At the age of 16, perched on a ridge in western North Carolina, I scrawled these words into a handbound journal: Want to help the world. Be connected with the Earth. Change the way I live. My mother has always called the Appalachians “wise old mountains,” not as tall or dramatic as their younger brethren out west but sage and powerful. In the presence of these remnants of geologic uplift, now carved up by cold water and swathed with moss, one feels called to deeper truths. I recall a steadiness of hand as I recorded my clarity and commitment in that moment. It has stayed with me for longer than two decades, but like many moments of inward truth telling, it prompted more searching than it supplied answers. But, what can I do? How, where, and with whom?
Anyone who spends their days working to address the climate crisis, as I do, hears this question again and again: What can I do? On the one hand, the question brings me joy: so many people want to help, to be part of fixing the mess we’re in. On the other hand, I find myself feeling twitchy. That’s because I hear in the question a craving for simple answers to an enormously complex challenge—but even more so because I feel responsible for providing a good answer. Science tells us that wholesale transformation of society is urgent. I want all minds, hearts, and hands to be able to make their best contributions, and I understand the agony that not knowing how can brew.
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There is no simple formula, no fact sheet or checklist, for figuring out our roles in the vital work to forge a just, livable future. But I have found a series of reflections can help us arrive at some clarity and uncover ways to be of use. Rather than stipulating actions that are one-and-done or one-size-fits-all, I’ve found that these five steps are a way to hold the question and work our way into answers.
Feel Your Feelings
There’s no getting around it: the climate crisis brings with it big feelings. If we’re awake to what’s unfolding on this planet, we experience some cocktail of compassion, grief, anger, anxiety, and even depression. Entwined as we are with Earth’s living systems, this makes sense. At the same time, the movements, true leadership, and solutions rising may kindle hope, courage, yearning, zeal. I find that ferocious love—some blend of tenderness and fire—is often the throughline. What emotions does the climate crisis stir up in you? What do you feel is at stake? Why do you feel drawn to be part of Earth’s healing? Journal about it. Meditate on it. Discuss with a trusted friend or counselor. Let the tears come if they need to. Our feelings can keep us frozen, or they can be fuel.
Here’s a resource that might help: Britt Wray’s Gen Dread newsletter is a clearing house for ideas and tools at the nexus of climate and psychology.
Scout Your Superpowers
Humanity has a massive task at hand to stem climate pollution and come back into balance with our planet’s living systems, and the heaviest lifting must happen this decade. There’s no tweaking our way out of this mess; we must do transformative work, and need to bring the very best of ourselves to the effort. What knowledge, skills, or resources could you contribute? Does using particular talents fill you with a sense of power or joy? What are they? Don’t worry yet about exactly how to deploy your superpowers—just spend some time reflecting on these questions. We need a vast array of talents. We need whatever you’ve got to give.
Here’s a resource that might help: The anthology All We Can Save contains a mighty chorus of women leading on climate, each essay illuminating different knowledge and skills that can be brought to bear.
The work of climate justice is vast and varied. We have a robust toolbox of solutions—in hand, today—that can help us stop burning fossil fuels, regenerate the land, and improve lives and communities. We can accelerate change by telling different stories, reshaping culture, building collective power, elevating good leaders, adopting different policies, investing money in solutions, innovating where we need to, and shifting our habits. Are there particular climate solutions that capture your imagination? Are any of the ways we can “grease the skids” of change especially compelling to you? Now that you’ve looked inward, let these questions direct your gaze outward. Do some reading and research. See what lights you up.
Here’s a resource that might help: The Drawdown Review catalogues the world’s proven climate solutions and explores critical ways to accelerate them.
Consider Your Context
We’re all nested into different contexts—different spaces in which we have influence and make decisions. To simplify things a bit, consider these three realms: your personal life, your professional life, and public life. What opportunities for action lie right at hand in your home, family, or friend group? In your workplace or profession? In the civic life of your community, city, state, or country? Are there efforts already underway you could join? Again, take a look outward and around. Sometimes the answers are literally right in front of us. Sometimes an invitation is already in hand.
Here’s a resource that might help: The podcast How to Save a Planet spotlights people taking action in many different spheres, from farms and coastal communities to startups and halls of power.
Cultivate a Climate Squad
When facing a planetary crisis, it’s best not to go it alone. We need each other in this moment and to succeed in the work of building a better future. Are there people you want to link arms with? Is there a climate-focused group, campaign, or organization that feels kindred? Could you join, volunteer, or apply for a job? We’re up against powerful interests that want to maintain the status quo, and others who are content to stand by and see how things play out. That means we need to be the biggest, strongest “we” possible—numerous and connected, nurturing the threads between us and leveraging our collective power. Collaboration and community get us to better answers and can keep us going when the work is hard.
Here’s a resource that might help: All We Can Save Circles are a one way to have deeper dialogue about the climate crisis and to build community around solutions and action—like a book club, but a cooler extended remix version.
So, what can I do? I wish I could counsel my 16-year-old self that the only simple answer is to form a relationship with the question, let it work on and with you, and begin to live life as a response. One answer and then another and another. In my experience, that’s a winding path—more tangle of rhododendron than straight-shot white pine.
We keep evolving, the challenges shift shape or become clearer, the solutions expand, the work unfolds in new ways. Given the enormity of the task at hand, we need to function like an ecosystem, finding strength in our diversity. With more and more people stepping off the sidelines, called to take their place in climate, let’s ask this question in community and work on figuring out what we can do together.
The paperback version of All We Can Save is published July 20.