Storytellers stand watch, remind us of errors and omissions, and synthesize this wisdom to shape a cleaner and healthier future.
This is how I begin my workday: I scan the headlines at Environmental Health News (EHN).
It’s my homepage, my home base, my lifeline and an essential way I stay connected in the hurry-up-and-wait-world of environmental health policy and change-making.
In addition to reading environmental news from around the world, I also can get up-to-speed on emerging science that trained EHN fellows translate for those of us who still break a sweat when too many numbers follow decimal points. Or when acronyms and chemical names—like 2,2′,3,3′,4,4′,5,5′,6,6′-Decabromodiphenyl ether(BDE-209) (see what I mean?)—out number familiar words. They parse science into language that this sleep-deprived mother, only three sips into a blessed cup of coffee can read.
While scanning EHN, I remember why I’ve plunked myself into the middle of this maelstrom of politics, policy and pollution. Why being in the midst of all these issues is among the most important places a sociologist and mother could be. Because when everything else falls away, is there anything more essential than just access to clean air and water, arable soil and healthy food? Is there anything more important than preserving them?
Dr. Theo Colborn reminds us that only 3 or 4 generations have been born into this way of life. The fossil-fuel based systems that power society and our economy took root in the early decades of last century, with an exponential uptick in pollution after World War II. Much of what concerns me has taken place within the timeframe of my father’s life. To me, this signals that our current arrangements aren’t inevitable.
As my colleagues at the Science and Environmental Health Network have taught me, this news calls us to be storytellers. Sentinels. Guardians.
We need storytellers to help us remember our errors and omissions. Sentinels to stand watch and to warn. And guardians to synthesize this wisdom, to pass it forward, and to speak on behalf of future generations who have the right to inherit clean air and water, arable soil and healthy food, too.
When I teach my seminar on environmental health, justice and communities at Tufts University outside Boston, I also ask my students to keep an eye on the headlines EHN delivers through its daily digest.
Around midterm, after reading weeks of grim headlines, I find their spirits begin to wane. So, we pause. And in that pause, I offer up two ideas—well-informed futility and intelligent optimism. I invite them to explore the difference.
Well-informed futility, as my colleague and mentor, Dr. Sandra Steingraber, writes in Raising Elijah, is when we retreat from what we know. It is the state of paralysis that can follow from a “steady onslaught of information about a problem over which people feel little sense of personal agency,” especially, as in the case of climate change, where the proposed solutions (personal and incremental) seem out-of-sync with the perceived scale of the problem (global and dire).
Then, I present Ode’s annual celebration of intelligent optimists. We talk about how others are responding to the headlines about our health and the environment. We try to define what intelligent optimism means.
Back in 2005, Ode’s Editor-in-Chief, Jurriaan Kamp, wrote: “Intelligent optimists don’t allow themselves to get carried away by circumstances they can’t change, but focus on things that are within their grasp and that they can enjoy.” Intelligent optimists allow themselves the full expression of the dark and difficult emotions that inevitably arise. But, intelligent optimists, while seeing the complexity of a problem, find solace in the knowledge that complex problems, by virtue of their size and systemic origins, offer up a myriad of opportunities to apply their talents and creativity, to elicit their best selves, and reap deep satisfaction in the pursuit of fresh solutions.
I ask my students, as I continually ask myself, as I now ask you: Amidst dire news, what is the difference between well-informed futility and intelligent optimism? What tips the balance from informed futility toward intelligent optimism for you?
By Rebecca Altman
Thank you for inviting me into your life. I welcome you into mine, and look forward to gathering with you here, in this blog, where I ask, “How do we live with what we know?” This, perhaps, is the question of our time. My writing explores how we take in, live with, and act on the groundswell of sobering information about what we humans are doing to our environment—and to ourselves. As mother and environmental sociologist, I examine change-making in the middle ground—between individuals and national political structures—in communities, families, and culture.
Photo by Carolynn Primeau via Flickr