I came of age in the eighties in Ireland, against a backdrop of bombs and guns. On the news, we watched as NATO decided to house Reagan’s cruise missiles in Berkshire, at Greenham Common. A protest camp grew at the site—nuclear weapons were an ecological threat, the protesters said, and their camp would be women-only because women were life-givers, mothers. I adored these cold, rain-soaked renegades. I obsessed over their images on TV and in newspapers.
Years later, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed their nuclear treaty, and by the summer of 1989, the missiles were leaving British soil. Still, as I started university, I sought out the Women’s Group. They had been allocated a shabby room at the end of a long corridor. It had a mishmash of hard chairs and couches, with dog-eared books always strewn about.
We talked about a disturbing new report. It was called “The First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” and it concluded that human activities were distorting the planet’s greenhouse effect, warming the Earth’s surface. The panel predicted that ocean levels would rise twenty centimetres by 2030, more than triple that by the end of the twenty-first century.
We had long debates about bringing children into this almost unsaveable world. I decided I wouldn’t, saving the earth 58.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year.
Then, somehow, walls tumbled across Europe. In Ireland, the bombs stopped, and the economy began to glow. We all leaned into the furnace heat. We were forging a new identity. The climate warnings receded in our minds a little—we used cloth shopping bags, fuel-efficient cars, recycled our wine bottles, shut down some coal and peat-fuelled power stations. Surely this would be enough, we murmured, as we passed the Himalayan rock salt to each other in expensive restaurants.
Ten years later I was sick of Dublin—the coked-up entrepreneurs, the greed and gridlock, the hemmed-in feeling of my 430 square metres of energy-efficient real estate. I applied for a visa to Canada. I wanted vastness, endless water, a cathedral of trees.
I met a man in Nova Scotia and married him. When I outlined my no-child policy, he laughed, saying he had two already; in fact, he’d share them with me if I liked. He told me that big business and the government had destroyed the fishery and his community. I explained to him that we did these things to ourselves, with our greed. He smiled patiently.
He took off to Alberta to make some money, and I visited him. He was driving B-trains loaded with logs out of the forest north of Fort McMurray, and, while the trailers were loaded, I looked into the forest and saw a wolf. I had finally made it to the vastness, but it was full of the noise of machines. We drove the long road back to Athabasca and then, in the hellfire light of the mill, watched the forest slide into a grinder. He was doing this trip twice a day, and the dark circles under his eyes were not just tiredness, I thought, as I looked at him.
I took him home and we found a house—small, with a big lot, near the ocean. We worked to reduce our footprint, a penance for those trees we helped destroy. We grew vegetables, he hunted, and we ate fish and game. I learned to can and pickle, to do without dairy. This is how I contribute now, I thought. He got a job with a company that cleans up environmental waste, spending years in confined spaces, pumping out toxic sludge for safe disposal.
Seeing my husband’s love for his children made me envious; I struggled with my own decision not to have any. His children passed uneasy weekends with us that got easier as the years went by. One weekday I missed their absence and soon, I found myself thinking about them as I commuted into the city.
That made me worry even more about our emissions, so we agreed to travel less. I still fretted regularly: shouldn’t we move closer to public transportation? But he’d be miserable in the city, so we stayed where we were. The thermostat was turned down and the windows were replaced.
Then, in 2015, things began to change again. First, the government. Then a new climate agreement, signed in Paris. I felt I could be optimistic again.
I held onto that feeling through the darkness of 2016. We’re okay here, I said. My husband rolled his eyes a little—grey-blue eyes, as changeable as the ocean. Later, when the Canadian government bought a pipeline, he graciously said nothing.
One day recently, towards the end of the hot, dry summer, our daughter told us she is pregnant. My husband and I looked at each other, bewildered. Where did the time go?
A couple of weeks later, I was still getting used to the idea of being a grandmother when the IPCC released another report: the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees. Unlike in 1990, the language has become unequivocal. One scientist, Jim Skea, says that “limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”
Where did the time go? I said again, in horror. We’ll have a grandchild who will never know the world we grew up in.
My husband heard a crash in our basement one evening and ran downstairs to find me throwing the recycling at the wall, yelling and screaming. He held me while I finally accepted just how much I allowed myself, for thirty years, to be played.
I could have had a daughter with eyes like his, grey-blue. I gave her up and they just took and took and took. I spent the years I could have had with her trying to put unnecessary packaging into the correct bin. How could I have been fooled into thinking that was meaningful?
In late October, I sat in a darkened room with my step-daughter and her partner and watched my grandchild stretch his nubby foot upwards on an ultrasound screen. I thought about how lucky I was, in the end: in 1990, I chose not to have children, and that very same year his mother was born. Her presence in my life saved me from the consequences of that ridiculous, stupid choice I made.
My choices have consistently been ineffectual, I now realize. I never sacrificed anything substantial for the sake of the climate. My husband knew what real sacrifice was like better than I did—he lost his way of life early on when finite resources were mismanaged. His response was to clean up toxic waste. We both did what we thought was best, but now I see more clearly that it wasn’t. I didn’t understand for a long time how carefully the deck was being stacked against us.
I have begun digging into the idea that just one hundred companies are responsible for 70 percent of all emissions. At the top of the list is China’s state-owned coal company. That’s a direct consequence of our consumerism: that coal powers the manufacturing plants that make all the stuff we buy. Nearly every other company in the top ten is an oil producer. That’s also a direct consequence of our lifestyles.
Individually, we all need to make significant changes, but that’s not enough. Powerful forces that don’t want us to act collectively have spent significant efforts to convince us that we don’t need to—that acting solo will work. But what we need more is to force change upstream.
Thankfully, there’s still a little time to change course. The scale of that battle terrifies me. But then I think about that little foot, and the protesters of Greenham Common who inspired me thirty-five years ago. They spent a decade protecting the women coming behind them. It’s time to pay that forward.