The Science and Environmental Health Network


Blog, Updates, and In the News

Crafting the New Story.png

At the Threshold of a Dark Wood: to the activist who needs a game changer

To the activist who is alone, stuck; who knows the game is rigged; who needs a game changer...   I came to myself in a dark wood where the direct way was lost...

...It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there. I cannot rightly say how I entered it. I was so full of sleep, at that point where I abandoned the true way. (Dante, The Divine Comedy)


The traveler has found herself at the threshold of a dark wood.   Something inside of her has brought her here, and she knows that the way forward is though the forest.   It is dark and full of energy, an ancient and real body of true wilderness, as well as the deep and shadowy levels of her psyche.   Once she’s inside the forest, there is no leaving until she has completed the seemingly insurmountable tasks that bar her path forward. She instinctively knows that the tools she seeks will not be found on the well-trodden paths, but deep in the heart of the woods.   No paths are discernable but the wise old woman has left cairns to mark the traveler’s way, and the all-seeing owl is following near by to help in the darkness. And so she begins following the markers left for her, down the path deeper still. . .   The traveler has witnessed the dangerous effects of human actions. Humans have been around for about 6,000 generations, yet in a span of only a handful leave a legacy of waste and degradation, inherited in some cases by the 10,000th generation and beyond. Despite mounting evidence, environmental disaster risks remain a low priority for decision makers and the public. It’s a new and defining territory for human problem solving.   She feels called to the task at hand: to face the fundamental flaws in human systems, so dangerously out of step with the nature’s systems.   She, like so many, now depends on an economic system where nearly all daily activities performed by the vast majority of people in the world harm the environment. She has been shown the dynamic and biodiverse ecosystems required for life and community, but she feels stuck in the prevailing “way of life”. Her individual behaviors feel small in the face of such large scale and complex issues. So, like so many before her, she remains in limbo, feeling both passionate and complicit. There is a deep sense her own health and the health of her community is at risk as well, but she feels separated from the power to change things as much as she feels separated from the earth, forest, rivers, and wildlife. This is the story of so many around her – save for an invaluable few [1].   When she turns to people in positions of power and leadership to make the changes she can’t do on her own, she is routinely dismissed. For too long the role of government has been to protect private capital and the free market at the expense of public health and the environment [2]. The tools used to make decisions – environmental impact assessments, cost-benefit analyses – do not measure the right things and do not account for Earth’s life support systems. Citizens, rather than negligent companies, bear the burden of proving that an activity is harmful. Harmful projects go forward, packaged and sold using the pro forma language of ‘jobs’ and ‘economic growth’ at all costs.   How estranging and bizarre to understand the incredible urgency of the human position, but hear only a faint echo of one’s concern in the political media, government hallways, and company boardrooms. How disorienting to watch people in positions of great influence blatantly outweigh the short-term profits of business-as-usual to the cost of long-term (and in some cases irrevocable) damage.   But, but! Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, the traveler has awoken from a spellbound sleep and now finds herself at this threshold. Something is vibrating in her sternum, clutching her heart and her gut. She cannot, and does not want to, bury this awareness again. Her instincts propel her through the woods.   The all-seeing owl has left gifts for the traveler to help her begin. The gifts are three keys to doors for the journey and for the soul: the transformative power of grief; a new theory of agency – the authority to act; and, a new theory of power – the power of communion.   Grief, anger, and despair are normal responses to what you are witnessing: These are worthy emotions.

How can we actualize things that feel so essential and intuitive, yet have been made separate from us, invisible, simplified? How can an individual who is aware of the magnitude and complexity of our problems not also feel helplessness at the stark contrast to their individual impact? But facing this kind of cognitive and emotional dissonance is precisely how to break out of it.   Joanna Macy, eco-philosopher and scholar of Buddhism, has said, “The spell we are under often leads us to imagine that it is we, not society, who are going insane”[3]. There are a lot of ways to ignore the full reality of our problems [4]. There are also ways of finding communion in coming to this threshold. The radical changes that are needed indeed require us to recognize, as Joanna put it, ‘our non-separateness’ in being part of a much more populated story than we perhaps realized.   Grief, anger, and despair – these are emotions that also burst with energy. Like a torch turning to flame, we can use the light to see alternative paths otherwise closed off or forgotten. Grief becomes moral clarity and purpose; a guide rather than an individual pathology or nervous breakdown (as we are so often socialized to believe).   A theory of agency: We have the authority to act

Historically, women across the world have been kept voiceless and presumed powerless. Indigenous, native, and First Nations peoples, as well as communities living on the thresholds of subsistence and/or climate impacts bear the brunt of existing environmental changes. Marginalized groups across the board are excluded from nearly all decisions making circles. We will not stay voiceless and act as if we are powerless, because we have a responsibility to our communities and to future generations. We bring life into the world, we steward biodiversity and the commons and take responsibility for it. We have unique wisdom and the authority to act. In recognizing our own layers of privilege and oppressions, we organize to elevate other people’s voices too, so that they may also share their unique wisdom.

  A theory of power: We can be brave

True power is communion. We can choose to exercise power, not just for ourselves, but with others and for the children of all species. One way of cycling out of grief and despair is to make common cause with people in our communities to support each other in addressing the grief and anger around environmental matters. None of this work is ours alone, but borne out of and shaped by ancient headwaters, complex histories, and an abounding work already underway. Women on the frontlines of environmental change are doing unique and powerful work.   With these gifts, the traveler can find clarity of purpose, an authority to act, and she can be brave, because her power will be found in communion with others and with the Earth.   [1] Indigenous peoples (used to encompass indigenous, native, and First Nations peoples) steward more than 85 percent of the Earth’s protected areas. 40 percent of the economy and 80 percent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources (see: Indigenous peoples have stewarded the land with millennium-tested traditional ecological knowledge that base their human systems in relationship to the planet.

[3] Joanna Macy. World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Parallax Press, 2007: Berkeley, CA. Pg. 97.

[4] See for example: The Story of the Elm Dance, by Joanna Macy. Story available online: