We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For
The climate doomers were right. Can we still hope? Author Christina Nichol searches for answers among India’s environmental activists and in her own family history.
Over a beer once, my sister told my mother and me what the problem with California was. Where she now lives in Boulder, Colorado, she explained, she only has to visit the next town to find the edge of the bubble, but in California the bubble is so big that no one realizes they live in one. “That’s why you were so shocked when Trump got elected,” she said.
It’s true that it took me moving to Florida for graduate school to realize that sitting around the dinner table and talking about climate change every night was not a typical relaxing family activity. In the mid-1990s my dad built a house out of straw bales that was so energy efficient you could heat it with a candle. The clocks were always a little off because it ran on the homemade hydroelectricity of an adjacent stream. On the wall hung a colour-coded map my father had created indicating what property values would be when ocean levels rose in the Bay Area. My stepmother eventually made a bumper sticker that read “Stop Global Dooming.”
A decade later, when I was teaching environmental studies at a high school in Chicago, my father gave a guest lecture. He talked about how if we continued to emit greenhouse gases, the air would start to smell like rotten eggs when the warming oceans plumed sequestered carbon. He so terrorized my students that two weeks later, when we were discussing a poem by William Carlos Williams, a student raised his hand and said, “Miss Nichol, can we talk about that guy who gave that talk about global warming? I haven’t been able to sleep since then.” Another student cried out, “Dude! That was her dad!”
In effect, I thought that by 2030 it was possible that life as we know it wouldn’t exist anymore. But I also assumed that as soon as the carbon/temperature correlation graphs that my dad regaled us with made it out into the public, policy would inevitably change.
An engineer from Mumbai who designs pedestrian tunnels told me that over 1,600 people die each year in that city from being struck while illegally crossing train tracks. Even though they see the train heading straight toward them, they are unable to apprehend how fast it is approaching. She uses this analogy to explain why she has lost hope in the ability of humans to understand the environmental peril that we face. If people can’t comprehend the imminent risk of a train speeding directly toward them, how will they understand the risk of changing climate?
I came to India last January because I wanted to understand how the environmental activist Vandana Shiva had convinced 280,000 Indians to shift from industrial agriculture to organic. I wanted to know what story Shiva had told them. The pesticide and GMO seed companies had certainly employed stories—painting bright images of Hanuman, the monkey god, onto their trucks and proclaiming in the villages that Bt cotton was a miracle seed from the gods, and that pesticides were magical potions. But only after living at Navdanya, Shiva’s farm in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, did I realize that she didn’t use a story at all. Instead, she helped facilitate farming collectives, where one farmer watched his neighbour experiment with organic methods on a small section of his land. These farmers weren’t talking about the science behind climate change. Instead they were saying things like, “Food tastes better now. My children are healthier. The soil is more fertile. We use less water. I’m finally self-sufficient.” Their changing mindsets affirmed, once again, that what heals the planet heals our lives.
In late September my boyfriend, Bongjun, visits me. We are exploring the south Indian state of Kerala, walking along a beach strewn with discarded flip-flops. We look for a matching pair to protect our feet from the blazing sand, but, for some reason, we can only find left-footed ones. A month ago Kerala was hit by another devastating flood; only a few beached coconut trees are reminders of this. We pass small piles of burning plastic, and I tell Bongjun that I can’t understand why, amidst India’s environmental calamities, I feel so calm here.
Bongjun picks up a stick and draws half a heart in the sand, and I wonder if he’s going to draw a heart with our initials in it. Instead, he draws a line and writes the initials U.S. over it. “This line represents the U.S. and the developed world,” he says. He draws another line closer to the surf. “Here’s India and the developing world. The rising tide is the destruction caused by climate change.
“They are feeling it first. That’s why you feel calmer here. People are talking about the important things, about what is happening to the planet, because they can see it. The West is just into their luxuries and doesn’t have to face the destruction yet, but because we are all connected, we feel it in our subconscious, and it manifests in the West in these weird, neurotic ways.”
“But they are not talking about it here,” I say. “At least, most people aren’t.” I told him how there’s not even an expression for climate change in Hindi other than something like “weather progression,” which seems almost to connote something positive.
I tell him of an article I just read about a marriage ceremony that was held for two frogs in the drought-stricken city of Bhopal to appease Lord Indra, the god of rain. But the marriage created so much flooding that the Om Shiv Seva Shakti Mandal decided to divorce the frogs. I tell him how BESIDE magazine asked me to write a piece about growing up with a global warming doomsday dad and how I learned to have hope. “The problem is that I don’t have much hope anymore,” I say.
We’ve reached a part of the beach where, for some strange reason, there are now only right-footed flip-flops. Bongjun picks one up and tries it on. “When did your dad first learn about climate change?” he asks.
“I don’t know. It must have been before Al Gore came out with An Inconvenient Truth, because my dad had already shown us those graphs Gore used in the film.”
I type out an email to my dad on my phone asking him how he first learned about climate change. While we walk, I think about how my dad’s level of optimism about preventing an impending climatic collapse depended somewhat on how successfully his architectural practice was going. At family events, when he was feeling flush, he would quote a Hopi prophecy called “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.” Part of it went like this:
This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. [. . .] All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
My dad would then add that we must celebrate extra hard to include the 10,000 generations after us who wouldn’t be able to celebrate. But now I think it’s better to emphasize the “sacred manner” part by learning new prayers and reverence for the earth. I’m beginning to think we need more frog-marrying rituals.
By the time we are back at the left-footed part of the beach, my dad has written back. We sit at a café and order a watermelon juice and a passion fruit juice and I read Bongjun his reply:
“There was a moment when I was building the St. Helena house. We were doing a lot of green building with straw bales, and I decided I needed to see just how serious this climate thing was. For me, it was discovering the miraculous cosmic events that brought forth our habitable planet. I became obsessed with learning more and climate change showed the unraveling of the systems that made life possible here. When I first spoke of climate I wasn’t so interested in gloom and doom. To discover all the elements working in such perfect harmony became a spiritual journey. And then I was in the Dublin, Ireland, library studying all the climate graphs and saw climate change was going to come on fast. As it became more apparent that we were in an extinction event, I became alarmed. This knowledge gave me the confidence to attempt to bring back electric streetcars to Marin [County] . . . another 10 years of effort that was not successful as our leaders are fearful of change, and it appears while the technologies and knowledge are available, there is little or no political will to implement the changes. And now the positive feedbacks have emerged, and your nephews will see the collapse of our civilization in their lifetime.”
Bongjun sits in silence behind his empty glass. “That’s a bitter ending,” he says. I agree.
“He was building that straw bale house with your stepmom, right?” Bongjun says slowly. “And then he lost the house when he got divorced and went to Ireland. It must have been a turning point. He was looking for meaning and he started studying the ecosystems and he realized the miracles of the earth and that gave him a purpose.”
“But he was always interested in nature when we were growing up. He told us how heaven is on earth right now, and we should be as responsible and as noble as gods in order to take care of it. It took 13.8 billion years of relentless, miraculous good luck to create the necessary conditions for life on this planet.”
Bongjun thought for a while. “So actually that’s a good story. He talked about the miracles of the earth to his kids, and the risks that humans are creating, and then you became concerned about the earth and it all came out of love. So it works to keep talking about how to love the planet.”
There’s one image from modern India that I keep returning to for hope. It was in the central state of Maharashtra: a giant windmill, half a football field long, garlanded like a god with Christmas tree lights and belting out dramatic music like an ice cream truck, slowly moving down the highway.
Christina Nichol is the author of Waiting for the Electricity. She has taught in South Korea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kosovo, and the republic of Georgia. She teaches environmental studies and liberal arts at Sonoma State University and is currently a Fulbright Scholar in India.