How to act
“The cause of climate instability is everything: every dimension of our separation from earth, nature, heart, truth, love, community, and compassion.”
Charles Eisenstein in Climate: A New Story
How would you respond to the criticism that this perspective is overly focused on the personal or local outcome?
As you know very well, the fight for climate action is also a fight for social justice more broadly, and especially for those that are already feeling the grim effects of climate change.
This is a topic that Kai also wrote about back in March.
I think what’s often behind this sort of question is the desire to know: how can I have the biggest impact? And behind that: how can I feel OK about my participation in a system which I know is destroying the Earth? Surely by doing the thing that will have the biggest impact? Even if it doesn’t work, at least I can say I tried!
Our culture is obsessed with quantitative reasoning. For any given problem, the default response is to figure out what to measure, find the most impactful change according to that measure, and then try to implement that change as widely as possible. This is a reductionist frame which overlooks the relationships between things and the non-linearity with which change can happen. (Look at COVID-19 – how many futurists were confidently predicting this a year ago?)
In Kai’s article, he points to research showing that over 70% of emissions to date came from just 100 oil, gas and mining companies. If only we could somehow force those companies to change tack, we’d be well on our way to solving the problem.
The thing is, those companies aren’t digging the stuff up and then just putting a match to it. They’re selling it to other companies and individuals who want the energy. The behaviour of those fossil fuel companies is deeply entwined with how our economy works, how we live our lives, and how we collectively value (or don’t value) the world around us. It’s a complex system – a change to one part does not produce a predictable outcome in another.
I used to believe that I could force change. In a world of globalisation and Elon Musks and career ladders we’re told that we can be somebody, we can leave a legacy, we can have an impact. I can’t quite pinpoint where in history this story first arose, but it seems to be another facet of the neoliberal individualist story which denies the connections between us all. It’s driven by the ego, who so easily forgets that in the not too distant future our atoms will be rearranged once more.
Asking whether I should change myself or change the system still centres the individual making that decision. Perhaps by building strong communities a different kind of force could emerge.
In truth, I am not trying to act in a certain way, nor to tell you how to act. Action got us into this mess. When I deeply reflect on what an ecological society would look like, it is completely unrecognisable from where I’m standing. I do not know how to get there. (I do trust that it will emerge, but I suspect I won’t be around to see that time.)
What I have done is reached a place of acceptance about that storm brewing on the horizon. I still wish to live my life in a way that feels true to my values. Sometimes that may look like changing my electricity provider or divesting my pension or getting on a bike. But I do those things because they feel like the best way to express the world I want to live in, rather than because I think it will stop the storm from coming, or because I feel guilty about being the person I am, in the time that I’m in.
I don’t believe there’s one single area we can all focus on that will achieve the change that is needed. Everything needs to change. So do what you’re drawn to do rather than the thing you’ve calculated will have the biggest impact according to some measure of the situation which undoubtedly overlooks countless things we cannot understand.
For a much deeper exploration of these themes, I highly recommend reading Charles Eisenstein’s book, Climate: A New Story.