Summer in Omelas: What Are We to Do With All This (Climate) Grief? Part 1

Our present ecological crisis, the biggest single practical threat to our human existence … has, […]

Ben Self / 8.27.19

Our present ecological crisis, the biggest single practical threat to our human existence … has, religious people would say, a great deal to do with our failure to think of the world as existing in relation to the mystery of God — not just as a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.

Rowan Williams, “Angels at Peckham Rye

There’s a haunting short story that’s been on my mind lately. It’s by the late great sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin. Perhaps you know it: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

Published in 1973 at the tail-end of the hippie era, the story is a parable against exploitation and utilitarianism. It opens with a glittering portrayal of a utopian community called Omelas, a “city of happiness” that we encounter in the midst of its annual “Festival of Summer.” Bells are ringing, horses are prancing, flags are flying, boats are in the harbor, and people of all ages are singing and dancing as they process through the streets.

It’s a joyous scene not dissimilar from some of our own celebrations — Fourth of July parades and state fairs come to mind. Now that we are into late August, I assume I’m not alone in trying to squeeze as much fun-in-the-sun as possible out of these waning weekends of summer. My favorite line in Le Guin’s story comes as onlookers await the start of a great horse race: “The faces of small children are amiably sticky; in the benign grey beard of a man a couple of crumbs of rich pastry are entangled.” What a lovely sketch of the season’s delights!

But the community of Omelas also seems to have some things figured out that we have not. As Le Guin writes, “I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few. As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb.” Later she adds that while there is religion in Omelas, there’s no clergy, and while there is peace and order, there are no soldiers or even weapons, for of course, there is no need of them.

It’s a beautiful dream. And yet, lest we find this vision of human fulfillment too far-fetched, Le Guin concedes that Omelas does have one dark little open secret:

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

In a basement … there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window … In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded … It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals … It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement.

It turns out, as Le Guin’s story goes, that this sacrificial child is the price of Omelas’ peace and prosperity, the scapegoat that makes the rest of it possible. It’s a depiction that, at least for me, evokes images from childhood in old National Geographics of distant-looking Ethiopian or Somali children amid the devastating famines of the 1980s and 1990s. And just as we are ever vaguely aware that such bleak human suffering persists somewhere in our world at any given moment, it’s not as if the people of Omelas aren’t all vaguely aware of that nameless child locked in the basement. As Le Guin continues,

They all know it is there … Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. They all know it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children … depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

The people of Omelas are not heartless. They feel some measure of grief and discomfort over the situation. When, between the ages of eight and twelve, the other children first learn of this pitiable waif sealed away in darkness, many go to see it for themselves. They leave “shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations … Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox.”

Most must simply learn to accept that paradox. This is, as David Brooks puts it, “the social contract in Omelas.” In Le Guin’s telling, if the child were released, “in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed.”

It’s a challenging parable to read, for we both want to believe in this beautiful dream — that such a human community is possible in the world, without such injustice at its core — and we can’t help but turn the story on ourselves and our own world and ponder what sacrifices “all the prosperity and beauty and delight” of our own lives depend upon. As Brooks continues,

Life is filled with tragic trade-offs. In many different venues, the suffering of the few is justified by those trying to deliver the greatest good …

Companies succeed because they fire people … Schools become prestigious because they reject people … Leaders fighting a war on terror accidentally kill innocents. These are children in the basement of our survival and happiness.

The story compels readers to ask if they are willing to live according to those contracts. Some are not. They walk away from prosperity …

The rest of us live with the trade-offs. The story reminds us of the inner numbing this creates.

For those of us who live in more prosperous zip codes, the world outside our doors often appears Omelas-like. We live in safe, clean neighborhoods, streets lined with lush trees, yards and homes well-tended. On any given afternoon, our sidewalks play host to scores of healthy-looking folks walking dogs, jogging, or herding their bubbly children down to the park. These neighborhoods give generously to charity and offer the best of opportunities to their own. Kids in my zip code go to good schools and spend their summers gleefully skipping between summer camps and weekends at the lake or zoo or local water park. Life for upper middle class folks like me is not easy, but it’s incredibly extravagant by historical standards. Such communities are the sort, I assume, in which anyone would be lucky to make a home and raise a family.

Yet we all must know, in the backs of our minds, that the great fortune that envelops us has come through great crimes. We all know of distant sweatshops and factory farms, and of our ugly history of genocide and slavery. We all vaguely know that such neighborhoods, like Le Guin’s Omelas, represent a beautiful and perhaps dangerous dream — a precious lie we live in, an existence detached and protected from much of the unpleasantness and the dangers of the wider world and of the cost of our own lifestyles. Just like the people of Omelas, we are mostly successful at numbing ourselves to these uncomfortable aspects of our prosperity, accepting the “tragic compromises built into modern life” as necessary and inevitable.

But what happens when we aren’t so successful? What happens when the voices in the news and in our own heads reminding us of the true costs of everything that we take for granted and depend upon for our ‘happiness’ keep getting louder and louder, to the point that they cannot be ignored?

That, I believe, is the situation a growing number of folks find themselves in with regard to climate change — a “tragic compromise” greater in its scope than all the others, a civilization-threatening sin so all-encompassing and all-condemning that it undermines our carefully cultivated numbness. Over the past two hundred years, we have plundered and polluted this blessed earth past the point of no return and continue to do so at an ever-accelerating pace.

In this context, we all vaguely know that if we were somehow able to suddenly stop polluting, stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, much of “the prosperity and beauty and delight” of our lives would “wither.” The world we live in has been set up with this tragic devil’s bargain at its heart, and we don’t know how to break out of it, at least without paying a great price. And so the voices in the news and in our heads keep growing louder.

About six months ago, I first stumbled across the phrase “climate grief.” It’s apparently a growing problem, particularly among younger generations, and one can understand why. It seems every day brings some new piece of apocalyptic environmental news. There’ve been horrific headlines this week broadcasting the fires sweeping the Amazon (and Alaska), and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Just within the past few weeks I’ve read of how “Greenland’s ice sheet just lost 11 billion tons of ice – in one day”, how “One million species may be pushed to extinction in the next few years,” how “A quarter of humanity faces looming water crises”, and how “Climate change threatens the world’s food supply.” I could go on and on and on and on and on.

It’s enough to make a grown man cry. Perhaps I should do what my chipper mother-in-law does for peace of mind and stop reading the news. This “climate grief” has hit me on and off in waves since high school, and as you might expect, it’s been getting worse of late. But avoidance feels disingenuous. I’m already in too deep. As chair of the Environmental Action Team at my church, I’ve been working on a climate change response document we’re hoping to get the church and other local religious organizations to sign on to. It’s stirring up some hard feelings and difficult questions. Here are just a few stomach-churning data points from that research:

  • “[T]he climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.”
  • “The chances of a 35-year or longer ‘megadrought’ striking the Southwest and central Great Plains by 2100 are above 80 percent if the world stays on its current trajectory.”
  • “By mid-century … more than 250 U.S. cities will experience the equivalent of a month or more per year on average with a heat index surpassing 100 degrees Fahrenheit.”
  • “Arctic ice loss has tripled since the 1980s.”
  • “The ocean is almost 40 percent more acidic than it used to be.”
  • “[A] fifth of all corals have already died in the past three years.”
  • Nine of the ten costliest hurricanes to hit the U.S. on record have occurred since 2004.
  • “The past decade has seen … seven of [California’s] 10 most destructive fires.”
  • “[The species of mosquito that] carry infectious diseases including Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever … are expected to spread throughout most of the United States and Europe.”
  • “About half the Earth’s animals are thought to have been lost in the last 50 years.”
  • “Of all the mammals [left] on Earth, 96% are livestock and humans, only 4% are wild mammals.”
  • “Globally, the number of reported weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60,000 deaths.”
  • “Climate change could force … more than 100 million [more] people into extreme poverty by 2030.”
  • “Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.”

These numbers cut me to the quick. When I share such news or data, say on social media, it’s as a cry of grief and desperation. I’m sad and scared. I can’t help but carry the anguish of knowing what’s happening out there to so many of God’s creatures entirely beyond my control, and I’m desperate for someone to do something about it. As one activist has said, “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic … I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” That’s the kind of urgency I feel. That’s the gloom perpetually kneading at my abdomen.

And yet just like anyone I mostly go on with my life as normal. I’ve got a day job teaching middle schoolers to keep me busy. I’ve got bills to pay, errands to run, friends to see, loved ones to care for, all of which is more than enough for me to manage. Our ideals tend to “become flexible when life kicks in.” Thomas Jefferson famously opposed slavery in principle, but only ever freed seven of the 600+ enslaved folks he needed to keep Monticello afloat.

Like most people struggling away on life’s treadmill of duties, I also do my best to savor whatever I can of life’s joys and mostly shake off any encroaching grief, guilt, or dread. As Jack Gilbert wrote,

                                                       We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

I believe that.

Still, climate grief is never far from my thoughts. I feel it niggling my soul as I stroll through the mall or cruise the highway or peruse the array of fresh fruits and veggies at the local Trader Joe’s. All this opulence, this variety, this convenience, I keep thinking, comes at a price. To care about the environment in this apocalyptic age is soul-crushing. So I keep coming back again and again to this question: what are we to do with all this grief?


Click here for part 2 of Ben’s reflections.


Featured image credit: Orlovic (modified)