Personal Reflections on Climate Change

A psychiatrist reads the news and responds with art.

I was inspired to write a poem while I was preparing for a “Deep Dive” virtual weekend retreat with the Steering Committee of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA). I was reflecting on an article about the fires in the Mohave and invasive grasses, which had been one more trigger for my own sense of climate dread. The article in question originally appeared in the November 2, 2020 print edition of The Nation magazine.

I was also inspired by insights I have received from my Black psychiatric colleagues, who have helped put the climate crisis into proper perspective as a result of their resilience in the face of the disproportionate adverse environmental impacts and threats to their very survival, both individually and collectively. Addressing the climate crisis is inextricable from the fight for social justice, including systemic racism and health care inequities, which have been become more obvious than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. As environmental and health care organizations, as well as other socially conscious movements, awaken to the interconnectedness of these problems, they also need to tap into the wisdom of indigenous cultures that have always had a respectful, interconnected relationship with the natural world. The impact of industrial society’s relationship to the environment is now placing extreme strain on both the ecosystem and the societal structures that depend on it. It is also important to remember despair—in the words of former Vice President Al Gore—“is just another form of denial.” We are all connected and need each other to meet the daunting challenges we all face.

Tidal Wave

I was dreaming of what I read:

Fire in the Mohave desert

Burning up every Joshua tree for God knows how long

Forever? No please

No please

But the brome grasses, the fake bromes and the other invaders, squeezing out the natives, burning at super hot temperatures, incinerating the native seeds, drying out the land, opportunists creating More of themselves!

Feeding the wildfire cycle—No, damn!

Another vicious feedback loop!

But hopelessness is not in my skill set

So the dream shifted and I realized (again) that I could fly

And I was showing you, my friends

How easy it is

You just will it and turn and you move as you will

So now we’re all flying, feeling so free

And looking up:

The Tidal Wave

that Government Behemoth waking up

After four years of slumber,

“Departments of Science,” bringing back scientists

Listening to scientists!—imagine that!

That Tidal Wave already dousing the flames

With promised moisture…

But flying to the top we saw

The wave wasn’t high enough—not nearly!

Carbon neutral by 2050? 30 years, really? Are you kidding?

Not even 3 years!

Did you forget about

One-hundred-fifty thousand

California wildfire refugees last summer

In 3 months

But despair is not in our lexicon

And as we glide down, floating now, gently touching down

In Houston and New Orleans I hear my black and brown brothers and sisters say: “This is nothing!”

They tell us:

“We know our earthly home is burning, drowning, toxifying, and

sometimes we can’t breathe!

But we know about survival!

We will survive this too! (As we always have)

Walk with us, listen to us

And we will teach you”

Yes! we will walk together, learn from each other

And we will gather our native sisters and brothers building strength

Building resolve

The Tidal Wave growing

Joined by the Navaho, the Cherokee,

the Mohawk and the Swinowish

And we all stand together again

with the Standing Rock

And we walk together

Through flames and floods and furors

We survive

We thrive

We fly!

Dr Fleming is the chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Caucus on Climate Change and Mental Health, member of the APA’s Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health, and member of the Steering Committee on Climate Psychiatry Alliance.