Mary Pipher: Take action before the ship sails

Author, activist discusses getting over our denial about climate change

Author Mary Pipher
Photo courtesy of Penguin Group

Get in the boat. That’s where the advice starts. Get on board with the reality of global climate change and grab a friend to help row the boat. And then keep believing that with a little progress every day, you can cross any ocean. Even if the sharks swimming around the boat carry all the power and teeth of the oil and gas industry.

Mary Pipher, author and therapist, doesn’t often indulge in metaphors, but that’s the message that comes through in the research and anecdotes compiled in The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, her ninth book. In it, Pipher, also the author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, once again takes the therapist’s solutions-focused and observation-based approach to an emotional element of the modern age. She frames global climate change in terms of trauma, and approaches it with the language used to discuss how people try to emotionally evade engaging in any traumatic event — denying it ever happened, minimizing it through humor, claiming not to have any power to change the situation, casting the messenger as an alarmist or pretending not to care.

Then, using her own experience working with a small group of activists from her Nebraska town did to stop Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried tar sands sludge across the fields and rivers, she talks about how to get past that stage of grief and denial and using action to overtake those emotions.

“My belief is if, all over the world, people will mobilize to take things very, very seriously in their little corner of the planet and take very good care of it, that will heal the world and that will change the world and that will be enough,” Pipher says. “I really think that it’s important to work locally on issues and to really focus on the issues that are nearby because, first of all, that’s where people have passion. … That’s also where we have influence is in our own communities where we know people and we have resources.”

On Aug. 15, before she and her husband make their annual trip to the Folks Festival in Lyons, she’ll be speaking about The Green Boat at the Boulder Book Store. Boulder Weekly caught up with Pipher to preview some of the points she’ll be discussing.

Boulder Weekly: You mentioned this was a tough book to write. How did you cope with the stress of dealing with this difficult subject?

Mary Pipher: One of the things that really helped me write the book was at the same time I was part of a group that I helped form that was actually working very hard on an environmental action. So I’d spend my mornings in my study as I always have as a writer … and then I did a lot of planning and getting together with other people to talk about events and so on in my free time. That made a great big difference because I think one of the things that happens to people when they think about something like global climate change is they feel a great many emotions that are really unpleasant — fear, powerlessness, anger, depression and so on — but one of the great antidotes to that kind of despair is action. And I cannot tolerate feeling despair and not acting, so for me acting was a very natural response to what I was reading and experiencing.

Interconnection was also something you talk about in The Green Boat. Why is that so important for people?

I quote Gregory Bateson that the unit of survival is the organism and its environment. And one of the ways to look at not only global climate change but many of our enormous and overwhelming global problems is that we have a very disconnected relationship with the web of life. We’re not connected to our own bodies a great share of the time, to our own emotions, to our own selves. Many people aren’t connected to their families, to their communities. Then there’s great disconnects between us and other living beings like plants and animals. Because of these disconnects, and a very fragmented way of seeing the world, we’ve done great harm to the world and we’ve done great harm to ourselves because we are the world, we’re not separate from nature. We are a part of an organic whole which is the earth, the web of life. …

Another thing I’m talking about is connecting to power, because one of the things I have really figured out is that people in this country think they’re powerless, and that makes them powerless. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And our group chose to act as if we had power and by doing that we created power. … When we started fighting in Nebraska this Keystone XL pipeline, it was half a dozen people in my living room, and we thought there is no way we can go up against an international fossil fuel corporation and win. Well, it’s been almost three years now and we have kept that pipeline from coming into this country.

… All power really involves is saying, “I’m going to be a player in this issue.” … As soon as you move from “Ain’t it awful” to “What’s our plan?” you move from being a victim to being an actor, and that transformation is absolutely critical.

You reference the term “solastalgia” — can you explain what feelings that word represents?

Solastalgia is really an interesting term to me, it’s part of what I’m calling new language. One of the reasons we’re in so much trouble is we have very dated language and very dated concepts that we’re trying to use to describe and fix the problems we’re in, and I really believe that for us to move forward we need to have new ways of languaging these issues that will give us more insight into how to proceed into the future and also label what it is we’re feeling because we don’t actually even have words for what we’re feeling. Solastalgia is a really good example of a word that labels what I think almost everyone feels.

For example, I feel solastalgia when I’m near Boulder because I remember driving into Boulder 15, 20 years ago when there were a lot of little farms between the interstate and Boulder, and now everything that used to be little farms is housing developments and apartment complexes and big-box malls, and that is kind of solastalgia, that is a yearning for something that was very beautiful and comforting that has been wiped away by change.

And you think having that language is a key component to acknowledging and engaging in climate change in a real way?

I think it’s very, very hard to solve a problem that you cannot describe and articulate.

If you actually wanted to do an experiment … go around to your various friends and bring up global climate change. You will get a host of responses from “Don’t bring me down” or “Yeah, God, it’s awful but let’s change the subject” or “Yeah the world is doomed,” but what you won’t get is an honest discussion of how profoundly that impacts all of us in the way we see the world and how many implications it would have for our daily lives. … The way we work to avoid that topic, it’s not a passive kind of denial. It takes an enormous amount of work and energy to deny something this urgent and important this thoroughly in a culture. So that’s really important to me that we find ways, we find vehicles that allow us to speak to each other about this honestly and openly.

When activists come up against some of these big industries, like oil and gas, and what feels perhaps like insurmountable obstacles, what’s your advice for staying motivated?

We stayed motivated for each other. We celebrated our victories. We did do a lot of talking about defeats … and we’re always focusing on what we can do next.

One of our members, John Hansen of the [Nebraska] Farmer’s Union said, “Activism isn’t like planting corn where you throw a seed in a field and walk away. It’s like milking cows: It’s something you do every day, over and over again.”

Do you think there’s still time to save the planet?

Nobody knows what time it is, is the way I say it in the book. … It could be the end of Western civilization and life as we know it. Or we could be at the beginning of just a grand and glorious new way of living on this planet. I know we’re in a time of great transition and that the decisions people make about how to be in the next 10 years are of critical importance.

I remember when Reviving Ophelia blew up, basically, it changed the discourse for what I understood about teenage girls and growing up in America. Are you hoping kind of the same result comes out of The Green Boat — that you can really change the discourse?

Yes I am. … [With] Reviving Ophelia, I wanted to start a new conversation, the things that were being said about families and teenage girls did not fit what I was coming to understand about my own experience and that’s exactly how I feel about the way America deals with global climate change. What I understand does not fit the national discourse at all. The national discourse is still mired in a crazy debate about who believes and who doesn’t believe in global climate change, and I want to change the topic. I want to change the topic to, how do we, literally, all over the world, in the next 10 years reach the level of consciousness that allows us to create a sustainable world for our grandchildren and the great grandchildren of the fox and the frog and the turtle.

Mary Pipher will be speaking about The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 15 at the Boulder Book Store. 303-447-2074.