Opinion: Can Joy And Realism About The Future Co-Exist In Our Minds?

Photo: Melissa Kroodsma

Russ Vernon-Jones

The day before Joe Biden was inaugurated President, a friend of mine said to me in passing, “I’m so happy and excited that he’s going to get us back into the Paris Climate Accords right away!”

I have another friend who worked hard to get Biden elected. The day Biden was declared the winner, she shifted to bemoaning the fact that he isn’t more radical than he is, and focusing all her energy on where we need to push him to take bolder action on both climate and race.

I could identify with both of my friends — feel both the joy of first one and the upset of the other. But I don’t want to choose between being happy about what a difference Biden’s election will make, and being upset about the fact that his policies are still not adequate to meet the crises we face. Can’t I have both happiness in the moment and a sense of purpose and determination about the challenges ahead?

There Is A Lot To Be Happy About
On day one Biden signed executive actions that put the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Accords, canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, and directed all federal agencies to immediately review and begin to reverse Trump-era policies and regulations that are damaging to the environment or public health! He put a moratorium on Arctic oil and gas leasing and ordered new vehicle mileage standards and emission limits. He is filling his administration with dedicated climate people. He has a commitment to making the U.S. electricity system carbon-free by 2035.

There’s a lot to be happy about on the racial justice front as well. Not only do we have Kamala Harris as Vice-President, Biden has nominated or appointed the most diverse administrative team in the history of the country. On day one he signed an executive order that mandates “embedding equity across federal policymaking and rooting out systemic racism and other barriers to opportunity from federal programs and institutions.” His climate plan includes systematic attention to environmental justice. He has ordered that racial equity guide the distribution of the COVID vaccine. In his inaugural address Biden spoke of defeating white supremacy and delivering racial justice.

These are signs, not just of how different the new President is from his predecessor, but also how far public awareness has moved — partly in response to events and partly being affected by the growing movements for racial justice and climate action.

So Much More Is Needed
As much as we may be cheered by Biden’s early steps on climate we must admit that they are only a small beginning to addressing the dire climate crisis before us. The big actions that are needed in the next four years will only be possible if we can create a groundswell of public support and a powerful movement demanding bold climate action. The public has been moving in the right direction, but we must accelerate that movement. A number of my previous posts include some thoughts about movement building. In particular, you might want to look at “Can One Person Make a Difference?

The same is true about tackling racism and white supremacy. Biden and Harris have responded well to public demands for action on racial justice. They’ve taken important steps. However, they are already getting pushback, just for mentioning “white supremacy.” The white people, white men in particular, who feel their historical dominance slipping away as people of color make up a bigger percentage of the population and of the government, will not go away easily. They will challenge and fight at every step. Racial justice will not come automatically. It will only come if people of all races band together and actively demand changes in policies and practices so that existing disproportional advantages for white people are eliminated in every corner of our society.

I don’t write these things about how dire the climate situation is and how much work we must do on race and climate for the purpose of diminishing your joy, or mine. Things are completely different than they were with the previous occupant of the White House! A great burden has been lifted off us! We the people did this! We cared, and organized, and worked together to bring about this change. We’ve earned a celebration!

Let’s have joy AND a focus on the work ahead. Being happy doesn’t need to cause us to turn away from the crises we face. The immense challenges before us don’t need to diminish our enjoyment of the moment.

We, of course, don’t have this problem only with regard to the current climate and race situation. We have it in many areas of our lives. How do we be happy and joyful about what’s good, while also facing how big the tasks ahead of us are? After all, for the rest of our lives there will be big challenges ahead of us. We can’t wait for them all to be solved before we laugh and sing and dance and enjoy life.

A Way Of Thinking And Feeling All The Time?
Perhaps this is a discipline or way of thinking that we can all develop and strengthen — the ability to hold the joy of recent successes (however small or large) and at the same time look forward to the challenges before us. We can learn to hold both in our minds at once, and not let either diminish, or turn us away from, the other. We can face the hard realities of the future and still savor the sweetness of recent good news. We can be grounded in our connections with each other. We can have lives of joy, purpose, and commitment. What a good time to be alive!

Russ Vernon-Jones was the Principal of Fort River Elementary School from 1990-2008.  He is a co-facilitator of the Coming Together Anti-Racism Project in the Amherst area.  He chairs the Racism, White Supremacy, and Climate Justice working group of Climate Action Now of Western Mass, and blogs regularly on climate justice at www.RussVernonJones.org.

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