It’s NOT Above Your Pay Grade

It’s NOT Above Your Pay Grade

Reflections on Climate, Species Losses, and Being Human

I attempted to explain the complicated system I am living in as I stared at the maps on the wall. The landscape before me and the roads that cross them feel swallowing. The trail is unsure and more like a deer path with little pellets and green briar on random vines. The love of my current island, my past, my dreams of having a PhD, family, life, daughters, choices, and decision-making all seemed desperately important to say out loud.  My thesis director listened and my eyes apologized, “This is above your pay grade, I know”.

“Actually, I hate that saying. I mean what does that mean. Everything is in my pay grade. I am listening to you”, he replies.

True, it is cop opt of a saying.  I can think of two times total I have used it.  Simply because for years I’ve aimed to work above my pay grade-- trying to the blow the top off of expectations.  I don’t do it for praise or awards, I do it because I love it. Work that is. Meaningful and deep work wakes me up in the morning and keeps me sipping strong pour over coffees as the day delays.  For some unknown reason, I can peer into a system see its kinks and work them out. Maybe it’s the coffee? Or maybe it’s who I was made to be? My dad, a retired engineer, used to say that I could take a stack of flat paper and fold it into any shape in my mind and then mimic it in real life.  Weirdly enough my dad is always right, and it is true. One time I even made my nephew a Darth Vader mask using two sheets of black construction paper and no glue or tape.

Give me a system, a really messy system, and with enough time I can entangle its pieces and arrange them in an ordered pattern.  It could be from my countless hours in the woods, stuck in wild and diverse ecosystems, or all the time playing in trees, grass, and sand and feeling the interactions of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous, and sulfur moving through blades, roots, and leaves.  Systems are complicated. Systems are messy. Systems make us feel small like so much is above our pay grade.

I can’t help but feel the weight of the Earth’s system today.  This morning the U.N. Report announced that species losses are at an all-time high and that we will face greater extinctions than we ever imagined.  In this new epoch, The Anthropocene, our human modification is killing others. Yesterday, the Mauna Loa station in the middle of the Pacific Ocean hit 415ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  We thought that our ceiling would be 300ppm before dire issues for land, water, and human health. So, we have landed ourselves in this incredibly messy and complicated system. Our trail here was built on our own materialism, greed, and need for more.  Others before us walked on deer paths and we bulldozed them and put up I-95s with eight lanes of traffic rushing to go nowhere fast.

I walked into the bookstore in Bozeman.  After this super vulnerable “where is my life and the world going” chat with my thesis director I needed a little release.  Vargos Bookstore is my favorite quirky spot with overfilled shelves of classics and best sellers. Books and land have always held me.  I would organize myself a little library along the half walls of my room when I was seven, and when we adopted our daughter at seven I taught her to sit behind a curtain in the closet and read on her bean bag.  At the checkout counter I handed them, “How the Universe Got Its Spots” by Janna Lavin which I had seen in the window and the cashiers complained about the weather in a side conversation.

“Dark today, gloomy today, wish it would stop sprinkling”.

“And the mud”.

“But the fires, the fires are worse you know”.

“If only someone could stop the weather? Wouldn’t that be great”.

“Yeah that would be great”, the other one chimed in.

“Above our pay grade, though”.

“Above our pay grade” they nodded.

The system of my life folded up like a piece of paper.  I knew what I was to do. I will become a “world saver”.  I didn’t have the words at the time, but today I do:

It’s not above your pay grade. God, I hate that saying. What does that even mean anyway?  That you don’t have to ownership or responsibility of where we are? Of how we got on this path?  Well you might not have gotten us fully here, but you will get us where we are going. That is just the truth (the bold and hurtful truth).  I am not asking you to have the words to say back to me as I explain the complicated and messy climate situation we are in. You can stare right at me and just listen.  That will do just fine. But, it’s not above your pay grade.

The weather today is not normal.  Our weather is changing because our climate is changing.  Climate is our long term trends of weather and its on a wild path.  It is not God’s will or his (if you prefer that pronoun) divine plan.  The last time the world was set for a flood due to human issues, God sent a boat for all the other species and one single family.  The previous time, he let the man and woman destroy paradise to teach them a lesson about not being greedy with things they should leave be!  So, if we want to talk about God and Earth let’s talk about it. God created a world where everything is in balance. Carbon is mostly in the ground, methane is mostly there, too.  Coal and toxins stay out of rivers and water is pure enough to drink. Children play outside without the threat of asthma and go to school without the worry of getting cancer from school chairs that off gas dangerous chemicals.

As you say, God is good- extremely and wonderfully good. Why would a good and gracious and loving God want large percentages of his species dead?  Why would he want children unable to breath air outside their homes or drink water from their tap? Why would he want you to spend countless hours on material goods that get you nowhere fast?  These are the incredibly hard questions I am asking you to ask today as you feel the weather on your nose that does not feel like last year or the year before. You might not have the answers, but there is a large group of scientists that do.  They have been working late nights since the early 1900s. And now they (WE) are asking for you to work above your pay grade. You don’t have to say anything back. You can just listen. But, here are some steps to follow if you want to help

Melissa B. Wilson, M.S. is an active conservationist and environmentalist who happily lives in paradise (the U.S. Virgin Islands) working to create STEM career pathways and networks for Caribbean students. As a former evangelical, a current climate activist, gay ally, and descendant of the Bohemian Reformation (the first Protestant Reformation) she speaks about faith, life, ecology, and our current political climate on her blog She graduates from Harvard University in May 2019. Her conservation research about wilderness, reaching Half-Earth, and STEM education can be found at

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