When it comes to the world’s major problems, “activism is an antidote to despair,” according to noted Nebraska activist Mary Pipher during a daylong visit to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Pipher, who is a clinical psychologist and author of 10 books including the bestselling “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,” gave three talks over the course of one day as part of the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues Sept. 2.
“America is in a crucible moment, if we can keep fear from stopping us,” Pipher said in her public evening speech at the Lied Center in Lincoln. “We can step into a new world. We are not without resources, we have our intelligence, humor and compassion, our families and friends and our ancestry of resilient survivors. We can be restored. So let us save and savor the world together.”
Pipher made her first stop just outside the Van Brunt Visitors Center doors under the early morning shade, where 17 honors students gathered for breakfast and a sit-down chat with the local Lincoln author.
Her amplified voice bounced off downtown buildings and overcame construction noise across the street as she asked her crowd to close their eyes and picture a future in which they would want to live – a better future, even with the backdrop of today’s isolation and increasingly relevant doomsday scenarios.
“We need a lot more stories of ‘What if things actually turn out okay?’” Pipher said. “What if you guys all get to live to be 90 and have rich, happy lives and see your great grandchildren being born into a world that you have 100 percent faith will be a beautiful world for them?”
Pipher said a future like this is possible, but a better society will only exist so long as we work to cocreate it. So naturally, Pipher said, the next question will always be “what is the story I would tell about that world?”
In an afternoon welcome talk for community members sitting out on the lawn overlooking the “Torn Notebook” sculpture, she said “hope is as necessary as oxygen to stay alive,” and if we can latch onto hope, then action – which is the real harbinger of change – doesn’t seem so far away.
“My definition of morality includes action,” Pipher said. “Just having good thoughts, just saying good things generally isn’t enough. It usually requires organized action with other people.
Finally, Pipher ended her day before a live audience on the stage of the Lied Center – which was live streamed and utilized new, immersive 3D browser-based technology – tying all her points together by sharing the Nebraskan story of a group of people moving from despair, to awareness, into action.
Pipher has been an activist since the 60s, but about a decade ago, she became notably involved in the movement against the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline.
She cited the cataclysmic summer of 2010 as her own wake-up call on climate change. At the time, the earth was experiencing its warmest decade, its warmest year, and the warmest spring on record. The heat index in Lincoln hit 115 degrees in July for several days in a row.
As Pipher picked strawberries in the garden with her grandchildren, she said she thought about all the parents and grandparents of the world in a trance as they worry about a child’s skinned knee on the sidewalk but fail to grant them a future of clean air, water and ecosystems. A wake-up call doesn’t quite do the trick for everyone.
“After years of being a mother and a therapist, I’ve learned that shouting ‘wake up’ doesn’t work,” Pipher said. “In fact, that is one of my most dispiriting realizations. I wanted desperately to preserve the world I loved. But I didn’t even know how to talk about this with my closest friends. My own despair was intolerable.”
As is Pipher’s motto, though, action is the antidote to despair. So she started by simply talking to anyone who could relate. Through the lens of environmental concerns, she talked to a young man who helped her prune trees, which led to dinner parties with his friends and her friends who felt the same, which led to ‘peetings,’ or party meetings, and suddenly Pipher had an activist group of urban progressives in a red state with the desire to change the world, or at the very least, confront the fossil fuel industry.
“Our campaign was a complicated story about international corporations in politics, but it was also a simple story about Nebraskans working to save our state, from what we call the ‘extra leaky pipeline,’” Pipher said.
In a pre-talk introduction for Pipher’s speech, Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies Joy Castro described witnessing Pipher and her group in action, calling her a national and Nebraska treasure.
“I remember when I moved to Nebraska, going to protests of the Keystone XL pipeline at the Capitol, and seeing Mary Pipher there, watching her give speeches and being so impressed with her engaged activism, in addition to her long practice in clinical psychotherapy and her wonderful books,” Castro said.
There is strength behind knowing an audience. Nebraska is a polite state, so Pipher’s activist tactics of choice are polite. One group member baked a deep dish cheddar apple pie for every person on the legislature or city council who made a decision favoring alternative energy. Pipher picked it up hot out of the oven before a press conference and the aroma would carry over the Capitol rotunda, enticing people of power with pie magic.
“And still, when I go back to… to testify, if I mention that deep crust cheddar apple pie, there’s people whose eyes get a little teary,” Pipher said.
Even after 10 years, the group – now called the Guardians of the Aquifer – are still getting together. Their recent activist endeavors include working with Nebraska’s public power companies, OPPD and LES, on energy issues, and a battle for regulation of confined animal feeding operations. Capitalism and Western civilization are not sustainable, Pipher said. As we approach new horizons in sustainable energy and social reform, it’s important to realize that the old normal will not and should not return. Imagining what the new normal could look like is itself an act of courage.
“Whether or not we believe we can change the world in a small way, acting as if we can is the healthiest emotional stance to take in the face of injustice and destruction,” she said.
This applies double to young activists, who Pipher believes are more likely and willing to think in new paradigms about social issues. The problem, she said in an interview, lies in young people being laden with the weight of the world’s issues, and feeling small, insignificant and unable to help. Whether or not the next generation is able to arrive at solutions within the coming decades, the challenges will still be there, and they will still deeply affect the collective experience. But the power is in the people – even as it takes some agency to find the right people to help exploit that power.
“Once you believe you have power and act as if you have power, you actually create power out of thin air,” Pipher said. “It’s an amazing process to see someone decide to act as if they have power, and suddenly they have power. There’s nobody coming to save us. There’s no Superman or Superwoman on the way. If we save our community and our planet, it’ll be because people like you and I decide it’s our job.”