I recently made the trip to Victoria to have dinner with my son Aedan who is in environmental studies at the university there. Halfway through the meal, the conversation turned to climate change, as it often does between us – a young student of ecology and society and me his environmental activist mother.
He asked me whether I had read the most recent reports on the melting of arctic sea ice. “You know, like the reports from the last few weeks”. I said no, I had been giving myself a small break for the last month, and actually trying not to read every new report. He leaned over the table and cupped his hand by his mouth and whispered, sotto voce, so as not to offend the neighbouring diners with the most inconvenient of truths “It is really, really, bad.”
It is in fact, so bad, that it seems somehow rude to even talk about it. Yet talk about it we must. We are now living climate change. It sometimes feels like an unrelenting onslaught – floods, fires, refugees. There is no end to the bad news. Things have begun to change so quickly that we are exceeding even some of the more extreme scenarios predicted just a few years ago. It is difficult to overstate the severity of the crisis. Life as we know it is in peril.
Socially we have begun to think about how to adapt to changes in our environment. There are now many governments with climate adaptation departments doing work like planning for flood control in the face of rising sea levels. Many individuals are now considering how to lessen their personal carbon impact by doing things like eating less meat or flying less.
What we have yet to start considering is how we adapt on a personal, emotional, and spiritual level. How do we live our lives in these times of accelerated mass destruction? How do we face the potential for war and starvation without losing ourselves in fear or grief? Among the skills we need to flourish in these times, surely these are among the most essential.
We are moving into a time of great upheaval and great uncertainty. The only thing we know to be true – is that we don’t know. We don’t know how much worse it will get, and when or if we will turn the corner towards sanity.
The only thing we know to be true – is that we don’t know.
Uncertainty is one of the places we human beings are most uncomfortable. When faced with not knowing, we often settle on a negative outcome just to have a story to tell ourselves. Like when your family member is late for dinner and you convince yourself they’ve had a car accident instead of the more obvious possibility that they were simply delayed at work. We can’t deal with not knowing. And yet learning to live with uncertainty is one of the life skills that is most called for at this time.
Another skill we need to cultivate is embracing paradox. On a day of record-breaking warm spring temperatures, we may stand under the clear blue sky and be lost in the fear of the damage these increasing temperatures will cause. Have you ever said to yourself “Wow, its beautiful out – but it is also kind of frightening.” Both realities are true, the day is beautiful and the times are tragic. It is bad, and it is perfect. The act of one individual can’t solve the problem and yet we all must do whatever we can.
Learning to live with this paradox is important. If we cannot hold our focus on the beauty and start to lose ourselves in the fear, the practice is to bring your attention fully to the present moment, out of future thought, into appreciation for what is. As the Buddhists have told us for millennia, all else is illusion.
And lastly there is hope. Hope does not come by turning away from reality. Only from being present to the unknowable and uncertain nature of the future can the deepest hope emerge. The hope that comes from facing the worst is a potent and animating force. It is not a limp denial-laden platitude that everything will work out. Rather it is an essential fuel for moving forward. It is enduring because it is not built up on wishes and dreams. It is powerful because it holds open possibility in the face of what seem like improbable odds.
The question of having hope is notably distinct from the question of what we might be hopeful for. The spaciousness of uncertainty invites hope simply as a practice unto itself without a specific outcome to focus it upon. For instance, no matter the state of the world, we can hope that our children will know love and grow into their fullest selves.
There are many people in discussions of climate change who dismiss hope as a kind of “hopium” that threatens to pacify us to the point of complacency. While it is a wise caution to be wary of a shallow kind of hope by-pass, we must be careful not to be tricked by the lure of certainty in the belief that all is lost. As activist writer Rebecca Solnit cautions “Apocalypse is always easier to imagine than the strange circuitous routes to what actually comes next.”
The challenge before us now is immense. We need to re-invent our society and give up the burning of fossil fuels to power our lives. We need to re-invent our agriculture and food systems. We must become responsive and adaptive to our quickly changing reality.
While the physical adaptations we will need are enormous, the personal emotional and spiritual adaptations are of equal necessity.
While the physical adaptations we will need are enormous, the personal emotional and spiritual adaptations are of equal necessity. The pace and intensity of the change we face is frightening. In times of fear we contract and pull back into separation, defensiveness or aggression. If we can develop the tools to strengthen our hearts and souls then we have a chance of working for the kind of future that we will all want.
The world will be re-made by this crisis. How it will look is up to us.
Explore new pathways forward at Climate Hope: Tools for Thriving in the Climate Era at Hollyhock on Sept 1-5, 2019.