Acknowledge Progress, Strive for More Change

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Tompkins Weekly 4-14-21

By Anna Marck

In January of 2019, when Greta Thunberg said “I want you to panic,” I decided to lace up my shoes and get to work, panicking. I panicked to everyone I talked to. I panicked to myself. Unfortunately for the fifth-graders I was working with at the time, I panicked to them. And I panicked to my parents, blaming them for everything from paper towels to capitalism.

Don’t get me wrong. I think panic can start revolutions — Greta striking fear in our hearts certainly sparked an awareness that I had never seen before — but as I went about my life panicking, I quickly learned that this emotion is as unsustainable as fossil fuels. It was exhausting.

In his book “Factfulness,” Hans Rosling describes “Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things are Better Than You Think.” When I first saw the cover, I was offended.

Anna Marck. Photo provided.

“The world is burning,” I thought. “White supremacy is on the rise. I think things are bad because they are bad because I pay attention because I am an informed citizen. And until there is equity and justice, until there is healthy food for every mouth, until there isn’t any war or reckless, money-hungry polluters, I will not try to sugarcoat reality with some feel-good nonsense.”

I read it anyway.

I came to learn about my own biases toward negativity and why humans have these biases. I came to learn that in the last 20 years, the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has almost halved. I also learned that it was OK to recognize something as bad and getting better at the same time.

The data in the book regarding climate solutions were particularly interesting to me: the price of PV modules (used for solar panels) dropped from $66 per Watt peak (Wp) to $0.6 per Wp in 30 years. Oil spills are down from a peak of 636 in 1979 to six in 2016. The percentage of girls in school is up from 65% in 1970 to 90% in 2015. This was huge!

Educating girls was ranked as the #6 climate solution by Project Drawdown, more effective in its atmospheric CO2-EQ reduction (59.6GT) than rooftop solar (24.6), heat pumps (5.2), composting (2.28) and regenerative agriculture (23.15) combined.

Literacy and democracy are up drastically since the 1800s. And public support for same-sex marriage rose from 27% in 1996 to 72% in 2016 (in my lifetime!).

All of these statistics showed me that we are capable of spectacular growth and change, even within a generation. This gave me hope. Maybe we actually could tackle the climate crisis. I decided to start digging deeper into some more data to understand our progress.

One was regarding lead in gasoline — there used to be lead in gasoline — another regarding ozone depleters. The world community reduced both to almost zero in two decades.

This was fun.

In Jan 2021, the Peoples’ Climate Vote completed the largest survey of public opinion on climate change ever conducted (1.2 million respondents from 50 countries).

“Even though the survey was conducted during the COVID-19 crisis, there was still widespread recognition of climate change as a global emergency in every country surveyed,” according to the survey. “Over all 50 countries, 64% of people said that climate change was an emergency — presenting a clear and convincing call for decision-makers to step up on ambition.”

They also found that 8 out of 10 countries with the highest emissions from the electricity/heating sectors backed renewable energy and 9 out of 10 of the most urbanized countries backed clean transportation. Maybe the climate deniers weren’t as big of a group as we thought.

In the third century BCE, the first bit of land was deemed “protected.” In the year 1900, .03% of the Earth’s land surface was protected. By 1930, .2%. Today, 15%, and the number is still climbing.

Incremental progress is still progress, even though we rarely hear about it.

I also took some time to remind myself of all of the amazing work that wasn’t quantified: the permaculture farmers that I worked with and learned from this summer doing incredible work every day, the college student watching TikTok videos about Zero Waste and the social justice warriors bringing insight and truth to the forefront of our consciousness.

I took a breath. One lung filled with gratitude and the other with hope. And at the bottom of my exhale, I sunk a little.

Despite everything we’ve accomplished and all of the progress we’ve made, despite all of the solutions we’ve discovered and implemented and despite the growth in public awareness and engagement, we still may not be able to affect enough change to lower the temperature. Getting better but still bad. Better and bad.

We have to reconcile ourselves with this. We might lose. I sat in this for a moment. And then just when it became almost too heavy to bear, the panic lifted. It wasn’t the hope that counteracted the panic; it was the reconciliation with despair.

In “Systems Thinking for Social Change,” David Peter Stroh mentions the importance of regularly looking back on our achievements, big and small, to encourage our mission in continuing forward. But I think there is another reason to do this.

In order to have hope, true hope, we not only have to believe that we can make a difference in the future but that we already have in the past. And we have to reconcile with despair because it lifts the unsustainable panic away and helps us do the amazing work we must continue doing.

Anna Marck is co-founder and facilitator of Cayuga Climate Action and is on the Board of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute.

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