The End of the World as We Know It

This government shutdown has me trembling with a kind of muted rage. Some day, not long from now, we will look back on this moment and shake our heads in disbelief: the polar ice caps are melting and a few recalcitrant lawmakers, determined to prove their fealty to a smaller government, one that does not provide affordable health care, shut down the whole government altogether. For this, then, we are recalling our scientists from Antarctica for the season?

None of this do I understand.

I lie awake at night trying to find reasons to hope for the future for my students, my precious daughters, but, happy as I am in my life, the future looks bleak to me.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was choosing what kind of good to do in the world, I chose teaching and writing. I rejected the possibility of consulting work—jobs where recent college grads were earning more than I earn now—reasoning that the right thing to do was to try to do good in the world from the beginning, not to get rich and then atone through philanthropy. I chose to teach, to write, and to work on feminist issues.

Now, that feels like a mistake.

The government shutdown itself is nothing next to the destruction that is coming as we continue to ravage our environment. What, in the end, will all my years of work on Mrs. Dalloway matter if every year another flood, hurricane, drought, or worse disrupts our lives, destroys our livelihoods, and kills our neighbors?

But what can I do? In a class I observed today, a young teacher was leading her first-year students through Thomas Friedman’s diagnosis of the current college students as a quiet generation, lacking in courage. I’m older, but I lack courage, too. I feel so strongly that I must change my life, but my ties to my life are too strong. I will not just go and become a Greenpeace activist, risking my life and my freedom for the health of the planet.

I wrote “cannot” first, but, of course, I could, although I predict that I won’t. Nothing but my own love of comfort is stopping me from leaving my life behind.

So, what can I do? What can we do? I have been listening to Claire Balding’s Ramblings, thanks to a Slate rec. It’s a BBC Radio 4 podcast in which Balding joins an avid walker on a favorite walk. She and the walker talk about the landscape, the route, and the walker’s life. It’s a beautiful tribute to all the many, many Britons who, in very quiet ways, love the land. I think about these lives of quiet dignity, these stewards of the land who help preserve it, it seems to me, just by communicating their love. Is that a contribution?

When we set out in July to spend a month driving (a glorious, magical month), were we, in spite of being in an automobile, also helping teach our children to love nature? Does that help? Can it be enough?

Listening to a Canadian radio station, I heard that Godspeed You, Black Emperor had refused to accept an award because, well, how can you celebrate when the icecaps are melting?

Something’s wrong with that, too, I know. My students, mostly musicians this fall, and I talked it through the other day and, after class I realized how much more I admired DJ Spooky: he’s not being churlish, he’s making music about Antarctica and then going to Reykjavik to perform and sign books at Arctic Circle.

I can see that “doing what I can” is no longer enough. What is? What will be?