Optimistic for today

Dear people, I love you, I hate you, we couldn’t do it without you

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

“It is a world at once beautiful and terrible.” Only one line in thousands but it stuck.

I felt comforted by these words, which articulated the conflict between a disabling cynicism about the terrible state of the world, the magnitude of global warming, and an unfailing idealism that we can make it better. Others feel this ideological dissonance, too, but I haven’t yet pinned down a common denominator. Maybe we’re products of our generation. Maybe we’re fickle. Or maybe it’s simply a rite of passage for a young person in a society that’s provided food, financial security and education, leaving me with the privilege of caring, of seeking some profound meaning for my life, for humankind, for Earth.

As I read this line in the book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, I sensed this mental pendulum swinging back-and-forth. Mark Morford, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, also nailed it, writing, “I don’t care how many people compost their avocado pits, nothing is gonna change until the corporations and the governments truly get into gear, which is a bit like shooting a water buffalo with a pellet gun. It takes about 2 million shots just to get the damn thing’s attention.” We can, he suggests, either succumb to despair or decide we have some degree of positive impact to make. It comes down to what perspective we want determining our world view, and I think, our sanity.

And that’s precisely where I struggle to make it add up, to resolve the confusion between feeling like we have all the power in the world and really none at all. Where everything will be OK. Or it won’t.

The problem with global warming is we can’t seem to figure out how to address this unprecedented conundrum. Are we going to cross our fingers, drive a Prius and hope it’s enough? Are we going to adjust to rising temperatures and sea levels or ignore the inevitable? Will we demand that governments massively fund clean-technology research or argue for limiting population growth (in developing countries) because we refuse to believe there’s room for all of us? Am I going to write a column about green buildings and convince myself it matters or be saddened that perhaps it doesn’t?

People cause me the most anxiety—one species out of millions who set ourselves on a path of laughable self-destruction, apparently intent on failing this test. Then I’ll hear one more person say she wants “to do the right thing” and change the world. This is, of course, partly why we’re in this predicament in the first place. Generations of people believed industrialization, burning coal for electricity and clearing forests for timber to build big houses would improve our standard of living. And all of this did, for a time, before it sucker punched us in the face.

But someone says “I want to do the right thing,” and I choose to give into the idealism and fragile faith in humanity.

When I started writing about SN&R’s green building project, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t expect what happened—dozens of people offering encouragement and a helping hand. And I’m thankful for them, for Urban Forester John Melvin, who volunteered his time to tell us about trees and pervious pavement. I’m thankful for cabinet maker Paul Jacobs, who uses bamboo and sustainably harvested lumber to build beautiful bookshelves and cabinets in the garage of his north Sacramento house, because, he said, “You do what you can in your own backyard.” I’m thankful to everyone who’s offered their expertise, who believes that we have a chance to show how Sacramento can come together in a really special way. Maybe people aren’t so bad after all.

Last week, I met Ted Nordhaus, co-author of Break Through. When he spoke, he expressed gratitude for all that environmentalism had accomplished—it inspired an appreciation of the nonhuman, natural world and its remarkable majesty. But the problem is that for all the movement has done, it left people out in the cold.

In the book, the authors quote Primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal: “I call the human species the most bipolar ape, meaning that we go beyond chimps in our violence, which is systematic and often results in thousands dead, and we go beyond the bonobo in our empathy and love for others, so that human altruism is truly remarkable.”

Can we handle global warming? I don’t know, but maybe there’s hope. At least, for today.