Being alive has felt like a strange business in recent years (though vastly better than the alternative, of course). I do my frivolous job, try to get my five a day, and fret about money, who is more successful than me and whether I should find out what retinol is. But all that mental busywork is shaded by the silhouette of some giant predator, maw open, claws raised, ready to pounce. In my head it’s like a cartoon image, but not funny.
In a cartoon, I’d be oblivious, but I’m not; quite the opposite. I know we’re living in the shadow of climate collapse, and I know, too, how lucky I am to be insulated from the worst of what is already happening worldwide. But my ordinary joys and worries have started feeling ridiculous since things are so bad. “Things are bad.” “The world is on fire … ” That’s how I tend to talk about it on the rare occasions that I do – euphemistically or with jokey hyperbole, to conceal the real constant hum of dread.
Sometimes, for a change, I get angry, raging at the right targets – BP and Shell’s record profits, the government – but also the wrong ones. I walk down the street hissing to myself about people who leave their absurdly bright porch lights on all night or who rip up trees and pave over every vestige of living, photosynthesising, life-sustaining greenness.
The rest of the time I try to avoid thinking about what is happening to the planet altogether, activating what the writer Elizabeth Weil called our “self-protective shutoff protocol”. On the Guardian’s website, I’ve developed a super-fast scroll to speed past what I think of as The Scary Fire Bit – the starkly dreadful and essential coverage of the human and natural-world consequences of global heating – or I end up panicking and unable to function. It’s like covering my bank balance display at the cash machine: if I can’t see it, it’s not real.
It is real, though: 40C summers, a third of Pakistan flooded, mass extinction and ecological collapse, the news that we’re teetering on the brink of irreversible climate breakdown: it’s all there when I wake at 3am and can’t breathe. I’m not enjoying writing this (I typed that last sentence fast with my eyes half-closed) and I feel bad, because I know others share my anxiety. I’m sorry if I’m giving you scrolling finger cramp, trying to get past the unpalatable, awful truth.
But the truth is, denial doesn’t work and I can’t go on like this. Feeling terrified and powerless, then angry and powerless, then terrified again on an infernal loop isn’t helping anyone. And I’m increasingly conscious that actually, perhaps, I could help a tiny bit? So that’s what I plan to change next year.
Because I’m not entirely powerless – none of us are. Over the past year, I have been learning more about the small, quiet ways people are working to make things a bit better where they live, whether close to home or on the other side of the world. There are people helping to produce and distribute affordable food locally. There are community gardens allowing people without access to outside space a place to grow their own food and connect with nature. In repair cafes, volunteers fight waste and overconsumption, one shonky toaster at a time.
Across the world, individuals, communities and social enterprises are tackling local problems – plastic waste, flooding, energy consumption, declining biodiversity – and implementing pragmatic local solutions.
Even right on my doorstep in York there is plenty happening: my home town’s regenerative Food Circle market is prize-winning, but it’s also just a group of people who decided to have a go at building something better. I took cycling confidence classes with York Bike Belles, a tiny charity that works to make green transport accessible for all. Then there’s local legend Jean Thorpe, who rehabilitates wild birds, and, after finding a listless ball of prickles in my garden this spring, I met the awe-inspiring Fiona, who runs a hedgehog rescue centre from her home.
I suppose it’s that old Mr Rogers chestnut: “Look for the helpers.” They’re there; more, perhaps, than you realise. But rather than simply drawing comfort from that, I need to join them. So I will. I became a trustee of St Nicks, a local nature reserve and environmental charity, recently – I’m not much use yet, but I’m learning and I’m going to do more, and find new ways to put whatever skills I have to good use.
Will any of it save us from fiery doom (there I go again, being flippant about my deepest fear)? Probably not. But taking action can help you feel better. When I spoke to the climate psychologist Caroline Hickman a while back, she told me: “Small changes are phenomenal. It’s not just about impact, it’s about your soul; about living the best life you can.” My best life might well mean more veg, retinol and an Isa, but I think, increasingly, it’s also about finding ways to be useful.