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?