“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:
- I don’t believe it’s that dangerous.
- It isn’t my role to sort this out.
- I don’t want to stand out from the crowd.
- This information threatens my commercial or political interests.
- It’s so upsetting I prefer not to think about it.
- I feel paralysed. I’m aware of the danger, but I don’t know what to do.
- 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.