Hell is not a place; it's a time. It starts with the experience of irreversible loss and ends as you learn to live with loss. My hell time began on a summer night in 2009 while wrapping brownies at the kitchen table in our Maine farmhouse.
Fifteen years earlier my husband and I gave up fame and fortune to raise our son and daughter on a Maine farm. We wanted them to grow up with the respectful down-to-earth values of our small Maine town. We hoped they would shape deeply lived authentic lives surrounded by natural beauty and bound to the rhythms of the seasons. Our life was a celebration of long Huck Finn summers and cozy snowy winters. We created an 18th century household filled with books, music, and memories in which we all worked and played. It was our sanctuary -- the safest, happiest place on earth. Later our children taught us to be green. We installed windmills and solar panels, recycled and composted, and became more mindful of our footprint. Still, we felt safe from the worst ravages of global warming in our bucolic corner of the "first" world here in New England. The real catastrophes were "out there" in sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh, the Andes or tiny Pacific islands. Then global warming crashed our party in paradise.
That night I thrilled to the thunderstorm raging outside. Then a bolt of lightning crashed through the kitchen window, mowed me down like a freight train hurtling through my chest and triggered a blast so loud I thought the sound barrier had been breached somewhere between the crockery and the curtains. When I opened my eyes, I was lying on the floor. Then came smoke. Fifteen minutes later we were out in the storm, watching in disbelief as our beloved home vanished in a towering wall of flame.
I am not a climate change scientist, but I have come to understand that I am a climate change victim. Our daughter took the lead investigating destructive lightning in Maine. She found that the NASA Goddard Institute estimates a 5-6% change in global lightning frequencies for every 1 degree Celsius global warming. The Earth has already warmed .8 degrees Celsius since 1802 and is expected to warm another 1.1-6.4 degrees by the end of the century. Maine's temperatures rose 1.9 degrees Celsius in the last century and another 2.24 degree rise is projected by 2104. I learned from our insurance company that while the typical thunderstorm produces around 100 lightning strikes, there were 217 strikes around our house that night. I was shocked to discover that when it comes to increased lightning frequency and destructiveness, a NASA study concluded that eastern areas of North America like Maine are especially vulnerable. Scientists confirm a 10% increase in the incidence of extreme weather events in our region since 1949.
Was the lightning bolt in our kitchen caused by global warming? The facts are too compelling to ignore. It seems that global warming turned my family into refugees in our own lives, stripped of everything that once carried our memories and meaning. Since then I've learned some lessons that may help others reckon with the realities of climate change and the terrifying prospect that our future will be different from our past.
As thick smoke quickly filled the house, I had only a few minutes to do something. I ran upstairs, closing doors to protect the bedrooms from smoke damage. I ran back down and pulled photo albums off the living room shelves, tossing them on a sheltered porch. I was on my way for more when the fire marshal arrived. He pulled me back, shouting over the din of rain and thunder and ordered me away.
What was I thinking! There was so much I could have rescued in those minutes! Instead I closed doors to rooms that would no longer be. I sheltered precious photos on a porch soon to disappear. I acted as though our home faced a temporary assault -- a blip and a return to baseline. It never occurred to me that my status quo confronted a mortal threat and could be extinguished forever. My mind did not conceive that in a few hours everything we had worked for and cherished would no longer exist.
I committed a cognitive error that I call "the error of predictability." It is the deeply ingrained tendency of every living system -- from the human brain to microorganisms to complex societies -- to operate as though the near future will follow from the near past. As a social scientist I have studied this pattern for decades. I've pored over control room transcripts in which operators ignored catastrophic data, preferring to think "bad instruments" rather than "CATACLYSM!" I have worked closely with hundreds of adults in crisis struggling to cope with change. I've consulted with companies reluctant to let go of the past. The morning of the fire I completed work for a chapter in my new book. The title? The Error of Predictability. Apparently knowledge did not inoculate me from this error.
Since that night I've been on an inner search for an antidote to the error and discovered a special kind of capability that I think of as "the pivot." The mechanism of a pivot is paradoxical because it unites two opposites: the still point and the swivel. It's the fixed center that enables response across a broad range. The pivot is a way of holding yourself toward the future. It entails a self knowledge and resilience that run deeper than words, but also a flexibility that can adapt deftly to any situation. Think of a master tennis player holding herself still in readiness to return the serve but able to reach in any direction quickly and effectively. I've learned that no instant is ordinary. Each is replete with every potential from the miraculous to the catastrophic. Living with this attitude, I don't assume continuity. Now I try to stay open to the surprise within each moment -- and pivot.
Climate change is not a blip but an epochal shift, yet we seem unable to do much more than close the doors to rooms bound for extinction. Are we in a countdown to a hell time of irreversible loss or to a renaissance of invention and adaptation? It depends on how we learn to pivot. Every level of the system -- from each person to the governments of the world -- can learn to understand and confront the error of predictability. Naming it and identifying its consequences is a start. Then let's learn how to teach our children, our leaders and ourselves what it means to live without terror in the knowledge that our planet is spinning on a new course.
I thought I could keep my children safe in this peaceful place. Now I know that no one of us can keep our children safe. There is no shelter from the storm of global warming. All we can do is learn how to pivot and impart that soulful skill to those we love. Breed it in their bones that they may become agents of adaptive change in these new times. We are all just earth travelers now: many addresses but only one home.