Right Hopes, Wrong Lens

This week’s comments are in response to a recently published (October 17, 2013) Washington Post AP blog post by Kevin Begos entitled, “Environmentalists stress people of all races, backgrounds key to green movement”. The post (which, ironically, is also listed as a resource on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change home page) is a report on the recent young people’s climate justice conference in Pittsburgh called “Power Shift”, where Begos quotes a number of participants ranging from college students to national leaders of environmental groups. The essential premise of the blog post is conference participants’ stated concern that there are not enough People of Color in the “green movement” and that “more diversity is needed” if this overall movement is to be a success.

Unfortunately, there are two fundamental errors in this understanding of the issue. The first is obvious to anyone doing climate justice work through a global frame – across the globe there are not only People of Color involved in the climate justice movement, but People of Color are leading this movement. If more White U.S.ers would lift their gaze to the work and voices of such activists they would clearly see that global, regional, and even national environmental work (see the many Native communities in the Americas that have been addressing environmental issues well ahead of White U.S.ers) is rife with leadership from Communities of Color. True, I am talking on a global scale, but if you examine the overall framework of this conference and of the climate movement as a whole, talk on a global scale is often the norm (e.g. even 350.org has a global action focus) and as such those at this conference should know that People of Color are already at its center. If those quoted from the conference, as well as Begos himself, had considered this they would likely have titled the article, “White U.S. environmentalists realize that they have not paid enough attention to global leaders of color in the rush to address the current climate emergency.”

The second error is the fact that wondering “where the People of Color are” and stating that the solution is to “get more People of Color involved in the movement” is not only racist by virtue of its invisibilizing of People of Color already in the movement (as stated above), but is actually the completely wrong question. It’s the wrong question because it implies that “the problem” lies in the awareness, consciousness, or circumstances of People of Color and it totally avoids any conversation regarding the White dominant framework that has been central to the mainstream environmental movement(s) for the last several decades. It’s also the wrong question because it reinforces the erroneous notion that the movement has been and currently is a benign and neutral racial space whose leadership simply needs to figure out how to get POC to realize that climate and environmental issues “are their issues as well”. The dearth of People of Color in core leadership positions within the U.S. climate movement is not due to a “lack of interest, motivation or information”, but rather is a function of a) the ways institutional racism impedes the ability of People of Color to participate in mainstream organizing, and b) the ways that Whiteness is baked into the foundation of almost every organization, movement, and institution in U.S. society. Therefore, the question is not “how do we get more People of Color in the green movement”, the question needs to be along the lines of, “How do Racism and Whiteness make the green movement inaccessible or unattractive to Communities of Color?”

Asking the wrong question is common to social movements, organizations, or institutions that are majority White and therefore it is not surprising that the White majority involved in this current climate justice moment is echoing the age-old White liberal “diversity and inclusivity” focus. I have trained in many organizations for whom this is the central pillar of their work around racial issues. To be clear, their hearts are in the right place, their commitments are also usually in line with the base elements of racial justice, but their lens and the actions they take through that lens are overwhelmingly White liberal and therefore doomed to never achieve racial equity, and by extension to never have an organization that is effective and forward-thinking in its work. What I and my colleagues offer these organizations, and what we are currently trying to offer those leaders in the climate justice movement who are interested, is a different lens – a critical race lens. This lens begins by helping majority White climate justice groups look deeply at the unexamined Racial Narratives in their midst and the ways that White normativity has pervaded their organizational practices from top to bottom. From this place, we help them identify specific manifestations of transactional Racism and Whiteness in their policies, practices and procedures and offer ways they can utilize the Critical Race Lens in transforming their organization from one that is White liberal to one that not only hopes for, but acts toward racial justice.

I know I am laying out an incredibly superficial explanation of the above organizational process, but I am less concerned about the details here and more concerned about the overall climate justice movement understanding that this idea of “getting more People of Color” into their organizations is not the goal, but rather a natural byproduct of an organization that is truly doing its work with regard to Race, Racism and particularly Whiteness. Elaborating on my above point, climate justice organizations would deeply examine questions such as:

– “How has the White privilege, White supremacy and overall White normativity in this movement literally and figuratively kept People of Color out of climate justice organizing spaces (i.e. through silence, dismissal and further marginalization)?”

– “How has our organization’s unconscious Racism made this movement unsafe and inaccessible to Communities of Color?”

– “How as our personal and organizational inattention to Whiteness in all of its manifestations undermined our work and the work of the environmental movement overall?”

And this is the rub, isn’t it. Those who are mobilizing for this movement are undeniably passionate in looking outward and addressing the unbelievable challenges we all face at the hands of climate change. And yet, an essential element of the lens we need for achieving climate justice lies within – not in a narcissistic sense where White people focus endlessly on ourselves. But rather in the sense that as people with race (and often class, geographic and/or gender) privilege we are the carriers of the “climate disease”, if you will, and as a result we need to look deeply at the way Whiteness and its constituent parts have impeded our ability to do good, effective, and truly collaborative climate work. This is not about fear, guilt, shame or denial, it is about ridding our movement of an insidious and corrosive thread that will always serve to undermine our deepest commitments regarding climate justice. Climate change and now climate justice is the greatest struggle our species has ever faced. Given that Whiteness was (and still is) one of the forces shepherding it in, it is only logical that racial justice, critical race consciousness, and the dismantling of Whiteness is required for any effective mitigation and adaptation.

How Many Alarm Bells Will It Take?

I learned a new word the other day, “solastalgia” – it means, “psychic or existential distress related to degradation of the environment, especially due to climate change”. Dr. Teddie Potter taught about it in her Minneapolis Community and Technical College presentation (which she graciously invited me to join her in) regarding issues of climate change and how our society is responding emotionally to its frightening realities. Dr. Potter suggested that, whether conscious of it or not, many in this society are realizing the current climate change realities and as a result solastalgia, sometimes on deep levels, is taking hold. If deep solastalgia was the case in the U.S. up to last week, after this weekend’s release of the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) regarding our current and future climate realities, most U.S.ers have likely slid even further into a solastalgic state. I wrote earlier about “finding your anchor” regarding climate change and climate justice work, and so I will not repeat that here. But, this sobering report certainly does challenge one’s capacity to stay present, look the issues squarely in the eye, and move forward and so the invocation to find our anchor(s) is as germane now as ever before. Despite the solastalgia potential, I strongly recommend folks look at the IPCC’s report and be familiar with its findings. I will list some of the key ones here, but before I do, I want to highlight a few helpful points regarding “scientific reports”.

Framing points to consider

1. The IPCC is a panel that draws from the work of hundreds of climate scientists around the globe. As such, it is a comprehensive, yet “middle of the road” body of findings. This is important to know because it reflects a framework of averages that are notoriously conservative. In contrast, many folks in the “climate change denial” camp draw on the findings of people who are not climate scientists at all, but who have other reasons (such as funding from the carbon lobby) for stating their climate denial beliefs and they often use the “middle of the road” findings of the IPCC as fuel for downplaying the presence or impacts of climate change.

2. Building on the above point, science in general does tend to be conservative when proffering “findings” or “estimates” and certainly with respect to “applications and implications” (when done within the parameters of solid science). I know this from reading the work of these climate scientists, from watching Dr. James Hansen so reluctantly step forward and gradually speak more of his mind, and from my own undergraduate work in biology (molecular and immunology) where I was taught first hand about the tendency for scientists to stay objective, open-minded, and strictly about the science (we can debate the reality of objectivity another time). This is important information because if a typically conservative field is sounding an alarm, it is critical for lay people to listen and respond to the call.

3. And finally, I want to underscore that science has been sounding an alarm about the climate, to varying degrees, for the last 30-50 years, with that alarm growing from a subtle caution to what it is today: an emergency. This is not a concern, not an issue, not even a crisis anymore – it is truly an emergency and the IPCC report helps underscore that point.

Some key findings

Having stated those initial points, here are a few of the key findings put forth in the report:

1. It is “unequivocal” that climate change is happening and that the dominant cause is human action (anthropogenic) and our pouring of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. More specifically, concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased to levels that are unprecedented in at least 800,000 years. The burning of fossil fuels is the main reason behind a 40% increase in CO2 concentrations since the industrial revolution (with 1750 being the typical starting point for these measurements).

2. And, even if the world begins to moderate greenhouse gas emissions, warming is likely to cross the critical threshold of 2C by the end of this century. More specifically, the report says that global temperatures are likely to rise by 0.3C to 4.8C, by the end of the century depending on how much governments control carbon emissions.

3. Crossing 2C would have serious consequences, including sea level rises, heatwaves and changes to rainfall meaning dry regions get less and already wet areas receive more. More specifically, sea levels are expected to rise a further 26-82cm by the end of the century. Additionally, the oceans have acidified as they have absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide emitted. This will have substantial consequences on the oceanic food chain as coral reefs and other shelled creatures cannot solidify their structures and will therefore begin to die off.

4. To avoid dangerous levels of climate change, beyond 2C, the world can only emit a total of between 800 and 880 gigatonnes of carbon (from the second bullet on page 20 of the report where it says to have between a 33% and 66% chance of staying below 2C, and when accounting for additional radiative forcings, the total is 800-880 GtCO2. Some media outlets have reported that our carbon budget is 1000 gigatonnes, but that does not account for positive RF). Of this, about 530 gigatonnes had already been emitted by 2011 (one citation averages it at 545 gigatonnes). This has clear implications for our fossil fuel consumption, meaning that humans cannot burn all of the coal, oil and gas reserves that countries and companies possess.

5. Global warming has not “stopped” or “reversed”, as some climate change skeptics assert, and in fact the last three decades are the warmest on record since consistent recordings have been taken. Most of this warming has been taken up by the oceans, and so using land temperatures only (which the skeptics often cite) would not give the whole picture of warming.

What can we do?

I avoid offering tidy “action steps” because social justice issues are so complex and do not tend to respond neatly to “how to” lists. However, this is a critical time and so I will toss a few ideas out.

1. First, we need to reverse our thinking regarding where we place our organizing / responsive energy, effort and time. For decades there has been a growing commentary about “switching to energy efficient light bulbs” and “recycling” and “turning off our lights”…all good and well. However, none of these “trickled up” in a quick enough or forceful enough manner so as to fundamentally impact the carbon industry, its lobby, or our governmental leaders. The result is that we are in a position where our carbon consumption and CO2 output has declined minimally, while the global consumption and output has continued to steadily increase. As such, I recommend that we do in fact continue to engage in “energy efficiency” acts in our residences, workplaces, and social spaces. The change, however, is that we must turn the bulk of our collective voice and organizing toward significantly pressuring our government to make immediate, substantial changes. Changes such as a carbon tax, changes like stopping Keystone XL, changes like investing heavily in renewable forms of energy, changes like limiting the shipping of coal to China and other countries, changes like subsidizing electric cars and charging stations, changes like focusing on closed loop production, and changes like demanding that the United States cut to 1990 levels of CO2 production in the next decade. The time for small-scale actions has passed and we are in a moment where we must make deep cuts, take strong action, and demand powerful and steadfast leadership toward those ends.

2. Second, we must move the climate conversation to the front of our political discourse. Elections are coming up soon and while issues like jobs, housing, and transportation are perennial political issues, as well they should be, the climate must also be at the top of the list given its compounding influence on every social and political area. For example, if climate change is not responded to immediately and forcefully, unemployment issues will be compounded – crops failing, forests burning, rivers and lakes drying lead to fewer jobs in all associated industries which means less money in the economy and the correlated losses from that and so on. Similarly, as the climate changes we will continue to experience “weather whiplash” and storms (on June 21, 2013 a substantial storm knocked out power to tens of thousands of residents with hundreds of trees down in a highly populated area of Minneapolis) will stretch our energy infrastructure and costs will begin to rise, heating will become more expensive, and housing accessibility will obviously change. And finally, transportation will obviously be impacted as the climate changes and we suffer the most egregious of its impacts. As such, we will see that slowly but surely the reality of climate change will drive the political discourse, and so let us not be reactive to that reality and instead demand that our elected officials are educated about climate change, understand its wide-reaching impacts, and make creative, adaptive solutions central to their political work.

3. And third, we need to educate ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities about climate change, climate justice and climate organizing so we can collectively pressure our government to act like a citizen of a global community. “We the people” must change from a national to a global reference. We all must help our elected officials and others in power awaken to the reality that “we the people” is NOT just about the United States and instead refers to all 7.13 billion of us. “We the people” is a call to our species, not to our nationalism. “We the people” is a naming of our common humanity, not a reification of US exceptionalism. “We the people” is a passionate and beautiful declaration of our connection and commitment to each other. That does not mean that we merge into one nation and lose our “identity” but it does mean that finally our common human connections and truths trump the separations we have nursed for so long.

In sum, what I am suggesting is that when in an emergency, it is not wise to focus solely on the minutiae at the expense of the larger picture – to take a garden hose to one small spot of a house engulfed in flames will not likely save any portion of the house, even that which the hose is spraying. But, if that garden hose is used to the best of its capacity and larger, more powerful, and widely dispersed hoses are directed at the house, then there is a chance to save the house.

One place to start would be 350.org. While I really struggle with some of the race, class and gender issues of their organization, they are folks who are mobilizing in large numbers in DC and around the nation / globe to respond to the alarm. Additionally, here is a listing of non-profits working on climate issues in terms of their philanthropic ranking. I’m not saying these are all the best choices either, but as you read about their work and dig more deeply into their political approaches you can decide if any of these are a good fit for you. You can also look up the Indigenous Environmental Network (and the work of Tom Goldtooth) as well as Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) to get a clearer racial / social justice framing of these issues and actions that are being taken.

Whatever group you decide to collaborate with, make sure it is one that is organizing at the bottom in order to apply pressure at the top, and which has the intention of making large, systematic changes regarding our carbon use and CO2 output. This is the critical issue. The IPCC has once again sounded the alarm. Let us, through our organizing and actions, make it the last time they have to do so.

Lessons from the Boulevard

I was notified last week that my workshop on addressing climate change through a race, class and gender justice lens was accepted at a climate change conference next summer. Needless to say I am really excited about this because the conference is almost exclusively science, policy and NGO folks and so having me as a social justice educator in their midst should be an interesting experience for all of us. I went to this conference two years ago in Seattle and was deeply moved by the steadfast and optimistic commitment these scientists, international lawyers, and global relief workers showed in the face of the stark and terrifying reality that they, more than others, know in great detail – we are heading for disaster. In session after session, they inspired me to stay focused, buttress my commitment however I can, and forge ahead in an effort to educate others about what is happening regarding climate change, what we need to do, and how we need to do it (the “how” is where I and my presentation come in). And I hope that I have stayed true to the deepened commitment I made then and continue to make – I will do whatever I can to sound the alarm and educate.


As two tiny gestures toward that end, this spring I built a “Little Library” as a way to feed social justice / climate change books to my neighbors, and I dug up my front boulevard area in order to plant some “community gardens” for my neighbors to nibble from as they walked by. I envisioned avid readers flocking to the yard, swapping stories abut the social justice content they just read, while partaking in the beautiful food blooming perfectly and in great abundance. I imagined an evolving mix of neighbors being inspired to get into conversations about growing their own food and then somehow stumbling into amazing insights about social justice, climate change, transition towns, and sustainable communities. You see where this is going, right? Here’s what really happened.


The Library

The Little Library, as I suspected, did in fact attract a range of folks. I had not even finished mounting it on its stand before the two children across the street came running over saying, “Our mom wants to know if you want some kids’ books for you library.” I of course said yes since I have no children and thus my supply of kids’ books is severely limited. Within minutes they ran back over with armloads of books. It was pretty cool and lifted my spirits about the potential success of this venture. I am not the first to do this, of course, but I am the first on the block and I hope that every block in south Minneapolis will eventually be well stocked with books of all sorts. Of my personal array of books (and I hate to give away books) my first two contributions were extra copies of Black feminist thought (Patricia Hill Collins) and Come out fighting: A century of essential writing on gay and lesbian liberation. Seeing this and secretly fearing disaster, my friends contributed mysteries, classics, more kids books, and a range of lighter fare…and their books went first. In fact, I checked every day to see if my first two books were taken and it took an inordinately long time for them to disappear. I wondered aloud what this might mean and friends only proffered jokes about what I tend to read. I laughed as well, but inside I really did start to wonder what it would mean to have a Little Library solely dedicated to social justice-leaning books. Would they be taken? If not, why? Would people use their free time to read such things? If not, why? I live in a very White liberal, gender liberal, LBGTQI liberal neighborhood and I began to consider how much this might be a reflection of the troubling difference between what liberals tend to do in their free time and what they politically stand for publicly. Where is the line between liberal and progressive? I wonder about these things because I know like I know like I know that “liberalism” is no path to liberation, and so if this is where we are, then we are in some trouble when it comes to social justice issues, and by extension when it comes to climate change and climate justice.


I also wonder this out of a deeper concern for how we as a society are crafting our political and social lives and where the two shall meet. Liberal politics tend to be a politics of convenience and appeasement. They are a stretch for those who embody them only in the sense that their bearer might be inconvenienced and challenged here and there, but they require nothing in the way of the release of privilege and the “resorting” of one’s life from the ground up along the lines of justice. Liberal politics have an “add on” feel about them because they do not change or transform the edifice of power that creates and sustains systems of dominance and oppression, but merely seek ways to “add on” others’ rights and opportunities to the edifice itself. Case in point, I have been talking a lot lately with what I would describe as “hetero liberals” – heterosexuals who fought hard for, gave money toward, and lawn-signed endlessly for the rights of LBGT people to marry in Minnesota. Importantly, however, these heterosexual “allies” were not simultaneously examining their own privilege or the ways they themselves are hamstrung by heteronormativity and the tightness of gender norms and expectations that undergird their heterosexual lives. As such they did not make it a campaign for their freedom as well, but rather a campaign for “the freedom to marry” with nary a question about what marriage has been and currently is in this society. Now, when I would ask them about this they replied, “when LBGT people can marry, it will by default, change what marriage is.” Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it will simply mean that LBGT people are now an “add on” to the overall edifice of marriage in this society, and therefore parroting heterosexual definitions of marriage.


(At this point those of you who are married or who want to be married might be about to stop reading because you might think I am bashing marriage, but before you go, let me clarify: I think that there is nothing more sacred than the commitment one person makes to those they love. For some who choose not to marry, that commitment can come in the form of a deep and abiding life commitment to a community. For others who have children but are not married, that commitment can be seen in the beauty and power of parenting. Still others choose one person with whom they commit to spending the rest of their life with through turmoil and celebration. These are deeply profound and utterly gorgeous gestures that we make to others and are such beautiful aspects of who we are as humans. What I am asking the reader to lean into in the above paragraph is not the dismantling of this type of commitment, but rather a critique of the “institution of marriage”, its hugely complicated, profoundly gendered, and deeply power-based history, and how that plays out in contemporary U.S. society and its notions of marriage. Just that. So, please hang with me.)


All this came from watching how Oh, the places you’ll go, The poisonwood bible, and The help went whirling in and out of the library while my more political books stayed put (I added others after my first two). But that is often what liberalism does – it separates the political and personal, and in the end that simply doubles-back and serves the very same oppressive structures that liberals oppose. And so I will continue to ply my neighbors with political books in hopes that as we all place our political ideas in the community space (in this case, the sidewalk in front of my house) we can begin to see how deeply connected all of these issues are to the core of our lives and that we must live integrated and not a partitioned political lives such that we can steadily and consistently create the world we all so desperately want to live in. To be transparent, I am offering this critique to myself more than anyone else. One of the greatest gifts this Little Library has given me is the wake-up call I am alluding to – if my politics are not part of the community life here on my block, then what good are they? If they do not live and breathe and create “home” right here, then perhaps I am merely enacting liberal posturing and therefore need to take a closer look. As a step in pushing myself more, this fall and winter I plan on hosting “educational workshops” for my neighbors and friends about climate justice and what we can do with respect to it in hopes that I can create the lived politics (instead of political life) I am discussing here.


The Garden

As for the garden, that was an even more challenging experiment. The first and foremost problem was simply my lack of gardening skills. I placed too much in too small of spaces (I have three raised beds), the cherry tomato plant turned into perhaps the first ever sun gold cherry tomato tree, and the radishes did well at first and then there simply wasn’t enough sun for them. But, this is all fixable – I just need to become a better gardener. What accompanied the garden experiment and how to “fix” it is less clear to me. So, not only did those food justice, climate change conversations not happen (at least not to my knowledge), but my neighbors had no idea they could even take the food. Realizing this, I put small signs on the boxes saying “community gardens” but that did not seem to encourage everyone. Then I built a little box with the same sign on top and placed paper bags (like the ones you take a lunch to school in) inside it so folks would be prompted to fill one. Still, no takers. Then I went around personally to my neighbors and point blank invited (perhaps told) them to take the food. At this point, some did. And yet others, even after I helped them see what a radish looked like when it was ready to be picked, still did not partake despite their excitement and saying that they “definitely would”. Now, to be fair, my educational efforts were less than spectacular as I had also hoped to make a flyer with web sites and TED talks to view but ran out of time to make that happen. Nevertheless, it seemed like an unusual thing to tell people there’s free, fresh, organic food for the taking and to have no one really do it – to have neighbors not eat food from “my” yard. And that, I think, was the rub – property and the notion of “mine” and “yours”. As I paid closer attention to folks walking by and continued talking to neighbors about it, I began to pick up on peoples’ fear of crossing the line in terms of “property” and by extension “propriety”. After all, part of the American Dream is the possession of my house, my yard, my space and it is the “my” that I think is what kept them from seeing anything out there as “our” and more importantly from seeing this street, this neighborhood and this city as an “our”.


The insidious relationship between U.S. class and race structures has us drowning in endless divisions of “mine” and “yours”, and far too few of “ours”. And yet I, for one, deeply want more of the “our”. I do not want to live in a home that feels isolated and cut off from those around me. In some U.S. (and certainly many global) communities there is not this separation. In predominantly white, professional middle class communities there is. In the past I would frame this analysis within the context of race and class and the need to dismantle these structures and that would be it. Today I agree with that framing and know that we must place it in an even larger context of adaptation to the coming climate reality. Globally, the most vulnerable will feel the pain of it all first. In the U.S., a society that has “me, mine and yours” firmly tied to race, class and gender, those targeted by deeply rooted racist, classist and gender oppressive power structures will be the first to be impacted. And so I am writing here not to proffer more political framing, but rather to suggest a simple shift that might help – a shift from “mine” to “ours”. The rugged individualism so intractably associated with the race and class history of this country would have us believe that this idea is “socialism”, “weak”, will make us “vulnerable as a nation”, and will ultimately “destroy our democracy” because it is “un-American”. It would have us think that whatever we who are white and middle class, and those male, have in our possession has been earned and achieved all by ourselves (and not acquired as a result of oppression and privilege). But, if we are going to bandy about clichés, I prefer ones such as “silence is complicity”, “if not me, then who? if not now, then when?” and “no one is free when others are oppressed” because I think they are more honest. The idea of an “individual” is one that serves disconnection, which feeds fear, which is fuel for the deepening “mine” versus “yours”, which distills into “us” and “them”, which is exactly the division necessary for systems of oppression to exist. Racial, class, and gender oppressions rely on this separation, a community grounded in “ours” blurs it.


And so, I think my little garden experiment, in the faintest of ways, brushed up against these divisions and offered a different take on what we could be to each other and how we could live together on this block. It acknowledged the fourth wall and asked people to step through, cross lines, blur boundaries and in so doing be just the tiniest bit more of a “we”. For a more articulate and compelling conversation about this I strongly suggest you watch two TED talks (Pam Warhurst and her work in a small village in England and Ron Finley and his work in Los Angeles) that demonstrate the power of “we”. Contrary to the typical naysayers, their work is not weak, nor detrimental to human progress. Instead, they both breathe life into the notion that we are a family of people and that we do, in fact, live here together. I am taking guidance from these two “radicals” and next year will be planting even more “stuff” for the boulevard, trying to get a neighbor or two to do the same, and blurring a few more lines in an effort to build the kind of community I want and that we actually need for the coming decades of climate reality.


Perhaps it was a titch ambitious to hope that a library in my front yard and three small raised bed garden boxes would lead to a south Minneapolis revolution (one can hope), but it has taught me a lot. Most importantly, it has given me important information about Liberalism and the power of the possessive “mine” so that as the fall descends and winter draws near, I will spend my time inside drawing up “Season Two of the Little Library and Community Gardens Action Plan” in hopes that next year there is just a bit more connection of my politics to my life, the slightest movement form “mine” to “ours”, and a little more conversation and community. Feel free stop by. Or better yet, build some on your block.

What Is Your Anchor for the Coming Storm?

Last week I was walking with a friend, we’ll call her Ange, on a blistering hot day. Not only was it toasty temperature-wise, but there was a relentlessly hot wind and a level of humidity that made the “feels like” temp significantly higher than the thermometer read. Ange is a long-time activist in the climate justice movement and one of the local leaders in that work, and we both commented, rather obviously, that this is the new normal.


Always interested in the experience of those doing climate justice work, I asked Ange what she tells folks when she does trainings, speaks, or generally stands in front of crowds talking about climate change. How much reality does she share? What information does she offer? How does she help people handle the content she educates them on? Her response was that she often does not lay bare the cold, hard facts in one fell swoop – that would be too paralyzing and no one would be able to move let alone get motivated to take any action. Instead, she takes the temperature of the group and offers up what she thinks they are able to digest at that particular moment and what fits within their sphere of influence and action. This approach, echoed by many other climate educators and activists, comes out of years of doing this work and knowing all too well what motivates or what paralyzes everyday folks regarding climate change. And yet, it has always left me wondering how we can possibly move forward without the facts being brought to the fore. How will anyone know that this is a climate “emergency” instead of just climate “change” if they do not have access to the mountains of data that shed light on the future unfolding before us?


As I shared my concerns with Ange, our conversation moved from “what to share with folks we’re trying to educate” to talking about the deep (spiritual or otherwise) anchors that afford folks the strength to hear it. And that, of course, ended up being the “answer” to my questions: before sharing the hard content you must nurture peoples’ deep anchor(s) because a person’s ability to hear the climate reality and still take action is directly proportional to the depth, resilience, and power of the deep anchors in their life. This basic concept is born out in all manner of psychological research, one example being trauma research, where the depth, breadth and quality of support around a person experiencing trauma has a direct impact on their ability to heal (or not) that trauma. And so, before wading into the stats or reports or headlines about climate change it is important to address the deeper questions that this climate emergency is calling up within each of us: what can I anchor to that will bend but never break in a storm as ferocious as the one that is coming? What is it inside of me that will allow me to see the painful or terrifying truth and not be unmoored? What can possibly be substantial enough to buoy me as some of the central elements of our society shift (by necessity) to accommodate the new climate reality in the years to come?


At this point, let me digress a moment to better get at the above questions…I was watching a PBS special this past April on the Titanic, and while most of the information was not new, one piece stood out to me: the men in the engine room could have gotten out (or at least attempted to) had they left once they realized the severity of the situation. Given their proximity to the gash in the hull, they knew (perhaps better and sooner than most) the grave nature of the damage. And yet, they also knew that if they did leave, the ship would be without power and without power there would be no lights for the passengers to find their way to the lifeboats. And so, according to this historical account, some of those men made the decision to stay in a situation that would surely bring about their death in order to provide as much of an opportunity as possible for others to live. And that was the bit that struck me – there are many accounts of one person giving up a seat in a lifeboat for another during that disaster, but those acts had an obvious outcome: Person A surrendered their seat to Person B who then got on the life boat and was shuttled away from the danger. What the engine room men did had no such obvious outcome. They gave their lives in hopes that others might have a better chance to survive. Looking Person B in the eye as they are lowered into the lifeboat gives Person A an immediate, concrete sense of the humanity that comes from altruism. But what was it that had those men give up their lives for just a chance that others might survive? What anchor did they reach to in order to make such a decision for people they would never see and who might never even know of the sacrifice they made? Whatever that anchor was, I believe it is the same type of mooring necessary for us to proceed in the face of the facts regarding climate change: we need the courage to make drastic changes right now with the hope that those who follow us might have a better chance of surviving it.


A society suckled on immediate gratification to the point that instant messaging, fast food and overnight shipping are no longer fast enough is in a difficult position to be able to pay the costs now in hopes that it might give future generations a better chance. And yet, that is exactly what we must do, and thus the need for an “engine room” type of anchor. Thankfully there are resources out there suggesting how to craft a vision of the future that is “out of the box”, that has hope woven into its core, and that is pragmatic and courageous enough to stare reality in the face. Joanna Macy’s recent book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy, coauthored by Chris Johnstone, lays a solid general foundation about the effects of Business As Usual, the Great Unraveling, and the Work That Reconnects in order to help the reader be able to weather the coming transition for life on this planet. For years Joanna Macy has helped thousands of people in her workshops and educational experiences face their pain for the world and find the courage and presence of heart and mind to steadfastly hold a vision for a better tomorrow. She also has a DVD set based on one of her workshops and still offers workshops and trainings throughout the US and abroad. Another solid resource is A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, which offers a range of teachings that give a deep-time perspective and grounding as one steps into the complex dynamism of this current climate moment. Similarly, the work of Winona LaDuke helps foreground a non-linear, non-materialistic, non-consumptionist worldview that serves as an essential foundation for facing climate change in a healthy and sustainable manner. All of these sources offer eyes-wide-open responses to the climate reality that are imbued with the compassion, wisdom and interconnectedness proportionate to the nature of the problem. In short, they offer deep anchors.


Ironically, the comparison to the Titanic is apt, if on a global scale. There are small island states (at the COP conferences they are represented by the OASIS coalition and I recommend you explore the OASIS press conferences from COP 18) that are “sinking” because sea levels are rising. Wealthy nations can throw a life preserver to them if we choose to do so. It is too late to save the islands themselves from being consumed by the sea because too much climate change is in motion. But, we can save the people if the rest of the global community has the will, via their deep anchors, to do so. And, in case the wealthy nations feel we are immune, let us not forget that we are all on the same ship and as the water levels rise, they will eventually reach us all. No one is immune. There is no other ship but this one. And so how will we be remembered several generations hence? Will they see us as a people who, when we could see the situation for what it was, dug deep, evolved and acted as one human family? Or, will they see us overcome by our fear-based instincts? The determining factor, I believe, is what we anchor to as we navigate the storm. And so I leave you with the same questions I am leaning into myself: What will sustain you as deeply and profoundly as this climate moment will surely challenge you? What will give you and yours the presence of heart and mind to navigate this new “Eaarth” (McKibben) with grace and compassion? What gives you realistic hope for the future? In short, what is your anchor?

Facing Climate Change

Over the last four years I have been doing more and more research, teaching, speaking and training on climate change and its deep connections to social justice issues, particularly race, class and gender. And while the parallels and interconnections of climate change content to these social justice issues (and others) cannot be denied, there is one significant difference between climate change and other social justice issues: independent momentum.


For example, while race / racism / whiteness is incredibly challenging to talk about and difficult to change, it does have a hopeful aura about it because it is completely a human invention (as is sexism, as is classism, and so on) and therefore lies completely within the realm of human beings to change. As such the limiting factors focused on in these trainings, things such as limited knowledge about systemic oppression, lack of awareness regarding the dehumanizing aspects of oppression for everyone, or the need for more compassion and care in how we engage with each other, are all human attributes and signify that we can end these forms of oppression as soon as we “wake up” to these realities. As an extreme example, if every man woke up tomorrow and said, “violence against women will end today”, it actually would (or at least it would in short order). And that’s the hopeful news about these more commonly discussed social justice issues – there actually is room for sudden awakenings and dramatic changes in a very short period of time, and all of that is mediated by human choice individually, culturally, and institutionally.


In contrast, if every person in a carbon-fat society (those that consume the most carbon either overall or per capita on the planet) woke up tomorrow and said “climate change is going to end today” it would not. You see with climate change we are not dancing with our own conscience, our own lack of information, or our own ability to act upon or change the problem. With climate change we are in a dance with an independent entity – the climate system. To be sure, we humans have placed the initial energy (increased CO2 and GHGs) into the system, but because that system now has independent momentum, we humans cannot stop it on a dime just because we wake up one morning and want it to stop. Said another way, due to the above-Holocene-average amount of CO2 we have already loaded into the atmosphere, we have committed to a certain amount of inevitable climate change, no matter how we “feel” about it or what kind of personal transformation we have regarding it. The climate is beholden to the laws of physics, not to the capricious will of human beings.


And this is what makes climate change such a remarkably challenging issue to teach, speak and train on – there is no easy ending where we can “all just get along”. Climate change is already in motion, and no amount of wishing it to be otherwise or changing our mind is going to stop what has already been set in motion. As Bill McKibben said at one of his “Do the Math Tour” talks I was at, “the physics and science of climate change does not negotiate,” and therefore we cannot simply decide for this to stop and have it stop. Instead, we have to live under the reality of the laws of the physical universe, and those laws are clearly spelling out substantial climactic change for the future of this planet. To make matters worse, even though we would like systems of oppression such as racism and classism to end as soon as possible, with these issues there is no definite time-scale for the changes to be made. With climate change, however, there is a time scale and we humans are daily losing more and more ground regarding our ability to impact the duration and severity of climate change because of our anemic responses. Taken together, these climactic realities (that the climate is an independent system which we cannot control as we wish and that there actually is a clock ticking regarding our actions) make climate change an often terrifying and paralyzing issue in ways that other social justice issues are not.


So how can we talk about climate change without sending folks into a pit of despair? I have attended a few trainings recently where there were examples of what to do and what not to do, and yet even the trainings that had the “to do” elements felt a little incomplete. As such, in addition to teaching about the science of climate change, the large-scale actions taking place around climate change, and the great ways that we as individuals can make a difference, I have been including three other components to my talks:


1. Framing this climactic moment as an “evolutionary leap” for humans,

2. Framing it as a moral and spiritual issue,

3. And framing it through a social justice lens.


Speaking to the first point, there have been moments in this planet’s 4.5 billion years where species have seemed to make substantial leaps evolutionarily. Certainly this can be attributed to holes in the fossil record, but I also contend that there were moments in our planet’s history where there was a “leap” evolutionarily whereby in a comparatively short period of time, a species was able to “suddenly” adapt / respond to drastically changing conditions. And given that this moment is wrought with drastically changing conditions, it seems to me that framing this as a moment where our species can actually “evolve” in our relationship to nature, to each other and to ourselves is possible (some in this field would argue not just possible, but necessary if most on this planet are to survive). Why is this useful? Well, for one it gives us a reason to “lean in” to the issue instead of running from it. Two, it encourages us to open our minds to possibilities and ways of being that we have not considered before because of the stuck-ness of “that’s the way it has always been”. And three, it frames the current climate moment not as an apocalyptic doomsday event, but as a source for our species’ growth and maturation. And finally, while framing this as an evolutionary moment lends itself to more positive ways of viewing this climactic moment, it also takes nothing away from the current (and future) climate reality and therefore does not feed denial or delusion about climate change.


Once established as an “evolutionary leap” moment, I have found that in order to lean into this framework, a deeper motivation is necessary than the standard “let’s preserve our way of life (read the U.S.’s standard of consumption) for future generations” or “let’s save the polar bears”. Self-interest and abstract examples have not been sufficient to mobilize our society in emotional, political or economic ways that correspond to the degree of the problem. In fact they have served to keep us stuck in ways that feed the problem by legitimizing our over-consumption and by making climate change a problem that is “out there in the Arctic” and not something that is right here, right now. In place of these inadequate reasons we need motivations or internal drivers for action that reach deep into our psyches and that galvanize our hearts and minds in our resolve to do everything we can in the time we have, even if it seems like it will not matter. That is why it could be referred to as a “spiritual” conundrum (notice I am NOT saying it’s a religious one) whereby it is a call to question for each and every person: If not me, then whom? If not now, then when? To be sure, the tap-roots that allow humans to stand steadfast in the face of incredibly difficult challenges are different for each and every one of us. The need for the tap-root in such circumstances, however, seems to be universal. With such a foundation in place we can do this not because it is easy, not because it is sure to succeed, but because it is right.


And finally, having given ourselves to this human moment and its possibilities, and been steeled by the tap-roots we each draw upon, I believe we must then use a social justice lens as our compass for action. More specifically, I believe that non-dominant perspectives and comprehensive questions of power, privilege and access need to be at the forefront of every conversation about climate change. Internationally, it means the needs of the most vulnerable nations must and will be attended to immediately. Nationally, it means that we will consider the needs of people before the needs of corporations such that our political and economic decisions flow from a desire to best serve the health and well-being of all of the people, instead of having the laws and economics of this society first serve the corporations; we will not protect the needs of the few at the expense of the needs of the many. Regionally, it would mean that we in the upper Midwest would consider how we can work more cooperatively among ourselves and with other regions to become more sustainable and transition fairly and securely to a post-carbon life. As such, state and local legislation would reflect that value and work to support our entire state and community in this endeavor; no one will be left behind. And individually, it means that I connect more with my immediate neighborhood and work collectively to insure that we are all getting our basic needs met and are able to nurture sustainable environments capable of adapting to a much hotter and different life on this planet.


Understanding what the many problems are in terms of climate change, there exists a range of ways we can respond. Some of those responses will bring out the very best our species is and can be, some will bring out the worst. We do have a choice in which response comes to the forefront, but we cannot hope that business-as-usual will bring about the most noble and compassionate within us. Instead, I believe we need to live within the scientific reality of climate change and in the process see it as an evolutionary moment for our species, driven by our deepest and best motivations for all of humanity, and guided by our commitment to social justice and equity for all people. In this way we will not be able to avoid the inevitable climate change we have already set in motion, but we might just be able to dramatically slow any additional changes and then respond to the impacts that are coming with the very best of what makes us human. This, I believe, will be the most valuable gift we can give to those who follow – in exchange for hubris, consumption, and damage, we can leave a legacy of hope…hope in our possibility, hope in our ethics and morality, and hope in our commitments to each other as a whole human family.