By Renee Lertzman, guest blogger
As a college freshman in the spring of 1987, I sat in a large lecture hall calmly learning about the array of environmental crises befalling us humans. One week, the topic may be deforestation; another would focus on species loss or toxins. We were introduced to the science of climate change and ozone holes. We learned about all the myriad ways humans had really bungled things up.
I left those classes often in a daze. I would move on to my other studies, which at the time included social psychology and cultural studies. None of which mentioned, at the time, the profound emotional impacts of waking up to our environmental realities. Theodore Rozaks’s seminal book, The Voice of the Earth, which helped connect the dots between ecological crises and psychology, wasn’t published until 1994. Joanna Macy was just getting started with her “Despair and Empowerment” workshops, focusing on feeling our pain for the world and nuclear threat as an expression of our inherent interconnection with all life. The first papers connecting climate change and psychology were emerging by a group of behavioral psychologists focused on risk in the 1980s, and would take another decade to gain traction. It wasn’t a topic being openly addressed, talked about, or even researched.
So, I was genuinely puzzled — these were deeply distressing issues to be learning about. Why was no one actively talking about this? What we were supposed to do with these difficult feelings?
This experience led me to dedicate the rest of my studies and subsequently my profession to these questions, mainly by looking at what clinical psychology had to say about denial, dissociating, loss, grief, and behavior change. (This was, of course, also my way of coping with the potentially overwhelming feelings I had.) I came to appreciate over the years, there are many ways those of us who are deeply concerned channel these feelings. Mine was throwing myself into scholarship, writing, and working with organizations. For some, it may be activism, others, education, or supporting important efforts. And yet for many, these feelings likely remain unspoken and even not fully acknowledged.
Chances are, if you are reading this, you are already deeply concerned, alarmed, and wrestling with how to best manage these feelings. You may have colleagues, family members, partners, neighbors, or fellow parishioners who do not appear to share your level of alarm and concern. You may be finding yourself grappling with despair, grief, and anger over inaction in the face of global climate change. And you may be wondering, how can I maintain hope in the face of such threats?
Thankfully, you are not alone — and more people are now openly speaking to the moment we find ourselves in (and, it must be said, something many people have been suffering with quite silently and privately). New articles are coming out almost daily on the topic, such as this one in the New Yorker. More people are “coming out” with their climate anxiety, despair, and grief.
This is healthy, necessary, and needed. The more open and honest we can be with ourselves, each other, and publicly we can give everyone permission to show up more fully, capably, and effectively. This also includes the need to let go of the “hope” narrative and focus instead on the messier truth.
This may seem counterintuitive. Many people working in the climate and environmental sectors believe that we must maintain an attitude of positivity, aspiration, and hope. We are terrified of depressing or bumming anyone out. We often feel that we have to persuade, sell, pitch, or cheerlead to engage the majority of people who continue to behave “business as usual.” We may find ourselves exhausted and beleaguered by the ongoing challenge to present solutions and “we can do it” to our stakeholders, partners, and supporters. This is called, in Motivational Interviewing, “righting” — when we focus on all the reasons certain behavioral changes (this includes voting) are the “right” thing to do. However, more often than not, we are managing our own difficult, painful feelings and sense of urgency by confronting people with all the “right” reasons we need to take action now.
The reality, however, is that a compassionate approach is often the most effective. We do not need to force ourselves to be cheery or to only focus on the pain. We can embody the paradox of both. Compassion can be expressed by simply naming how hard these issues may be, or how powerless one can feel in the face of these threats. Compassion is about giving permission to show up as our full selves, without judgement or shame. It is about creating the conditions that support our optimal capacities. This attitude appreciates the anxiety, ambivalence, and aspirations that may come up around our climate and environmental crises.
All of these — what I call “The Three A’s” — are understandable responses as we face the difficult truths of our climate reality. Rather than trying to tamp these down and only focus on aspiration and “mobilization,” our work is so much more effective when we can be honest, vulnerable, and real. When we allow space in our work, whether it’s conversations, campaign strategies, educating, engaging, or advocacy, to speak and name the full spectrum of our experience.
This is the paradox of change. When we “befriend” our own feelings and complicated experiences, we allow others to do the same. And it’s only through allowing all of the messy feelings to be there, and engaged, that we can fuel our efforts with the lifeforce and vitality so needed right now.
Decades after that semester in college, I’m convinced that the most powerful and radical thing any of us can do is to communicate openly about how we feel. To be real, honest, and authentic. To share our despair, as well as what energizes us. We can design our programs, campaigns, and initiatives with emotional intelligence, to partner with those who have this expertise, and together create a new kind of climate work. One that allows us to be fully human, real, and empowered. That when we welcome our experience, as raw and messy as it may be, we are embodying the true kind of leadership our planet is needing from us right now.
Renee Lertzman is based in the Bay Area and runs an international consultancy, supporting climate and environmental organizations with capacity building, strategic advising, and engagement work. She is a public speaker and writer, and has taught courses on climate, environment, and psychology for two decades. She has a PhD in social sciences, and published her research in her book Environmental Melancholia. She can be reached at reneelertzman.com.