I have a new friend. Her name is Susan and she lives in Reno, Nevada. We’ve only met once in person when we were serendipitously in Tuscon, Arizona, at the same time last spring. We are both old, both social workers with long careers and both heartbroken.

“I didn’t think retirement would look like this, did you?” she asks on a recent Zoom call. “I thought I’d read, travel, visit friends. Instead, here we are, facing the uncertain future of all life, a reality no other generation has had to face. What we do in the next 10 years will determine whether thousands of species, including our own, will survive or not.” She stops talking and looks down at the floor. I nod. We are silent, our grief too big for words. The dog scratches at the door.

Together we try to reckon with the idea that, during our lifetime, the exquisite balance of carbon in the atmosphere that yielded the miracle that is life on this Earth has been tragically altered. Oh, how I once celebrated our post-WWII success and progress; how I relished all those lovely shoes and red velvet couches and new cars!

But the bill has come due, and life as we know it on the planet is close to death.

And so, as it happens, are Susan and I, two old women still in love with life.

Scientists tell us we have 10 years – and only 10 – to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels. After that, the window on a habitable planet closes. My capacity to imagine the suffering and chaos that could result is limited. I want to turn away from the images, from the feelings of despair and fear and grief – and guilt, too.


Instead, I met Susan through Third Act, a new national organization for elders. Divestment from the big banks that invest heavily in fossil fuels – Citi, Wells Fargo, Chase and Bank of America — is one of the organization’s major thrusts. The founder of Third Act, longtime environment writer Bill McKibben, argues that elders have both the time and resources to devote to this kind of action. Moreover, elders who are concerned about their legacy are highly motivated to do so.

Is McKibben right? Are we old people motivated to take action? Or are we so dumbfounded to find ourselves here, at the end of our lives and the possible end of life on the planet, that we can hardly speak about what all this means to us? Has this threat evolved so quickly and on such an overwhelming scale that we need help to know how to process these deadly truths?

For me, the answer to all of the above questions is yes, and that is why my conversation with Susan is so important. I am dumbfounded, and yes, I do need help processing this totally new reality we are confronting.

But if these are the most important years for healing the planet, then what more crucial and exciting time is there to be alive, to be fierce, to be courageous, to be a true elder?

Kathleen Sullivan is a long-time resident of Freeport, a psychotherapist, a writer and the coordinator of FreeportCAN.org. She blogs on Substack: “Code Red and Me, Rethinking Everything,” and is working towards starting a Third Act Maine Chapter (thirdact.org).

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