Back from the Cliff Edge

If more women tapped our protect-the-nest instinct, could we pull out of an ecological tailspin?

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There are times when it’s necessary to tell the punch line first.

Once, for example, a little over a decade ago, I drove over a cliff. It was a freak accident, involving a tire-squealing backward fishtail, the horror of losing connection with the earth, the long slow-motion pause of hanging in midair, and a series of skull-and-metal crunching flips and rolls down more than 100 feet of ravine to land heavily in an oak tree — upside down, tires spinning, me on all fours on the inside roof of my car covered in glass and blood.

There is much more to this story of course. It is all at once a compacted memory of violence and pain, an extended moment of mercy and grace, and a visceral journey of initiating my own rescue. And it can be told from two dozen other angles, viewed from the perspectives of people who were affected in some way.

One of those was my dad, a thousand miles away receiving a call from my husband from the emergency room. My dad had the unenviable job of relaying the news to the rest of the family. When he reached my mom, he took a deep breath and said:

Honey, before I tell you what’s happened, first let me tell you everything turns out all right in the end.


I’ve been thinking about this lately, as I navigate a regional environmental nonprofit through an era of global environmental crises, one cliffhanger after another. There are moments when I feel our world is in a long backward fishtail, struggling to find the hand brake. For nearly 50 years, my California-based organization has led on environmental solutions – including developing one of the first regional plans in the country to move away from fossil fuels, and then working to implement it. Meanwhile, study after study has warned with increasing urgency of the environmental, economic and natural security repercussions of continuing on with business as usual.

As atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rocket beyond anything humans have experienced in 4 million years, and authors such as Elizabeth Kolbert outline our entrance into the “sixth mass extinction” event in nearly half a billion years, I recently joined a group of women leaders and innovators in Mexico City following up on the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. This international agreement’s strong, decisive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were, in the words of one leader, “our last hope.”

Hundreds of women gathered at the #Women4Climate conference to shape the path forward, with the common understanding that environmental threats impact women and children at greater levels, so it’s essential that women have an opportunity to help make better long-term choices on behalf of their communities. In other words, we can’t fight climate change without engaging half of humankind.

Many of the conference reports were inspiring – including those from mayors and high-ranking leaders from Rome, Salt Lake City, Vancouver and Montreal, about their success in bringing more women to the table. Other conversations were more raw — such as my sidebar over dinner with an environmental director from Houston, where we compared grim notes of experiences in our home communities, which recently have been walloped by weather-related disasters (she with Hurricane Harvey, me with the Southern California Thomas Fire and a subsequent deadly mudslide).

There in Mexico City, reviewing the latest heart-wrenching data on the state of our planet, I found myself holding the same thought that I held years ago when my car went suddenly airborne:

What now?


I won’t argue whether or not humankind is in the era of our last hope. What interests me more is nurturing that hope. And I mean real hope – not the kind based on magical thinking and a desire for a Hollywood ending. The kind that helps us envision what we want and triggers a desire to work against difficult odds, even the potential for failure. The kind that author and activist Joanna Macy calls “active hope.”

We are living in an era when the stories we tell each other have become particularly dark, when books and movies explore all the nuances of our dystopian fears. But what if we put our collective power into another narrative of who we are and where we’re headed?

What if we were to pause midair and tell the story from a different angle, imagining the future we want and working back from there? A future where we make our first and highest priority the health of the planet, the health of humans, and the fabric of society? One where the major ecological systems necessary for life are no longer at risk, but instead are able to sustain the things we need to survive — such as food, water, breathable air and a life-supporting climate?

This is where the “active” part comes in. It means finding that space beyond denial of what’s happening , and beyond blind optimism that someone else will fix the problems. It means owning the realization that no one is coming to save us, and that we must execute our own rescue. It means tapping into a fierce love for life.


This is what I was thinking about in Mexico City — about how, despite the greatest threats to human existence that we’ve ever known, our species has yet to fully materialize the type of biological protect-the-nest response that I’d expect. And that perhaps that would change if more women were involved.

Why women? For starters, when under threat, women instinctively pull together. Rather than “fight or flight,” we “tend and befriend.” As the first woman CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit who has extended our reach to actively partner with 60 other nonprofits, government agencies, schools and socially-minded businesses, I know first-hand that partnership works far better than competition.

Clearly, some of what we must do to protect our larger ecological home is fight. But as one of my environmental activist heroes Naomi Klein says in No Is Not Enough, “we must also say yes — yes to the world we want. We need to paint a picture of what life could be like inside those scientific red lines, life within the limits imposed on us by nature. And that life needs to be not just better than a future of climate catastrophe. It needs to be better than the present.”

From this angle it feels somehow possible to imagine our future selves, turning around to our current selves to say:

First let me tell you — everything turns out all right in the end.

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