Last month I did a talk in central Auckland to the Now Crowd, a group of young professionals interested in forwarding sustainability. It was a dual act, with Andy Kenworthy speaking about his long experience as an environmental advocate. Andy and I got a number of challenging questions – these were people trying to figure out how to be in an era filled with complex problems. The questions were stimulating, and as the evening wore on the room felt increasingly full of hope - as if a better world just might be possible. Then came the question that always stops me in my tracks. It was well thought out, detailed and persuasive. The core of the question was something like this: “The science of climate change tells us that we only have 12 years to turn things around. The issues we are facing are urgent and we are in a crisis. Isn’t optimism misleading when the situation is in fact extremely dire?”
It’s strange – I’ve been told many times that the situation is urgent and we are in a crisis that renders optimism a dangerous form of denial. Yet whenever someone suggests that we are headed towards Climate Armageddon, I become flooded with fear, as if it is a bolt from the blue. I am teleported back to my 14-year-old self, aware that powerful men in the northern hemisphere control nuclear weapons that could wipe out everything, most importantly me. I am utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless and have nothing to say. I did say something in response to the question that night, but in truth I was acting a part – my real voice was silent.
Like all emotions, fear is a complex of bodily sensations, thoughts and action tendencies. It floods us with awareness of the problem at hand and blocks out extraneous information. In this sense, fear makes us rigid and able to run only along the lines it demands. We can no longer assess a situation in its full depth or make choices in any meaningful sense. As I have discussed in Psychology for a Better World, fear is valuable when the problem is clear and the person concerned believes they have the means to solve, or at least alleviate, the situation. So for example, if we learn we are ill, the shock of this knowledge is useful in pushing us towards the recommended treatment. We undergo surgery and take medication even if it is inconvenient, uncomfortable and expensive. At the political level, the problem and solution may also sometimes come together in a way that demands a certain type of action. For example, during the 1970s while I was a worried teenager in Napier New Zealand, people with similar fears in Europe and the USA were able to attend massive protest rallies against the nuclear arms race.
When the problem and solution are widely contested and no clear path lies before us, fear confuses both our body and our mind. Our body now alert to a problem wants to respond – to do something. Failing any better alternative, it freezes, closing down into a self-protective state that gives out as little as it can. Our mind struggles to make sense of what is happening – searching for the right approach but finding nothing convincing enough to act upon. Fear, as Krishnamurti has discussed, isolates us from each other and prompts fragmentary, incoherent acts that cover a deep sense of disorientation. Shame sneaks in too – shame that we are not altruistic, brave or determined enough to rise above ourselves and get out there and do what is needed. But, hang on, when it comes to the 12-year window to limit climate change catastrophe what exactly is needed from me? Should I give up my day job to be a climate activist? Join the Extinction Rebellion? Write letters to my local Members of Parliament? Concentrate on enabling young people to get active?
So how should I, or any of us, respond when knocked off our perch by fear? Well perhaps we should recognise and name the fear, and our incoherence in the face of it. I could have said to my questioner, “When I hear that we only have 12 years left to create radical, political transformation, I freeze. If I have any thoughts, they are to wonder if and how I can save my children from the worst of it. Your question is entirely reasonable, but I don’t have an answer and if I try to search for one, it will just be blabber designed to cover my confusion. Perhaps someone who has found a way to manage this information and see the path it offers can respond.” (Andy, by the way, did respond in a far more coherent manner than me on that occasion!)
We are, after all, biological creatures and emotions quite literally, push us around. Some people may be more able to deal in fear than me, or see it as an unfortunate by-product of the change process. In the end, perhaps they will turn out to be right – we told people it was deadly serious and that galvanised the action that saved the world.
But for me, optimism feels like the more compelling way to invite people into the game - and the surest truth I hold is that bringing people into the game is the game. To anyone who cares about the future of our planet, I always want to say: yes, there are worthwhile moves you can make, and in doing so you will be joining the vast number of others who also care. Together, we just might get there.
It’s a kind of hopepunk, as Now Crowders might say.
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