State of the Planet

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Finding Thanksgiving Gratitude Despite Environmental Grief

red sugar maple leaves
Photo: Peter Miller 

Being an environmentalist can be hard. Frankly, there are times I just want to curl up in a ball and cry.

Increasingly, I see the world through the lens of environmental loss and growing anxiety. And the more I learn, the harder it becomes to ignore the facts. Things I never thought twice about, now give me cause for concern.

Take Thanksgiving, for example. I had a lovely conversation with my sister on the Wednesday before the holiday. We spoke of Thanksgiving plans and upcoming holiday wish lists.

But, in parallel, my brain was wrestling with an environmental narrative of unsustainable farming practices, groceries sold in plastic packaging, leftovers divvied up into single use plastic containers, food waste, and miles travelled without consideration for carbon offsets.

I thought of holiday consumerism and my fear it will be taken to new heights this year due to both real and perceived supply chain shortages. I thought of the post-holiday mountains of trash from wrappings and excessive packaging. I once reveled in the joy of a bright package topped with a perfect bow, but now struggle to find that joy within the confines of my environmental ethos.

My conversation with my sister also drifted to the environment. We lamented the challenges of the recent COP 26 meeting and I rattled off a bevy of statistics I’d learned preparing a recent school assignment: 5 million tons of US medical waste per year; an additional 8 million global tons of plastic waste from the pandemic; 25,000 tons already in the oceans. It was both overwhelming and depressing.

As I hung up the phone, I thought of the ‘stubborn optimism’ championed by Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change who brokered the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Figueres describes stubborn optimism as “a relentless commitment [and] a gritty determination to move forward no matter what.” It is the choice we need to make as we work to halt climate change. Failing to do so would simply mean giving up.

But, in my dark moments of feeling overwhelmed, I have occasions where I wonder if it’s even worth it. Wouldn’t floating in the stream of ignorance and consumerism be easier than struggling to swim against the tide of deteriorating environmental conditions?

These moments and these thoughts don’t make me proud, but it would be dishonest to pretend they don’t exist. And, indeed, it would be unfair to me and others who experience similar despair. Our environmental grief is real and it needs to be acknowledged.

Yet grief cannot be the space in which we live; I believe we each have to find our own versions of stubborn optimism. It may not always come from the same place, but we have to find it.

This time, I found my optimism on Thanksgiving Day. I went for a midday walk. The air was crisp and the sun was shining. Occasionally I caught savory scents emanating from kitchens as family feasts were being prepared. There were bright red berries on a holly bush, maple trees ablaze in fall foliage, and mighty oak trees, the towering silent sentinels gently swaying in the breeze.

I couldn’t help but feel the joy of family gatherings and be caught in the awe of yet another season of deciduous transition. That was my moment of thanksgiving; gratitude for witnessing the warmth of community and the miracle of this incredible home we call Earth.

While indifference may at times seem the easier choice, it’s really not an option. It’s not who I am; it’s not what compels me forward. It would be harder to ignore the beauty that surrounds me than to endeavor to protect it. While much has been lost, there is still so much to be saved. Nature has a way of reminding me of my inherent hope. For that, I am forever grateful.

Colleen M. Fitzpatrick is a medical doctor and a student in the Executive Master of Public Administration program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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