At its root, the climate crisis is also the crisis of human relationship—how we relate to our own emotional states, those of others, and, ultimately, conflict. To solve problems with—not for— human beings, which is what this crisis requires, we need to be conflict-literate. We need to be in touch with our own emotions and feelings, which can be as scary inwardly as climate change can feel outwardly. The situation is dire: Rising temperatures in just the United States and Mexico are predicted to increase the numbers of suicide by an extra 21,000 people per year by 2050, according to a study led by Marshall Burke at Stanford University.
Unchecked strong emotions elicited by personal and environmental stress (sometimes this is called structural violence) can usurp the mental energy we need for sustained nonviolent action. Yet healthy human relationships are full of what cultures of restorative justice and conflict resolution call “healthy conflict”: inner and outer processes of resolving disputes that promote clarity and growth and strengthen relationships in community.
And while many people are “conflict avoidant,” even fearful (think fight-or-flight) of someone with contrary opinions and ideas, we don’t have to be intimidated. All of our faculties are tested in conflict situations. What helps us take on conflict intentionally and offers us resilience is the depth of our capacity to weather various emotional and mental energy, both ours and others’—and put them to work. These psychic energies are some of the most precious natural resources and sources of power we have.
“I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger,” Gandhi said, “and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world.”
Across the board, hope is one of the key emotional states that compels us to act.
What Gandhi knew is that emotions have immense potential—and that we can harness that power for meaningful and effective action.
We have our work cut out for us because anger over climate disruption is not the only emotion we’re working with. Ashlee Cunsolo, a researcher linking climate and mental health, has documented that the Inuit in Arctic areas in Canada believe their way of life is under threat, and are experiencing greater anxiety, depression, grief, and fear. In Indonesia, a sense of panic is likely what’s motivating the government to move its capital city to Borneo, because Jakarta is sinking and running out of potable water. And in the U.S., most of the public is feeling “worried about harm from extreme weather events,” as well as feeling helpless, disgusted, and even hopeful, according to an early 2019 report from over a decadelong research project at Yale called Climate Change in the American Mind.
Like a wind turbine taking in all of the wind—whether it passed over a manured field or a lavender meadow—all of these negative and positive emotions can be harnessed by our minds and expressed in positive, effective ways that help us take on climate conflict from a position of inner strength.
Even denial can be harnessed, if we take a little time to understand it with a compassionate lens.
We’ve come to know denial at its worst, the passive resignation we experience as wildfires spread and species disappear. Denial is also a powerful coping mechanism for releasing ourselves from the stress that comes with anger, grief, or overwhelm, with feeling like the problem is just too big. However, as clinical psychologist at Columbia University Wendy Greenspun is careful to point out, “the very thing that protects us also prevents us from taking action.”
She suggests that to break down our defense mechanism, we should connect with others and take on self-care strategies. For example, we can calm our reactivity with mindful breathing to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, go out in nature, spend time with friends, and even take on some form of meditation. We can explore such strategies by attending workshops and retreats, like those hosted by Greenspun, that focus on how to handle the stresses of climate disruption. And we can also seek out organizations and individuals making change and get involved, even through offering similar workshops within our own circles.
Naming our emotions also helps. When we do, we activate a part of the brain that helps to regulate them. This helps especially well when experiencing more than one emotion at a time, which is common and often confusing. Behind my anger toward the government for deregulating harmful industries, I may also experience anxiety. By naming both, I own them. Then, because I’ve made myself aware of them, I can decide more easily how to constructively act with the power locked up in those feelings. Activists in Iceland, for instance, held a public funeral for the Okjökull glacier, motivated by owning their grief. The action resonated around the world.
But what about hope? What about connection?
Across the board, hope is a key emotional state that compels us to act. Not the hope that someone is going to single-handedly solve our problems—but hope that it can be done if we take strategic collective action. The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation has identified such a strategy, bringing together informal science education institutions (aquariums and zoos, for example) and social psychologists with tools for effective conversations. Their main goal is to connect their audience with examples of grassroots positive change being realized in communities all over.
That hopeful attitude just might be enough to help us stay balanced in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Barbara Fredrickson, psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has dedicated decades to researching positivity. In a 2003 study, for instance, she looked at resiliency and the role of positive emotions in how college students at the University of Michigan coped with the aftermath of 9/11. She wanted to find the coexistence of positive emotional states with negative states—terror and anxiety on the one hand, and greater closeness and gratitude on the other.
And after many years of research, she did. She found that cultivating positive emotions in crisis can put our minds at greater ease and undoeffects such as increased blood pressure, vasoconstriction, and heart rate that come with the onslaught of “negative emotions” like fear, anger, and anxiety. And we can do it intentionally: Use humor, hug someone you love, even try smiling more (this one makes me cringe as a feminist, but the science says it can trigger endorphins).
Don’t discount how you feel. As my meditation teacher liked to say, this is a come-as-you-are party. Wherever you find yourself right now is how we need you to show up. Just show up.
Stephanie Van Hook is the Executive Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, author of Gandhi Searches for Truth: A Practical Biography for Children, and host of Nonviolence Radio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Naomi Klein: ‘We Are Seeing the Beginnings of the Era of Climate Barbarism’
The Guardian Sep. 17, 2019
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don’t think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It’s more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that’s always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What’s stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it’s the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours.
When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we’ve got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what’s left, we’ve got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we’re not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there are going to be benefits: we’ll have more livable cities, we’ll have less polluted air, we’ll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we’re not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We’re talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we’re in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don’t we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don’t think it’s coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that’s a link a lot of people haven’t made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That’s the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it’s going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this “my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women”. That doesn’t work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib come from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They’re not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: “The hard truth is that the answer to the question ‘What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?’ is: nothing.” Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it’s so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that’s the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we’ve been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht …
Exactly. But this isn’t about what Greta is doing as an individual. It’s about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it’s magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don’t think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these “what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?” questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone’s shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I’m under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I’m happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we’re afraid to talk about. It’s been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn’t until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women’s bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers’s novel, The Overstory. Why?
It’s been incredibly important to me and I’m happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we’ve been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It’s the same conversation we’re having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It’s also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can’t. We believe we’ve been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don’t have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I’m renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I’m inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we’ve finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we’ve spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.