Lessons from the Edge

Sharon November 3rd, 2009

One of the best things about being invited to present at conferences and events is that I get to meet the other speakers, and usually talk with them in at least a semi-relaxed setting.  Generally speaking, at a good conference I can count on meeting at least a few people who I’ve never heard of, but should have, at least one person who I regard with a measure of awe (sometimes even more), and a whole lot of just plain interesting people doing important work.    I usually come away with at least one new friend (and this should not be regarded as trivial – friends are worth a lot) and often with new contacts for ideas I can pass along, and new perspectives on the movement as a whole.

Thus over the years I’ve gotten to hang out and drink a beer or eat dinner with a whole lot of amazing people – from the founder of freecycle to nobel peace prize nominees, from radical activists to conservative ministers (and at least one who was both), from IPCC scientists and petroleum geologists with maps of Saudi Arabia in their head to poet and novelists trying to make some sense of the stories we’re telling.  I’ve met people who have chained themselves to trees and people who do their activism with a pen or in a classroom or on the streets.  I have come to believe that Paul Hawkens is right when he writes in _Blessed Unrest_ that the world preserving movement is the biggest single movement in the world – and every time I meet another branch of it, my view of it gets enlarged – and my sense of the heroism involved in telling out story is increased.

I’ve noticed though, that there’s a pattern to these gatherings.  In most cases, they are designed to move people, to get people to change, to bring out their votes,  their activist energies, the donations, the commitment.  The talks always end with what is needed from the audience, with the dance of hope and fear, with how tell enough of the truth and also move people.

And then, often, the speakers retreat with their beer or to their dinner, and something else happens.  We start talking about our sense that we have to do this work – and our increasing sense that we are failing, that we cannot possibly succeed – whatever our definitions of success.  It is almost invariable – the conversation begins with black humor and jokes about possible solutions and their likelihood of failure, and often rapidly moves towards, well, despair, and how hard it is to convey a way forward that doesn’t sound like a lie. 

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but telling the truth as you know it, speaking to an audience and conveying your own passion and sense of our situation, while also making sure that you balance their panic, make everyone laugh just enough and give them a sense that they can still act is an awful lot of work.  It isn’t just for the sake of the environment that I don’t do it every week.  For me, as I step onto the stage, there’s a rush of energy, and I’m in the performance, the dance, modulating my voice here, and raising it here, trying to move people here to laughter and here to sympathy.  In a purely physical sense it involves nothing more than standing on a stage or at a podium for an hour or so.  In both a physical and psychic sense it is more exhausting than loading hay all day in July, or than chopping wood.  When the adrenaline pulls back and the crash comes, the only thing I can ever remember being so completely enervating is childbirth.  I enjoy doing it – when it is going well, and my audience is responding, grasping it, going with me, it is stimulating, energizing.  But when it stops, so do I.

Many of the people I meet do this dance 50 or 100 or 150 times a year – they are constantly on trains, planes and automobiles, enduring the exhaustion of travel, the rush of doing something important presumably compensating for the physical price.  I admire what they do, even though I can’t emulate it.  Most of them are driven by the fact that their work matters – and it does. But they also know that most people will say “great talk, really interesting” and go home and live their lives much as they did before.  And they will get on a plane and play Cassandra again tomorrow in a different city, or at home in another article, or another paper – and most people won’t listen.

So after the conference, we talk about what it is like – what it is like to imagine things most people don’t want to imagine, or look at numbers that no one else wants to hear.  What it is like to try and get funding for research that shows this, or to make governments pay attention.  What it is like to be dismissed or reviled.  What it is like to do all you can bear, and know that it almost certainly isn’t enough to preserve what you want most to preserve. 

But what I never hear – and I think I would – is that it isn’t worth doing the work – spreading the word, working for change, trying to make things better.  You’d think that you would hear that – that people who express profound doubt in the efficacy of their measures – or at least whether they will be enough – would consider stopping.  But they never do.

We don’t usually see each other long enough to get really intimate – the personal bits and fears you get peripherally.  You notice the questions people don’t answer, the hesitations when the talk about their beloved grandchildren and their future, or their kids, the way we all compartmentalize what we’re willing to think about, the way the black humor gets blacker as the night goes on. 

Not every event is like this – some are lighter at heart, some never do give you a chance to sit around together, sometimes you come in and leave and barely connect.   But often enough you sit around and come down to the brass tacks questions – what do you think will happen?  And generally speaking, what comes out is harder than what came out in the presentations and in public.  There are arguments and jokes, but when it comes down to it, at the end, I find a remarkable unity of opinion from radical activists and crunchy cons, from Jews, Moslems, Christians, Buddhists and Athiests, from Brits and Aussies and Indians and Russian, from left and right, from men and women – we are headed into dark and unknown territory.  And our job is to say so – but gently, and more softly than we will to each other.  And even the athiests, asked what they feel we can do, sometimes refer, jokingly, of course, to prayer.

It would be easy to say that it is important to be wholly honest – but I don’t think that what’s needed is a greater degree of bleakness in our talks – the truth is that breaking news to people who may be first encountering it is different than the kind of conversations people who live in the dark have with each other. 

But I think it is an important thing to know also how close to the edge we are in the estimation of the people who know the truth best - other writers have pointed out that scientific reticence has not always served us well in the climate change discussion, since many people take the modulated language of science to mean that the issue simply isn’t that serious.  So too, I think the language of professional optimism (and by professional optimism I do not mean the mindless selling of optimism documented in Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book _Bright Sided_ but the carefully modulated articulation of things that are frightening to people with a clear set of guidelines for action) sometimes serves us ill, leaving people believing there are lower stakes and more time, that this is just another talk.

Even if I could remember it all, I would not repeat on this blog the personal discussions had between friendly colleagues at these talks – that would be unjust in the extreme and a radical invasion of privacy.

 But sometimes when I deal with people who don’t think climate change is real, or that serious, or who don’t think that peak oil will be a big deal, I forget that I have something they don’t have – dozens of backroom conversations with people who care desperately about the mending of the world, who care so much that they are willing to put their family lives, their time and energy and even physical wellbeing on the line to spread the word - even though they know they are likely to fail to protect what they care most about.    Not “we’re doomed” but “we’re on a precipice, and we’re not sure which way we’re going to begin to slide.”

And what also strikes me is this – the sheer courage it takes to do this.  As I say, I’m a piker – I go home to my kids and my goats and breath deep and do laundry and keep my computer between me and other people.  It would be easy to take from their sense of loss the idea that we should stop trying, that it is all hopeless.  But that’s not what one gets – at the end of the night the sense is this – that though the odds are increasingly small and the abyss below us increasingly vast, what matters most is that we live our lives as though we can succeed, because every bit of harm we prevent and every blow softened matters, and in the end, how you lived matters as much as the winning.  Most of what we do may not work, in the sense of preserving it all, but ought to preserve some -and some is a great deal when measured in human lives and happiness. 

I can’t name all the people I’ve spoken with on these panels – or the not famous ones like them I meet who work just as hard and as bravely in their communities -  but from them I have learned a great deal about courage and strength, and how to live in difficult times, about the value of work and life well lived, about managing fear and about what to hope for.   What I hope for most is this – a planet full of people angry and frightened, telling dark jokes and laughing at them, worried and hopeful all together – people who get up every morning and do their share of this work, even if it seems it might not be enough, even if it hurts, even if they are tempted to let go and give in to despair, even if it means walking on the edge of dark places and along the abyss.  I hope for people who do what is right, no matter what the outcome.  And I feel I can hope for this among millions and billions, because I have seen such men and women, and I know that they are ordinary and they are real, and if they can do what they do, so can I.  And so can you.


30 Responses to “Lessons from the Edge”

  1. dogear6on 03 Nov 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Thanks for passing along your sentiments in here. I’m currently regrouping myself over these same topics – it’s getting hard to keep planning for a changed future when no one around me, including inside my household, agrees. I don’t plan to stop, but I am just taking a break for a few weeks. Thankfully the harvest from my garden is done enough that I can get away with it!

  2. [...] From SHARON ASTYK Excerpted from her blog [...]

  3. David Parkinsonon 03 Nov 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Thank you, Sharon. Wonderful wonderful post. We need to reclaim the idea that suffering and hard work are not always to be avoided.

  4. simply.belindaon 03 Nov 2009 at 6:22 pm

    That for me is what it always comes down to.

    I give to the limit of what I can and try not to gauge my success in the wider community as short term visible change. I do my best to accept that the world will move at the speed it is ready and even if it isn’t fast enough to stop the more disturbing predictions I have done my best to keep the momentum moving forward.

    Kind Regards

  5. ex consumeron 03 Nov 2009 at 8:17 pm

    It’s refreshing to hear this level of commitment holding in many different arenas.

    It is my belief that standard health care will not survive much longer. The heart drain here is wide open and flowing. This past decade (and increasingly in recent years) the more caring and compassionate physicians have been telling their clientele about the untenability of their practices. Many of them have hung in as long as they can, until they feel driven out and many to third world countries where they believe they can be more effective in preserving “human lives and happiness.”

  6. Mia @ agoodhumanon 03 Nov 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Thankyou for this post. It’s often hard to live joyfully each day knowing what we know. When you see family and friends oblivious to the dark times ahead. At least I have my husband to share my thoughts with and eventually when others need us, we’ll be at least mentally prepared to help them through it.

  7. NMon 03 Nov 2009 at 9:39 pm

    You scare the daylights out of me. It’s a weird dichotomy, swinging back and forth between the community here and the one I live in, where, again, no one sees things in quite so dark a light, or if they do, are inclined to say, well … what can you do.
    Makes me a little dizzy, some days.
    Thank you for the work you do, for finding so many ways to articulate so beautifully not only the problems but the solutions you see, and the reasons why they matter.

  8. veraon 03 Nov 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Thank you, Sharon. Will you tell us the highlights of the conference?

    Also, I have a question… how many people are walking the walk… like you are? It would seem to me that flying around all year to speaking engagements is really not a sustainable way to live, even if one considers only the private sphere…?

  9. Dan Mineron 04 Nov 2009 at 12:01 am

    Beautifully and accurately put, Sharon. It is a burden to know these dark things, and to have the strange compulsion to share them. But that is where we are.

  10. Joeon 04 Nov 2009 at 7:06 am

    Thanks Sharon,

    As usual you have hit the nail square on.

    I feel a a sheer terror going around my normal life. Trying to reconcile what we know (or believe we know) with the everyday reality and unreality is just painful. I appreciate the fact that many others feel this way.

    The answer? Just keep working on good things


  11. Sharonon 04 Nov 2009 at 7:18 am

    As for walking the walk – I think it depends on what they do and how they think about it. I think the hard-end scientists, for example, often don’t think in terms of personal change. Their work is to make large scale political change as they see it, and you honestly can’t do that without going where the politics are.

    Bill McKibben, who I do know a little, for example, is personally incredibly austere – but he spends his life on planes because he thinks it is necessary.

    Other people walk the walk, but it is a slightly different walk – Kathy Kelly walks the walk by going and living in Afghan villages where people are being bombed – but not by eschewing travel there.

    Other people wouldn’t agree with you – Helena Norberg Hodge made the argument to Aaron that he and I *should* be getting on more planes, that so many resources are being burned to tell people that it doesn’t matter what you do that people need to physically see and hear the other vision. I haven’t been able to decide what I think of that.

    What I think for myself is that living the life is the way for me – but I don’t know how much I stand in judgement of other people.


  12. Anonymouson 04 Nov 2009 at 7:29 am

    “But they also know that most people will say ‘great talk, really interesting’ and go home and live their lives much as they did before.”

    On the flip side, I wanted to mention, as much for myself as for you, that since finding this blog a few years back, I’ve cooked from scratch, stored food, planted a garden, composted, and joined summer and winter CSAs.

    I’ve gotten used to quicker showers and fewer lights on, hung clothes to dry, and walked to work.

    I’ve learned to crochet, sew a button, and bake bread.

    I’ve reduced, reused, recycled, done without, and kept holidays simple yet festive.

    I’ve joined a credit union, gotten out of debt, and saved for a downpayment on a modest home and piece of land that I hope to improve with time.

    I’ve spoken with my partner about our future, contingency plans, and adoption.

    My eyes have been opened to realities I was completed unaware of, my goals have utterly changed, and I have found strength in your writing, particularly in your reflections on faith and in the knowledge that, even though none of this will ever be enough, I can and must still try to do good work and hope.

    Thank you for what you do.

  13. Mike Grenvilleon 04 Nov 2009 at 8:03 am

    Interesting insights – but we do all need to start doing what we say, which means for example cutting out the flights. WE really have to start being the change we want to see.

    My sense is that a wonderful age has the potential to awaken soon – but the open question is how smooth will the transition be? That will depend on how much of the three things Joanna Macy points that we should do:

    - How much we have been able to prevent the destruction of the planet
    - Whether we have new ways of working and living together ready to use (such as Transition Initiatives)
    - The level of consciousness in the population – the coherence in thinking, the connection to acting from heart.

    “Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing”
    ~ Arundhati Roy

  14. Peak Oil Hausfrauon 04 Nov 2009 at 9:51 am

    Thanks, Sharon. I have been giving quite a few talks/presentations about Transition and peak oil in the last 6 months and it’s an incredible balancing act. We try to balance the hope of what we can achieve if “we start right now, working together” with just the tiniest hints of what will happen if we don’t.

    There’s always too much information to fit in the time allowed, and I never get into my beliefs of what is probably going to happen. They would be too dark for most people to handle, and would probably be counterproductive to getting people to look to a more fulfilling way of life with less energy.

    That is, although I think it is worth doing this work, I’m not really sure what the outcome is going to be, what effect I’m having with talking to all these people. My hope is that we are preparing the ground and planting the seeds now that will come to fruition later – probably way too late – when gas is at $8 and we have hit too many climate tipping points – but still early enough to make a difference in how people and communities respond, still early enough to preserve a few of the creations we love most.

  15. Jenon 04 Nov 2009 at 10:06 am

    Sharon it really comes down to belief, and so you are right to think that “the talks” need to be more shocking, that the CC news does need to be spread. My wonderful husband who is working his rear off to pay for the homestead/preps still doesn’t see that PO and the economy are the least of our problems. He thinks I’m “tragedy oriented.” I think about how much I believe the science of CC and yet how hard it is to change some old habits (towels in the dryer) and how much comfort people will lose. How EVERYTHING we do is really about comfort. “Most” people are unwilling to face the uncomfortable which is why dancing celebrities and dating programs are so popular and CC docu’s are shown on struggling public television. When hard-core CC realties are on the 6′oclock news, I’ll believe that we are actually getting somewhere. Thanks for your hard work.

  16. agwhon 04 Nov 2009 at 10:14 am


    I went to the conference in Macon and posted a report on my blog, but it is long. I mostly wrote it to remind myself what I had heard and for a few people who I know read my blog. I am not a great writer, so the report is not fancy, but it is there if you want to read it. Clicking on the “agwh” at the top of this comment should take you to the blog (clicking on other people’s linked names in this comments section is how I’ve found lots of great sites to read!). Hope that my saying this here, mentioning my own blog, doesn’t count as a major blogging indiscretion.

    Amy, NW of Atlanta

  17. Peaksurferon 04 Nov 2009 at 10:41 am

    I can totally relate.

    I have been on this treadmill for more than 30 years now and several times have jumped off and run screaming from the room. I have much better things to do with my life, something that austerity in consumer comforts actually opens up to you when you take the plunge.

    But I always come back, for all the reasons above.

    Not quite three years ago, when I hit 60, I said “Basta!” and promised I was quitting for good. I had trained enough surrogates, I didn’t need to be doing it myself. Then came more evidence, more scary future pictures, and I kept eye-vibing with my 2-yr granddaughter and thinking, what does she have in store for her life?

    So, with reluctance I cannot begin to describe, I once more came off the bench, tightened my shoelaces, and dove back in. I feel guilty doing any less. This year I will have been 5 times in Central America, once in S. America, twice to Europe, and also many states and Washington DC. I planted twice as many trees as carbon-miles traveled, and harvested more than a few of those in penning over 80000 words for publications. I trained more than one hundred newly minted permaculture designers.

    It is the burden of the knowledge of pending danger. It has to be shared. There will be plenty of time to rest in Eternity.

  18. Lisa Zon 04 Nov 2009 at 10:46 am

    Amy’s site mentioned above doesn’t work for me. My computer said it might be trying to trick me, but when I agreed to go on it just got me to blogger.com anyway. What’s up?

  19. Shambaon 04 Nov 2009 at 12:24 pm

    I think there is a tradition in most religions/spiritual practices that the individual just has to do their duty/dhamra/life assignments without any regard for the outcome. Ours is just to do what we believe our work to be and let the results take seed as they will, or God or the Great Power of the Universe will bless your efforts. I’m sure Christianity has such a tradition althought I’m not sure if Christian scripture specifically says that. I thought there was a parable in the New Testament about sowing the seed and some will take root. I know that the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita says this.

    We’re not supposed to be attached to the results of our work, just the doing of it as best we can. And this is pretty hard to do when we are oriented to do the tasks, to get to the goal to get the results.

    But I don’t know a better way for me at least, to deal with the coming changes we face.

    Peace to All,

  20. Shambaon 04 Nov 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Correction above: I spelled the Sanskrit work dharma wrong, it’s not dhamra! It means duty, responsibility, and like that.


  21. veraon 04 Nov 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Wow, good input all. Will check out your blog, agwh!

    One last thought… I think people respond best if you tell the truth. If you do the cheerful thing, they know it. I say, go out and tell it as you know it! And Sharon? This blog reaches far more people with far more honesty than any conference could.

    I just bought a goat share, & now I am learning to make goat cheese! Suddenly, I am making all sorts of changes. Your blog made me do it, it’s true… :)

  22. Philon 04 Nov 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Per Amy’s comment, # agwhon 04 Nov 2009 at 10:14 am, here is the link to her blog:


  23. Houneron 04 Nov 2009 at 4:30 pm


    I was taken by your reference to the dark places in which we can discuss with others the real extent of what faces us. Keep up the good work, it certainly keeps me going.

  24. Claireon 04 Nov 2009 at 8:21 pm

    Several times over the last 15 years, since my DH and I began to live more simply, people we know have told one or the other of us about something new they are doing because they noticed that me and my DH are doing it. The last time was yesterday, when friends of ours, a couple, at the Zen Center told us that they are trying hard to use only one of their two cars. Instead of driving to the Zen Center in two separate cars as they have in the past, one dropped off the other to do her treasurer’s work, went on to do some more of his paying work, then came back to meditate with the rest of us. They credited us with this attempt in their lives to lower their carbon footprint, as they put it (and said they were finding it difficult, but still doing it).

    Sharon and Aaron, and the other folks in my AIP course, inspired me to go beyond my comfort level in terms of home heating. My DH and I are doing OK with the house in the upper 50s to low 60sF most of the time. They told us how to do it, and it’s working well enough to be tolerable (though I still hope to find a way to keep my hands a little warmer). In this way we should use less of both natural gas and electricity this winter. We are talking about what we are doing, and perhaps someone will notice and be inspired to try it, too.

    I remember part of what the UN report Sharon linked to said: one reason people don’t change their behavior is because they don’t see anyone else around them changing theirs. The corollary is if they see people around them changing their behavior, more people will then change their own. I see this happening as I discussed above. That inspires me to continue to talk about what we do and why, and to listen to what other people who do it better than we do are saying about what they are doing and why.

    I know the science makes things look, well, difficult at best (I don’t like to talk about my worst fears either), but I am also one who attempts to do what needs to be done without attachment to the result. Once I adopted this attitude, it really helped. I think it’s part of why some folks take inspiration from me. I’m not condemning them, just doing what needs to be done at this moment.

  25. Anonymouson 05 Nov 2009 at 8:04 am


    If you haven’t already, you might want to try fingerless gloves. My hands get cold easily and my work (in my cold home) involves a lot of reading and typing, so I made my self a pair of fingerless mittens from a pattern online (it was fun and easy and I’d never knitted or crocheted before). Also, I try to work near a window that gets good sunlight for heat and often have a cup or two of herbal tea in the afternoon to warm both me and my hand.

  26. Bill--TNon 05 Nov 2009 at 12:06 pm

    I am constantly amazed and inspired by the tact people take to change/organize/improve their lives. Always struggling to keep things as they are, or were. As if things as they are are worth preserving???

    I have to wonder, though, about how much fundamental understanding of economics and, especially, capitalism, underlies these comments.

    If we haven’t yet discovered how ruthless and evil the capitalist system is (talk to your nearest foreclosed neighbor), it will soon become clear to us all as the system crashes.

    The moneyed, wealthy class is riding a high tide right now, with the aid and abettance of the federal governament. It won’t be long though, until these fat cats are dragged into the gutter and strung up like the Romanovs in Russia who clutched their fabulous Faberge eggs until the very bitter end.

    Ethrnocentic Ameikans will not be spared a similar fate, alas, as the truth, albeit lately, begins to dawn. Why, or how, can we justify 5% of world popillation consuming so much and prodicing so much garbage?

    It was never designed to be sustainable. Only to make $$$ for the moneyed class. Today’s economic “crisis” is exactly what was intended by the Goldmans, the Sachs and, particularly, the Rockefellers and others of their ilk. Help me out here—who else would you put the “enenies” list?

    The tine is coming. Will you be ready???


  27. Adrianon 05 Nov 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Your beautiful essay describes well the way I experience trying to educate people to action: except that as a community college instructor, my, and others’ face-to face-efforts, educative yet heartening speeches, and “performances” occur daily in the classroom and weekly at committee meetings. We too, live with the knowledge of our precarious position (just talk to almost any biology instructor). Slowly the campus culture is changing, which is gratifying.

    Changing one’s own behavior is a necessary witness. Persuading other individuals to see the need to change their behavior and a culture (large or small) to change its ways is a huge, equally necessary proposition–but one that seems to be working, judging from the huge up-swelling of conferences, actions and projects I’m seeing in my own region. Which does nothing to answer the question of whether we can stay on the tightrope long enough to cross the abyss to a sustainable future. Yet one doesn’t want to go to one’s death not having done one’s utmost to help others prepare for that future, in the hope that enough people will do enough to help earth systems recover.

  28. Danielon 09 Nov 2009 at 5:08 pm

    I gave a course for engineering students and the theme for the course (changes every year) was “media in a low-energy society of the future”. Many students protested wildly against the idea of such a think ever happening. That took a lot of energy. I have retreated to lick my wounds.

    cons: it will take time until I try something like that again
    pros: I will be a lot more wily and careful next time – present facts and let them draw their own conclusions

  29. [...] her recent blog post, “Lessons From The Edge”, Sharon Astyk reminds us of why it’s important to carry the vision: …at the end of the night [...]

  30. [...] her recent blog post, “Lessons From The Edge“, Sharon Astyk reminds us of why it’s important to carry the vision: …at the end [...]

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