I was in Iceland this past week presenting a workshop at a conference addressing climate change and its impacts and causes. I attended this conference once before in Seattle in 2012 and found it to be an engaging group of people and a lot of fascinating information about the science side of climate change. I noticed, however, that while the conference title was “Impacts and Causes” there was only one 15-minute paper that mentioned issues of race and the role it played in getting us here (cause), the role it plays in who is disproportionately impacted, and the role it will potentially play in terms of what solutions are adopted, how they are implemented, and ultimately who those solutions are designed to benefit. Startled by this, I decided to present something regarding climate justice and the role that race, class and gender oppression have played in getting us to this current climate emergency and how a gender, class and race-justice lens will prove to be essential if we are to “get out of this” with any sense of equity and integrity as a planet. So I headed to Reykjavík and from the off it seemed the gods were conspiring against me in terms of travel problems, housing problems, and general exhaustion (I had been up for 27 hours by the time I presented), but I persevered. And here is what I encountered…
In a morning “discussion” session around human impacts, I was listening intently to various folks sharing about the sundry challenges in getting “people” (read “Western people”) to understand and adequately respond to this current climate moment. Finally I spoke up and suggested that underneath the variables of scientific ignorance, fear, resistance to what is going on, etc. was the pernicious problem of race, class and gender oppression and the seduction of their privileges, the normativity of their ideologies and rationalizations, and the sheer power of their systems to sustain the status quo. Thus, in my estimation, if we are to both properly understand the full magnitude of “peoples’” resistance and know how to help folks through that resistance, we need to craft and utilize a social justice lens in our work. Several heads nodded and then a white, professional-middle class (University faculty member), male said that “we simply do not have time to end race, class and gender oppression before we begin to do work on climate change” and that I was being unrealistic. A few minutes later the session ended and I did not have a chance to respond. As we left the room, he came up to me (first, letting me know he started a feminist group in college) and reiterated that we simply had no chance of addressing the current climate issues if we waited for everyone to change their minds about oppression. I suggested to him that I was in no way saying we had to “solve” those issues before we do climate work, but rather aswe do our climate work. He argued again, and then we parted ways as we both headed into different sessions. Shortly thereafter a white woman approached me and thanked me for my comments, then two men of color did the same and I was struck by the fact that every time I share this perspective it is never people of color, poor folks, etc. who tell me we do not “have time” to do social justice work as we do climate justice work. It is always those who have privilege who see these issues as somehow separable, as if one is not inextricably linked to the other.
These exchanges gave me some fuel, tired as I was, to do my workshop and try to show that these are not discrete entities at all, but rather that it is precisely the oppressive ideologies of racism, classism and sexism that have brought us to this climate crisis as a planet. Sometimes folks say “No, Industrialization did it”, but that system is merely a tool – in the hands of people who deeply revere nature, it is possible that Industrialization would not have been such a vehicle for our destruction. But, in the hands of a society with an intensely sexist worldview and that frames nature in the feminine, we know what will inevitably happen to nature (see Francis Bacon and his statement that one has to rape nature to understand her secrets). Combine that with a rapacious appetite for material resources fueled by a classist ideology that equates your class status with your humanity and value in the world, and it makes sense that Europe went on its imperialist rampage of colonization. Top that off with a racial ideology that shamelessly purports White supremacy and White society’s (first read “European” and later as “White, U.S.-er”) right to rule the world, and you get a worldview that almost has no other choice than to use Industrialization in such a way that has lead our species to this unbelievable climate crisis.
And so, I got ready for my workshop in hopes of some solid discussion and engagement…and then a whopping 8 people showed up. Yep, 8. Mind you, they were an enthusiastic group, but nevertheless I was disappointed. There were only two other places for folks to go at that time and so the paltry showing was not just “too many workshops to choose from” but more likely a statement that this content was simply not important in the minds of the attendees. So, I did my best but could not shake the feeling at the time or in the days that followed, that I wasted my time because scientists have no interest in thinking about ideological mindsets that lead us into and out of holes. And so, I lost some hope. Not all of my hope, but a good chunk of it. How would we ever be able to address these issues if we ignored social justice issues and used the same “pair of glasses” that got us into this mess to get us out of it? More importantly, how would we possibly be able to respond to the needs of this world’s most vulnerable with respect to climate change (people who also happen to be the targets of race, class and gender oppression) if we cannot even acknowledge the core relationship between gender, class and racial oppressions and climate change? I felt frustrated, chagrined, and even a titch lost.
Fortunately for me, I am currently reading Sharon Salzberg’s book Faith: Trusting your own deepest experience (thus the title of this blog post). In it she has a chapter where she talks about doing work out in the world and feeling as if we’re not making a difference. Very gently she then identifies the difference between hope and faith. Hope, she suggests, is tied to an outcome, to a need, or even a demand. As I read this, I had to admit that I indeed had “hoped” that folks at the conference would see things my way, would incorporate this into their work, and we would all work for climate justice and not just technocratic climate solutions. In a broader sense, however, I also had to admit that I have this type of “hope” in almost all aspects of the work I do. I do want a particular outcome, I’m often not surrendered, and I do not always accept the possibility of a greater truth in the grand scheme of things. Does this mean I stop working for justice? No, absolutely not. But it does mean that I don’t know what the end of the road, or even the path along the road, looks like, and in lieu of humbly admitting this, I tend to squeeze more tightly to what I think “should” happen and invariably constrict the ability of life to unfold as is necessary. Salzberg is not suggesting, nor am I, that we adopt a “whatever, dude” approach to social justice work. But she is, I think, offering a wise distinction between a demand disguised as hope and a deeper faith that trusts in the bigger reality around us.
Faith, in Salzberg’s description (and she described it many times in subtly different ways) is about life on life’s terms, about trusting in the deep and profound interconnection of all things, about realizing that though an action may not seem to have any impact, everything we do has some form of impact on the greater whole, and about the fact that while outcome cannot be controlled, two key things can: intention and skillfulness. Intention matters because it is the energy that serves as the ground from which the action grows. An intention rooted in judgement, demand, or a sense of “my way or the highway” does not serve as a wholesome foundation for social justice work, and is in fact often antithetical to it. An intention rooted in love, in care for others, in a desire to see good things come to all, or in a deep sense of connection gives social justice work a much better chance of being useful and well received. Likewise, a lack of skillfulness in how this work is done (negative tone, an inability to listen, a narrow mind) makes it difficult to receive the message and less likely that folks will be drawn to it. Doing this work with patience, joy, an open heart, and an expansive worldview makes it more attractive and easily palatable even to those who might disagree.
And so, if I imbue my work around social justice and climate justice with a deep intent to love and serve the world (rather than craft it to what I think it should be), and if I do that work skillfully by keeping in mind my impacts and the needs of the greater whole, I just might find that I will have greater faith (presently and over the long haul) in the efficacy of the work I am doing even when there’s only 8 people there. Though I did not realize it at the time, my workshop in Iceland left me feeling hopeless precisely because my fear of the impacts of climate change, my deep concern for this planet, and my desire for social justice left me demanding a certain outcome. Recognizing, albeit late, that what really matters is that I show up, do my best, and try to work from a place of love, care and skillfulness, has replaced some of that hopelessness with faith. I still feel quite clear about the connections between the oppressive worldview that got us here and the need for a social justice worldview in getting us out. But, I can perhaps wear it more loosely in hopes that I can learn more about what that can look like and thereby be more effective in the work I do. Being a consultant / trainer is a tough bit of business because I rarely see any fruits of what I come in to a group or organization to do. And yet, in reading Salzberg I was reminded that I don’t need to see some form of “result” in order to know that my work, all of our work for social justice, matters and has an impact. In this light, perhaps having 8 folks in the room was exactly how it needed to be. Hope would say maybe, faith would say yes.