Leukaemia and cli­mate change don’t sound like they have a lot in com­mon, but a brush with death gave this en­vi­ron­men­tal re­searcher re­newed op­ti­mism


How a ter­mi­nal ill­ness gave an aca­demic a new world view.


Not just in the way that we’re all inch­ing in­evitably to­ward our own deaths each mo­ment; I was hurtling to­wards a spe­cific death with a name, a shape and a time­line. I was 37 years old and I was dy­ing of leukaemia.

I was ly­ing in a hos­pi­tal bed, so ill that di­ag­no­sis – when some­one fi­nally named the doom I had been feel­ing in my body for months – was a re­lief. At least the sense of vague ter­ror and im­pend­ing catas­tro­phe I had been feel­ing had a name. A cure, in the shape of a stem cell trans­plant, was pos­si­ble, but it re­quired the com­plete and ut­ter dis­so­lu­tion of myself, dan­gling my bro­ken body over the edge of the very cliff a cure is meant to post­pone.

It wasn’t just my body that dis­solved in those weeks: my mind and soul were also bro­ken apart, frag­mented and brought to the edge of ruin. In med­i­cal terms, I be­came de­pressed, hal­lu­ci­na­tory and delu­sional. And the team of doctors re­ally didn’t have jack-shit to pre­scribe me ex­cept for pa­tience.


I was vis­ited by a mind­ful­ness prac­ti­tioner dur­ing this time, but I was too far gone for pro­longed mind­ful­ness prac­tice, un­able to bring myself to a set of ex­er­cises that had sus­tained me prior to my ill­ness. There was simply no self to bring. In­stead my visi­tor asked me to count to four, in line with my breath. And then to do it again. And to come back to this sim­ple count­ing when­ever I needed it. I could get to four, and then four again. I could get through my pain, my nau­sea, my mis­ery, for the count of four breaths. And then I could ask myself to do it again.

This prac­tice didn’t make me feel bet­ter. I was still mis­er­able and bro­ken and ab­sent. But it gave me the space to sit with that mis­ery, call it by its name and know its shape. That was valu­able, just as the name and shape of the leukaemia di­ag­no­sis had been valu­able some months be­fore.

Af­ter my stem cell trans­plant, I was pulled back from the cliff that I had dan­gled over for many weeks. Many hands took part in pulling me back: doctors and nurses; my hus­band; my par­ents; end­less numbers of blood donors; and the new cells, a gift from a woman I had yet to come to know, a mother of three across the coun­try, who gave me a new self to in­habit. None of th­ese peo­ple knew if their gifts would have any ef­fect at all. None­the­less they gave them freely, hope­fully and with the knowl­edge that they had noth­ing else to offer.

Three months later, I re­turned back to my home, my hus­band and chil­dren, my life. One year later, I re­turned to work as a pro­fes­sor of chem­istry and en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies, teach­ing the same ma­te­rial I had taught be­fore my ill­ness. Some of it was ba­nal: pro­ce­dures for balanc­ing chem­i­cal re­ac­tions, re­as­sur­ing in their straight­for­ward clar­ity. But some of it took on a new emo­tional sig­nif­i­cance — specif­i­cally, teach­ing about cli­mate change, bio­di­ver­sity and ex­tinc­tion.

This planet is dy­ing. Not just in the way that life on earth is al­ways in­evitably be­gin­ning and end­ing, that species are ris­ing and fall­ing, that ex­tinc­tion and evo­lu­tion oc­cur, and that tem­per­a­ture and sea lev­els cy­cle dra­mat­i­cally and ir­reg­u­larly. In the 21st cen­tury, earth is hurtling to­wards a spe­cific death with a shape, a name and a time­line. It’s dy­ing of global warm­ing, cli­mate change, ex­tinc­tion, bi­o­log­i­cal an­ni­hi­la­tion and ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion. The ex­act names and the ex­act tim­ing is de­bated, but the over­all tra­jec­tory of life on earth is well un­der­stood: we’re in the midst of earth’s sixth mass ex­tinc­tion, and the odds of hu­man civil­i­sa­tion reach­ing the 22nd cen­tury are of­ten es­ti­mated at no bet­ter than 50/50.

When I be­gan teach­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal change in 2005, I fo­cused on how to build a track away from the cliff of en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe. When I re­turned to teach­ing in 2014, I found that I no longer could see a track that turned


away from the edge. We’re al­ready locked into cat­a­strophic changes, ter­ri­ble hu­man and an­i­mal suf­fer­ing, the loss of so much of what makes this earth it­self.

This shift in my think­ing was par­tially the re­sult of what we’ve come to re­alise is truly pos­si­ble with re­gard to en­vi­ron­men­tal change, in­formed by broader public and sci­en­tific dis­courses on strate­gies that are mov­ing away from pre­ven­tion and to­wards mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion. But it prob­a­bly mostly came from my new will­ing­ness to see and ac­knowl­edge the hard­est parts of this re­al­ity that had been there all along.

I’ve now taught about cli­mate change and bi­o­log­i­cal an­ni­hi­la­tion four times since my ill­ness. Each time we’re closer to that edge. More car­bon emit­ted. More warm­ing locked in. More species gone. More wilder­ness lost. More homes de­stroyed. More star­va­tion, wars and hu­man suf­fer­ing have come to pass. In con­ver­sa­tions about cli­mate, there is a knowl­edge widely shared but rarely ex­plic­itly stated that we’re no longer able to pre­vent de­struc­tion, bi­o­log­i­cal an­ni­hi­la­tion and per­haps the end of hu­man civil­i­sa­tion as we know it; we’re simply post­pon­ing it. Some­times my stu­dents re­alise this and I watch them crum­ple into cli­mate ni­hilism. “If we can’t ‘save the earth’, why bother?” they ask. “Should I just drive my gas­guz­zler and fly ev­ery­where and just give up?”

In con­trast with my stu­dents’ ni­hilism, I have found that my re­sponse to our hurtling to­ward the brink is more one of per­sonal grief. It’s made all the more acute by par­ent­ing and its at­ten­dant op­por­tu­ni­ties to see the world through the dual lenses of my eyes and my chil­dren’s. Their won­der at the nat­u­ral world is still un­tainted, but when I look, I see ghosts of what’s al­ready been lost. My chil­dren barely know the joys of hunt­ing for fire­flies on a sum­mer night; there are so many fewer fire­flies to find. Some­times this fills me with a grief so pro­found I can­not catch my breath.

In teach­ing about the earth, I want to turn away from the hard­est ma­te­rial. I con­struct my syl­labus to end with a dis­cus­sion of air pol­lu­tion and the [US] Clean Air Act, to show the stu­dents that we have wres­tled with thorny prob­lems and won in the past. But nei­ther I nor my stu­dents are so naïve to think that cli­mate change and bi­o­log­i­cal an­ni­hi­la­tion can be trans­formed in the way that acid rain and air pol­lu­tion were rad­i­cally trans­formed, for the bet­ter, by a sin­gle piece of leg­is­la­tion. Too much has been lost, and too many more losses are al­ready locked in.

So should we all suc­cumb to ni­hilism, rage and grief about our earth? Should we all just look away, go on with our small lives and ig­nore what is hap­pen­ing around us? For years I have wanted to look away. I have thought about no longer teach­ing about earth’s de­struc­tion be­cause it’s so painful. But ev­ery year, I teach it again. I as­sign my stu­dents new read­ings, ar­ti­cles by sci­en­tists and aca­demics, members of my me­thod­i­cal tribe, chron­i­cling, quan­ti­fy­ing and cat­e­goris­ing the losses we’re suf­fer­ing. Their work is aca­demic, but what they’re wit­ness­ing is much greater than what they can count. To truly wit­ness this mo­ment on earth, we can’t just name the species lost. We must mourn them.

In this work of grief and nam­ing and ac­knowl­edge­ment, my train­ing as a sci­en­tist doesn’t help me. But my train­ing in mind­ful­ness does. Be­cause I learnt how to breathe with loss, I can choose not to look away from the hard things, but to sit with them, ac­knowl­edge and name the pain, and trust myself to be able to move for­ward. This may be what I truly have to offer my stu­dents and my chil­dren. Many stu­dents come to my class­room al­ready know­ing about car­bon diox­ide, ris­ing sea lev­els and mass ex­tinc­tion. What they don’t know, be­cause none of us re­ally do, is how to move for­ward, how to breathe and how to live with the knowl­edge of our own per­sonal and plan­e­tary mor­tal­ity. But per­haps I can offer them tools to en­dure with some grace.

To fully process what we’re los­ing on earth, I had to stop re­spond­ing only as a sci­en­tist. My way for­ward comes in­stead from my ex­pe­ri­ence of ill­ness. My stem cell trans­plant wasn’t point­less just be­cause I will, even­tu­ally, die of something. The


years I’ve gained, how­ever few or many they may be, are pre­cious be­yond mea­sure. So too with the earth. Each gen­er­a­tion of hu­mans liv­ing in rel­a­tive abun­dance, each species saved from ex­tinc­tion for another 50 years, and each wild place left to func­tion and in­spire in its wild­ness is also pre­cious.

As I have be­gun sit­ting mind­fully with the sad­ness of earth’s de­struc­tion, I have started to in­cor­po­rate it into myself. Mind­ful­ness doesn’t de­crease my sense of loss, but it re­minds me I can get through it, year by year, hour by hour, breath by breath. It helps me ac­knowl­edge the pain, and to start to name it not just as a sci­en­tist, but as a hu­man spirit, too. It helps me tell my stu­dents each au­tumn that the at­mos­phere con­tains more car­bon diox­ide than it did the au­tumn be­fore, to write cheques to en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy or­gan­i­sa­tions, to write to lo­cal MPS to fight the wil­ful blind­ness I see in our govern­ment.

When I was ill, I was terrified, as you might ex­pect for a 37-year-old mother of two kids un­der the age of six, and a dis­ease with a two-year sur­vival rate of 25 per cent. Ini­tially, I read all the sta­tis­tics on prog­no­sis for my dis­ease, my age, my gen­der. My anx­i­ety be­gan to ease only when I ac­knowl­edged and named the near­ness of death, no mat­ter how I sliced the numbers. By be­ing more present to my suf­fer­ing on my worst days, by nam­ing it not just clin­i­cally but also as a full-hearted hu­man des­per­ate to stay alive, I found myself more present to my joy as well. By fi­nally look­ing mor­tal­ity in the face, its pres­ence in my soul be­gan to shrink, and I could en­joy the small joys that I could find. I taught my two-year-old to taste hon­ey­suckle; I showed my six-year-old ci­cada shells.

In­evitably, the cli­mate will warm, whole ecosys­tems will be lost, and some­day there will be a last gen­er­a­tion of hu­mans on earth. But the years we can post­pone each loss, and each wild place and crea­ture saved, are in­cal­cu­la­bly valu­able. And so I keep teach­ing and pro­cess­ing, and work­ing to stave off the in­evitable. I don’t know if any of those things will truly pre­vent cat­a­strophic changes; I sus­pect not. But I give th­ese gifts freely, hope­fully and in the knowl­edge that they’re all I have to give. Noth­ing we can do will pre­vent the earth from be­ing deeply trans­formed. Maybe the next gen­er­a­tion, my chil­dren or grand­chil­dren, will be the last to live in large-scale hu­man civil­i­sa­tion. Or, maybe the ef­forts of me, my stu­dents and mil­lions of other like-minded folks around the world will push back the in­evitable col­lapse for another 100 years, or 500 years, per­haps al­low­ing us to co­ex­ist longer with the won­der of wild places and crea­tures. There is no pre­vent­ing the in­evitable, but the de­lay is pre­cious. It’s all we have.



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