of these problems at different times throughout history, it's unprecedented that all major systems would start breaking down simultaneously.
At the same time we're bombarded with information. We're constantly told that whatever topic being considered is the most important thing, whether it's buying organic or cooking from scratch or exercising or connecting with friends, and yet, everything cannot be the most important thing. We will go crazy from the pressure of it -- and we are.
Stress and trauma are at all-time highs. Pipher maintains that most Americans live in a state of "mild to severe mid-traumatic stress disorder," different from PTSD because Americans are not post-trauma yet; they are "engaged in an unfolding situation that is almost certain to worsen before it improves."
In a TEDx talk about her book, Pipher says, "We have Paleolithic arousal systems, Neolithic brains, medieval institutions, and 21st-century technology. Our problem solving abilities have not evolved quickly enough to sustain us." It's no wonder we feel like we're going to crack up. Thinking about climate change is like trying to picture two billion pinto beans; we don't possess the brain capacity for it.
What struck me is that Pipher says most people are deeply concerned about the environment, and yet are so beset by internal conflicts that they cannot even talk about it, let alone act. They're not apathetic, but in psychological shutdown. It's what psychologists call "learned helplessness," a coping mechanism.
But shutting down does not accomplish anything, nor does it make individuals feel better. They remain stressed, anxious, and miserable. That is why we need to learn how to move beyond trauma toward awareness, resilience, and action.
Pipher has taken this journey herself. As a native Nebraskan, she had to choose consciously to snap out of an apathetic state in order to form a small coalition with friends to fight the Keystone XL pipeline from coming through her state. Taking action became a healing balm for her -- and for all who got involved. That's when she realized the power of community, when people from all walks of life with varying skillsets and backgrounds come together with the common goal of protecting the Earth for future generations, and how it does so much more than protect the actual land -- it makes us feel human again.
Getting to work is the only thing we can do to make ourselves feel better throughout this Great Acceleration.
"Whether or not we believe we can change the world, even in a small way, acting as if we can is the healthiest emotional stance to take in the face of injustice and destruction."
Reading Pipher's book made me think of Naomi Klein's book, "This Changes Everything." While Klein delved into the actual background on climate change and made a solid argument for the science behind it, as well as revealing the powerful, orchestrated denials, it lacked advice on how to proceed. I was left feeling more helpless and depressed than ever, adrift in the face of a storm.
Pipher, on the other hand, does not talk about the issues in detail; she assumes we know about shrimp, plastic waste, pesticides, and the tar sands already. Her message is about coping, which is exactly what we need more of. While both she and Klein say that community involvement is key, Pipher explains how to do it; her approach is basic and accessible.
Start with a group of friends, she says. Organize a potluck dinner with a few bottles of wine. Get talking about what you fear most, what gives you hope. Pledge to take actions, even small ones, that will make a difference in your own life. You'll find that, by sharing these in a group setting, you'll come away feeling more hopeful and empowered than ever. These group efforts can snowball, attracting others who are desperately seeking an outlet for their planet-related grief.
Before you know it, you may have a movement on your hands. As her anti-pipeline coalition grew, Pipher found herself organizing music festivals, poetry readings, tractor brigades, fundraiser dances -- anything that would bring together Nebraskans in this important fight. Eventually the group met with the governor, and Obama delayed his decision on the pipeline, citing Nebraskan resistance in part. (The future of the project is still unclear, five years later.)
"Once we stop denying the hard truths about our environmental collapse, we can embark on a journey of transformation that begins with the initial trauma, the 'oh sh**' moment, and can end with transcendence. In fact, despair is often the crucible for growth. When our problems seem too big for us to tackle. there's really only one solution. We must grow bigger. As we expand ourselves to deal with what is the new normal Earth, we can feel more vibrant and engaged with the world as it truly is. Amazement and action are both antidotes to despair."
We can never know the significance of our individual actions, but we can act every day as if our actions are significant. That's all we can do, and in doing so, we will make ourselves feel better, and make the world a better place, bit by bit.
Pipher gave a 20-minute TEDx talk about her book, which you can watch below, but for anyone who's ever felt discouraged by climate change, I do highly recommend you pick up the book. She ends the talk with a beautiful quote from Martin Luther King:
"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant a tree."