Dancing With Climate Dissonance

In this societal moment, those of us who act from a place of knowledge and acceptance of the climate crisis — not just its physical and intellectual reality, but its scale and implications for society — often feel like aliens moving in disguise among the normal humans. It’s a bit like The Matrix: once you take the red pill and decide to grapple with the true nature of reality, everything around you acquires a different cast. Surface appearances remain the same, but the meaning and implications of behaviors, geographies, and events all shift dramatically. This transition can be lonely and scary, but also exhilarating and empowering. At this moment, those who are awake are still in the minority — but that time is very rapidly drawing to an end.

As you experience this chasm between your own worldview and those you interact with, the most important thing to keep in mind is that a broad and rapid shift in the popular perspective is not only inevitable, but is already under way. Within a few years, our cultural and political climate will be completely different; the question is not whether this change will occur, but in which way it will break. As those who are already awake to this crisis, or are busy getting woke, we must remind ourselves that we are in the midst of a torrid transformation of our collective understanding of the world. At this moment, our task is not to figure out how to solve the climate crisis given the current state of society, but instead 1) to channel this unfolding psychosocial transition in positive directions as best we can, and 2) to lay the groundwork, in knowledge, tools, and capabilities, for the all-hands-on-deck effort that our civilization will undertake once the shock has passed. More on those in subsequent posts, because first we need to talk about feelings.

Embedded within this reading of the situation is the following: none of us are any use in this project when we are unable to face the day. While it goes by a number of terms — climate depression, anxiety, despair, grief — it is natural and unavoidable that, both as we acclimate to this reality and as we show up to do our work to bend the future in a better direction, each of us will suffer emotionally. Some of us will feel this more keenly and persistently than others, and the range of experiences here will be diverse; this is not an area of expertise or special insight for me, but I have seen enough people struggle through these experiences to know that I am far from alone in having them.

And yet, it is taking action that provides relief from this looming fear — certainty of a good outcome is not what we need , but rather the (hopefully well-founded) sense that we are doing what we can to improve the situation. I have found that my own fears and anxiety about the climate future have lessened dramatically since I took on this work — even as my level of knowledge about the severity and specifics of our situation have increased.

There are powerful forces within us that push us away from discomfort, and this is certainly the case with the climate crisis. Many have asked why it has taken so long for more people to pay attention and reckon with the reality. Recently, investigative reporting has revealed active disinformation and deflection campaigns by vested interests to prevent political will from forming around a response. This is true, and deeply nefarious, but the psychological mechanisms that those campaigns exploited are just as real. There is nothing more natural, more human, than to believe that everything will remain as it has been, and that change, when it does come, will be gradual and positive.

From that point of view, it’s completely understandable that mainstream public discourse has clung to the oil giants’ narrative; the alternative is profoundly discomforting. The fear of engaging with the climate crisis, the fear of the unknown and what it would mean to accept that reality, is worse than the fear we experience when actually doing the work. In this way, climate work is selfish: in devoting ourselves to this, we find some measure of serenity. At least on the good days. 😉