As an engineer studying at the University of Michigan, I am relishing the opportunity to occasionally take classes that don’t require me to solve an equation or perform a calculation with only one correct answer. In my English class this semester, we are discussing what it’s like to write during a time of extinction, a topic that has been generally analyzed with many indefinite answers. In an article we read about the numerous current perils of climate change, journalist David Wallace-Wells juxtaposes his grim, pessimistic attitude with the optimistic attitude of “the scientists” he refers to. In doing so, he prompted the entire class to discuss whether or not it’s more reasonable to think about our climate strife optimistically, like “the scientists” do, or realistically, like he does. Just as the nature of the climate debate plays out, I have come to realize there is no definite answer for how we should be feeling toward our impending doom.
I don’t necessarily see the reason for projecting optimism toward our climate change issue because of the euphemistic nature that optimism is generally presented in. In sugar coating the facts of extreme weather events with evasive rhetoric, our leaders are doing the ultimate disservice to the scientific truth behind the natural disasters occurring more and more frequently. In naively believing we can reverse climate change, we are not accurately conveying the gravity of the situation for others to understand that it’s going to require more than just desire.
A common theme was brought up in our class discussion regarding the motivation that people have behind the phrase “think of the children.” The danger of using this phrase to justify why we should act to preserve our society for the future is the assumption that there will even be a future for our children to live in. We are also assuming this future will exist where we will have, unknowingly and distressingly, handed over the responsibility of the world to the next generation. In the same way, we are merely assuming that a sustainable future will exist without showing any drive, other than sheer desire, to actually make it happen. Approaching the climate issue with an overarching sense of optimism simply projects false realities that are most likely not as attainable as they are painted out to be.
While it may seem that, because I am opposing optimistic approaches, I would be completely supportive of realistic approaches, I have to acknowledge that realism comes with its own danger regarding the climate issue as well. The single danger that comes with being realistic about the fate of our environment is the emotional instability and overwhelming anguish we will have to face. We will have to accept the hard truth that our planet is probably doomed at this point and that an overwhelming amount of deaths are inevitable despite what we do from now on. As Wallace-Wells highlights, “No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.” With that being said, approaching the climate issue with an overbearing sense of realism may simply be too much for us to endure.
At the end of the day, I think “the scientists” that Wallace-Wells refers to represent people of various professions who adopt an urgent attitude rather than an optimistic one. These types of people trust that good change can happen because we, as humans, are capable of – or are going to make ourselves capable of – figuring out a way to get us out of our own mess. As should be for all of us, they understand that the alternative, which is ultimately suffering extinction as a result of making our planet uninhabitable – is “simply unimaginable.” They know that we must all act together with urgency, because there is no choice but to devote ourselves to improving.
If the situation is as severe as it is, why aren’t we all making this the top priority in our lives? Why is it not a “have to” and is instead more of a “probably should?” As a young person in our society who still has the opportunity to choose the avenue which I will pursue, I worry that continuing to try to work for an improved, sustainable future will not be worth it. In her poem about the end of the world, Joy Harjo refers to the kitchen table as the center of life and suggests that the world will end with everyone around the table – when it will be too late. I fret about if the work that I have been preparing to do my whole life will not matter anymore. I am unsettled by the day when, after all I try to do to save our world, it will not have mattered, because what mattered was that all of us tried.
Going forward, I ask you to adopt a sense of urgency like “the scientists” have toward our looming climate issue. We need to understand that we are the only ones who can reverse this in our favor, and we should be urging each other to work towards making our “impossible” goals possible. The careers and the lives that we are all going to have will either help us get through the pain or help us end the root of that pain. As difficult as it may be, I urge you to reflect on what you’re doing to make this world a better place in a way that solves the problem rather than runs from it.
Kianna Marquez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.