It’s easy, if you can afford a certain lifestyle, to not see the desecrated places. I managed to get though 20 years of my adult life without paying much attention to those nondescript, no-window buildings behind the chain link fences, the dead spaces underneath the freeways, and the massive piles of containers down by the loading docks. These were ugly places to be avoided. I didn’t know what they were, or what people did there, so I just didn’t think about them very often.
At some point in the early 2000’s I noticed the climate change crisis. I’m still a bit mystified how it took me so long, but once I’d noticed it, I devoured everything I could get my hands on to learn more about it. After a few years of researching climate change and meeting caring, committed activists, I found myself open to seeing the world as a fully connected experience, where everything is related to everything else. All of a sudden I could see how our industrial economy creates the spaces I never paid attention to, and along with them, climate change. I could see how of course economic and environmental injustice are related to climate change and related to colonization and industrial agriculture and industrial pollution and failed public transportation systems and a capitalist society run amok.
But I still didn’t have any direct experience of any of it. Lucky and privileged me. My house wasn’t next to a power plant or a chemical factory or a dump or the rising seas. I walked to work through my neat, middle-class neighborhood and through downtown streets with big shiny buildings. My water came from a clean, deep aquifer, and my food from the well-stocked market down the street with fresh vegetables from California, Mexico, and even a few local farms. In my daily life I was simply not exposed to the desecrated places and all that comes with them.
I understood the enormity of the situation only at my first real climate rally. Oh, I’d been to marches before, that had all been held in carefully staged locations in downtown in the middle of the day so as not to interrupt traffic too much, or business too much, or other people’s lives too much. No, the first time I really got it was when a woman from my community decided to chain herself to an ocean oil drilling rig and a rally was organized to shut down business where the rig was located at the docks. I couldn’t walk to the docks, but I didn’t want to drive, and the forecast for the morning was sunny and clear, so I decided to ride my bike. It was the first time I’d visit that desecrated place–not just looking over the side of the road at it, or looking at pictures of it, but actually there.
So, on that sunny spring morning, I biked to the docks, through the endless container yards and past the giant ship loading machines; under the freeway; right next to big trucks carrying containers bound for who knows where, worried the truck drivers wouldn’t see me far below them on my bike; past rundown houses with dirty windows and weedy yards sitting right next to those chain link fences and nondescript, no-window buildings; up over a bridge crossing the polluted and poisoned Duwamish River, once home to the Dkhw’Duw’Absh people, and now home to nothing living at all; down into a vast field of oil tanks and chemical tanks and chimneys belching smoke and pipes winding their way around it all; I biked on, soaking in the sadness of these desecrated places and eventually reached the dock. There were my people, all holding brightly colored home-made signs, joking and laughing with one another yet all determined. There were the fleets of cops on bikes, dressed in black, with weapons at their belts, ready to take us on should one of us get out of line. And there, in the distance, was the massive yellow rig, the big machine that would soon make its way to the Arctic where it would drill for oil, bringing to the surface black liquid millions of years old to send all over the world and eventually end up as a gas in our atmosphere to warm our climate just a little bit more. Out in the bay, surrounding the rig, but not too close, were the kayaks. The police boats were keeping them a “safe” distance from the rig; safe for Shell, the rig’s owner, of course, not safe for the kayakers.
As I stood there cheering with my friends and fellow activists, I understood. The depth and breadth of the devastation we have wrought upon the natural world and all the living beings who depend on it hit me with the force of one of those trucks going past me on my bike. I had to leave the cheering, shouting, and carefully controlled crowds to fully experience this feeling. I got on my bike, rode back up the bridge and stood there, alone, surrounded by nothing but concrete, and wept. Dark clouds had rolled in, the sky matched my mood, and I finally gave up all hope.
But that’s not the end of the story. Having no hope is freeing. No hope can, if you let it, lead to action that might make a difference in the world. Hoping for what can never be, what will never be gets you nowhere. Hope is wishing for something over which you have no agency. Losing hope led me to change my life. Losing hope led me farther into understanding than I ever thought possible, and I’m still learning. Losing hope means I’m working as hard as I can to love all the places in the world, not just the mountains and the rivers and the forests, but the desecrated places too. These places, and all of us, are part of this world, and it’s the only world we have.