January: gray, dull, sluggish. Dark. The longest, dimmest month of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Stark, lifeless tree branches scrape a dull, sunless sky. In much of the country, it seems that all is inert outside our windows; the view is bleak.
Similar words could be used to describe our feelings regarding our futures on this planet. Climate change is very real, and the consequences we are staring down are incomprehensible. Sea level expected to rise by up to four feet by the end of the century, dislocating millions; hurricanes, heat waves, and drought continuing to increase in frequency and intensity. Grave impacts are already apparent. The unprecedented wildfires in Australia are leading to massive mental health issues. How can we move through our daily lives, bound by these concerns? Depression is soaring, and “eco-anxiety” is a genuine diagnosis.
But here, now: deep inside the lifeless branches defining winter landscapes, despite appearances, life is very much happening. Depending on the plant in question, winter activity ranges from minimal to vigorous. Many seeds, buried in total darkness and appearing completely inactive, are metabolizing at a slow, low level. Through nature’s alchemy, these seeds are tracking how much cold they have experienced over the span of the winter, enabling them to initiate germination to coincide with suitable growing conditions. Deciduous trees, stripped of leaves to minimize moisture loss during dry winter months, continue photosynthesizing and respiring at low rates. To avoid damage to tissues, they employ brilliant mechanisms such as generating antifreeze within their cells and shunting water into spaces between cell walls. And beneath the soil, activity is booming: microbes are hard at work, freeing up nutrients for plants to use once temperatures rise again. Plants aren’t just surviving winter, they’re flourishing, promising flushes of green leaves, extravagant flower displays, and abundant fruits once again.
Likewise, the climate-related confusion, anxiety, and fear appearing in the news almost daily belies growth and positive movement that are taking place. Around the globe, students are protesting and striking in record numbers to reduce carbon emissions, and policy-makers are responding. Major investment firms are joining forces on climate action. Presidential candidates are making climate change a key issue. Faith traditions have taught for millenia that uncomfortable and unpleasant conditions are our best teachers. The troubling conditions that rapidly changing climate conditions are creating are fertile ground for innovation and positive change.
All but the youngest among us know from experience that winter doesn’t last forever. After a matter of weeks – in some places, many weeks — days lengthen, temperatures rise, and in response, bare, unwelcoming branches begin to reveal tender, tiny leaves. Clear evidence of the life that was always there is revealed — abundant, exuberant, vigorous.
And, similarly, there is optimism for humanity to emerge from this dark, frightening space. Several writers, including David Brooks and Eric Holthaus, have recently forecasted a much brighter, more just world by the end of this decade. Evidence of hope – fragile, foundering, wonderful – is appearing.
We are experiencing a winter period, but it won’t last forever. Abundant growth and new life are on the way.