None of This Had to Happen

I find myself often angry these days, alternating somewhat unpredictably with momentary surrender and acceptance. Meditation and prayer help, but even after 30+ years of practice I can’t currently seem to sustain the feeling of calm non-attachment the way I used to before times were so relentlessly hard.

I’m angry and outraged because none of this had to happen: the climate emergency; the global heating-fueled wildfires currently devouring forests, animals, and villages an hour from my home in New Mexico; the scale and length of the pandemic; the accelerating Sixth Mass Extinction of species; the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan; Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine; the fascist governments of China, Russia, Brazil, and India—to name just the most populous ones—and the near-coup in the US.

Smoke from Cerro Pelado Fire as it creeps towards the nuclear lab in Los Alamos

It’s not like the collective “we” didn’t know that global heating would be the result of the voracious consumption of fossil fuels. It’s not like we didn’t have alternative technologies for the last 50 years or so that could have, with sufficient intellectual and financial investment, been developed by now into widely available and affordable sources of clean, non-planet-warming energy. It’s not like we didn’t have the knowledge of alternative architectures—some based on traditions thousands of years old—and urban design that could create energy-efficient, well-insulated housing and retrofit existing stock.

It’s not like just about every indigenous prophecy in the world from the Hopi to the Kogi of Colombia to the African Zulu to the Tibetan Guru Rinpoche prophecies didn’t warn us of times like these. In different languages, they describe a difficult Time of Purification that might threaten all life on the planet if humans lost their connection to the Earth. Many also prophesy a time of hope and unity if we can all come together as one and honor our Mother Earth and heal our relationship to her.

Time and again we have also had scientific warnings. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a harrowing warning of the dangers of poisons and pesticides that I read as a child, was published in 1962. My friend Dr. Arlene Blum, founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, proved the dangers of carcinogenic flame retardants twice in her life—the corporations simply reformulated them—and worked in the 70s and the new millennium to get them banned.

And as for the Covid pandemic, the US actually had a National Security Council pandemic response unit until the previous occupant of the White House dismantled it on the eve of the pandemic. In a different Timeline, we would have had a swifter response, coordinated with the rest of the world. The Defense Authorization Act would have been invoked to retool factories to produce desperately-needed PPE for our frontline workers on an emergency basis. Big Pharma would not have made such huge profits off of vaccines and medicines, and intellectual property rights would long ago have been waived in the name of both humanitarianism and enlightened self-interest of wealthy nations, allowing the sharing and production of vaccines and anti-viral medication with the Global South.

Big Tech wouldn’t have made obscene profits off of the streaming and shopping of those under forced isolation, and then turned around and opposed labor organizing. Social media companies would not have algorithmically encouraged the metastasis of wildly imaginative fear-based conspiracy theories. Big Oil would not be gleefully making record profits with the excuse of pandemic, war, and supply chain disruption—after decades of deliberately concealing the facts and threat about imminent global heating on an accelerated timeline predicted by their own hired scientists.

Alongside insatiable consumption of fossil fuels, throwaway consumer goods and fashion, and in recent decades constant near-instantly obsolescent electronic devices—especially in wealthy nations—the human population has managed to double in the past 40 years, even as wildlife population—living, breathing, sentient beings—has gone down by more than half. Obviously no one wants to see humans suffering as the population is decimated by disease, “natural” disasters, or wars for water or fossil fuels. But up till now the collective has missed our chance to educate women and girls worldwide about the possibility of making wise reproductive choices—and it always has to be a choice, whether it’s to forego having a biological child and be a happy auntie/godmother to relatives’ or friends’ or strangers’ children, or to have one’s own children—and making sure that family planning options are widely available. Project Drawdown has found that the single most important factor affecting future energy consumption and consequent global heating is the education of women and girls so that they can make informed reproductive choices. Naturally this approach must also include educating boys and men, not in a colonialist, top-down, hierarchical way, but organically and indigenously from within each unique culture.

Back in the 80s I visited an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan with my dear friend “F,” an Afghan women’s rights activist who, with the enthusiastic support of her husband, had founded an organization that to this day provides education, skills training, business entrepreneurship experience, medical care, and food aid to Afghan women and children. I was fluent in Dari and could also understand some conversational Pashtu as I listened to my friend compassionately and strongly urging women to consider birth control. She pointed out to one Pashtun woman from a rural village with two toddlers and a babe in arms the insecurity of living on international aid rations in a refugee camp and not knowing if they could ever return to their country. Was it really a good time to have more children? The woman thought and then quietly agreed to a shot that would prevent pregnancy for three months and then need to be repeated.

For the last few years, since I learned about the Regenerative Agriculture movement through Kiss the Ground and Green America, I have had hope. Surely we will be able to turn this around, maybe even in my lifetime if I have longevity, and certainly in the next generation at the latest. Surely we will be able to massively shift our systems worldwide, in a way that ensures Climate Justice for the Global South, people of color in every country, women and girls and people of all genders, and the poor in all nations—those who have contributed the least on an individual level to the climate crisis and yet who are suffering first and worst.

I’m angry when I see the fires raging around my city, taste the smoke and feel the PTSD it stimulates, put on an N95 mask just to walk 100 yards down my driveway to the mailbox or to put out birdseed. I’m angry that one of the fires was started by a prescribed burn conducted by the US Forest Service on a windy day with low humidity. I’m angry about the villages, farms, and ranches that have already been destroyed, the humans displaced, the companion animals who could not all be rescued, and the wild ones who have been killed or lost their habitat. I’m angry at the unprecedentedly ceaseless and vicious winds that have blown for days and days with little respite, longer and stronger than any that I remember in my 28 years—an astrological cycle—in this area.

I’m angry at the dust storm that blew hundreds of highly flammable tumbleweeds onto the land I steward, and angry that Iraq, decimated by drought and occupation, has had seven severe dust storms so far this spring. I’m outraged that India and Pakistan, where I have many friends, are suffering early spring temperatures rivaling the worst summer heatwaves.

None of this had to happen. Some days I feel my faith in the possibility of Regeneration slipping. Some days I give in to despair and feel it’s already too late and I may as well retreat with my cats and maybe some human friends to some part of the country or the world where I can enjoy a bit of coolness, a bit of moisture, a chance to grow a garden of edibles and flowers, to regenerate my local soil with native grasses, to sequester carbon on whatever scale I can. And most importantly for me after 20 years of near-constant drought with few respites, somewhere with abundant water.

Other days, still the majority so far, I refuse to give up hope. I refuse the “new normal”—always a horrible worse “normal” that we are supposed to accept like the proverbial frog boiling slowly in the pan—and I instead embrace the Transformed Normal. I hold the vision of a world where corporate control has broken and dissolved, where patriarchy is part of dark history, where diversity, inclusion, and equity are not only spoken buzz words but are truly and naturally lived.

Froggie Jumps Out of the Pan

I choose to tightly embrace the Transformed Normal of a thriving world culture, both local and global, a new human and humane economics that is post-capitalist and includes the best of all worlds. It would be based on the indigenous closeness to Nature and honoring of other lives—human, non-human animal, and plant—and discerningly incorporate technological advances used in a life-enhancing rather than life-destroying way. A key part of the Transformed Normal will be the conscious development of the human birthright of intuition, new approaches to wellness that synergize ancient and modern forms of non-tech-dependent healing from acupuncture to energy modalities such as Healing Touch and Reiki. We humans will develop and train our ability to engage in conscious group intentional visioning of a future where all beings thrive.

I fervently wish I knew how to Time Travel and meet the challenge my Weather Menders Time Travelers from 2050 and 2350—and the unexpected Time-Traveling cat Georgie—must face. In the course of writing the novel I did a lot of historical research and again and again came back to the tragic turning point of 1979-1980 when Thatcher came to power in the UK and Reagan was elected in the US with the dubious help of Iranian revolutionaries. So many of the ills of our current time go back to that strange, graceless pivot to the right. Would we have had an attempted coup in the US on January 6th? Would we have a Supreme Court dominated by extreme rightwing misogynists whose legal arguments quote the 17th century pronouncements of (literal) witch hunters? Would the fossil fuel companies have been allowed and encouraged to run media campaigns of deliberate lies minimizing the harm that continued reliance on their products would inevitably do to ecosystem and atmosphere?

I recently came upon a quote that moved me deeply and gave me renewed hope: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing,” writes the author and visionary humanitarian activist Arundhati Roy.

Instead of meekly accepting the “new normal,” vividly imagine a world where we had decades ago invested in renewable technologies rather than planet-heating fossil fuels. Imagine a world where 40 years of trickle down economics, global capitalism, and the resultant increasing polarity and disparity in income and wealth were instead replaced with a non-zero-sum-game economic system based on the common good of humans and other inhabitants of our planet. Imagine a kinder, more compassionate, more tolerant world that values diversity and instead of waging wars for power over and access to dwindling resources, works together for a post-fossil fuel future of climate justice and healing.  

It will take all our collective efforts for the rest of our lives. I still believe we may make it—just—at the 60th second of the 60th minute of the 24th hour.

I will cherish and hold Hope as tenderly as I would a seedling, a kitten, a puppy, or a human newborn.

Dorjee Purr-ba as a kitten

Debra Denker is the author of the novel Weather Menders, a cli-fi novel for the hopeful.

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