Part II - Cultivating the Mindset for Action
OVERCOMING THE MENTAL WALL
“We are on a path to self-destruction, and yet there is nothing inevitable about our fate.”- Bill McKibben
I do what the vast majority of people would consider extreme running – 100 mile foot races through rugged mountains, with no sleep, on the move for 26 or 27 hours with only breaks to eat and drink. The actual race is indeed physically hard (many people prefer the word insane) and it has taken years to develop the stamina and skill to finish. But the hardest thing for me in any race is overcoming the voices in my head that question the endeavor and whether I will make it. 99% of the time, the brain will give in before the body. I still remember feeling just as daunted before my first marathon, wondering if I would finish, and discovering that while the fabled “wall” was painful, it wasn’t really a wall at all. The end of the race hurt and I got slower, but once I realized that was it, I could cope. In training for 100 miles and still baffling over how it could be done, I would read things like, “Focus on the first 50. After that, it’s all zen,” because what other mindset is there if you are tackling a challenge that seems like an utterly unreasonable pursuit?
When it comes to stopping climate change, we have a seemingly insurmountable task ahead of us, and yet we know slews of seemingly impossible struggles, like abolishing slavery and expanding the right to vote and marry, have actually been fulfilled. The roots of those struggles, unfortunately, have not ended, and we still have much work to do to achieve true justice. But with that important caveat in mind, we have made groundbreaking, at one time unthinkable shifts in the structure of society. The one that confronts us now is the shift from a carbon-intensive to a carbon-free way of life.
SEEING OUR STRENGTHS, HARNESSING OUR EXISTING ASSETS
Today’s piece is not about the physical training and preparation we will need to be carbon free, but about the mindset we need to cultivate to move forward. We already have an exceptional body of tools to work with: buildings and vehicles that consume no fossil fuels and dozens of ways to harness and store the natural energy of the wind, the sun, the waves. We have models of cooperative living and communities that have successfully become more resilient to dramatic changes in climate. We have some exquisite vegan restaurants and cookbooks and the sound systems for some concerts are entirely people- or solar-powered. We have countless activists in every corner of the globe working to raise awareness, solidify political commitments, and enact new policies and incentives that support bold action. To pull all of these assets together, we have approaches like Project Drawdown, “the most comprehensive plan ever to reduce global warming,” that quantifies how 100 strategies, like #6, Educating Girls, can each cut gigatons of carbon pollution while improving equity and well-being across the globe (Figure 1).
As with hunger or homelessness, the heart of the problem is not about an overall lack of resources to supply, it is about ensuring equitable distribution. There are scores of reasons why “we can’t” have the carbon-free world in 12 years that scientists implore us to achieve. There are concerns about costs, about the workers who depend on the fossil fuel industry to feed their families, about public opinion and the media, about how to coordinate the construction of new infrastructure, about how to handle lobbyists who earn more than enough to feed their families. These are real barriers, but they are not impenetrable walls.
Like a well-trained body whose muscles and tendons are strong, we embody all that we need. We inhabit a body that millions of scientists, engineers, educators, policy-makers and activists before us have trained and honed for the course ahead. Now we need to get ourselves to the starting line.
We need people to anticipate that doing the unthinkable will at times be hard and dramatically shift how we live, how we sustain ourselves and each other, and how we open ourselves to share resources and support the communities that face the harshest climate impacts. Crossing the line will not be, as a colleague of mine once quipped, “eco-party-fun-time”—it will not simply mean we all tool around in Teslas and rock out to solar-powered Beats headphones. Some of our dreamy paths, like green consumerism, are either not sufficient or in some cases antithetical to the work we need to do. This is not an easy jog down Main Street—it will be a burly, long trek through some wild country. But those treks can be beautiful and satisfying and bring out our fullest humanity. And eventually, I have learned, you do actually cross the finish line, smiling.
Today it is as if we are toeing the line of an ultramarathon. Our challenge, before we set off, is to cultivate the mindset of hope that we will need to overcome adversity, to continue to push through the doldrums at 3:00am and the mini-revolts of our digestive tracts after eating one too many bananas. Part 2 of the series is an invitation to ways to cultivate this hope, and how we can coach others to prepare for the journey with us.
So how do we get started? Perhaps it is too simple to say that the task is to convince people that we can in fact do the unthinkable, to mobilize a “war effort” of sorts. Carbon is bad; we need to focus on the atmospheric concentration of CO2 (currently about 405 parts per million) like we do with daily reports of the Dow Jones Industrial Average: “Atmospheric CO2 closed down 1.5% this quarter, 20% lower than even an optimistic team of analysts had projected….” Others have used the structure of college basketball’s March Madness and applied it to climate change in an effort to connect climate concerns to familiar sports culture. We have more knowledge and confidence about climate change than ever before, yet we continue to lag in how we communicate and frame the issue. Research suggests that some frames, for instance a war, rather than a race, creates a greater sense of urgency to act.
But this creates a tension—many people would agree that the wars we have waged, both military campaigns as well as the war on poverty, war on drugs, war on terror, etc. have been more destructive than anything. In critiquing the war metaphor, Charles Eisenstein, author of Climate: A New Story (thank you Terry Link for introducing me to his work), observes: “If the ‘fight’ against climate change is a war, it is clear which side is winning. Greenhouse gas emissions have relentlessly increased since they were first widely acknowledged in the 1980s….If war were the only answer, then we would have to respond by fighting even harder….In the case of ecocide, the mentality of war is not only an obstacle to healing, it is an intimate part of the problem.” (Eisenstein, 2018; p. 20)
So this brings us to a crossroads: science tells us that the atmosphere can only absorb so much more carbon before things reach a critical point and become oppressive to both human civilization and ecological communities (or at least more oppressive than they are today). Our historical response of the last century has been to declare war on those problems or enemies we wish to defeat. And that approach, while it may serve to win over and mobilize the public, has also lead to the militarization of our minds. Going forward, would application of the war metaphor give us the greatest chance of success and a habitable climate? And even if it would, is this the way we want to frame the urgency and solution to climate change?
Part 3 will pick up with these questions, consider alternative framings and how a climate “moonshot” could be used as a motivator but tempered from the detrimental aspects of the war mentality.
CLOSING WORDS ON HOPE & REMORSE
Almost always, when we look back on a crisis that doesn’t end well, we could have done more. We may do something, the thing that is easy and doesn’t rock the boat too much or put our own lives at risk. And tragically, that something, some bit of action, can be run over by people bent on a more insidious outcome. It was not that a young man stood in front of a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square waving for them to stop and then stepped aside when they came unexpectedly close. To the contrary, he continually shifted his body to impede their progress.
Sometimes generally being on the right side, being close but not close enough, will result in the same outcome as being ambivalent or even in agreement with the wrong side. In other words, mediocrity in good times suffices, but mediocrity in bad times spells disaster. Grace Lee Boggs knew this dynamic well: “Still, it becomes clearer every day that organizing or joining massive protests and demanding new policies fail to sufficiently address the crisis we face. They may demonstrate that we are on the right side politically, but they are not transformative enough. They do not change the cultural images or the symbols that play such a pivotal role in molding us into who we are.” The stronger the opposing powers, the stronger our resolve and the more radical our risk-taking must be if we are to force a change in direction.
The inertia to allow climate change to continue unchecked is incredibly strong. Despite an increasingly vigorous and widespread chorus of voices and growing activism, the latest reports still tell us, heartbreakingly, that this has not been enough, and greenhouse emissions are higher than they have ever been in human history. There is no assurance that all of our collective efforts will be enough, but becoming distraught is a certainty if we continue to give it a solid, but not our absolute best effort. If the climate goes to hell, I don’t think we will be able to look back and say, “Well, we were trying to do something about it, so I feel good about that.” I know I sure won’t. We won’t be able to tell our grandchildren, “We tried for a while until it became clear that we couldn’t do much and were going to lose this fight anyway. So we just accepted that every last drop of fossil fuel would be burned and all of our rainforests would be cut and we knew we would live in a world with a destructive climate not conducive to human survival and flourishing but we just started to accept that because it is what it is, right?” I know many people who are reading this have not been sitting back quietly, have not been trying to make new corrupt deals to run pipelines through indigenous land or to bury climate science or kill carbon tax bills—we are on the right side of this. And—this is the hard part—we need to do more, because the pace and intensity of our current efforts is not enough to win. In an essay “Lily’s Chickens”, I deeply appreciate how Barbara Kingsolver attempts to come to terms with this inevitable struggle:
“Since it's nonsensical, plus embarrassing, to be an outspoken critic of things you do yourself, I set myself long ago to the task of consuming less….in various stages of my free- wheeling youth I tried out living in a tent, in a commune, and in Europe, before eventually determining that I could only ever hope to dent the salacious appetites of my homeland and make us a more perfect union by living inside this amazing beast, poking at its belly from the inside with my one little life and the small, pointed sword of my pen.”
So this is what we are charged with doing: taking the intellectual knowledge that the climate crisis is slowly exploding time bomb we need to diffuse today and sharpening the points of our pens and escalating our collective work to the only level that can be effective—becoming climate revolutionaries. We need to learn to hold our greatest humility and our greatest audacity in the same breath. We can’t accept changing light bulbs anymore, that’s not enough. It is time to force the issue and for the next 12, the next 30 years, to leave it all on the trail. I still believe that our grandchildren can be known as Generation Zero (for zero carbon). After all, it has been only 150 years since we started this disastrous experiment of converting coal, oil, and gas into a suffocating, destabilizing blanket of CO2. We can do this.