I remember the moment I gave up hope. It was 1994 and I was pursuing a degree in biology. The year before, I had decided to shift my focus from pre-medicine to environmental science. I had just begun my junior year and I was assisting with the facilitation of a freshman symposium on the topic of conservation biology with a focus on Latin America.

Sea turtles in Costa Rica

In order to acquaint the class with the issue at hand, the professor showed the class a film about sea turtle conservation efforts in Costa Rica. In that country, sea turtle eggs were considered a potent aphrodisiac and the meat was regularly harvested for consumption by local people.

Documentary filmmakers followed the poachers around and filmed them as they captured pregnant turtles, slit their bellies open to retrieve the valuable eggs and sold them on the black market.

It wasn’t the precipitous decline in sea turtle populations that caused my despair. It wasn’t the cruel, barbaric actions of the poachers. What undid me was the exuberant smile on the face of the poacher riding off in the back of the pickup truck that was loaded down with an enormous haul of turtle carcasses.

It was the smile—his eyes shining with joy, ignorance, even innocence. It was joy juxtaposed with abject horror, like a demented serial killer proudly holding aloft his victim. He was elated to know that he was going to get paid. All was well in his world.

In that smile, the conflict was plainly laid before me—human survival and enrichment versus the sanctity of the natural world, and I surmised that human beings would have the upper hand in that conflict for many years to come.

I felt my heart break, and I knew that were I to pursue this avenue of study and research, I would encounter countless future episodes of disillusionment and sadness. My heart would be broken again in countless different ways.

In that moment, I felt that the natural world had already lost. I couldn’t desensitize myself to the tragedy of ecological destruction. It was too much of a tender spot for me. I had to turn away.

Instead of becoming a crusader for the environment, I earned an MLS (Master of Library Science) and became a librarian. I buried my head in the sand by burying my face in books.

Part of a natural cycle?

Twelve years later, in 2006, I was watching a screening of An Inconvenient Truth at the River Oaks Theatre in Houston, with the man who would eventually become my husband. I’ll never forget the moment that we emerged from the theatre after watching the film.

It was a gorgeous late spring day in Houston, and as we emerged from the dim theatre into the light of day, I had the feeling that I was stepping into a different world, a different reality. During those two hours, the world had changed in a drastic and fundamental way, invisible to the eye but glaringly obvious to my mind and spirit.

I only saw the film once, but even now, the images and warnings still swim around in my head—C02 levels climbing off the charts, wildfires, droughts, our coasts battered by huge megastorms and terrifying future models of rising sea levels around the world.

The data and predictions were terrifying, and my sense of helplessness was overwhelming, so I buried my anxiety. I’m ashamed to say that I entered a state of denial, one that lasted for more than a decade. The strong internal paradigm shift I’d felt was pushed to the side and ignored.

I convinced myself that what we were experiencing on Earth was part of a natural cycle, and that perhaps we were actually headed toward a mini-ice age. I went so far as to Google evidence supporting that theory.

I told myself that perhaps the warming effects of carbon emissions and this natural cycle would put us in a sort of climatic sweet spot, in which we would have relatively normal weather for the next 100 to 200 years, long enough for me to see my children grow to adulthood and thrive. Long enough to see grandchildren.

My delusion was fuelled by an intense selfishness—surely, the universe would preserve us, preserve my family? Surely, the universe would not allow the climate nightmares predicted by 97 percent of the world’s scientists to befall us?

Hurricane Harvey

And then came Harvey. One trillion gallons of water fell in Harris County, my county. More than 300,000 structures flooded. More than 60,000 people rescued, 40,000 displaced. Part of my neighbourhood was a lake. Only a few miles from where we lived, people drowned in their own homes.

Bits and pieces of the fears I had buried so long ago came floating up to the surface of my consciousness, demanding to be acknowledged. For the first time in many years, I confronted the terror of climate change.

In the aftermath, tanks rolled through the streets where our kids once rode their bikes, Chinook helicopters passed by overhead, and something in me shifted. My denial was like a stratum of soil that I had packed down so hard, it was like a layer of cement at the bottom of my heart.

Hurricane Harvey broke up that denial. Bits and pieces of the fears I had buried so long ago came floating up to the surface of my consciousness, demanding to be acknowledged. For the first time in many years, I confronted the terror of climate change, this time as a mother.

Many years of meditation have taught me that the only way to grapple with an emotion is to feel it, to allow my mind and body to experience that emotion. It’s uncomfortable. It’s counterintuitive—our instincts tell us to run or fight and our learned coping mechanism tells us we should stuff that emotion down where it can’t hurt us.

I was now facing down years of suppressed terror associated with the ecological crisis, and I knew that the only way to confront the fear was to allow myself to experience it.

So I did. I felt the fear. I felt it so acutely at times that I had to concentrate on taking the next breath, and the next, just to remain composed and avoid collapsing into a nervous breakdown. I allowed waves of nauseating terror to move through my body. I wept.

My husband came home a few times to find me crying in front of the computer, reading an article in The New York Times about coral reefs or massive wildfires. I scribbled notes to myself, trying to exorcise the pain and fear by putting it down on paper.

There is hope because the human spirit exists

One afternoon, while staring at the computer screen and wallowing in despair about the state of the environment and the apparent hopelessness of the situation, I happened upon a website called climateheroes.org.

Here were profiles of people taking on the challenges of climate change, each in their own way. I read about a Filipino man who delivered electricity to the poor by using recycled plastic bottles. A Gambian woman found a way to raise revenue from plastic waste. An American fisherman discovered a way to restore marine ecosystems and sustainably farm kelp and shellfish. Each of those individuals made a choice to use what resources they had in order to make a small difference.

And that’s when it hit me. Of course there is hope, and not necessarily because of their direct efforts, although they certainly can’t hurt. There is hope simply because the human spirit exists.

When threatened with annihilation, our fear mixes with determination, and the impulse to survive drives us to work miracles and make quantum jumps in our spiritual development. The human spirit is designed to break through barriers, to overcome obstacles and to find a way to survive.

More than 20 years after I lost all hope that we would find a way out of the ecological crisis, and just at the time when we are actually beginning to experience the effects of climate change, I have managed to regain some sense of optimism.

I still experience fear around the issue, especially when I read something new about how climate change is affecting the world, but I don’t feel like it’s going to crush me. Maybe the fact that I now have children has motivated me to reject hopelessness and instead embrace hopefulness and action, no matter how small. 

Keeping optimism from fading

At times when I feel that sense of optimism fading, the following ideas have helped: 

Nature’s resilience

The earth is resilient just as we human beings are resilient. Superfund sites, once devoid of all life, have rebounded and been transformed into nature preserves. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has brought balance back into the ecosystem, allowing other animal and plant populations to thrive.

Nature finds a way. Does this mean that we should trust the capacity of ecological resilience to the extent that we test its limits? No. But it helps to remember that life is always there, burgeoning at the surface, even when it has been brought to the edge of destruction.

Everything is connected

Positive actions, no matter how small, count for something. Thoughts matter. We are shifting away from a materialistic view of the world, and with that, the notion that our actions, thoughts and ideas occur in a vacuum.

The basis of reality is that everything is energy and everything is connected. When I make a choice to embrace hope and take action, rather than give in to despair and resignation, it affects those around me (and the world at large) in ways that might be physically imperceptible but are nonetheless meaningful.

Anyone can take action

We all have varying degrees of capacity to act. Bill Gates uses the billions of dollars at his disposal to launch a climate change adaptation fund. Al Gore uses his fame and influence to encourage policy change and public awareness.

I’m a part-time librarian with a spouse, two school-age children, a mortgage and a car payment. I’m starting a vegetable garden in my backyard, I’m using reusable cloth bags as Christmas wrapping this year and I’m volunteering what little free time I have to the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

My impact may be small, but it is still meaningful. My actions match my particular capacity; they are relatively small, but still worth doing.

Choosing hope

It is my belief that these are exciting times to be living in, despite the destruction, the negativity and the conflict we see all around us. I feel, intuitively, that we are on the cusp of a tremendous change, and though we may not be able to see it right now, good will come of this.

We are on the cusp of a tremendous change.

Paradigms are shifting. There are billions of human beings on the Earth, all connected via the greater web of collective consciousness. One small action at a time, one idea at a time, we will confront the challenge of climate change.

I have hope because I believe in the power of the human spirit, our impulse to survive and our capacity to adapt and innovate. More than anything, I believe in our capacity to love—to love the Earth, ourselves and each other. I choose hope.

«RELATED READ» BREATHE FRESH AIR: 5 ways to reconnect with nature»

image 1 Hawaii by otsukarekun via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) 2 Ice Age 3030 by Steven Swayne via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) 3 The Storm Refugees – Tribute To The Victims Of The Harvey Storm by Daniel Arrhakis via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) 4 PixabayPixabay