WHEN I WAS 19 YEARS OLD, in the summer before I started college, I went to Germany to visit a friend who had joined the Army and was posted there. We were two guys from Wyoming who had learned rock climbing, rappelling, and cave exploring together. Brimming with confidence, Todd and I decided to hike up the highest mountain in Germany, the Zugspitze. Todd was a blue-eyed redhead who had been a bit of a stoner in high school and had joined military intelligence as a code breaker. He had a can-do attitude and a gigantic, mischievous smile that ignited every time we plotted an adventure like this. That morning, we set out early, bouncing through the spruce on a cool August day. The forest section of the hike went well, but after we left the tree line, we found ourselves in some difficulty, rock scrambling with the aid of a series of cables and iron rungs affixed to the mountainside, on what is called via ferrata. It was a bit tricky, that via, but the view was worth it: jagged granite peaks stretching into the distance, villages dotting the Bavarian countryside below.
At some point, we entered the clouds, and this is where things fell apart.
At first, the wispy mist was welcome, cooling us down and urging us on. But then the mist thickened and began spitting rain, then sleet, then snow. Visibility went to zero, and the trail started to fill in. None of these conditions were novel to us, and probably neither of us wanted to admit how nervous we were, so we kept climbing. The problem was that all those cables and rungs were now coated with ice, both above and below us, but because it was easier to climb up than down, we kept going. The storm was relentless, though, so eventually we stopped to take stock. Our lone water bottle, refilled at a spring miles below, was of course empty. The breakfast bars were gone. I was wearing shorts and a university sweatshirt, whose hood I had cinched over my head. Todd wore pants and a T-shirt, with a headwrap over his ears. We had no other gear at all. We were just two dumb kids stranded on a mountain, ice dangling from our eyebrows. We knew, though, that somewhere near the top of the mountain, there was a tram station, and if we could make it there, we could ride down. So we pushed on. We trudged through the snow until we could finally make out a station in the distance. We quickened our pace and arrived at the station, only to find it derelict, boarded up, abandoned. We were lost. And shivering. Todd flopped down in the snow, out of frustration and exhaustion, and I felt the cold of the mountain tighten around my chest.
I HAVE BEEN THINKING A LOT about that trip lately. I guess that’s because I’m older, and I miss doing stupid shit. But also, I’ve started to wonder about my values and whether they are, well, fit for these times. Somewhere between that trip and the many other outdoor adventures I’ve had — on rock and ice, in rivers and lakes, atop high peaks and through hammering ocean waves — I have lost faith in the grandeur of nature to maintain my sense of well-being. I know this may seem odd to pen in an environmental journal, but it’s the truth. The part of me that loves the wild world has felt disconnected these days, the pull of these places severed from any sense of ethics or meaning. Maybe it was the pandemic, and our absolutely horrifyingly dumb response to it; or it might be the rising threat of a fascist right wing within our political establishment; or a catalogue of climate disasters; or the mass extinction; or murderous police; or the mass killing of school children, of shoppers, of concertgoers, of nightclub crowds; or the bleached reefs; or the disappearance of songbirds. Maybe. What if, though, the answer is simply that the beauty of the natural world is not enough for me anymore? What then?
I GREW UP IN THE MOUNTAINS, so alpine adventuring was a natural pursuit for me. I am no legend in this (very White, very male) world, and I haven’t climbed in years, but I have spent countless hours in the alpine wilderness, alone or with friends, climbing, laughing, freezing, in awe of the beauty of high meadows, of ice fields, of the radiant light of alpenglow. The bible for alpine ventures has for decades been the classic Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, which is both a technical manual and quiet manifesto for the sport. But these days, when I see the book on my shelf, I’ve been asking myself: Freedom from what, and freedom for whom? Such questions often come up often in environmental discussions as well, as they should. The national conversation has shifted, rightly, and these issues are now at the center of the divisions within the environmental community, holding it back. And while I realize the (ironic) privilege that put Todd and me in the mountains in the first place, such questions are these days at the center of my disquieted, dissatisfied self.
“Harm and division” are surely not the goals of any movement.
In the past, the Western environmental movement has had separate goals from the environmental justice movement. The former has concerned itself with a romantic notion of the wild, natural world; the latter has focused on questions of justice and suffering. Climate change is collapsing the distance between these two worlds, and I can feel myself caught in the thunderclap between them.
Rarely do people say too much out loud, but one Journal reader recently wrote in, nicely summarizing the tension. “You dont (sic) have to cowtow (sic) to the New Authoritarianism and vow loyalty to all the ‘anti racist’ jazz,” she wrote. “Dont (sic) let all this new propaganda deflect you from your real mission: saving the planet. Leave social justice to other groups. Your mission is more important and it is the social justice people to who need to educate themselves and support the environmentalists, not the opposite. We have nothing to apologize for.”
I once asked a very wealthy land lawyer what he thought the biggest threat to public land was, and he answered, without hesitation, “overcrowding.” In other words, his concern was with his experience of the land, not the land itself. That view is unfortunately typical among a certain school of environmentalists — they value the freedom of the hills, just not for everyone.
This kind of thinking signals a deep division in environmental advocacy, one that is doing damage. Consider the passage this year of the Inflation Reduction Act, which puts billions of dollars toward climate initiatives and infrastructure. After it passed, the Climate Justice Alliance, a consortium of groups, issued a statement of disappointment. The IRA, they said, did more harm than good for the health of marginalized communities — Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor. In fact, the bill had about $48 billion worth of threats, the group said. Once the bill was passed, the renowned climate advocate Bill McKibben seemed vexed. “It’s worth remembering that there are people in the EJ [environmental justice] community disappointed by the passage of this climate bill, and yet they’ve been a critical part of shifting the zeitgeist so it could happen,” he tweeted. “I’m not certain what that means, but I am certain it’s important.”
Some put the matter plainly. Anthony Rogers-Wright, a Black community organizer and policy analyst, resigned as a member of the advisory committee for Evergreen Action, an advocacy organization for climate policies. “The climate ‘movement’ is less an exercise of social justice, and more frequently a continuation of the white ‘supremacy,’ patriarchy, and colonization that form the interlinked root causes of the climate crisis,” Rogers-Wright wrote on Medium, announcing his departure. “As I depart Evergreen, I hope it will really cogitate on how they continue to operate in ways that manifest colonization and racism that causes harm and division.”
“Harm and division” are surely not the goals of any movement. And so I have been thinking about what might pull the two factions into alignment. I cannot here do all the work for every person who needs to learn and understand the history of the United States, a nation built from genocide, stolen lands, and enslaved peoples; nor can I fully catalog the White supremacy that undergirds much environmental thought of the twentieth century (I’m looking at you, Ed Abbey). What I can offer is a first step toward empathy, a tiny foothold of common ground. For that, let’s return to the mountains.
Not long ago, I was watching a documentary called 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible, which follows the absolutely unheard-of attempt by Nirmal Purja, a Nepalese climber, to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter-plus peaks in one season. He does so (spoiler!), with an all-Nepalese team, dancing, drinking, smoking, and riling European mountaineers along the way. Somewhere toward the end of the film, the wizened, world-famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who took a lifetime to summit those same peaks, weighs in with his approval. “Most of us are forgetting that from the beginning of our life we are approaching death,” he says, in a rumbling accent, rough as granite. “Life is absurd. But you can fill it with ideas. With enthusiasm. You can fill your life with joy.”
JOY. THAT WORD COMES UP A LOT in conversations around social and environmental justice. But hearing it applied to the realm of mountaineering, where the freedom of the hills lives next to the beauty of the mountains, felt like the discovery of a key. What would it mean to reframe environmental thinking away from esoteric notions of beauty, or “wild,” and more toward joy? Surely most of us can take that step.
Joy, after all, is universal, and some serious people have put some serious thought into it. George Vaillant, a pioneering Harvard research psychiatrist who studies human development, points out that “mammalian evolution has hard-wired the brain for spiritual experience, and the most dramatic spiritual experience is joy.” Where happiness is a product of our fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system, joy comes from the rest-and-digest parasympathetic system. Joy is a heightened state that grows from within us. Joy “has a mysterious capacity to be felt alongside sorrow and even – sometimes, most especially – in the midst of suffering,” writes Angela Gorrell, assistant professor of practical theology at Baylor University. “This is because joy is what we feel deep in our bones when we realize and feel connected to others – and to what is genuinely good, beautiful and meaningful – which is possible even in pain.”
If there is common cause to be found within the environmental movement, I nominate joy.
WHAT IF ALL OUR ENVIRONMENTAL FACTIONS centered themselves around joy? What would that kind of movement look like?
It is clear to me now that joy has a direct relationship with both beauty and justice, between hope and freedom. Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union asked artists to envision a world of systemic equality, and what that might mean for the rich tradition of Black joy.
“Black joy is freedom,” answered Michigan-based multidisciplinary artist Octavia Ink. “Black joy is radical. … Black joy leads to liberation and the freedom of self-expression.” Eliana Rodgers, a Black biracial illustrator and textile artist based in Brooklyn, New York, spoke of joy and freedom, “Freedom to laugh, freedom to dance, freedom to create, freedom to thrive in a world without policies and social structures attempting to curtail — even end — your very existence. Within this freedom lives unbridled joy, happiness from your head to your toes, flowing into the earth and into those around you.”
How might joy be brought further into traditional environmentalism? What would a defense league for joy look like? For starters, it will take some self-reflection and honesty on the part of some individuals.
Let’s take the wealthy land lawyer, for example. He may very well be concerned with overcrowding on public lands, and while, no, this is not their greatest threat (objectively), what those crowds represent are a threat to his enjoyment of the land. He is already an advocate for joy — his own. If he can be honest about that, perhaps he can find common cause with people whose own joy is also an aim. He might, for example, read and even understand Junauda Petrus, whose essay, “Black Woman Wildness, a Spell,” appears in adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. In getting over a devastating break-up, Petrus is advised by a friend with some “girl-witch wisdom.”
Were we all to become defenders of such limitlessness, of joy, for ourselves and others, we might work a bit differently.
“Go put on a long and flowy skirt with no underwear, and go find somewhere in nature to sit your coochie on the earth,” the friend says. “Let the earth hold the ache for you. Just cry and let it all out.” Petrus does this, and it works, leading her to realize that part of her is “essential and limitless.” She writes, “I have learned to rely on nature, desire and creative inspiration to be a compass and a place of solace for my heart in the persistent struggle for justice and transformation I’m committed to.”
Show me an alpinist who has never skinny-dipped in an alpine lake, never felt essential and limitless.
Were we all to become defenders of such limitlessness, of joy, for ourselves and others, we might work a bit differently. Elsewhere, in the collection All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, brown expounds on a theory of “emergent strategy,” analogous to the flocking of birds, who manage to stay close enough together, and far enough apart, to get where they are going. Progress need not require work, brown suggests: It is pleasure, or joy, from which progress emerges.
A defender of joy is a certain kind of freedom fighter. Perhaps we can be reminded of this, to create new forms of advocacy, even new kinds of democracy. Working from joy, toward true freedom, gets us closer to what theorist Achille Mbembe calls “radical sharing and universal inclusion,” in “humankind’s implication in a common that includes nonhumans, which is the proper name for democracy.”
Joy strategies are already underway in climate activism. To give one of many examples, I recently spoke with the 27-year-old founder of a company called Soapbox, Nivi Achanta, whose aim is to bring “courage and joy” to bear on people’s feelings of hopelessness amid so many intersecting crises. Through humor, bad puns, and funny memes, Achanta has built a newsletter of 6,000 readers, from which scores of activists have emerged, connected, and engaged. Joy is the point. “I feel like I have a specific role to play in the world that we’re building, and I also feel very relieved that it’s not a problem that we have to solve and rather a new paradigm that we can build,” she told me. “I used to feel hopeless a lot, and I don’t feel that anymore.”
LET US RETURN THEN to my own moment of hopelessness, there on the Zugspitze. Originally, I had meant to tell this story to reach into the past and think about freedom and beauty and whether those ideals were enough. But with this memory in mind, I kept running into joy and its relationship to terror, and lessons for these times. So I will tell you how the story ends.
There I stood on the side of the mountain, shivering, staring at Todd in a bank of snow. “I just need to rest a bit,” he said. I’m no expert, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Todd should probably get up. “Look, there,” I offered. Perhaps we were closer to actual tram station than we thought. Encouraged, he rose out of the snow, and we plodded on up the trail. At last we reached the crest of a ridge, from which, during better conditions, we might have seen into Austria and Germany (and maybe even found some help). As it was, we could see very little, and we admitted that we had no choice but to go back the way we came. We took out a little film camera and took pictures of each other, looking miserable. I thought these images would help identify our corpses. In silence, we trod back the way we came, down through the snow, picking our way down the icy via ferrata. I was hungry and cold, and completely out of gas, but eventually, we lowered ourselves out of the clouds and back into the sunny, stony world of Bavaria. We were soaking wet and still above tree line, and the sun would be setting soon. But then we saw something we had missed on our way up: a small cottage on the mountainside, and from its stone chimney, woodsmoke.
“Dude!” one of us said, and we dragged ourselves to the cottage door. The owner answered, thick bearded and disheveled, and Todd asked in shaky German whether he had any food. “Ja,” the man said, and motioned us in. He sat us down at a wooden table, went to the kitchen. In a few minutes, he returned to serve us steaming black coffee and the best sausage I’ve had in my life.
When I think back on that now, I have no visceral recollection of the fear or hopelessness we felt. I know it was there, and I include it whenever I tell the tale, because, hey, it makes a great story. What I remember most is that coffee and sausage, and the feeling it brought me, and still brings me. That feeling is something instructive, something approaching joy. It took a while to arrive, with some terror along the way, but joy had always been there, waiting its turn.
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