Making our power visible in the face of extinction

By Matt Byrne

I am alarmed by climate change. As I put my children to sleep, it is the one thing that truly makes me fearful for their future. The rest we can work out or stumble through but this one is bigger than us –  we need help. I can feel the alarm, hammering away inside my chest, as I hold them closer for a fraction longer before placing them down in their cots for the night.

Humans have been altering the climate for thousands of years. The advent of agriculture in the Holocene geological period (around 11,560 years ago) created the conditions to keep planet Earth in an extended interglacial. The widespread adoption of farming helped stave off the glaciers, so to speak. Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution and we see some geologists arguing that we have now entered the Anthropocene period, in which mankind’s impact on the environment is the dominant force[1]. The last 100 years have seen a 1 degree centigrade rise; the heating is speeding up and we are stepping on the accelerator. I am alarmed.

Yes, we need a movement; yes, we need to resort to civil disobedience to push for change in a society where it is not truth but money that speaks to power. Those of us without access to bulging wads of cash have another currency – mass mobilisation. The question is, when so many people think that reversing climate change is an issue that is simply too big for them, on an overwhelming scale, how do you get them onto the streets? Or at a minimum, supporting those in the streets and taking the small but necessary steps towards improving the health of the planet today and every day. How do we get past the denial, the doom, the stasis?

About eight years ago I accompanied indigenous groups in Colombia reclaiming land that they had lost to paramilitary forces. Once evicted, the lands were used for palm oil plantation. The choice they were given, if any, was often a legal fiction, to have “shares” in the new palm oil company. The groups returning to their lands would mark out plots, defend it with a sign and a single piece of wire or string, a humanitarian fence if you like, to reclaim their land, their space, their freedom and dignity. It took a lot of courage and trial and error but collectively they overcame.

So, how do you get your mother, your granny, your friends, your enemies (maybe more importantly your enemies) to overcome their fears and onto the streets with you? Perhaps psychology has the answer. The unwieldy but cleverly titled book What we think about when we try not to think about Global Warming. Towards a New Psychology of Climate Action (Stoknes)[2] offers us four simple strategies to go about it:

  1. Be social. Make climate change urgent by showing its impacts on your community closer to home. The melting of distant glaciers or forest fires in California will not stress you too much if you live in Exeter. Climate change is closer, though, if we sense it in the air we breathe.
  2. Be supportive. There are positive things we can do. Prophecies of doom can and do discourage and overwhelm people. A greener earth is a healthier earth, a greener economy creates new jobs and drives creativity. Rewilding and reforestation are easy for most people to be on board with, we can be ecosystem gardeners. That doesn’t seem so terrible does it? Now, get your shoes on!
  3. Be simple. Yes, march and while on the way, recycle and refresh yourself afterwards with a water saving showerhead. There are hundreds of small nudges that can shift people’s behaviour greatly, if we identify them, we can share them.
  4. Share stories. We thrive on stories, and great stories can and do shape our identities. Find your heroes and tell everyone about them.

We need to act because all the scientific research and evidence in the world does not seem to be shifting people or policy. If that isn’t evident from the muted response by governments to the most recent IPCC report, or the downright blatant rejection by others, see the UK’s and Australia’s responses in both word and deed.

One reason is because there are two types of power here – hidden and invisible. Hidden power is the back door dealings, the lobbying, the horse trading, the old boy’s network. Such vested interests do not need evidence to operate. Invisible power is more insidious, causing the relatively powerless to internalize and accept their condition.[3] The #MeToo movement is a great and welcome example of invisible power becoming visible.

We need to act. We need to move. Moral psychology has developed the analogy of the hive. We are 90% chimp and 10% bee. In our minds, we each possess a hive switch[4] and once flipped, it allows us to transcend our individual self-interest and feel the power of the collective, the power of the group, to be part of something larger than our individual selves. We have all experienced the flipping of the switch, be it through the simple awe of nature, the ecstatic energy of dance at a rave, or through the traditional use of hallucinogens (such as Ayahuasca) to mark the transition to adulthood. In a group dynamic the flipped hive switch fosters love, trust and equality. It offers us another strategy to cement the movement through collective actions – let’s bring back raves,  forest sit-ins, you name it! I would get outside for that and I think we could convince a lot of other people to do so too.

[1] For more I recommend this; Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin’s The Human Planet. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/298/298037/the-human-planet/9780241280881.html

[2] https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/what-we-think-about-when-we-try-not-to-think-about-global-warming/ or the ubiquitous Ted Talk summary is here: https://www.ted.com/talks/per_espen_stoknes_how_to_transform_apocalypse_fatigue_into_action_on_global_warming

[3] You can download Duncan Green’s book How Change Happens for free here: http://how-change-happens.com/

[4] You can read about the hive in Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind. Why good people are divided by politics and religion” https://righteousmind.com/ The last chapter will make you rethink conservatives!

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