Where I find joy in a global crisis
I knew I would love it. I’m surprised it took me until I was 45 to have a proper go. I’ve often looked out to sea from the beach, and thought “one day”. Well that day came on a Friday in August.
Aberdeen is renowned for a lot of things but it’s not often known for surfing. But apparently in a recent review, our beach was voted one of the best places to surf in Europe.
But sea conditions last summer had been flat. So when I saw Campbell from Scot Surf begin advertising lessons again, I didn’t hesitate to sign up.
The sky was overcast when joining half a dozen newbie surfers at the Scot Surf trailer. It certainly wasn’t a warm day, so while putting on my damp 5 millimetre wetsuit, I wondered if it was going to be thick enough to keep me warm for 2 and a half hours. I don’t do cold water very well and I know how cold Scottish seas can be, even in summer. But after an intro lesson on the beach, we walked into the sea with our boards and the first thing I noticed was the water was not cold, in fact I couldn’t actually feel any coldness, was it warm?
For the next 2 and half hours I had a time of my life, learning about the surf, the waves, the board, the rails and then choosing and catching ‘your’ wave, first while laid flat, but then eventually and astonishingly I stood up. Even if it was for 2 or 3 seconds, it felt like 20. Campbell promised he would have me standing, but he didn’t tell me about his magic boards…that’s surely the only explanation.
The time out there was enhanced when we were joined by a fair few seabirds bobbing along the surf and occasionally diving for what I assume was small fish. ‘Wonderful’, I thought, ‘what a day this is turning out to be’……..well, for me that is.
While back at the trailer, feeling exhausted but elated, another surfer appeared and handed Campbell an ominous looking package. Cupped in his two hands was a ball of black and white feathers with a head, occasionally moving but stooped to one side.
“I found it in the surf upside down, But it’s still alive, I just couldn’t leave it there. Is there anything you can do”? The surfer asked Campbell.
Campbell explained earlier how he’s become the de-facto beach lifeguard, due to no funding for a permanent one. In the eyes of this surfer, it appears this informal role extends to seabirds as well.
I watched Campbell gently take the bird into his hands, the same species I saw bobbing around only a few minutes before. While gently wrapping it in a towel and placing in a cardboard box, he turned to me and said “it doesn’t look good… but I’ll try and call a place”.
The first place he called, there was no answer. So, I searched on my mobile and called an animal rescue centre in Ellon.
I described the bird and its condition to a person on the phone, they said “We’ve had a lot of those this summer. Can you bring it in? The van’s already out on a call”.
Campbell was teaching a paddle board lesson in 20 minutes, so I agreed to take it in.
I had not eaten since breakfast and must have easily burnt a 1000 calories surfing. I thought it wouldn’t be wise to drive tired while on an empty stomach. So, I ordered some food from the neighbouring vegan food trailer called Roots. But, 10 minutes later, while just finishing off some delicious loaded fries, Campbell came up and said, “you won’t be needing to go to the rescue centre, the bird’s a goner……”
I called the centre and told them what happened. They told me how it was an all too common occurrence this summer. I found out the bird was a juvenile guillemot. The breeding season had been good, that is until the chicks enter the water, the same warm water I enjoyed just a few hours earlier. I learnt the birds feed on sand eels, but these had moved to colder, deeper water that they prefer. But the fluffy juveniles are too buoyant and not strong enough to dive deep, so this year they were left to forage for scraps in the shallows.
In my line of work and activism I’m accustomed to hearing (sometimes seeing) the impacts of the climate crisis, to a point that one becomes numb. But this experience had a profound affect on me. I thought afterwards, while I was out having the time of my life, I was oblivious to the crisis those wee furry things were experiencing. They were starving to death. All the while, families walked along the esplanade and the oil supply ships sailed back and forth, all oblivious to what was unfolding in the water just metres away.
I’ve told this story a few times to friends, and it feels like I suck out every ounce of joy. I feel bad about this. It was suggested I lighten it with some black humour, and say at the end, “well at least one good thing happened, I got stood up on my board”.
I really don’t want to be the doom merchant, but at the same time I feel I just need to keep telling how it is.
And what I understand, ‘how it is’. Is that we’re caught up in a toxic system that dominates our society. A system responsible for staggering levels of inequality, that includes ripping people from their land, extracting its wealth, while leaving the places we share with other beings poisoned. A capitalist system enshrined by patriarchy and racism, dependent on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. While providing some people abundant cheap energy, it pollutes the atmosphere with a cocktail of gases, heating the earth and the seas to now unbearable levels for human life and clearly non-human life.
Many people in the world are already getting fucked. Sometimes I feel we will all be fucked and there is no real joy to be found.
But where is the joy in these dark times? All I can offer is from my own experience. I find the potential for joy is actually all around us. I find it best when people come together to learn and share about what’s really going on in the world, and then decide collectively to do something about it. I’ve found it out on the streets chatting and encouraging people to get involved in organising around social or climate justice. In 2019 found it in Extinction Rebellion, both in meetings on Tuesday nights, or disrupting the daily grind and having awkward but important conversations with strangers about how to unfuck the system. I find joy working with folk in Torry where I now live and recently helped organise a people’s assembly, so ordinary people can decide for themselves how to protect St Fitticks Park from corporate greed. Joy for me is in experiencing the warm glow of collective power that attempts to address injustices, climate breakdown or the collapse of biodiversity.
I don’t believe we can wait for governments, institutions or corporations to act. They are all fellow passengers aboard the plane of modernity, which left the earth a few centuries ago and is now empty. A handful of passengers have been in the cockpit, ensuring them and their friends experience the luxury of 1st class. Some are just getting by in the standard seats, but for many they are hanging out the back of the plane, sometimes by threads, and sometimes they snap. This plane needs to land back on earth from which many of us have become separated for far too long. Those at the front want to stay in control, but they really don’t have a clue how to land us safely.
We can choose to sit back in our seats, ‘don’t look up’ and allow ourselves to be distracted and pretend and hope ‘everything is going to be alright’.
But as I found, even in moments of joyful distraction, the harshness of the reality we all face, will keep appearing. This year it was birds washing up on the beach, next year it may be something else.
So I believe there is no alternative, for those in ‘standard’, to join together, pull in the threads from the back and take responsibility to land everyone back safely. We can’t rely on those at the front, to pilot us back down. It will be scary, but I also believe there will be many moments of collective joy in the weeks, months and years to come.
I wrote and performed this story at a spoken word night in Aberdeen called the ‘Future IS Not F*cked’, some weeks before seeing Don’t Look Up. It’s a satirical film depicting the American political class and mainstream media’s denialism after the discovery of a ‘planet killing’ comet that’s found to be hurtling towards the earth. As everyone probably knows by now, the film is an allegory on the current climate and biodiversity crisis, asking the questions: How many warning signs do governments, global media and people (particularly the white middle class) need? When will the response begin that matches the scale and severity of the current and real ‘planet killing’ crisis?
The Aberdeen night was all about the Just Transition away from oil and gas in the north east. Anyone was invited to respond to the provocation: ‘What does it mean to let go of the world of oil and all it represents?’. My story was in two halves. The first half depicts the ‘warning sign’. There was no need for a sophisticated machine (like the large telescope in the film) to detect it, all that was needed was my own eyes and sense of touch. The second half is the story I tell myself to make sense of the experience. It also addresses a point made by a critic of the film, in which they highlight the depiction of civil society’s response to the comet as predominantly passive or violent, and relying on individual ‘heroes’ or billionaire businessmen to try and save the day, missing the need for deep transformation through grassroots collective action.
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