Climate of despair
January 14, 2013 8:39 PM   Subscribe

What can I do about climate change? Because so far my only action has been to feel utterly hopeless.

I can go for weeks at a time deliberately not reading about climate change at all, but when I do the news gets worse and worse. Two threads on the blue lately had quite a few links that I regret clicking on.

As it is now, I do the little things. Keep the thermostat low, write to my politicians, give money to nonprofits like when I have it. But it all seems so fucking piddly, given the scale of the problem, and our behaviors as a society and as a species are so deeply entrenched. I am fairly hopeless that we will turn this thing around in time. And I fear that any positive impact my life might have on this planet are immediately negated by the carbon emissions I create just by driving around and doing the other activities of my life as a citizen of my beloved energy-hogging country. (I would love to be able to bike around instead, but bad knees prohibit it.)

I try to take the long view. The Earth is just going to get absorbed by the Sun anyway, eventually. But in the short term, it's so sad. All those beautiful landscapes gone, all those bizarre and amazing life forms gone, kids who are currently being born to a planet that might be irrevocably fucked up. On a more personal note, I'm in my thirties and am certainly not looking forward to being in my seventies right about the time major shit starts to hit the fan.

Seriously, is there anything I can DO? My limitations are that I currently have a full-time job in a field totally unrelated to any of this; I live in the Middle of Nowhere, Midwest USA; I rent my (drafty, pre-1950s) apartment; I have no special technical or scientific aptitudes; I don't have a lot of $$$.

Or, heh, maybe I should just stick my fingers in my ears and go watch cat videos on YouTube.
posted by indognito to Science & Nature (40 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Don't have kids.
posted by pullayup at 8:41 PM on January 14, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: pullayup: done. Kind of glad I've never had the slightest maternal instinct.
posted by indognito at 8:42 PM on January 14, 2013

Try to enjoy the planet now as much as you can. Save your cash for an amazing holiday and see things that some of your friends and family will never see. Have experiences in nature or with animals that are out of your comfort zone.

Or what about a volunteering/working holiday somewhere that you're interested in.
posted by Youremyworld at 8:45 PM on January 14, 2013

Don't use more resources than you need. Don't buy useless crap from overseas. Buy high-quality, local items when you can. Buy used instead of new. Donate things you don't need instead of trashing them, so that more resources aren't used up to create and ship useless crap. Become a vegetarian. Be depressed anyway.
posted by studioaudience at 8:46 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Move to an apartment in a dense urban area where you can walk to work. Don't eat meat. Be judicious about buying new things. Other than that, I'm not sure there's much that individuals can reasonably do--there's activism, but that's a real rabbit hole and is far harder to quantify in terms of your inputs vs. offset lbs. of carbon dioxide.
posted by pullayup at 8:48 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, don't fly.
posted by pullayup at 8:48 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

1. You can stop eating meat.
2. You can take bunches of kids for free play in nature. There is evidence of a connection between unstructured play in nature and adult environmentalism...
posted by cairdeas at 8:49 PM on January 14, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm a Geosciences major, going into a grad program on Environmental Geology. I'm very interested in researching ways to reverse/reduce anthropogenic climate change (anthropogenic meaning caused by humans). I really think the best thing you can do is to educate yourself on how climate change works -- what factors naturally influence the change of the climate -- and how humans have and are influencing this. Climate change is a natural process, and Earth has been a very inhospitable place for organisms such as humans for much of its history. The Earth is constantly changing, which is one of the reasons it's so fascinating to study.

Anyhow, the reason I think knowing the mechanisms behind climate change and global warming, both natural and human causes, is this: A lot of people don't believe in climate change. The oil companies have a lot of money and are promoting that ignorance. The more people who are genuinely educated about it, the more people there are who can spread that true information and educate people out of that ignorance.

Other than that, there are people researching how we can manufacture carbon sinks (places that absorb carbon and take it out of the atmosphere), and that is imo the most important research in terms of the future of our planet and what we can do about it. You could start a fundraising non-profit that gives grants to students researching this area.

Also, you can take a Coursera course on sustainability (like this one).

Knowledge is power.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:52 PM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Educate yourself in the art of critical thinking and lobby for critical thinking skills, the scientific method, and healthy skepticism to be taught in schools. America suffers not only from poor scientific education but from a populace that is far too gullible and susceptible to pseudo-science. Our children are taught cynicism without reasoning--a willingness to doubt whatever "The Man" says, but lacking the analytic skills necessary to replace whatever they're tossing with something that makes any sort of sense.

Climate change is allowed to progress because deniers and charlatans are allowed a place at the debate table. A thinking populace would toss them out.
posted by Anonymous at 8:53 PM on January 14, 2013

Mod note: OP has said they are not going to reproduce; answers should refrain from soapboxing and focus on helping OP identify steps they can take.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:11 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I read somewhere (I know, really strong cite) that the two biggest climate changes (see what I did there?) you can make in your daily life are not owning a car, and not eating meat.
posted by threeants at 9:24 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, be a (pleasant) evangelist. I think some people get so concerned about looking sanctimonious about their positive lifestyle choices that they don't "witness" at all. Ok, it's counterproductive to harangue others, but yes! show your peers that people can be happy and productive community members without having a car, etc.
posted by threeants at 9:27 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Recycle, buy used (except for cars and appliances where older is less efficient), walk, bike, or use public transportation, drive more slowly, turn off lights, get rid of incandescent bulbs, turn off your computer, keep the A/C higher in summer (or don't use it) and heater lower in winter, contact your political representatives, write to companies, and encourage friends, family, and colleagues to do the same. When one person does all this, the individual impact is non-consequential, but when millions do it, it's consequential, and that means every single person's efforts are consequential.
posted by Dansaman at 9:51 PM on January 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

Learn it. Live it. Teach it.

Somewhere near you is a program that needs volunteers to help educate people on the issues. Environmental literacy is nowhere near the widespread level people think it is, and incredibly far from what it needs to be.

Check (or the like) for programs that interest you, and get involved in whatever way/level feels right. To coin a cliche, volunteering for a cause you care about gives back far more than you give, and goes a long way to battling the feeling of overwhelming hopelessness.

Good luck.
posted by faineant at 9:54 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Once again: The suggestion "don't have kids" was made above, and OP has stated above that she is not having children. It is not helpful to her to continue a general debate on the subject of the ecological impacts of having children because she has made that choice already. Further correspondence on this should please go to the contact form.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:08 PM on January 14, 2013

Hey, so, I was one of the people commenting in one of those threads, and I asked a pretty depressing question about where would be best to move to wait out the inevitable, and now I feel a little bad about that, because it probably only made you feel worse.

I do have moments of great despair over climate change myself. But, I do have a kid. And when he asks me "What are you doing to stop climate change?" -- which he does, regularly, because it worries him -- I want to have an answer. And in order to have an answer, I can't let despair take over entirely. I have to do things, even when I know they only help a little. I have to try.

So. I am a vegetarian, for environmental reasons. (I have been for 20 years -- according to some counts that's about 20 tons of carbon saved). I think a lot about what I eat, and try to make environmentally-friendly choices even within the vegetarian framework. I pay attention to everything from where my food was grown to how it was transported to how it's packaged, and when I can afford better food choices, I make them. I grow vegetables and herbs in my backyard. I also have a flower garden designed to support pollinators and birds. Everything I grow is organic and supported by compost that I make myself from my own kitchen scraps, which again reduces my footprint, because composted kitchen waste produces far less methane than kitchen waste in a landfill. I know you can't do everything I do now in an apartment. But I didn't always own a house. I don't know what your exact setup at your apartment is, but I can say it really is possible to grow some small part of your food in an apartment if you have good windows and / or a balcony with sun exposure; I used to grow nearly all the herbs I used for cooking before I owned a house. You also might be able to grow food in a community garden in your area. If you don't have the time or the space or the ability to garden, you can still probably buy locally grown produce at a farmer's market. And you can probably donate at least coffee grounds and/ or tea to a gardener in your neighborhood to compost for you (Trust me -- some gardener will want them. We are pleasantly weird about wanting other people's trash).

I bought a small (by American standards) house on purpose. All of the lights in my house are CFLs or LEDs. When we have to replace our appliances, we buy the most energy efficient ones we can afford. I live in an unfashionable neighborhood, on purpose, because at the time we bought the house (and for a few years afterward, at least) it shortened my husband's commute to 5 minutes a day. I work from home. My husband and I share one very fuel-efficient car. I walk lots of places. I only travel by air when I absolutely have to for work or very important family obligations.

I try to find ways to reuse things all the time. Half my kitchen canisters are actually glass pasta sauce or almond butter containers. Shoe boxes become storage containers. Etc.

I am trying to be better, too, about not buying things I don't need. I will admit to being a hopeless book hoarder. But lately I've been trying to force myself to borrow books (and CDs and DVDs) at the library.

Of course, none of this really matters when only one person does it, and I know that, and it's depressing.

So I also write about climate change. I write about simple things people can do to fight climate change. I write rants against politicians who say stupid things about climate change. You don't have to be a scientist to have an informed, publishable opinion on climate change. You just have to do your homework and be willing to ask experts questions.

I also just plain talk about climate change. To my friends, to my family, to my conservative neighbors who can't help but notice that this is our second winter in a row without any snow.

So if writing isn't your thing, talk. If talking isn't your thing, paint. Write a song. March. Run for office. Whatever. Whatever you can do to make you feel like you did something to change someone's mind, I think it will help. I know it helps me.

I tell myself, if I can change 20 minds, and they can each change 20 more, who knows? It's too late now to stop the world from warming. But it's not too late to prevent the worst case scenario. And I'd personally rather know I gave a damn and did something, even if we all lose this fight.
posted by BlueJae at 11:28 PM on January 14, 2013 [12 favorites]

Don't be depressed. You can't stop climate change. Likely, no one can. This is far bigger than you, and that's ok.

The fact is that climate change will happen if you stop shopping. It will happen if you double your shopping. It will happen if you keep shopping exactly the same amount.

This is not an excuse for nihilism because it still matters what you do even if not everything is up to you. Your lack of control of the big picture is not a contradiction of your responsibility to yourself and to the rest of us to do what you can, but is a complement to your own responsibility. To that end, there are some great suggestions above for taking action, and it sounds like you are already doing a fair bit.

Accept the universe as it is, instead of cursing it for what it is not. Do your part, small though it may seem, and take pride in doing so. That is enough. That is all that there is.

Climate change will happen. It is happening. If I could change it I would; and if I could fly I would do that (I would use my flying talents to play sports and make bags of money to donate to climate change prevention and mitigation, perhaps). Other terrible things have happened. But I try not to be upset that I can't change these things, even as I ride my bike, give up meat, volunteer for worthy causes, avoid buying coastal property, and ponder the ethics of having children.

Despite all of the ugliness you can't control, people and animals have continued loving, fighting, fucking, eating, worrying, living and dying. And if the world warms by 4 degrees and the oceans expand, there will still be heartbreaking beauty in the world and it will still matter what you did to keep it that way and how you treated the people around you.
posted by the thing about it at 11:29 PM on January 14, 2013 [10 favorites]

Check out the Transition movement. It's a grassroots response to climate change, a faltering economy, and the end of cheap energy which is creative and empowering rather than terrifying.
I've become very involved in my own town's group and it has turned my life around. We've planted a community orchard, have a local food distribution system, encourage cycling. It's about building community responses to what is happening.
There are hundreds of Transition Towns around the world and when you see how communities come up with their own solutions to problems facing them it changes your whole attitude toward the problem. The main website for the group is here and it is really worth spending some time on it.
posted by shibori at 11:53 PM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also came in to say: don't have kids.

Grow a garden. Join some orgs that work to better the situation- check out the Sierra club, for example. Join a CSA and eat small scale local as much as you can afford. Buy biodegradable plastics when you can. Repair things instead of replacing them. Reuse things instead of buying things. Join community efforts to preserve wilderness areas, keep parks clean, and so forth. Reduce your meat consumption. Try not to drive or fly. Try not to run your AC unless you really need it. Plant a tree.

Appreciate it while it's here. See as much as possible of it while you can. Don't be upset about bad weather. Don't ignore the magic while it lasts. Love it while it's alive. Learn about it while it exists. Appreciate it while you've got the chance.don't waste time feeling guilty.
posted by windykites at 2:09 AM on January 15, 2013

Also, save up to buy property that you can make into protected land.
posted by windykites at 2:11 AM on January 15, 2013

Global climate change is largely the product of industrial capitalism (a hegemonic system so powerful that even capitalist alternatives are forced into its orthodoxy of "development"). The problem with many of the answers above is that they are the products of the consumer dogma of this hegemony. Hear me out.
Individual action will do little to hamper or impact a political societal problem. And that is what it is. Global climate change is man made (not to be sexist; we're in a patriarchy and it largely is man made), and it can be stopped by people, but the solution will require collective social action. I'm a vegetarian, but that will do nothing to stop this. The people stopping the xl pipeline, locking down, physically impeding it, might. Bill McKibben's work is great, but he drinks the same water a you, sits on the toilet like you, you CAN join this struggle and help, just like him.
Here's my advice: take a vacation. Go stay with the kids locking down to stop the pipeline and do support work for a week (or something else like this, you're smart, it can be about fracking, or joining an action at an oil corporation board meeting, you can help with the press or design the flier or website).
The point is you can do this, but only when you break out of the what can I do, and become part of how we're going to take this on. Good luck.
posted by history is a weapon at 2:14 AM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Oh and, learn about greenwashing so you don't fall for it. Don't buy the hype and purchase a new, "environmentally-friendly" product (say a toilet), and fill up the landfill, when you could modify an existing product (for the toilet, it can be modified by putting bricks in it) to make it enviro-friendly. Try to avoid advertising that makes you want to buy. Learn to not want to buy new stuff if you can avoid it. Learn to maintain your posessions so they last. Learn to be happy with only as much as you need. Don't shop as a hobby and plan your purchases. Buy better quality things that will last longer.Keep your fridge and freezer full and put jars of cold water in them if they're not full. Don't waste food. Don't buy tupperware when your yogurt and tomato sauce come in perfectly good resealable containers and jars. As a bonus, many of these are also frugality tips!
posted by windykites at 2:26 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

On a personal level, as others have said, the most effective things you can do are to eat less meat (and dairy), drive/fly as little as possible, and save energy inside your home. But we really need systemic, infrastructural change most. As a country, we don't have consensus yet on taking action on climate change. Many still don't believe it's happening or that it's a problem. If you know any climate change deniers—a relative, a neighbor—open up the conversation with them. We need more popular support before the administration can be successful in any legislation like carbon taxes, etc.
posted by three_red_balloons at 4:42 AM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I thought of another thing -- my energy provider lets us choose a sub-provider if we want. We have an green energy company that we can use, perhaps you have something like that too.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:59 AM on January 15, 2013

And remember that one person's actions don't have an impact -- BUT -- it's the accumulation of individual's actions that do have an impact. Your actions may seem small, but you're one more person adding to the effort to reduce your carbon footprint, and that accumulated effort has an impact. It doesn't matter how much you're contributing, it's helping. Keep in mind the scope that one person can handle and contribute, and aim for that.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:01 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Join a good organization with a collective approach to the problem; throw yourself into it knowing our chances are slim. As stated above in numerous ways, individual action feels purifying, but the solution to this is a big WE not an *I*.
posted by lalochezia at 6:38 AM on January 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Join the Beyond Coal campaign.
posted by andythebean at 8:19 AM on January 15, 2013

As the sultan of Brunei said, "oil is too valuable to burn"
How about supporting scientists who are working on scalable alternative energy? There's space based solar power, internal magnetic confinement fusion, low energy nuclear reactions, tidal turbines, etc. most of these have a 10 year or so estimate for how long it would take to make a pilot power plant given adaquate funding (or in that time prove that the physics won't work)
posted by Sophont at 8:37 AM on January 15, 2013

I have this problem too. Added to it is the frustration with people who STILL don't seem to get it.

If you have time/resources to get involved, I like the Union of Concerned Scientists, which lobbies for policy change on this and other environmental issues. Maybe you can ask them how you can get involved.

Usually when I hear interviews with scientists on climate change, they report all these terrible things. Then the interviewer asks them if they're optimistic and always, surprisingly, they say yes. Because people have pulled together before for things like the ozone layer (I know, I know, it's not the same, and the Republicans weren't as nutty then) and there are steps being taken towards finding solutions. Maybe knowing more about those steps will help, or being around people working towards solutions will help.

Me? I go the YouTube kitty route and try to focus on things I can help more immediately. In my case, animal rescue, but everyone has their thing.
posted by walla at 8:48 AM on January 15, 2013

I'm kind of late to the party but I want to support what history is a weapon and three red balloons (and probably others) said above.

Taking shorter showers, not driving as much, stuff like that, that's all bullshit. I mean, it's important to take responsibility for your small part in this. You are, after all, one of the richest people on the planet simply by virtue of being an American, and your lifestyle is responsible for much of the devastation - simply because you were born American.

But you, by yourself, didn't cause climate change, and you, by yourself, won't stop it by becoming a vegetarian or buying a hybrid.

Systemic change is what's needed, not green consumerism.

Educate yourself, and then become active, in whatever way seems most attractive to you. Do you like to garden? Having a garden doesn't mean shit in the grand scheme of things, but if you can get 20 or 100 others to garden or support local food sources, that can make a small difference. Buying a hybrid or cutting your daily commute doesn't mean shit - but if you can influence policy, legislation or regulation at the state, local, or federal level, that means something. Becoming a vegetarian doesn't mean shit - but if you can stop a CAFO from moving in next door that means something.

Think about how you can multiply the effects of your actions. Take care of your local environment. And take care of your own mental health and body so you can keep doing this for the long haul.

Good luck.
posted by natteringnabob at 9:10 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead

Do what you can when you can. Vote with your dollars. Consider what you buy carefully, the only way to influence a capitalist society is to vote with your dollars. If you (and others) buy products that damage the environment less than others then suppliers will go after those dollars and make products that do less and less damage competing for your money. Pick an area of your life and do some research on it, be it electricity, toilet paper light bulbs whatever, find the best product that you can, it might not be perfect but you have to start somewhere and support that product. If there is enough demand then another company will come out with a product that is "more" environmentally friendly and then you support that product.

Just be careful to do a little research. A lot of companies start out using marketing hype before they make actual changes. Don't buy into that.

Oh and vote with your actual votes too, for politicians at ALL levels that support what you think needs to be done. Campaign for them even.
posted by wwax at 10:02 AM on January 15, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I plan to reread the suggestions here several times, because there are many I hope to put in effect. I guess being depressed about it is just going to have to be a fact of life, and a spur to keep doing whatever I can.
posted by indognito at 10:56 AM on January 15, 2013

Taking shorter showers, not driving as much, stuff like that, that's all bullshit

Systemic change is what's needed, not green consumerism.

Buying a hybrid or cutting your daily commute doesn't mean shit - but if you can influence policy, legislation or regulation at the state, local, or federal level, that means something.

With total respect, I think that this is utterly misguided, and it is really important to talk about this to answer this question.

People demand major change in policy or practices when the policy/practice is very much out of step with their culture, values, and beliefs. People do not, on a mass scale, demand major change in policy when the policy is right in line with their culture/values/beliefs. Even if the policy is making them suffer, they don't *believe* that if it is in line with their culture. They will claw for any other explanation.

People also demand a major change in policy when the policy is making them angry. People get angry when they can see clearly how a policy is benefitting other groups while it is hurting them. For example, if residents of a town are required to conserve water, while industries in a bordering state to the north can use unlimited water from the same river, people become furious. But if the residents in the town are using all the water they want then they have no reason to become angry, at that time. People resent others for doing things that they are not allowed to do, and I am willing to bet that people resent others even more for doing things that they COULD do themselves but are restricting themselves from doing in a self-denying way.

To change policy we need to keep pushing our culture to the place where it is normal and expected for the average person to consider the environmental impact of their own choices. If thinking about the environmental impact of eating meat is something that even trustafarians in huaraches scoff at, then who exactly is going to give a shit how much methane factory farms produce? Who is going to agitate against that? Because after all, where would we get all our burgers from, then?

In other words if giving up meat for environmental reasons is still a wacky idea to most people, then there is no way we could ever create any policies wrt those factory farms, because then -- many people would have to reduce or give up meat for environmental reasons. And that's a wacky idea.

To make policy change, this needs to become something that average people make changes to on a personal level, in our culture.

There are some choices that seem weird or out there, or just too difficult, unpleasant, or just too much of a pain in the ass. But if people can see others making those changes, and they can see that the people who have made those changes are really happy and the changes haven't made their lives a horrible pain in the ass, and that the changes are in fact do-able for people with job, bills, kids, people without a ton of free time, or who aren't super fit, then they become more open to it.

Just to use meat eating as my example one more time. When I became a vegetarian as a kid, my relatives acted like it was this unthinkable, bizarre thing that would turn me into a feeble, sickly adult. Some of them mocked me in a really mean way, some of them actually got angry and yelled at me. Being a vegetarian was just not a normal lifestyle in their culture.

Then they watched me grow up. As an adult, I would say I am probably the healthiest, fittest person in my entire large extended family with quite a few overweight members. That did not go unnoticed. It was the shock of my lifetime when two of my relatives who had given me the hardest time as a kid, became vegetarians. One of them dropped a ton of weight and is now one of the biggest proselytizers of vegetarianism that I have ever met.

Culture can change way faster than you think. I think getting my relatives to believe anything progressive related to meat-eating would have been impossible before they actually saw someone close to them be a healthy vegetarian with their own eyes for all those years.
posted by cairdeas at 11:58 AM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, very simply, you're not going to be as bothered by a policy change that does not affect your current lifestyle because it's in line with the choices you've been making anyway. But it's quite likely that you might get pissed off and resist something that would FORCE you to make a sacrifice that you had not yet made. Even if you thought it was a good idea and were planning to try it maybe sometime in the future. Shit, even if it's a totally neutral change that is not really a sacrifice - people hate change. (Just look at that MeTa thread about the new titles on the front page). That's why it will help us change policy if we move the culture towards making these changes now, voluntarily.
posted by cairdeas at 12:32 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Without become a total troll, I could not disagree more with the sentence "the only way to influence a capitalist society is to vote with your dollars." When you vote with your dollars, you're not a citizen, but a marketing demographic. (Also, I get seven votes and Bill Gates gets sixty billion votes? So that's what capitalist democracy means...)

(And to Cairdeas, nattering nabob is not misguided. You have a hypothetical water story, but there are millions of real people who want change to happen on the climate, and who are demanding it in line with their cultural values, their social values, and their beliefs. These people are real and beginning to act. )
posted by history is a weapon at 12:39 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cairdeas - I'm sorry if I came across as insulting - I don't intend to insult anyone.

And I don't totally disagree with you re: changing culture. Note that one of my examples was about getting others to garden, rather than just gardening yourself.

There are multiple cases where cultural change was driven by policy, either at the corporate or governmental level. People used to smoke on airplanes and in hospitals.
Now they shiver outside in the rain, if they still can afford to buy the nasty things.

Why did smoking become such an integral part of our culture? Because it was profitable, so corporations spent a lot of money convincing us it was cool and good for us. Why don't people smoke anymore? Because governments took action, regulating the advertising and production, and taxing the cigs until they quintupled (or more) in price.

Everyone did not quit smoking because a few individuals decided to quit and everyone else saw how great that was. The same will likely apply to hybrid cars, vegetarianism, solar energy, and all the rest. People will start buying solar panels when government subsidies dry up for fossil fuels - or when solar subsidies make solar as cheap of an option for the average household. Hybrids will be an option when the price/benefit ratio makes them worthwhile, either through regulation or because the price of gas gets high enough to make the higher initial cost worthwhile.

If I may, here are a few reading and viewing suggestions: - The Crying Indian, by Ginger Strand

The Century of the Self, a BBC documentary about psychology, politics, consumerism, and the science of advertising

Forget Shorter Showers
- Derrick Jensen

All Consuming Images
- Stewart Ewen

Small, personal changes in lifestyle can't hurt. But they won't solve our planetary emergency.

And you don't need any special skills to make a difference. You just have to get out there and do. That will likely help with your sense of despair and sadness. Either Ed Abbey or Joan Baez said "action is the antidote to despair," and it's the only thing that's ever worked for me.
posted by natteringnabob at 3:15 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Others have said correctly that, while there are lots of small steps you can do that would help reduce the severity of climate change if everyone did them, the problem is bigger than you and it may be bigger than all of us. It makes sense to feel a little bit of powerlessness about this.

On the other hand, it's not fair to compare climate change to the eventual destruction of Earth during the Sun's red giant phase. I don't think there are proposals that human-caused climate change is going to make the earth uninhabitable --- just different. There are places that are presently population centers that won't be in the future. There are places where there's arable land now where there will be deserts in the future. There are places where there's inhospitable desert now where there will be arable land in the future. And people (and wildlife) will respond to these changes in the way that we always have: by moving from the places where opportunities are poor to places where opportunities are better.

This is a process that will take decades.

The question for me is, can we shape this process? Historically, lean times are associated with civil turmoil. (I have only vaguely remembered citations for this: the disappearance of the Anasazi from the US Southwest is associated with a prolonged drought; the failure of the Danish colony at Greenland after five hundred years of unusual warmth; perhaps others.) Right now there are about seven billion living humans; it's probably true that, after climate change becomes unignorable and people begin migrating, the number of humans who can be supported will be smaller. That'll be a tough transition, with people moving to compete over scarcer resources. It brings to mind the long human history of wars over territory. Is there anything we can do to make this transition peaceful?

I've posted on Metafilter about this before: right now we live in a society where debt plays an important role, which is possible because, in the long term, there is growth. I loan you a hundred dollars; next year you pay me back a hundred and ten dollars, which you pay for because you've made a hundred and twenty dollars' worth of useful things that didn't exist before. Now suppose that there's a real, prolonged contraction, fewer valuable things and fewer people to make them, that lasts for a generation or two. What happens to the idea of money? What sorts of economic arrangements can be stable in those circumstances? Could we switch peacefully?

You don't need scientific or technical aptitude, or a lot of money, to help with these problems. You need to realize that these challenges exist, and that for the first time in human history we have the knowledge of psychology and the rapid global communications capability to probably make any changes we come up with, if the case for them is compelling enough. And you need to be willing to think, and to write, and to keep your mind open to good sense, and to keep throwing out bad ideas until, maybe, you have a good one.

On the timescale of my lifetime, and my children's lifetimes, I think that climate change is real and permanent. But I don't think that it is the end of the world.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 4:43 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Individuals can, over time, have large impacts by participating in electoral politics and city / county decision-making. Particularly in smaller towns, it can be fairly easy to have some influence.

If you are at all inclined toward public service and community dialogue, get involved, and perhaps even run for public office or help a friend do so. Or seek to influence national elections (e.g., your local House representative). Even without running for office, you could come to have influence over your city and county's decision-making if you got involved. Even if you simply network among your own friends, and particularly if you do that and also throw a few fundraisers during election season, you could eventually be seen as someone whose opinion aspiring politicians listen to.

You could influence a much bigger budget than your own and have a much bigger impact on how easy it is for everyone in your area to make environmentally smart choices.
posted by slidell at 5:29 PM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

topple capitalism
posted by secretdawn at 6:29 PM on January 15, 2013

topple capitalism
posted by secretdawn

Communism doesn't seem to work either - Chinese air pollution hits record levels.
posted by 445supermag at 9:49 PM on January 15, 2013

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