No Grand Gestures Necessary

When faced with climate anxiety, even small, local efforts can make a difference.

On the way to drop our kids off at school one recent morning, my husband spotted a skunk lying limp on the side of the road. Yet another roadkill, we thought. But on the way back, he noticed it was still alive. It was a workday, we both had places to go, deadlines to deal with. But after a brief moment of hesitation, we stopped and walked over to the furry creature.

A very sick skunk
The poor, shivering skunk was clearly miserably sick. Photo by Maureen Nandini Mitra.

Wary of being sprayed, I crouched two feet from the skunk while my husband raced home to grab some moving blankets and a box. I couldn’t see any surface injuries but it was shivering uncontrollably and its eyes were gummed shut. It wasn’t hurt, but was clearly, miserably, miserably sick.

I sat there knowing in my heart that its chances of survival were dim, but also knowing that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if didn’t at least try to get it some help.

At the wildlife hospital we carried it to, the medics took one look and diagnosed canine distemper, a fatal disease with no known cure, this viral infection affects domestic and wild carnivores including dogs, cats, skunks, foxes, and raccoons. The skunk would likely have to be put down, they said as they whisked it away. That was that. One more life gone.

The incident left me saddened. But it also has me pondering how we tend to react so promptly to harms that are clearly visible, that seem treatable, like the skunk’s illness, versus ones that we know are occurring, that can affect many direly, but that aren’t quite as in-your-face.

The slow sickening of our entire biosphere as the world warms surely falls into the latter category.

All of us are feeling the impacts of climate change at some level by now. Just in this issue we have a dispatch from Sri Lanka that shows how in poorer, developing nations, increasingly unpredictable rainfall is breaking up families (“Hollowed Lands”). And a cover story from California that highlights how ocean warming is making it harder for already struggling species, like several native abalone, to pull back from the brink (“Holding Fast, or Failing?”). And a feature about the Nilgiri Mountains of India where warmer weather is complicating efforts to restore a unique grassland ecosystem (“An Uphill Task”).

The full list of climate impacts is depressingly long, but because of their slow onset, and because direct connections are hard to establish, even when we learn about them it doesn’t spark a sense of urgency in most of us. However, as Kate Olson describes in “Dis-ease,” in many of us these changes do cause “a shift” in the gut, “an awareness deep down that something is not right.”

It’s easy enough to push that uncomfortable feeling the to back of our minds as we rush about our daily business of living, loving, and making ends meet. And when we do pay attention, the scale of the problem seems overwhelming. Here’s the thing though — unlike that poor skunk, the world still has a fighting chance of recovering. But only if we stop to help.

That help doesn’t have to be some grand gesture. As social anthropologist Helena Norberg-Hodge says in Conversation, “start small and local. It’s a wonderful entry point into a multipronged and mutually reinforcing path to health and happiness.”

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