In September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, toured the United States for 13 days. One famous stop was an Iowa farm where owner Roswell Garst threw ears of corn at a scrum of reporters trying to follow Khrushchev into a field. At another stop, a photo shows the Soviet premier in a crowd of beaming Americans and Khrushchev is laughing as he clowns with a crew-cut citizen, patting the man's potbelly. Nevertheless, the Cold War was frigid.
I was 8 years old and deeply relieved that Nikita was in the U.S. I knelt at my bedside and prayed he would stay for a long time, reasoning that while the Russian leader was here the Red Army couldn't and wouldn't launch a nuclear attack. During that 13 days I experienced a peace of mind I hadn't known since old enough to understand "the bomb." As a member of one of the first cohorts raised under the threat of atomic war, I was nurtured on dread. By the time I graduated high school I was convinced we were doomed, that cataclysmic war was inevitable.
That fearful conviction steered me into the path of a fundamentalist Protestant sect that believed we needn't fret about that — or any other worldly calamity — because the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was imminent, as described in the books of Revelation and Daniel. In fact, 1975 was the year. That also meant the end of the world, but we pious cognoscenti would be whisked away to safety before the horror of the apocalypse devoured humanity. Curiously, the prospect of that salvation actually created more angst than comfort, because our friends and relatives who weren't in our obscure congregation — that is, all of them — would grievously suffer and die, and somehow you had to be joyful despite that. Didn't always work.
Somewhere between those armageddons I decided to not reproduce. What was the point of committing to a nonexistent future as a normal human being? So it was that I experienced recently a vivid sense of recognition and empathy at the results of a new survey. Ten thousand young people around the world were polled about a phenomenon dubbed "climate anxiety." In the face of dire tocsins about anthropogenic climate change and disruption, respondents said they felt helpless, depressed and doomed. They expressed distrust of adults, and 40% said they would not reproduce. Been there.
Of course I'm also here now. Nuclear war — by design and by luck — has not happened, and the predictions of ancient prophets (as interpreted by contemporary believers) have not come to pass. Near the end of his life, Mark Twain noted that most of the things he feared never occurred, and that observation probably resonates with most people.
But the climate crisis plays in a different league. To avoid atomic holocaust is in essence simple: Don't launch. I recall a conversation from several years ago with a former crew member on an American Polaris submarine. He said that at least on his boat there was a tacit consensus: "We never intended to fire those missiles." There's something perversely compelling about mutual assured destruction.
In the case of climate change, however, just avoiding one thing is insufficient. Significant, proactive transformations in energy production, transportation, agriculture, consumption habits, etc., need to transpire more or less at once, and the longer that takes the worse it will be. As Twain wrote, "It's easier to stay out than get out."Historically, humans have been more motivated by cure than by prevention. What so many of the stressed youngsters realize is that we've already missed opportunities to stem the early tide of atmospheric warming and ocean acidification. The greenhouse effect has been established science for well over a century, and four decades ago, based on Arctic ice core samples, the human-activity connection was solidified and public warnings were issued. What we need to avoid now is a tipping point to doomsday.
Personally, I toggle between hope and despair. There is clear evidence for the latter, but despair is useless. This past summer I spoke to an 18-year-old bound for college. She'd toyed with the idea of environmental law, but soured on it. Why? "Not enough wins," she said. Her parents egged me on as I emphasized the important environmental advances achieved in the past half-century. She wasn't cheered. But then, I'm an aging adult with scant credibility.
But I'll try to connect, and it's worth reviewing the story of Damocles. Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, offered his courtier Damocles a cruel bargain. He was cordially invited to a spectacular feast, but over his seat a sword was suspended by a single hair. For Damocles, paralyzed by dread, the banquet was merely a torment. And so our young generation shrinks from parenthood and environmental law, questioning what the feast of our fossil-fuel-industrial-revolution has wrought, feeling betrayed by their elders and feeling guilty when they do partake of the banquet. I share their distress. Many do.
Is there a path through climate anxiety? First, recognize that feeling lousy and regretful over what we're doing to the biosphere is a sane, responsible reaction. Those who are unconcerned are either ignorant or in denial. Trepidation is justified, but realize next that there's no room for fatalistic wimps. I'm weary of elderly egoists who blow off the climate crisis with a shrug: "I'll be dead before the worst happens." Small wonder the young distrust.
Victoria Lincoln wrote, "This is the art of courage: to see things as they are and still believe that the victory is not with those who avoid the bad, but those who taste, in living awareness, every drop of the good." That is, those who are brave enough to acknowledge and to act, facing the fact we all contribute to the problem and must accept some measure of guilt. But although we own culpability we should also be self-forgiving enough to proceed with a life of action — both personal and collective. Certainly "be the change you want to see in the world," but understand you share the mission with everyone. Work for transformation at every level — local, national, global. There are hundreds of things you can do. We are not helpless. Yes, there is a tipping point to disaster, but there's also a tipping point to a brighter age.
Finally, take breaks from struggle and concern. It's OK. A few nights ago I was under the stars with a telescope. A facet of the astronomy hobby is to "split" double stars, and there are hundreds within the range of my particular instrument. Doubles are binary systems where the stars are closely linked, sometimes of contrasting colors, and often very dim. I think of them as little celestial jewel boxes to be opened with optics. Hunting and resolving them can be an observing challenge that's deeply rewarding. It's a somewhat arcane and frivolous activity, but the other night after visually separating a close and difficult pair, I stepped back from the scope to raise arms in triumph and joy. After all, one of the synonyms of "frivolous" is "carefree," and to be free of care for a little while is a necessary rejuvenation to sustain life and action.
Despite my hopes and prayers, Nikita Khrushchev returned to the Soviet Union as planned, and although relations were bellicose, we're still here.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of "Ghosts of the Fireground" and other books.