Living in Climate Truth, Sections VI-X

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VI Tokenism

Environmental tokenism plays a major role in maintaining the Climate Lie. Tokenism asks that you reduce your carbon footprint, recycle, bike, and turn off the lights when you leave a room. This is the dominant discourse on climate change. When people think: “God, climate change is terrifying! What should I do to stop it?” the answer they usually find or is supplied for them is to reduce their individual emissions.

This approach is a-political, even anti-political. The “solution” takes place individually, in private. It is not organized and shared. It does not challenge existing power structures (which is why corporations have no problem encouraging their customers to “be green”).

Further, it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of human civilization. We are not merely a collection of individuals. No man is an island; we live in a web of complex systems, which are bigger than us. No one of us created this mess, and no one of us can end it. Individual consumption decisions can never create a carbon tax, they can’t build public transit systems, and they can’t make a city more resilient to hurricanes. Voluntary individual actions can’t do much, really, they are a drop in the bucket.

And that is why individual attempts to reduce consumption are tokenism. They substitute insignificant action for significant action. They give the feeling of making a difference without really making one. They serve as an act of symbolic cleansing. Letting us say, “I have done my part. My hands are clean.” These actions serve a magical function, psychologically, like a lucky rabbits foot. If we perform this ritual (recycling, turning down the AC, etc), if we make these sacrifices, maybe we will  somehow avert ecological catastrophe. But environmental tokenism will not save us. It is the wrong scale.

Some defend tokenism with the idea, “every little bit helps!” There is some truth in that argument. Perhaps all the conscientious people, acting individually to reduce their consumption, have slowed the process of climate change. Maybe, if not for all of the environmentally conscientious decisions people have made, we would be in even worse ecological straits that we currently are. So there is, theoretically, a benefit to individual reductions in consumption.  But this benefit will, at best slow our march towards collapse slightly.

Another argument in the defense of individual token consumption and lifestyle choices is that they lay the ground for political action; they raise awareness of climate change and get people thinking about climate change. This is likely true, as least for some people. As such, we much strive to turn the quasi-political into the fully political, to turn personal lifestyle choices into mass political demands.

When humans make major changes in how they function, such as the changes we must make now, if we want to continue our civilization with some level of homeostasis instead of chaos—we do it together.  We are a social species—genetically programmed to interact with each other, to work together, to form bonds. Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has recently written about how humanity’s success and power has come from this social mentality. It is what has allowed us to learn from each other, to coordinate our intentions, and to conquer the earth together.

It is because of our innate, social nature that “individual actions” will never be able to stop the ecological crisis. To truly mobilize the power of humanity, we need a social and political movement. We need to realign the stars, together.

Environmental tokenism encourages us to live within the lie. It assigns responding to the ecological collapse to the individual realm, thus allowing public business to continue as usual.

 

VIII. How to Live in Climate Truth Intellectually, Emotionally, and Socially

I have offered an outline of the Climate Lie, how it functions, and how almost all of us are living within it, committing passive suicide, and sleepwalking towards destruction.

Now, I will describe how to live in climate truth. How to wake up, feel terrified, and ignite a social and political movement to protect yourself and everything you know and love.

The first step to living in truth is acknowledging the truth of climate change intellectually, emotionally, socially, and politically.

Acknowledging the truth of climate change will likely require educating yourself further on the problem. When is the last time you read a book or article about climate change? Many young adults were educated about Global Warming in school or college, but have not kept current with the (ever-worsening) state of the threat. Living in truth means continually updating and improving one’s understanding of what is happening to our climate. One particularly effective method of living in Climate Truth is joining or creating a climate-change book group. These groups create an organized structure in which to learn and talk about the frightening truths of climate change. This is difficult material, reading together allows people to help each other cope with it.

Reading and learning can show you the intellectual truth of climate change, but living that truth emotionally, making it personal, takes true courage. To look unflinchingly at a terrifying reality can humble even the most avid truth-seeker.  It means rethinking your life plans in the light of the reality of climate change. Do you really want to move across the country from your family, when travel will likely become increasingly expensive and difficult? Are you sure you want to have children? No one can answer these questions for you except you. But living in Climate Truth means recognizing that climate change will affect you and your family. It is not a choice—to be involved in climate change or not. You are involved. No one is outside of the ecosystem. And living in truth means recognizing the myriad, cascading implications of that.

Living in Climate Truth comes with a sense of urgency. A motivating fear. It makes people aware that they have both a moral and a strategic obligation to act. The moral obligation comes from their sense of love and respect for humanity. The desire to save their human brothers and sisters from floods, droughts, severe weather, vector born disease and civil unrest.

Socially, living in climate truth will look somewhat different for different people. Everyone must do what they can. Artists make art about climate change, Journalists report on it, teachers share the frightening, but crucial information with their students.  Each person must ask himself or herself, “What can I contribute to the social/political movement that will stop this catastrophe? What are my skills, talents, resources, and networks? Who can I talk to about the climate change? Whose mind can I change?”

Living in Climate Truth means the impending catastrophe of climate change must never be avoided as a topic of discussion. Perhaps even more difficult, one cannot maintain a “private” opinion about climate change (it is an imminent threat to security and safety), and a “public” opinion (scientists are still debating the severity). This means, if scientists are buying houses on higher ground, they have a duty to make clear to the public why they are making those decisions. There must be no “private” opinions and discussions on the climate change catastrophe, because the collapse of our climate is inherently a public matter. Every human has a right to the full truth—living together in truth is our only chance for salvation.

You must talk about climate change with you friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors even though this is often uncomfortable. A neighbor comments, “Another storm? This weather is just crazy.”  You have a choice, in your answer, to either support the lie or the truth. If you answer, “Yea, it’s nuts!” You are holding up the lie, helping your neighbor, and the larger cultural group, cling to denial and false hope.  However if your answer includes the information that climate change is responsible for the increase in severe weather, then you have struck a blow for truth. If you add that it is only going to get worse until we fight back, that this is deeply terrifying, mention the need for a social movement, or you invite your neighbor to your next political meeting, all the better!

What if every time someone on Facebook commented about how weird the weather has been, one of their friends pointed out that this was being driven by climate change, and suggested things for them to read, or organizations for them to check out? Can you imagine how quickly the collective mood could turn?

Those who propagate the Climate Lie—the government, the media, and corporations, particularly oil companies— need to be held accountable. The New York Times, CNN, and Weather.com, as well as all major news outlets that I know of, frequently publish stories on unfolding severe weather, and other phenomena highly related to climate change, and shamefully omit a discussion of climate change overall. What if every time this happened, the author, editor, and publishers received a torrent of angry e-mails and tweets?

Every time we confront the lie, and those who promote it, we strike a blow for climate truth, and move towards a warlike response.

IX How to Live in Climate Truth, Politically.

People living in and spreading climate truth will create a cultural shift, creating a social climate in which huge political changes are possible. But those political changes don’t happen on their own. We have to demand them. Any governments’ most fundamental responsibility is keeping its citizens safe. By sitting idly by as our climate collapses, our government is proving itself near useless. We, the people, need to organize and re-claim our fallen democracy. We need to fight for our country and civilization.

Perhaps the most important question every person must ask and answer in order to live in Climate Truth is, “With whom will I align myself?” “What group will I join?” These are the questions one must ask in times of global crisis. When you realize how small you are in the face of the problem, you realize that nothing you undertake as an individual could possibly protect you. Jack Shepherd put it beautifully. After the crash of flight 815 left a group of survivors marooned on a mysterious island, he told the group, “Live together, die alone.” With whom shall you cast your lot?

I have two suggestions to use when you make this most important of choices—the choice of your political/organizational alignment. First, that you choose an organization firmly committed to Climate Truth. Any organization that has its “internal” understanding of the scope of the threat but minimizes this to the public because they “can’t handle the truth” is not committed to truth. Choose an organization that speaks the truth, even when that is difficult and uncomfortable; choose an organization that has the courage of its convictions.

Secondly, be sure that your organization has a comprehensive plan and vision for victory. The scale of climate change is so large. There are so many mountains to climb if we will stop it. But setting a goal of anything else than solving climate change is planning for failure. Even worse, if an organization sets “reasonable,” small and medium-scale goals, then this organization is encouraging tokenism, business-as-usual, and thus living within the Lie. Choose an organization that recognizes the massive scale of the threat and responds with a massive-scale advocacy.

When I originally published this article, in September, 2013, I wrote that I was “not sure any group exists that fulfills both of these precepts,” and encouraged readers to change the culture of existing groups or create new ones. Since then, I have followed my own advice, working with a group of individuals, to launch The Climate Mobilization. We are truthful about the danger and comprehensive in our advocacy– demanding a WWII scale mobilization that reduces emissions at wartime speed. Our strategy is the Pledge to Mobilize, which commits signers to both supporting political candidates who endorse these measures, and to spreading the truth of climate change, and the hope of the Pledge to Mobilize, to others. The Pledge strategy is designed to battle “the lie” and  unleash the power of the climate truth. All are invited to come take a stand for climate truth and fight for everything you know and love.

X Living in Climate Truth means Living with Honor.

Living in climate truth can be extremely challenging. It can set you apart from your peers, people can have a “shoot the messenger” mentality, and criticize you for your views or your advocacy.

The truth of climate change is frightening, even overwhelming. We would rather forget it and enjoy the present.

But living in climate truth comes with honor, dignity, and a sense of purpose. Living within the lie means being self-deceiving, failing your responsibility to your brothers and sisters, and ultimately, being a passive victim of forces outside of your control. Living in truth means holding your head high, even as circumstances seem insurmountable.

Living in truth means refusing to be lied to and manipulated. Knowing that you are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Knowing that, if civilization does fall, you will be able to say, “I did my best.”  Knowing that, if we succeed, you will be able to live the rest of your life with pride. When your species, your civilization, your planet was on the line, you faced the terrifying unknown with courage, dedication and resolve. You lived in truth.

 

The Emotions of Climate Change: A Guide

The vast majority of reporting on climate change is about data and facts. Temperatures have risen by this amount, glaciers have melted by that percent, Hurricane Sandy has cost this many billion dollars of damage. This type of discussion, though obviously necessary, speaks almost purely to the intellect. It fails to address what changes to our climate make us feel, and discussion of whether these feelings are rational or productive: do our emotional reactions to climate change help us make the massive political and cultural shifts necessary to halt its devastating progress? Or do they hold us back from taking rational, collective action? As a psychotherapist, I help clients examine and think through their feelings. I will attempt to do the same for Americans, broadly, coping with the difficult emotional challenge of climate change.

Emotions are complicated—people can experience many feelings, often contradictory, in when reacting to an issue as important and complicated as climate change. I will consider various emotional reactions that people may have, bearing in mind that most people will feel a shifting combination of these emotions in response to our changing climate.

Guilt

Many Americans feel guilty about climate change. This is largely due to the narrative about “individual responsibility” for climate change that is prominent in American culture. Adults are implored to “reduce their carbon footprint,” and children are taught to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Climate change makes us feel guilty because it makes us feel that we haven’t done our moral duty; we have consumed more than our fair share. Now, we shall suffer the consequences of our moral lapses. We deserved Hurricane Sandy because of our wanton, consumptive ways.

These feelings, though understandable and common, are not rational or productive. It would be masochistic for individuals, acting alone, to renounce the non-sustainable conveniences and pleasures that modern life has to offer. Our society is constructed with modern conveniences in mind. Homes are far away from job sites, because people are expected to drive. Cities are built in areas that reach very high temperatures, and people are expected to be productive even during summers—because they are expected to use air conditioning.  Attempting, individually, to rectify the damage of climate change would be alienating, and it would put a person at a disadvantage from others.

Further, the idea that climate change should be dealt with at an individual level makes no sense. Even if a large number, say 10 million people, go totally carbon neutral, climate change would continue its ruthless forward march, nonetheless.  No one of us created this mess, and no one of us can solve it alone.

More importantly, guilt about climate change is counter-productive. Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling. In order to avoid feeling guilty, we avoid thinking about climate change, the increasing severity of weather, and what life will be like for our children and grandchildren. We overlook the failure of our leaders, because we are too busy blaming ourselves. We fail to demand, large-scale, coordinated action from our government. Every day we are fooled into thinking that climate change is a problem caused by individuals and solvable by individuals is another day we fail to move towards large-scale, coordinated, societal action. We fail to exert our influence on the fate of the only planet we have.

Anger

Another common emotion that climate change inspires is anger, which, when directed thoughtfully, is more rational than guilt and can be more productive. The fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests have prioritized profits over our collective future.  Our politicians have lacked the foresight and courage to protect us. Beyond these specific grievances, people may feel diffuse anger at the unfairness of our situation. We didn’t ask for such a dangerous, precarious world, but that is the world we inherited.

Anger, if productively channeled, can motivate people to action—not the futile action of attempting to limit individual consumption—but political action.  Anger can motivate us to demand massive action from politicians. Our elected representatives need to be told that they are failing in their most fundamental duty— keeping their citizens safe. Politicians need to know that we will hold them accountable for their inaction. Corporations need to be told that they will be harshly punished if they stand in the way of a sustainable future for the planet. Anger can be extremely productive if it motivates us to harness our power as citizens to work for systemic change: to demonstrate, to demand, to vote and to take direct action.

Fear

Fear is the most rational emotional reaction to climate change, and also holds the potential to be harnessed productively. Hurricane Sandy is but a preview, a taste, of the devastation towards which we are careening. Scientific projections of the damage climate change will cause range from uncomfortable to the truly catastrophic. We humans live at the mercy of our climate. Without a stable climate, the most basic foundations of human life—food, water, and shelter—will be threatened. We should fear for ourselves, for our children, and for the future of our civilization. We should be animated by our fear; motivated towards entering the public square and demanding massive political action at National and International levels.

Grief

Feelings of sadness, devastation, and grief are also rational responses to climate change. People have already lost their lives due to climate change, through severe weather and food shortages linked to changing agricultural conditions. We are in the process of devastating many species and ecological systems, many of which will be extinguished forever. We have deprived our children of being able to appreciate the same natural beauty and diversity that we experienced. More importantly, we are losing our sense of safety and normalcy. New York is now vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Will Colorado continue to be vulnerable to severe wildfires? Will the Midwest suffer from chronic droughts? Will civilization withstand the changes?

We grieve the certainty and security that comes with a stable climate. We have built our society upon certain expectations of the climate. We have chosen where to build our cities, where to grow crops, and how to make our lives based on a set of assumptions about how the climate works, and about the cheapness and availability of resources. These assumptions are being disproved, and we grieve their loss. We grieve because we have suffered losses: the safety, the safety, security, and abundance that we believed was our birthright. We grieve because we know that the problem will get worse for coming generations.

A grief reaction is a rational response to climate change—but to the extent that it makes us feel helpless, like passive victims—it is a barrier to productive action.  We must fight nihilism and passivity, feeling that the problems are too great to be solved, and cultivate a cultural attitude of determination and courage. Yes, it is possible that humanity will lose our battle with climate change. It is even possible that we have already crossed the threshold that the environment is so badly damaged that there is nothing that we can do to save it. If this is true, then grief is the most rational and fitting emotional response. But if there is a chance for remediation of our climate, for preserving our planet for future generations, then we have a moral obligation to adopt the attitude of “live or die trying.” We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to give saving the planet our very best effort. If we give up now, drowned in preemptive grief, we guarantee our own defeat.

Apathy

Many people claim not to have an emotional reaction to climate change. Some of these people who lack the education, exposure to fact-based media, or intellectual capacity to comprehend the threat of climate change, and thus truly have no emotional reaction to it. However, most people who feel no emotional reaction to climate change are in denial, meaning they are utilizing a psychological defense mechanism to guard against their true feelings. Climate change apathy should be regarded in the same way as people who claim to have no reaction to their recent divorce, the death of a parent, or being raped. The utilization of denial indicates how overwhelming an emotional experience truly is. Many people even claim that they do not believe that climate change exists! This is an indication of emotional overwhelm: denial means that the truth is so threatening that it is easier to distort reality than to face it. This is a general psychological principle that has been validated for the environment specifically. Lertzman (2012) found that underneath a veneer of apathy, people care deeply about the natural world; they have powerful memories and attachments to nature. They feel grief, anger, and fear about environmental destruction—but they are too overwhelmed by those feelings, and feel too helpless to respond to them, that they refuse to recognize them at all.

One important implication of this psychological understanding of climate change denial is that it can be largely solved through effective climate policy. Attempting to convince people that climate change is real treats the issue of climate denial as an intellectual problem rather than an emotional one. Rather, if the government actually showed courage and leadership on climate change, initiating a program of massive, effective action, then deniers will no longer feel so overwhelmed by their emotional reaction to climate change, and will be much more able to face its painful reality.

Utilizing Our Emotions For Massive, Collective, Government-Led Action: a War on Climate Change

As I have intimated, I believe the only way that humanity has a fighting chance against the forces of climate change are to mobilize a massive collective effort, led by the government. To me the most appropriate analogy to guide our response is war, specifically World War II. World War II was the last time the United States faced a true existential threat. We tried to stay out of the conflict for as long as possible, but when we were attacked on our own soil—when we saw our fleet in Pearl Harbor destroyed, and watched Hitler push mercilessly through Europe—we knew that the most drastic action was necessary. Americans of all kinds rose to the challenge. Young men went to war, risking their lives, braving the ultimate sacrifice, to protect their country and their families. Women went to work in factories—building submarines and machine guns. People did without: meat, sugar, razor blades, and stockings were all strictly rationed. Americans gave their contributions, made their sacrifices, together. That is what made “The Greatest Generation” so illustrious. A generation of Americans who  came together  to fight for survival, and won against long odds. We survived and we prospered. Working together, we were capable of remarkable things. Working together, we became the greatest country in the world.

Since then, the United States has not fought wars for its survival. The military has fought, and soldiers have bravely sacrificed their lives, but in faraway countries that posed indirect and relatively minor threats to the safety of the Nation as a whole. Since World War II, our country has not directly faced an existential threat. Until now.

Climate change should be treated as our mortal enemy, because it is.  The United States must declare a full-scale war on climate change.

There is a practical difference in how you wage War on Climate Change. This war cannot be won through combat. Rather, the government must implement a multi-pronged approach, that will call for sacrifice and change from all members of society. The first step must be to price carbon to reflect the damage it does to the environment. This is the single most important policy that the government must implement.  Our government will also need to make alliances with other countries, as we do in other wars, to join our collective struggle. The government will have to call on scientists, scholars, community leaders, and everyday citizens to assist in our collective effort for survival.

This society-wide mobilization must start with our government. Individual action against climate change is futile. We need our leaders to protect us. I call on the President of the United States, and our Congress, to declare war on climate change.  Join me.

 

This article was originally published January 2, 2013 on Alternet: http://www.alternet.org/environment/are-our-emotions-preventing-us-taking-action-climate-change