You’ve been doing this climate advice column for a while. Don’t you ever run out of hope?
— Cue Umbra’s Revelation: Is Optimism Unexpectedly Stressful?
Well, I won’t bury the lede: This is my last weekly Ask Umbra column, and I’d like to close out with a bit of a retrospective. This Grist institution has been around since 2002, and it’s been authored by a number of different writers and gone through all kinds of transformations in the process. I feel enormously privileged to be a part of that legacy, and now to help the old girl through her next evolutionary leap. Because Umbra is not retiring; she’s stepping back to figure out her next form.
I took over the Ask Umbra column in January 2017, right after the inauguration of Donald Trump, marking the start of the most blatantly climate-unfriendly administration in recent memory. The idea was that Umbra was supposed to be moving away from the household- and lifestyle-level environmental advice that she’d excelled at dispensing for the 15 years prior, because that focus seemed so … small in the face of accelerating global warming. I wanted the column’s counsel to shift toward systems-level solutions, because, well, systems were the driving force behind the problem.
Umbra and I weren’t an immediate fit. The first article I published as a sort of warm-up to this task was a very long and admittedly scattered piece that was supposed to tackle the idea of “how to fix your community.” The reason it was very long is because, well, there are a whole lot of things that might be wrong with your community and about ten ways you might want to fix each of them. The reason it was scattered is that it was an ambitious first assignment, and I wasn’t quite sure where to start. Nor was I, in the end, super proud of where I ended up.
But I tried again. I went on to put together the 21-day apathy detox, a challenge designed to give people a series of actionable assignments, more or less, to reinvigorate their will to change things and “build their civic engagement muscles.” But even though it was well received, it still felt like I was using a small pickax to chip away at the mountain of fossil fuel influence, partisan climate denial, consumerist values, and simple human resistance to change.
Even as I tried to tackle a number of systemic factors — urban design, community engagement, the entire internet — I couldn’t shake my own sense of dread and futility with regard to the climate crisis. A little less than a year into my Umbra tenure, I wrote those concerns into this essay on climate anxiety. It turned out to be one of my most-read Umbra columns, and four years later, I still get messages from readers about it. That taught me an important lesson. It’s not just an advice columnist’s job to be an answer-dispensing cheerleader; sometimes there are no satisfying answers to be found.
It can be powerful in and of itself to reassure people that they are not alone in their fears and uncertainties. It turns out, a lot of other people were also feeling very worried, and hopeless about the climate crisis, and there was value in putting words to that emotion, whether or not the subsequent advice that resonated.
But there were — and are — still times the scope of the problem threatens to overwhelm me, CURIOUS. So for a while, I reverted back to the comfort and manageability of day-to-day concerns: food waste, compost, closet-cleaning. I considered that maybe the most effective way that people could change systems was through the hearts and minds of the people around them. I explored holiday-driven tensions, intramarital conflicts over whether to have children, self-sabotage, and conspiracy theories.
It was a meandering path that — inevitably, in retrospect — led right back to the classic style of advice column that Umbra had done all along. Based on the questions that landed in my inbox every week, it seemed that readers really did want to know what they could do to address climate change in their daily lives. So I tried to answer your questions as comprehensively and compassionately as I possibly could, bolstered with a hefty dose of research. That was my mission, and I’ve been happy doing it for a long time.
You certainly gave me a lot to think about, dear readers, and more importantly a lot to learn. Some of the questions were straightforward, and some were very, very hard. Some were a lot of fun (surprisingly!), and some broke my heart. Many of them tried to make sense of issues so complex and multilayered that I struggled to answer them in the space of a weekly column. Sometimes I was frustrated by the nuance lost when one is trying to be informative and uplifting at the same time.
After a couple of years of playing both climate therapist and coach, however, I started to feel overwhelmed by two looming spectres: everything I still didn’t know and everything that had to change, truly, to deal with the massive problem of the climate crisis. It did not help that that sense of inadequacy coincided with a global pandemic where I spent many months alone and distressed, forced to watch the world collapse in a more acute way than I was used to thinking about. I also started to fear I was repeating myself — the problems are systemic! Economies and governments have to change!
Which brings us to this moment. As a weekly column, Umbra has been useful to so many readers. But she is ready for another transformation. The climate is changing, certainly, and what people want to and need to know about it is evolving every day, too. The simple awareness of climate change has exploded so much just in my relatively short tenure writing this column. Suddenly the skies are full of smoke, teens are in the streets fighting for their future, and we are beginning to understand that an end to fossil fuels is just the beginning of the task at hand.
So here’s what’s going to happen. Umbra is going to take a break from her weekly advice-dispensing, I will be taking a short sabbatical, and we will both be back in a few months with something new. Our mission, to help you figure out life in this changing climate and changing world, is unchanged. But sometimes we all need to take a moment to rest and rethink in order to stay fresh and, to your point, CURIOUS, to stay hopeful. I guess that’s my last piece of advice to you all — for now.
Keep taking care of yourselves and the planet. I know you’ll do great while I’m gone.