A Lesson from the Dinosaurs

Last fall my academic, left-brained understanding that climate change was a real thing turned into a right-brained, slow rolling and visceral horror. It was kicked off by Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation paper and fed by the dark, woeful months of winter. It took me about six weeks to get through the crushing misery of it—the terror of the realization that, in fact, climate change is not going to get better and, no, we are not going to pull it together in the 12, no 11, no 10, no 9 years that remain for us to “mobilize like we did during WWII.” Yeah, we could. But we won’t. And everything is going to happen that shouldn’t have to, and my son is going to live through it.

I’ve been drawn to the dystopian writers for nearly all my life. I read Stephen King’s The Stand at a critical moment of intellectual development, maybe age 13, and my whole imagination was shaped around the fantasy-slash-inevitability of catastrophic collapse. Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood and James Howard Kunstler, even Justin Cronin, paint possible futures that seem realistic, if full of monsters—literal or figurative. I’ve been fascinated and have turned pages hungrily, drawn in to the chaos of the world blown to bits, trying to imagine how that would feel and be to live through something like end times, or something like the time After.

But all of that curiosity and morbid fascination gives way to something very different in this space of parenthood. If I allow myself to stay with the reality of our current, very real horror, my heart shatters into a million pieces. If I don’t pull away from it, but let myself actually feel it, it hurts so much.

I’m not afraid of death, but I’m afraid of watching my child suffer.

I spent my late 20s and early 30s, the years of one’s life that are so steeped in optimism and hope, reading Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver and Bill McKibben and thinking that it was good, we were figuring out, we could move forward armed with knowledge and conviction. In the months after Obama was elected, as the economic system was melting down and the disconnect between our consumption-crazed lifestyles and the actual (lack of) sustainability of our ways of life seemed so very apparent, I waited with bated breath for him to speak the truth to us, from his solid seat of clear electoral mandate. I wanted him to stand up and use his rumbling voice to tell us that we had lived too extravagantly, in a way too out of touch with what the Earth could actually sustain, and in ways too disconnected from the real constraints of economies and natural systems. I wanted him to summon the vision of Kunstler in The World Made by Hand, and let us know that it was okay to let go of the fantasy of endless growth, and to live well and with less.

He didn’t, and it broke something in me that has continued breaking ever since. I guess that’s hope, or belief in the possibility to right this massive system, or optimism. But it has given way to something else that feels more calm.

This winter, in the depths of my grieving, in the aftermath of Bendell’s paper and David Wallace Wells’ Uninhabitable Earth, Auggie and I picked up Thunderfeet, a children’s book about Alaska’s dinosaurs. And in reading and rereading it, I found a measure of peace.

Somehow, I managed to make it through my first four decades without really wrapping my head around the fact that dinosaurs once lived on the land that has become Alaska. And certainly I had not considered what the climate might have been like in our prehistoric neighborhood, or given much thought to what other animals or flora had lived here, or how the air felt, how the sun felt on those prehistoric backs. Reading Thunderfeet over and over, with that monotonous zeal that only a toddler can compel, allowed me to let go bit by bit, and relearn the lesson that things will rise and fall over the eons, and that our presence here on this planet in this moment is just a tiny blip. Yes, we are wiping out so many more of the planet’s beautiful species in this horror we have created. But we will go, and something else will rise up, and so it has always been.

The Alaska State Museum just opened a new exhibit on this very topic—dinosaurs and climate change. The Alaska polymath Ray Troll paired up with paleontologist Kirk Johnson and created a wild, imaginative backward look and a clear-eyed, call-it-like-it-is examination of this, the 6th extinction. It’s a beautiful exhibit, and I left feeling like I was breathing fresh air. This year, 2019, seems like the year when we’re all waking up to our climate disaster on planet Earth. But I find it such a relief to finally feel like I’m not alone in my concern. I know many or most people will still march blindly along but, more and more, some of us will no longer be by ourselves. I’ve been thinking of it as realism, but recently I’ve heard Margaret Wheatley refer to it as clarity. I prefer this. To call it realism sounds like an admonishment. Clarity is a personal state, and also an invitation to kinship with others who feel that something is clear.

We’ve brought Auggie into a world that will be starkly enumerated—140 million climate refugees by mid-century, 10 billion people on the planet, 2 or 3 or 5 degrees warming. It is my job now to do what I can—teach him what I can—that he may live through this experience with clarity and his spirit intact. It’s possible his will be the last generation of humans, though it’s not likely. But his world will be incredibly different from mine, and my work as his parent is to give him what he needs to live in it as a whole world. It’s the only world he will know, until the day that he or it gives way to what is next.