Hope, complacency, and the merits of small wins

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Partner farmers with Atlantic Sea Farms harvest kelp in Casco Bay on May 3, 2022, near Portland, Maine.

I get it. Nuance is not terribly ... pow! zap! or bang! Would you rather read about the end of the world as we know it, or about how complicated climate change can be? Yes, it could be catastrophic for some communities and it could wipe out countless species. But it is as yet unlikely to turn Earth into an unlivable wasteland. 

That’s why articles like this week’s cover story by Stephanie Hanes can, in some ways, be hard to compute. Is kelp farming off the coast of Maine a solution to climate change? Can it stop the environmental shifts that imperil New England lobstermen? No. But it is something. 

As Stephanie writes, the steps being taken by Maine kelp farmers “will help, especially as they are repeated in different forms and ways.” The cooperation, the ecological stewardship, the changes to diet – all these things, multiplied, speak to potentially powerful ways humankind can move toward the balance that climate change has disturbed. 

But there’s a danger in articles like this. Indeed, there’s a danger in the whole Monitor approach – calm, thoughtful journalism that seeks credible hope. The danger is complacency.  

A friend of mine who attends Northeastern University says her fellow students refuse to acknowledge progress or nuance on hot-button issues such as climate change, race, or LGBTQ rights. Why? Because focusing on incremental wins can make it much harder to get energized. To take to the ramparts. To do something. When everything is going well enough, the tendency is to take the foot off the gas pedal. Calm often equals inaction.

Yet so much progress comes precisely from these times of agitation, when the status quo is seen as insufficient. True, climate change might not yet be “the end of the world,” but that makes for a much better protest sign or slogan than “Prepare for mass migration in the developing world and species extinction!” We cast things in extremes because that is often the very best way to get people off the couch and demanding the progress that is possible, but difficult and often achieved with no small tribulation.

Yet there is a danger to this approach, too. A recent article in Vox cites a 2021 study, which finds that more than half of those polled between ages 16 and 25 said climate change had “doomed” humanity. The article states, “Some ‘climate anxiety’ is the product of telling kids – falsely – that they have no future.”

How do we find the zeal that demands change and the nuance that does not warp our view of the world? How do we combine those things without losing our perspective or our urgency? Stephanie’s article is a great example of the Monitor’s attempt to do just that. 

Maine kelp farmers might not save the world. But they’re not sitting still, and their ingenuity and cooperation are an example of perhaps the best weapon we have in the fight against climate change – or any intractable problem. Even if it doesn’t make for the best protest banner.

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