If there’s one thing I wish people would let go of on this Earthday, both locally and nationally, it’s pessimism in all its manifestations. Well, maybe not all. That’s asking too much. But at least a few. Some equate pessimism with seeing trouble ahead, but the entrenched pessimism we face is the sort that casts us as helpless to find and act on solutions. Sometimes one form of pessimism gets piled on another, as in: “We can’t know if climate change is real and risky, or if it is there’s nothing we can do about it, and if there is something we could do then we couldn’t possibly get other towns, states, and nations to work together.” That’s a kind of pessimism sandwich a lot of people eat for lunch every day.
Locally, pessimism takes the form of resistance to change. There’s some sense in a “look before you leap” approach, but when a solution is offered to a local problem, the tendency is to look and look and look, and never leap.
The paralysis and sense of foreboding that permeates our era is due in part to our capacity to collectively create problems while stubbornly resisting efforts to collectively solve them. The reflexive response to proposed solutions is to search for flaw and fear the negative consequences of any action. We see safety in inaction, but inaction is often the riskier course.
In such a situation, the arts are instructive. My impulse to seek collective solutions comes in part from playing in musical ensembles, where good results can only come from working together. And the cure for that pesky habit of focusing on flaw in any proposal for change can be found in theater improv, where the actors on stage succeed only if they commit to creating something new, together. I’ve done a little improv, and seen others try it for the first time, and typically our ingrained response is to contradict the acting partner, to take exception to what’s offered, and thereby sabotage the scene. The catchwords of theater improve are “Yes, and…”, which in community problem solving would take the form of greeting proposed solutions not with reflexive negativity but instead with “How can we make this work?”
In a way, we are in an ongoing improv with the earth, too often fighting against nature, resisting its logic, rejecting its offerings, and thereby defeating ourselves in this long-running scene in one corner of the universe. We set the stage, surrounding ourselves with suburban nature, then purge our yards of rainwater and leaves rather than explore how we could use them to advantage. Spring is a time when every tree and flower is saying “Yes, and…” We should try doing the same.
First published in the Town Topics on the official Earthday, April 22.