I tell everyone I picked my graduate program on the premise of a quarter-century identity crisis: If I didn’t have a “plan” for what was next in my life, I might as well write plans for other people as a profession.
Now, the reality is that city planning paired very well with my environmental geography training in undergrad and served a practical application of such study.
But the short-hand rationale was also true: I felt lost without a plan, and I never wanted to feel that paramount sense of plan-less-ness ever again.
Writing plans for other people suddenly became writing a plan for the rest of my life.
In the midst of uncertainty, I craved the familiarity. A roadmap, a way forward, a plan seemed to me what I was lacking the most. So I dove headfirst, equipped myself with the technical skills of a planner, and uncovered a new yet always-been-there identity that matched both my professional goals and past life experiences.
“I’m a planner,” I often say now, “in every sense of the word.”
When hard-pressed, you seem to hear your own self even when the larger truth remains uncovered.
Uncovering our own selves by way of intuition has always fascinated me. I believe in the sorts of things others may find unnecessary of explanation — that our favorite colors say a lot about our highest selves; that our dreams tell us stories about alternative life paths; that we were born for a reason within the season; that our astrological signs are never accidental associations but maps of meaning in an otherwise chaotic calendar year.
We spend our whole lives introducing ourselves to others, when I think we rarely know our own true selves. The stories we tell, over and over again, so shape our own stories of self.
I believe the most powerful words in the world are the stories we tell ourselves.
As a young child, seeking this intuitive truth that’s tangled up in stories, I became enamored by them — reading stories, telling stories, sharing stories. I let them shape me and guide me, developed an entire identity around my favorite books, authors, and TED talks.
When it came time to pick a profession, I sought to study this storytelling ability. I followed everyone’s best advice to start in journalism school. But, as even journalists will tell you, there are two kinds of reporters: Those who write what’s happening, and those who desperately want to know why.
I was in the latter camp. Struggling to finish every story on time, I remember frenzied days of awful writing, for I never fully understood the stories that I wrote myself. Absolutely, we do need the news of now — but I knew early on that I could never be the one who delivered it.
So I abandoned that course to study the one story that had captivated me most: Understanding our relationship with our earth, our home, and why we have been seemingly complicit in our own and other species’ destruction. Essentially, the story of climate change.
I found versions of this story in environmental studies, geography, and anthropology, even women’s studies and religious studies. When the methodologies changed, the rationale changed — and the stories we told ourselves seemed to change, as well.
We need economic certainty.
We are God’s stewards on Earth.
We are the most high-functioning species.
We will perish if we don’t do something.
I found this difference in storyline to be perhaps the most interesting story of all. Each version of “change” elicited its own set of actions or non-actions, which in turn shaped peoples’ perception of the problem.
The concept of climate change changed based on who you were talking to, their stories and priorities, and their feelings about the future.
Who was responsible? Who should be responsible? Why is this happening? And why do we have to change everything?
As an adult navigating the twists and turns of every week, I get it: Changing even the smallest part of your morning routine requires concentrated effort.
That’s what makes the story of climate change appealing or unappealing, depending on who and when you ask. On the one hand, reimagining our communities so that they are less polluted and car-centric, and more accessible and ecologically resilient to unexpected changes is an appealing — and totally achievable! — future to fight for. On the other hand, changing every systemic system that we’ve ever known — from our housing, economic security, food production, to our consumptive retail expectations each holiday season — is overwhelmingly daunting. I get how, for most people, it is simply easier to change the story.
But “the way we’ve always lived” has been full of oppressive, abusive, and exploitive actions for much of the “modern” human era — colonialism, racism, sexism, violence against bodies and biodiversity has thrived in many ways, thanks to our mass-produced, globalized economic machine of everything that keeps us wanting more.
Exploring (or exploiting?) the earth — including additional planetary systems — for every last drop of water, every rare mineral ever excavated from the ground has perpetuated a story of scarcity, a story of never satisfied.
And we’ve bought that story, quite literally. We know that the exploitation and overconsumption of “goods,” intake especially from wealthy countries like the United States, have exacerbated environmental destruction and climatic instability — from not only the massive amounts of energy generation and resource extraction used to fabricate said products, but to the billions of tons of “byproduct,” wasted resources on a waste-full planet.
If we have an opportunity to reimagine these systems — to write another story of stewardship and purpose for both planet and people — then why on earth wouldn’t we want to take that chance, to write that new story together?
I realize now that my penchant for planning came about because of a personal desire to plan for this global change — a personal adaptation strategy, if you will, in an anxiety-inducing world collapsing from certainty.
Climate change, we know, is an all-consuming and cataclysmic phenomenon. So is a cellular body consumed by anxiety and depression. A lesson so fundamental to Indigenous ancestral knowledges, and a personal mantra of mine: It all connects, it always has.
A future full of unpredictability maybe doesn’t inspire us with a whole lot of confidence. It’d be a whole lot simpler to live life without trying to “change the plan.”
But I still believe that the most powerful words in the world are the stories we tell ourselves, and I want to help make possible a different kind of story — a story of reciprocity, one that’s rooted in regenerative, imaginative, and just-filled futures — for ourselves and the ones that follow in our footsteps.
Maybe then we’ll be ready to accept the changes we need to make for this to be a story to support all life on earth.