“Active Hope”, Looking to the Future without Blinkers and Invoking the Sacred with some organic farmers

“Active Hope” and Looking to the Future without Blinkers and Invoking the Sacred with some organic farmers

This post started out as one of those Recommended Reading lists which are the thing at New Year… famous authors sharing their favourite writers, the more obscure and esoteric the better. It was never going to be that, but because of my random digressions, I didn’t get further than the first book, so it’s not even a list at all. Just a sharing of ideas from one text which has helped me manage my feelings about climate change.

So, Happy New Year and here’s the Not the 2019 Reading List. Possibly a reason to be grateful …

Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy (2012), by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.  Novato: New World Library.

As a fiction reader with a deep seated prejudice of self-help books and American spelling, I can’t quite believe my choice for the Not 2019 Reading List, especially as some sections read like a manual for a Californian touchy-feely encounter group, which absolutely isn’t my thing.  

But I have learned from this book and for me its content lives up to its title. Macy (American) and Johnstone (a Brit) attempt to equip the reader with the emotional toolkit to manage the crisis of climate change and the transformation of perception it requires. They write about the “double reality” of Business as Usual  (an economy based on consumption and growth) and the Great Unravelling (the process of decline which starts when finite resources are unable to sustain Business as Usual). These concepts fit with those of the Transition Town movement and David Flemming’s wonderful Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and how to survive it (a book to buy and treasure) which advocate among other things a circular, rather than linear, economy and community-based action as a response.

The stories we tell ourselves

I like Macy and Johnstone’s variations of the “blocked response” to the inconvenient truth of climate change:

  1. I don’t believe it’s that dangerous.
  2. It isn’t my role to sort this out.
  3. I don’t want to stand out from the crowd.
  4. This information threatens my commercial or political interests.
  5. It’s so upsetting I prefer not to think about it.
  6. I feel paralysed. I’m aware of the danger, but I don’t know what to do.
  7. There’s no point doing anything since it won’t make any difference.

Recognise any of them? I do. I would also add two more:

  • It threatens my comfortable life. (Don’t tell me I can’t fly anymore.)
  • I’m responsible for saving the world single-handed and I’m failing, so I may as well give up.

That last one is a favourite of mine even though I know it’s unhelpful.

The alternative story

So what’s their alternative? The third story for Macy and Johnstone after Business as Usual and The Great Unravelling is The Great Turning. Yes, I know it sounds like Lord of the Rings meets Knitters’ Monthly but there is sense here. The Great Turning is happening as more people finally clock what trouble we’re in and fight for change, as well as re-framing their view of what’s important. But Macy insists that to respond creatively to world crises rather than feeling paralysed by distress, we need to face the cause of our pain and “place it within a larger landscape that gives it a different meaning. Rather than feeling afraid of our pain for the world, we learn to feel strengthened by it” (p.66). I’m not sure I can paraphrase the nuanced thinking from the book here, but the gist is that compassion, or “suffering with” our world is essential for our survival: it’s how living systems keep themselves in balance.

Looking to the future without blinkers

This is big stuff for me because I’ve been struggling with how to manage the How Bad It Really Is aspect of climate change with staying sane and wanting to protect the people I love. I found reading the full 36 pages of Professor Jem Bendell’s unpublished 2018 paper, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy”, for example, really challenging. (Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria.) Basically his paper is Armageddon with a bit of hope at the end if we get our skates on. Not for the faint hearted.

I’m beginning to accept that we’re not the centre of the universe and we won’t be around Forever and Forever Amen, much like the dinosaurs. Shit happens in our personal lives and we cope with it as best we can. It happens on the world stage too. We don’t know how long we’ve got, either as individuals or a species. We try too hard to ignore this.

That doesn’t mean we give up; it doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. And it doesn’t stop us engaging with all the really positive and exciting stuff that is happening around the world as we radically re-think how we need to live differently. It’s hard, but we can manage these two apparently contradictory perspectives simultaneously. I recommend Rob Hopkins’ blog Imagination Taking Power as a reminder that the future is in our hands, as well as those of world leaders, and we can look forward to something better. In his recent post he talks to artist James Mckay, who manages a centre for research into renewable energy at Leeds University. Mckay says, “It is very easy to think of the dystopian ideas. It’s almost lazy. Thinking of the good future is actually really hard because you have to vision something that is qualitatively different.” But Mckay does just that and literally draws it so people can see what their town or city might look like. Take a look at his pictures. They’re alive.

Gratitude and the sacred

I think that in order to imagine the future we also need to give thanks for the present. Macy and Johnstone advocate gratitude as a means by which we can increase our resilience in the face of disturbing information. They describe it as a “social emotion [which] points our warmth and goodwill out to others” (p.45). This has long been a recommended strategy for coping with depression and it works. They also infer that some kind of spirituality needs to play a part in our response to what’s happening to our planet.  

Despite (or because of) my five years in a Methodist girls’ boarding school in Western Australia, I don’t really do church or formal worship. And yet. There’s something about shared ritual, about coming together in a time and space where busy-ness and distraction are put aside, about reflecting on the metaphysical, that I find restorative. Plus I love singing hymns. Spirituality in whatever form (communing with trees; giving thanks to some greater force in the universe, religious or otherwise) can both remind us of our relative insignificance in the world order and provide solace in the face of uncertainty.

I’ve just come back from a wonderful few days at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (#ORFC19), a kind of Glasto for organic farmers and environmentalists, with cider outselling dope. One of the seminar discussions was on Farming, Wildlife and the Importance of Spirituality. I came away from this with as many questions as answers but it was humbling to listen to biologist Colin Tudge, who reminded us of the limitations of science, and indeed the limitations of government policy that is driven by science-based economics. (This was in part a nod to Michael Gove’s address at the conference, in which the Secretary of State confessed support for gene editing as a way of increasing food production. I think he meant plant seeds rather than farmers but even so. Yikes.)

Back to Colin Tudge, who concluded by saying, “We cannot look after the natural world without invoking the sacred. And the sacred is not rational.”

At which point I decided Tudge was my kind of scientist and vowed to read at least some of his numerous non-fiction books, which I am sure will not have American spelling, over-use of capitalisation or the slightest whiff of Californian encounter group.

Like I said, Happy New Year, and be grateful. It works.

The dark, the light and the case for stubborn optimism

The dark, the light and the case for stubborn optimism

We got it darker….

It’s not easy to find positive environmental news right now, especially if your social media algorithms know you’re interested in climate change. When I switch on my phone in the morning, the onslaught of articles (some from reliable sources, some not) predicting imminent Armageddon requires a very strong cup of tea. Amazon deforestation the worst in 10 years, 5 mile sea of plastic in the Carribbean, Ecological genocide, etc. Meanwhile the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has announced that concentrations of key gases in the atmosphere that are driving up global temperatures reached a new high in 2017, with carbon dioxide levels  reaching unprecedented and irreversible highs. Eurgh.

For those of us whose nightmare began with the latest IPCC report, it’s like waking up and finding out the reality is even worse than the bad dream. I can’t help wondering what Leonard Cohen would have made of it…the news of his death in November 2016 reached me the same day I heard Donald Trump had been elected president. It was more than a Bad Hair day, I can tell you. Cohen’s last album, “You want it darker” feels prescient…we sure have got it darker, whether we wanted it or not. I used to love Cohen’s sexy pessimism (“I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin.” I still do [love his sexy pessimism], but given our reality I’m beginning to understand the popularity of the Spice Girls.

I’ve been speaking to friends and acquaintances about levels of awareness of climate change, trying to gauge the validity of my impression that locally at least, a good chunk of the population hasn’t the faintest idea how serious it is. It doesn’t help that the BBC news coverage a few days ago suggested we might get British summers up to 5 degrees hotter by 2070, possibly misleading people into thinking that the planet would be any way habitable with a 5 degree global increase. A dear friend, a retired psychotherapist and one of the wisest women I know, simply said calmly, “It’s too big.” Others have too much going on in terms of health and family issues to take on any more grief. Some are so worried it’s affecting their mental health. And then there are those who have been warning us about this for decades, quietly carrying on their good work with calm and dignity. So, hardly empirical research but it does explain why we aren’t having emergency meetings all over the country. Although I’m hoping it’s on the cards…

But there’s light out there…

There is good news, both in terms of the way in which ordinary people are making themselves heard, and in the world of politics. The Extinction Rebellion, which is using civil disobedience and peaceful protest to drive home the urgency of the existential crisis that is posed by climate change, has seen massive support from the concerned public in gatherings in London and other British cities. Senior British academics, the West Country Green Party leader Molly Scott-Cato and the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, are just some of the ultra-respectable figures who have also publicly declared their support. This is no lunatic fringe staging an attention-seeking sit-in and our political leaders would have to be blind and deaf not to notice.


Provision has also been made for the “people’s voice” to be heard at the forthcoming gathering of world leaders for climate change talks in Poland this December. Sir David Attenborough, who is risking cuddly National Treasure status to Get Political, told the BBC, “The people’s seat is meant to represent the hundreds of millions of people around the world whose lives are about to be affected by climate change.” It’s also our chance for a bit of media exposure, as we are invited to submit our experiences and opinions to an online poll and conversations on social media, using the hashtag #TakeYourSeat. Do it now, because the deadline is December 1st.  And look forward to Sir David socking it to them big time on our behalf.

Bristol and Manchester lead the way

Meanwhile, Bristol City Council has just followed Manchester in accelerating its targets for carbon neutrality, declaring climate change an emergency. Bristol is the first city in the UK to  plan for zero carbon by 2030. Just brilliant. Encouraging too that there was unanimous cross-party support for the motion put forward by Green party councillor Carla Denyer.

Positive political news abroad

I’m sure there are lots of significant political green victories outside the UK, not many of which we hear about. Isabella Lovin, the Swedish Green party leader and minister for international development has pushed through more than 50 new policies, including a flight tax, the so-called Swedish Proposal, which tripled the price of EU emissions credits, and a climate change bill. The latter was signed last February and a photo of Lovin, surrounded by seven other women went viral, a week after Donald Trump had signed an anti-abortion executive order surrounded by seven men. Nice one. Lövin is one of the leading figures in what she says is a resurgence in environmentally conscious politics across the continent. “There is a green wave going on in Europe, in Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium, and in Finland as well,” she says. I say, Please God make it come to the UK and beyond…

Like the USA, Australia is suffering from a big disconnect between climate scientists (and most of the electorate) and their political leaders. So I was particularly pleased to learn of the recent humiliation of coal-obsessed Scott Morrison’s ruling party in the Victorian state elections, and moderate MPs voicing their concern at the way in which the move to the far right is alienating the voters.  MP Tim Wilson attended the polling booths and is quoted as saying “Every second person either gave me deadly silence, a very cold, deadly silence, or there was people mentioning energy, climate or the deposing of the [former] prime minister”. I guess this is democracy in action, and I give thanks for it.

The case for stubborn optimism

So, the news on climate change is grim. But more and more people are getting it, changing the way they live and pushing hard for policy change. It’s up to us to keep raising awareness, act as role models in sustainable living and get those who don’t know or don’t want to know on side in terms of doing something positive. And in order to do that, we need to be both bloody minded and “stubbornly optimistic”.

I take this term from Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework for Climate Change. If you’re struggling with the dark stuff right now, I urge you to listen to her memorial lecture “What now? Next steps on climate change”, delivered at the Oxford Martin School this November. (Her lecture last about 35 mins, the rest is the Q&A that follows.) Figueres is Costa Rican and she reminds me of a little terrier, small in stature but large in heart and absolutely tenacious in her belief that we can and must create the world we want, overcoming the major challenges ahead. She doesn’t deny the huge distance we have to travel in terms of reducing carbon emissions and getting on board with renewables, but she does give an encouraging overview of the “exponential curve of solutions” in energy use and production worldwide. She is also funny and not boring.

According to Figueres, in order to make it happen, we need the following: passionate engagement, radical collaboration and stubborn optimism. Okay, it all sounds better in a Puerto Rican accent with lots of Latino gesticulation, so watch the real thing, and take her energy and determination with you.

Eco-anxiety and how to manage it

Eco-anxiety and how to manage it

In my last  blog I wrote about rebellion …the need to channel our sadness and concern into action in order to effect change…and resistance….trying to understand why so many people appear to ignore the science of climate change and carry on as they always have.

Dealing with the scary stuff

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already anxious about the future. Because of that, you’ll be endeavouring to stay informed, which is likely to mean a barrage of bad news about the impact of rising temperatures and declining global wildlife populations. Some of this media material will be highly emotive and scary, aimed at those who are still resisting the fact we need radical change to our systems as a response to the crisis.
Trouble is, you’re not that target audience because you get it. And it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless at best, paralysed with anxiety at worst. It’s even got a name – eco-anxiety, a condition the American Psychological Association has defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

Recently I’ve encountered high levels of anxiety, both face to face and anecdotally, particularly among parents of young children. This is borne out by American research which suggests that it’s the Millennial generation whose mental health is most affected by negative news about the environment. It’s not just Millennials…I too know the thumping heart and doomy belly that strikes at 3am.

But it’s not helpful, for anyone. Conservationists are recognising that positive stories about ecological restoration (tree planting in Ecuador on a record breaking scale, the trial reintroduction of beavers in Scotland resulting in improved habitat for other wildlife, the repopulation of bison in Europe) work much better than bleak prophecies in terms of galvanising the public. A Canadian study by Carly Armstrong suggests that psychological catalysts for environmental action reside within positive sentiments such as gratitude: “If humanity is to reverse the abuse of Earth, people’s relationship with nature must be framed in a more optimistic manner”. There are some very wonderful nature restoration projects which don’t make the headlines.

Rob Hopkins and the Transition Town Movement

Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement (started in Totnes, Devon, our neighbouring county) and Altogether Good Bloke, understands the need for hopeful pragmatism. His book The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience (2008) does what it says on the tin. It’s a guide to shifting our communities towards greater self-reliance as a response to “peak oil” (the point at which we can no longer access cheap oil) and climate change. His philosophy is that this is both a means by which we can mitigate climate change and support ourselves when the going gets rough. Which it undoubtedly will.  But at the heart of his approach is community engagement and more recently, how we can tackle the current challenges with imagination: “I want to find the people who are creating the spaces in which people come together to imagine as communities, in groups.  And I want to reflect on what it might look like if we decided that we need a national crash programme of imagination rebuilding…. Because if there were ever a time in our history when we needed our imaginations fully-charged, it is now, as we face a perfect storm of challenges.”

What to do…

Don’t get me wrong: right now we need overt political activism more than ever, because we face governments who are failing to act in response to the climate crisis and in many cases accelerating it. I am grateful and humbled by all those who are putting themselves out there all over the world, to do just that. If you want to join them, brilliant. But if you are a sleep-deprived parent with a job, mortgage and raging eco-anxiety, there are some other things you can do to stay sane. Here are some of them…

  • Take on Climate Vision’s Ten Pledges. You may well have encountered this mini questionnaire which comes from Cornwall already but if not, it offers a set of achievable pledges which will make a difference, both to the planet and the way you feel. (It’s the sense of helplessness which brings on eco-anxiety.)
  • Get involved in local community groups which are tackling environmental issues: Transition Town movements, Friends of the Earth, local food co-operatives, urban farms, shared enterprises around growing organic food or transport and/or groups engaged in political activism. If you belong to a place of organised worship, take comfort from the spiritual and community support it offers and get them eco-activated. American Psychology professor, Elise Amel, says “While it is important to validate our emotions associated with climate change (such as a fear of the unknown, loss of special places or activities, worry about future), it can be debilitating to stay focused on the negative emotions. Instead, people who take action have a greater sense of control, and taking action with others can lighten the emotional burden.”
  • Talk to your friends and family, not just about climate change, the Ten Pledges, politics, what we can do about plastics, etc. but about how you feel. It’s hard for people to support you if you hide the fact you’re struggling.
  • Grow something – fruit, vegetables or flowers. Good for bees and the planet. If nothing else you will be supporting the ecosystem for slugs and aphids, who are all God’s children and food for birds.
  • Focus on those people you love and make time to love them. Dealing with this stuff on your own is lonely and horrid. Eco-anxiety, like any other form of depression or anxiety, stops us treasuring what we have.
  • Finally, choose your sphere of influence and be kind to yourself about what you are doing. Not everyone is suited to standing on a soapbox, thank goodness. But small things count too. There’s a well- known quotation from American poet Mary Oliver:
    Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

You know what I think? If you’ve been brave enough to get on board with tackling climate change, you’re already doing something remarkable.

Rebellion and resistance

Don’t get sad, get mad…

Okay, let’s get the ranty stuff out of the way. George Monbiot has ratcheted up his rageometer in response to the Government’s decision to put fracking before renewables, citing the relationship between the fossil fuel industry, the City and the Conservative party as the motivation. “These people are not serving the nation. They are serving each other,” he says. It’s not just the UK government that comes under attack from Monbiot: leaders of Germany, Australia and the US all get a whipping. I’m not sure I’m sufficiently well informed to support or contest this, but I do know that unless I fit solar panels before April 2019, I won’t get paid for the energy that they feed into the grid. According to the STA (Solar Trade Association), the number of solar panels being installed in the UK has fallen by more than 80 per cent, a result of an industry strangled by government policies despite being one of the cheapest sources of electricity.
Which, given the current crisis, seems to me bonkers, if not immoral.

Image courtesy of Michael Leunig

The “people’s rebellion”

Monbiot sees a “people’s rebellion” as the only way forward. Now I’m an inveterate abider of rules. I don’t walk when it says Don’t Walk on pedestrian crossings, irrespective of traffic, I’ve never lied about my age (not even on a dating website) and I’ve been known to take a half mile detour because of a road no entry sign. On foot. But I’m with George on this one.

The good news is that the people’s rebellion is happening. It’s well-mannered and peaceful, but a revolt all the same. Thousands marched to Whitehall in September for Chris Packham’s Walk for Wildlife, and a stonking 700,000 protesters (estimated…I’m not sure anyone actually counts them) gathered in Parliament Square recently for the People’s Vote March for a second referendum on Brexit. I didn’t go but I cheered aloud, alone in my kitchen when I heard Delia Smith take the microphone and announce she had never felt so strongly about a political cause in her life, and that now more than ever we needed to be working together with other nations. Let’s hope fracking prompts the same collective resistance, and Saint Delia is there to bless the cause.
On 31 October, Monbiot will speak at the launch of the Extinction Rebellion in Parliament Square, a movement he describes as devoted to disruptive, nonviolent disobedience in protest against ecological collapse. Go George…and the masses.

Meanwhile in the provinces…

I can’t say the spirit of rebellion was quite so alive in my local town on Saturday, when I joined local Friends of the Earth campaigners with their stall promoting shoppers to Use Less Stuff. Said stall was situated not far from a stand selling helium balloons in anticipation of Carnival night. (What are these made of…latex, nylon?) A number of passersby stopped to chat, mostly the converted, and others responded positively, especially around plastics. But there was a fair bit of overt brush-off in terms of body language and avoidance. Some of this will be an understandable aversion to intrusion…I’m not that wild about being stopped myself when I’m out and about. But I sense it’s more than that. I’m not sure if it’s complacency or denial, but my gut feeling is that an awful lot of people just haven’t got the climate change thing. I was sorely tempted to do a Dad’s Army Private Frazer impression, shouting We’re all doomed! in a Scottish accent and making my eyes go poppy. But I’m not sure it would have made much difference and anyway, I’m meant to be peddling hope.

Barbara Kingsolver on optimism

The American novelist Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, Flight Behaviour) manages the hope/despair balance in her fiction in a way to which I can only aspire. In her new novel Unsheltered , she weaves together two narrative strands, one involving  a science teacher, whose employment is threatened by his enthusiasm for Darwin’s new ideas in 1871, the other a woman struggling to keep her family afloat in 2016.  In an interview with Lidija Haas, Kingsolver explains that both historical moments involve a challenge to our assumptions about natural and economic laws, the ‘beliefs that “ice would stay frozen and there would always be more fish in the sea”, that growth and consumption could and should go on forever….that each generation would have more than the last..”

I haven’t yet read Unsheltered but it’s on my Christmas list, (eco-guilt may drive me to Kindle but I still love books made of trees) because the connection works for me. Darwinism forced a shift in perceptions that was unthinkable. We’re in a similar place, and it’s no wonder we feel wobbly. As Kingsolver says, “At the end of an era, people keep grabbing harder on to the world that they know.”  I think we need to understand this resistance, in ourselves and in others, as we seek to effect change.

Kingsolver calls herself an optimist, and her novels leave me hopeful, if rattled. In the real rather than fictional world, I’ve witnessed so much passion and determination, in the media, on-line and in person, to limit environmental damage and fight to ensure our government makes the right decisions, that I too am optimistic.

The last few nights here in Somerset we’ve had  fiery skies and a huge moon. “It’s following us,” my three year old grandson said, as I brought him back for a sleepover. To quote Kingsolver once more, “Only if you love something will you inconvenience yourself to work on its behalf.”  I reckon an awful lot of us are prepared to do just that. Let’s keep it up.

Photo courtesy of Peter Goldie