We respond to fire drills as if they are the real thing. Why not take the IPCC’s planetary-wide CODE RED seriously?
We could be looking at the extinction of our species or the collapse of civilization (again). According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the entire planet’s climate system is changing in ways that are “unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years”.1 As American futurist Alex Steffen says, we are in “an all-encompassing discontinuity, and no one knows anything for sure about what’s coming”.2 Things could prove to be a lot worse than the IPCC predicts—or a lot less severe. We may face deadly heat waves like the one that kills millions in the opening chapters of Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate fiction novel Ministry for the Future. We may generate breakthroughs in carbon capture and sequestration that reverse global warming. No one knows the future. But the code red is clear. And this may well be our last opportunity to put out the fire.
Let’s be honest. All of the many worthwhile things we as individuals have been doing for the last forty years—recycling, switching to electric vehicles, installing solar panels, advocating for policy changes—feel like exercises in futility. Conversations that have the potential to actually change things at a grand scale in our world, like those happening at COP 26, are very few and very far between. You and I don’t have access to them. And even if we did, it seems that too many of the ones being held these days pander to vested interests and the demons of polarization, leaving humanity with watered down solutions to our most pressing climate-related problems.
I don’t know about you, but I feel as if I am one of 7 billion victims of a looming climate disaster. The daily challenges of pandemic living only deepen my angst and despair.
I don’t want to be a victim. I want to grab the opportunity this dangerous moment presents. But to do so, I will need to relate to the future like an explorer, with curiosity, not fear and anxiety. I will need to embrace the unknown and the uncertain in a mood of optimistic resolve. I will need to commit to the possibility we can overcome this threat before any evidence exists that it is even possible. As my coach Jim Selman says, I will need to become “existentially confident”.
In this spirit of existential confidence, I commit to an experiment. I will change who I am being (a victim) by changing how I relate to everything—to myself and others, climate and time—and then see what one middle-aged Canadian woman can do to improve life on this planet.
Many of my waking hours are spent listening to the unending stream of thoughts flowing through the echo chamber of my mind. The world “should” be other than what it is. I “should” be able to do something significant and impactful about the climate. I “should” choose the right thing to do. These “shoulds”, these ideas of control and illusions of heroic grandeur, are my ego’s covert way of keeping me trapped in a spiralling doom-and-gloom story. Enough of this stinking thinking.
The world is what it is.
I am able to respond to it.
That is, I can be responsible for it. I don’t have to be a leader, per se. I can be a “trim tab”. Essentially, a trim tab assumes responsibility for using the resistance of the ocean to power a change in a ship’s direction. I can be responsible for nudging humanity in another direction, and I can have a positive relationship with resistance.
Rather than try to overpower the reality of climate change, I can acknowledge we are not going to “fix” the world in the time we have. Rather than trying to forcefully change the direction of my community, country or continent away from a dystopian fossil-fueled future, I can create more space in conversations for the long-term viability of a future powered by renewable energy sources, a circular economy, industrial carbon capture, geoengineering, and plant-rich diets, among many other possibilities. By pushing ever so slightly against the current trajectory of our society, I can direct more energy to a vision of a sustainable world, a vision that includes the mistakes made by relating to the environment as a source of “resources” to be extracted and controlled.
Just because I make this shift does not mean anything will necessarily change. Our civilization is much larger and more complex than a ship. Survival is not a sure thing. However, the trim tab metaphor inspires me to move beyond the comfort of my well-worn victimhood and rugged individualism.
My experiment shifts to reflecting on how I can create more “space” in conversations. When I’m with someone who, like me, believes climate change is a real threat, it’s easy to be respectful and interested, open and generous in my listening of them. Generating a collaborative relationship can happen almost effortlessly.
On the other hand, when I’m listening to someone who believes climate change is a hoax, listening generously is not so easy. I intentionally avoid trying to justify my decisions, prove a point, or validate my opinion. Instead, I stand in a vision of humanity surviving climate disruptions and consciously generate moods of curiosity, anticipation and wonder. (Moods are contagious, and these three are especially conducive to learning, innovation and collaboration.) Rather than defensively discounting what others think and sticking with my own point of view, I practice zooming out to include their points of view and zooming in to catch the nuances of mood, mindset and history that shape their beliefs. I speak respectfully and listen for learning, for possibility, and for opportunity.
To discern where real opportunities lie, I let my curiosity lead. I read and ask questions. I seek out and explore anomalous ideas and practices at the fringe that challenge conventional wisdom and which may, one day, become mainstream. In this way, I combine learning about various possibilities to identify which are actually opportunities that warrant attention, energy and resources.
I also pay attention to moods and everything they conceal or reveal: what people care about, what possibilities they can see, what choices they have. Anger, for example, tells me a line has been crossed that someone thinks shouldn’t have. Frustration, that something isn’t moving in the direction wanted or at the speed expected. Resentment, that someone or something has not been treated fairly. By validating what each person is experiencing, I create openings to work together to take care of those underlying concerns.
I accept the facts the IPCC has presented: our climate is changing. But that acceptance doesn’t make it a central concern. If there is a deadline for humanity, we do not know exactly what it is. We might evolve into a race of superhuman beings capable of living in much less hospitable climates. Or we might survive by going through a radical and irreversible social revolution. Admittedly, evolution takes time. Revolution is messy.
That has me considering transformation as the way to go. Specifically, transforming my relationship to what is happening with climate by declaring it an emergency. Nothing in the world has to change—neither the climate, nor our civilization—for this transformation to occur. Transformation, defined this way, is a “no change” kind of change that gives me new openings for co-creation. And it can occur in an instant.
“Emergency” graces climate “change” with a certain sense of urgency and reframes it as a finite challenge that must be handled, a challenge for which we can each choose to be personally responsible.
Declaring an emergency reveals what is at stake and what I value and have taken for granted: a certain quality of life with a certain amount of mobility, access to education and career opportunities, freedom to love and to enjoy close relationships with family and friends, and a safe, relatively stable environment in which to raise children and live out my days. The urgency of this “emergency” has me wondering next about whether we can mobilize in time.
We cannot be certain about what the future holds. We can no longer trust the past to guide our decisions. We are literally living in “real time”, operating within instantaneous time frames, moving from one original moment to the next original moment. Charting our way through the unbelievable complexity of our perpetual present by assigning “cause” and “effect” to actions and re-actions can be a highly dubious, if not risky, practice. Thinking in terms of actions and reactions can trap us in a vicious cycle, creating more of what we already have and perpetuating the status quo.
Everything is action. Many of our actions will, of necessity, need to be “originals”.
Take mobilizing people. That is not in my wheelhouse. Common sense would dictate learn how to lead others through crises first, make a commitment to lead some part of an organization through a crisis, then go ahead and do it. Today, that reliance on historical knowledge and experience won’t necessarily work. Not only will it take a lot of time to go through all those experiences. But the “how” of mobilization would also be based on something that worked for events in the past, not necessarily the unprecedented planetary-wide crises happening in the impermanence of the present “now”.
I need to somehow learn in real time, even as extreme weather events wreak havoc, breakdowns multiply, and conditions continue to degrade everywhere. Most of my learning in life so far has happened in silent solitude with a big stack of books. Yet mobilizing people isn’t something that can be learned this way. I need to learn in action in real time.
In one of those books, I stumble across the idea of appropriation. Appropriating offers me a way to learn from people directly just what I need to know, when I need to know it, and to leverage the intelligence of the collective. Instead of registering for a general program or course, I quickly research online who the key voices are in specific subjects of interest. I participate in virtual conversations in their communities, bringing my curiosity and wonder to what I don’t know yet. I reach out to individuals who follow a diversity of these voices to find out whether my observations are correct, and then apply more critical thinking to choose whose ideas and practices to study in further detail. This not only helps me avoid getting attached to a single point of view and then reacting to other opinions. It also makes the best possible use of my time.
My little experiment in changing who I am being has ended (for now). I started with a focus on climate change, but what I have gained applies much more broadly. Insight into the fact that everything I do affects the environment—and everything in my life is affected by climate. Proof that it is possible to live with epic amounts of ambiguity. Recognition that my old habit of needing to understand everything actually inhibits my ability to be with what is emerging. And humility upon realizing the vastness of how much I don’t know.
From this moment forward, I intend to make the most of each and every opportunity I have to be in edifying conversations with others who are taking this planetary-wide CODE RED seriously. Together we can use the world as it is—with its extreme weather and climate disasters—as raw material to create the world that can be.
1 “Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying – IPCC”, IPCC press release, August 9, 2021. Accessed November 4, 2021 at https://www.ipcc.ch/2021/08/09/ar6-wg1-20210809-pr/.
2 Alex Steffen, “Discontinuity is the job”, The Snap Forward, August 8, 2021. Accessed August 30 at https://alexsteffen.substack.com/p/discontinuity-is-the-job.