By Curtis Tuden
I have a problem with climate change. It’s not the problem of scientific proof that we’re all used to. Thankfully years of schooling, public debate, and day to day living in extreme weather fluctuation has settled that problem. Clearly climate change is here to stay, and if you don’t agree then stop reading this and go back to your cave. If you do agree then you may also be dealing with my problem. It’s the next problem; what do we do now?
My past five years have been spent looking for an answer. I started with the hope that we could fix things and go back to a time when nobody worried. That was naive. Evidence surrounds us in exponentially melting ice caps, rising sea levels, increasing industrialization, and never-ending political folly. We cannot go back; so what then?
This permanent problem of climate change and all that comes with it is traumatic. If you’re not upset then enjoy the blissful ignorance, I hope it lasts a lifetime. The rest of us must treat it like any other trauma: first we cope, then we heal, then we move on. For me, a recent series of community meetings helped put this process in perspective. What follows is an account of those meetings and how I will be applying the lessons learned. May it help you plan for a life in our age of crisis.
The time I’ve had to engage with climate change issues was a privilege enabled by my parents and I’m forever grateful to them. Most twenty-somethings can’t afford to volunteer so much of their life without the type of support my Mom and Dad provided. I’ve learned that a person’s time is meaningless without opportunity. Thankfully my community of friends and passionate neighbors provide an ample supply. I share a growing sentiment that Medford and its surrounding area is undergoing a kind of community renaissance. I’d be lost without it and it’s a major theme in the rest of this writing.
Chapter 1: Active Hope
There is a method for coping with climate change. It’s called Active Hope, meaning the process and participation in achieving a desired outcome. It is also the title of the community meetings I attended which were inspired by a book of the same name by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone. The method’s specific steps are detailed below but we begin with what the authors call a hope statement. For example, “Love wins,” is a hope statement because it isn’t a fact but those living a love filled life can actively make it true. In the context of this writing a useful hope statement is, “Humans will overcome climate change.” It’s not a fact but if enough people live with it in mind and practice Active Hope it will become true.
This is all very faith based and it should come as no surprise that the community meetings were held inside a church. Because of this I think a quick disclaimer on religion is necessary. Practicing Active Hope and coping with climate change does not come with a religious mandate. I in no way advocate for a specific faith based institution. After being raised secular and spending time in multiple places of worship I feel comfortable saying, “I believe in God.” Also, I know climate change is real. Believing and knowing are two different things and both play an important role in practicing Active Hope.
Now for each community meeting’s practical details. The first of three events at Grace Episcopal Church in Medford was titled, “The Great Turning.” About 20 participants gathered together, all the type that makes or has time for community engagement on a Wednesday evening. My early feelings were of uncertainty, both because of my problem with climate change and because this meeting could have gone in any direction. A similar sense came from others but luckily we were led by Reverend Noah Evans. Noah, as he prefers to be called, welcomed us all and, after a prayer, began by introducing his perspective on the Great Turning in society. It’s a cycle of Complacency, Revolution, and Deterioration that we all move through.
In the context of climate change, Noah proposed that it was humanity’s modern lifestyle with complacent dependence on environmental degradation that created our problem. A revolution was thus required to move forward. The intensity of a revolution then deteriorates back into complacency with everyday life in the new, environmentally sustainable society we create.
This didn’t resonate with me right away. I do all I can think of to not be complacent with climate change so the need for revolution wasn’t apparent to me. By talking this out with other participants, most of whom were decades older than me, we shared an epiphany; different generations do not live at the same point in the Great Turning. As a young person who grew up learning how to be environmentally conscious I am complacent when living a sustainable life. Older groups of people are not the same. Changing lifelong environmentally irresponsible behavior is dramatic. Along with my peers who are uncomfortable littering or only eat organic foods, we are complacently living another generation’s revolution.
Within our group I started to appreciate the effort of older generations to recognize the problem and make changes. The older generation appreciated that young people are already making necessary progress. Outside our group society may not be so copacetic but at least those in attendance could proceed together without dissonance.
Noah then offered the first meeting’s thesis: finding a foundation in gratefulness is essential to life, especially in times of crisis. Overcoming trauma in any situation requires an individual find something in life to be grateful for. It is the healthiest first step and leads to a settling of the mind, if just for an instant.
Our group agreed with this lesson but conversation turned to its difficulty to execute. In life’s dark moments finding gratitude can seem impossible. Consensus was that practice makes perfect. If you’re going through tough times find just one source of relief and be grateful for that. Doing this more every day is the practice of building a foundation.
Related to climate change your foundation doesn’t have to be environmentally oriented. Look to family, friends, comforts of home and all the usual sources of relief from instability. Group members left after that first meeting resolved to practice gratefulness over the following week.
We returned for meeting number two, titled Seeing With New Eyes, encouraged by a productive beginning. We began this time with a meditation exercise in the Buddhist tradition known as Breathing Through. With eyes closed and minds quiet we spent time focused on our steady breath. Noah gradually prompted us to connect our breath with life at many levels. The act of breathing is shared by all life. By meditating, an individual can find resonance within oneself. In a group setting it’s possible to feel the same connection to those in the room. With enough practice, your breath can be connected to life at any scale.
After a week of being grateful and sharing this moment connected to life’s great forces our group was feeling great. It was then that Noah introduced more painful thoughts. We began meditating on all the plight in our own lives. Then we were asked to consider the millions of people who struggle through extreme and inhumane situations from day to day. Our new thoughts on pain conveyed the second meeting’s lesson, that living close to pain without being overcome by it is paramount.
No healing is instantaneous. Physical trauma requires time spent in discomfort, often times agony. Mental or existential trauma is no different. Overcoming climate change will require an ability to sense suffering but still go on living. Being numb to the pain does more harm than good and ultimately stunts healthy growth.
Living with pain was the lesson of meeting two but healthy growth was its main theme. For example, after a physical trauma healthy growth means the closing of a wound, a return of functionality, and maturation through life. It’s important to identify healthy growth after cases of mental or existential trauma as well. Post mental trauma, clear indicators of poor health are addictive behavior, isolation, depression, etc. The effects of existential trauma that climate change poses are less well documented but could include escape from the problem into materialism, dependence on convenience, or a life of hypocrisy. My personal recovery process will be detailed soon but the group left meeting number two very grounded from the night’s talks. Combining meditation, breathing exercises, acknowledgement of personal and social pain, along with group discussion is a recipe for healthy growth that I recommend to anyone.
After spending a week considering these lessons and preparing for our final meeting I encountered a scheduling conflict. I could not attend the group session but thankfully Noah set aside an afternoon of his time to cover everything in the Active Hope series. His account of meeting number three, titled Going Forth, was focused on imagining a future with climate change. The group’s lesson was to take this future, or many possible futures, then work back to plan and prepare. Using Medford for example, maybe the future is one of extreme sea level rise and we have to live with mass migration after the evacuation of Boston and other coastal towns. Would you stay where you are or attempt to leave yourself? Or perhaps the future will bring a colossal snow storm to our area, one that leaves you isolated for intense periods of time. How will you prepare your household? If you think this is bad it’s worth considering even more extreme situations. Think about if the current California drought makes life unlivable in that region of the country. Whose side will you be on in the resulting war for the Great Lakes’ water supply?
That last example is dystopian to say the least but this exercise serves a dual purpose. The primary purpose is that considering possible futures will help you become more prepared. Use your foundation in gratefulness and ability to live without being overcome by pain to make good decisions. The more reason you apply to existential trauma the easier it is to overcome and being prepared will better enable healthy growth.
A secondary purpose is to embrace the ridiculous nature of future possibility. Our imagination is both capable of extremely creative guessing but also incapable of knowing what will happen exactly. Imagining an American civil war over resources is hard to take seriously but that’s likely what many people thought in the Middle East before drought lead to political instability and ultimately terrorism and mass migration. Is it crazy to think that would happen here or irresponsible to not consider and plan for? Embracing ridiculousness allows you to laugh in the face of terrible uncertainty.
Reverend Noah and I covered more material in our one-on-one session but this concludes the summary of our community’s Active Hope meetings. The lectures themselves were ultimately reaffirming. I realized my previous five years of engaging with climate change issues had been a form of Active Hope. While my life’s trend would have likely continued on this way without the Grace Church series, I now have a working vocabulary to help explain my plan for the future.
Chapter 2: Applying the Lessons Learned
I think it is important to learn the lessons from Grace Church’s community meetings. That being said they are not dogma. As stated before there is no religious mandate involved and while methods for overcoming physical and mental trauma are medically tested the existential trauma of climate change is uncharted territory. With all this in mind the following describes how I will use the lessons in my own life. My intention is open a dialog outside the Active Hope series. Hopefully my thoughts can be related to and if not, then critiqued.
From lesson one I begin with an assessment of my foundation in gratefulness. If you read the acknowledgements section of this writing you’ll remember that I have a lot to be grateful for. Most importantly, support from family and friends along with opportunity to pursue a life of purpose within my hometown community is vital to me. It’s not that I didn’t work hard to build a life I’m grateful for but I do recognize the privileged starting ground, especially when comparing it to others.
These days talking about privilege must come with a trigger warning. I’m a young, healthy, educated, straight, white, man. Sure, I’ve had my own struggles in life but I can’t honestly say it has been a fair share. Others may have to do a great deal more work to build a foundation in gratefulness when overcoming trauma. In getting to that point myself, fortune was on my side.
While I can’t offer great advice for starting from a shallow foundation in gratefulness, there is one mindset I’ll advocate for. Think of your foundation as soil from which to grow, not a structure on which to build. The main reason for this is it’s a better analogy. Growing from soil places you within an environment that supports life. Building on a structure is material and more aesthetic than humanistic. Also if a structure fails it can be catastrophic. Setbacks in nature return to the Earth and begin again in the life cycle. In time one can grow again.
My foundation is still not perfect. It is shaken by a beautiful day as much as it is by a hurricane. By that I mean in today’s world of climate change, extreme weather is a constant warning of trouble ahead. We’re all alarmed by unseasonal, more frequent, supercharged hurricanes. On the news they are unsettling. Overhead they can be life changing. The same is true of beautiful, sixty degree days in January. It will be a while before I’ve adjusted to living in daily extremes.
Despite this unsettled feeling I must be able to grow. Healthy growth is the top priority and at an individual level it begins with taking care of my physical and mental self. I manage this by relying on my foundation for support and monitoring behaviors that may stunt me, like materialism, dependence on convenience, and hypocrisy.
Society recognizes materialism to be a problem less than it does climate change. The two are inextricably tied because consumption of material goods drives environmental destruction. It affects individuals by offering an escape from uncertainty because obtaining and possessing a material item is a form of false gratification. Obviously we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of goods we need or tools that enable innovative lifestyles. I am just actively aware of my own material consumption as an indicator of unhealthy, stunted growth.
A dependence on convenience is also a warning sign. Recognition of it begins at the frontlines of day to day life and modernity. Humans have always strived to innovate and make life easier, that’s in our nature. In our society, especially suburban middle class America, there is more opportunity for imbalance. New life-hacks and technological trends should be tried and tested. My healthy assessment of this staves off sloth and enables a more efficient life.
To me, hypocrisy is the greatest threat to my healthy growth because it rarely is self-evident. I’ve said multiple times in this essay that I live an environmentally conscious life. Perhaps I am just kidding myself? Without regular evaluation of your life it could become something completely other than what you intended. This is where having peers who tell you the truth is most important. I need my friends to call me out if I’m not seeing clearly. After them, education is the best defense of self-ignorance. There is plenty of analysis online that can tell you how each moment you spend leaves behind an environmental footprint.
Meditation on these threats to healthy growth is a great way to secure your foundation. As in the Breathing Through exercise from meeting two, it can also enable a life lived without being overcome by pain. I’ve been meditating for years and can attest to the benefits. In a climate change context, I truly do feel a connection to life at many levels while being sensitive to its significant pains. How I would have gotten to this point without meditation isn’t clear to me so offering other methods is inappropriate. If you truly don’t want to spend the time quieting and expanding your mind, you’re at risk of living a calloused life just to get through the pain.
That covers my strategy for individual healthy growth. It was five years in the making and now I am comfortable. At least that was until I considered the next stage of healthy growth, beyond my own life. I’m talking now about family planning.
A person’s life extends beyond the self. Like all species our drive is to ultimately reproduce and replace ourselves in the world. A big problem is that climate change also extends beyond one lifetime. If my existential threat will also be a problem for future generations I must consider it when planning their creation. What kind of world do I want to bring my children into?
Going forth and using lessons from the one-on-one meeting with Noah, my mind immediately conjures up images of a future like contemporary Syria or Europe. Mass migration is a possibility for all and clearly those with small children are suffering the most. Would it be responsible to wait out this crisis while I’m more independent? How can I guarantee security for myself and my theoretical child?
I posed this question to Noah and I’m grateful for the wisdom he shared. He said security becomes a false idol and to covet it is another threat to healthy growth. I can’t let myself be held back by impending thoughts of doom. It’s a problem I had created for myself, and it’s not new or unique to climate change. All through history people have faced existential threats that could be used as an excuse to delay family planning. Decades ago the threat of nuclear holocaust could have been paralyzing. Before that, world war threatened us all. Before that, economic depression, disease, famine, all threatened family planning for young people. Luckily they either overcame that fear or couldn’t overcome their other urges, if you know what I mean.
Noah also chimed in on the beautiful aspects of raising family in the age of climate change. A father himself, he said being able to instill a future generation with environmental consideration beyond even your own best practices is the ultimate reward. Thus, having children of your own or doing what you can to teach future generations to be responsible is the ultimate form of healthy growth. This thought will keep me living, while cultivating a fertile ground to be the next generation’s foundation for growth.
Chapter 3: A Few Remaining Thoughts
The previous chapter concluded my life’s application of lessons learned from the Active Hope community meetings. Because the series and one-on-one time with Noah had so much rich content there are still some ideas I’d like to cover. These are more open ended ideas than lessons but hopefully they can be usefully thought provoking.
I’ll begin with something I mentioned earlier, that security can become a false idol. This ties in with my approach to climate change from early in life, when I felt the need to go back to a time when people didn’t worry about the environment, or at least weren’t threatened by it. I called my work in this effort naïve, but it may be worse than that. It may actually be inhumane. If large groups of people adopt the idea that they can be secure from ill effects of climate change, some will be right. The problem is that many will not be able to achieve this privileged life. The world would be turned into a scarier version of our current economic inequality. If that becomes environmental inequality, or perhaps more appropriately called inhumanity, we risk the possibility of massive population loss. Please understand this and use the idea to confront those who may take a have-and-have-not approach. It cannot be tolerated.
In this sense it is worth comparing humanity’s struggle to overcome climate change to slavery’s abolitionist movement. The same way it took many generations to overcome slavery’s terrible nature, it will take many generations to overcome climate change’s terrible effects on nature. We still fight civil rights battles to this day because so much of society was allowed to keep its mind closed to racial equality. If you understand this then please call on your neighbor to open their mind to environmental equality and ensure the future has enough fertile ground for all to grow on.
Noah had a term for this type of lifestyle. It is that of a Resident Alien and the term has its roots in 20th Century Christian Theology. The meaning is that life should be lived as though no place on Earth is yours to claim. Instead live as though you were a guest in this world, paying proper respects to your host and those guests who may come to live in your stead.
I close with an idea that can offer comfort but may be too strange and cumbersome to fit into daily life. It is called the Gaia Hypothesis which proposes, “organisms interact with their environment on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that maintains the conditions for life on our planet.” Noah provided the term after I posed a thought that human beings will inevitably be overcome by climate change, and that we’re supposed to be.
All through life’s history on Earth there have been mass extinctions. We all grew up learning about how the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor that hit the planet. We use that information today and there’s a whole scientific community dedicated to scanning the solar system for possible threats, and an arsenal of weaponry to destroy them. The defense system isn’t perfect but it gets better every day. If humanity were to prevent a global catastrophe and save all life that exists it would make the last 200 years of environmental degradation worth it. I like to think this is our niche in life.
After these global heroics there are two possibilities. One is that climate change is under control and human beings live on. Maybe we evolve or realize a singularity with technology. It’s not easy to predict but nice to think about. The other possibility is tougher to reconcile. We may eventually be overcome by climate change. All that would exist is a record of our self-destruction.
The comforting part of all this, what the Gaia Hypothesis proposes, is that life will find a way to move on without humanity in existence. The same way humans were able to look back in the fossil record, identify the downfall of dinosaurs, and account for that in existence; future species will be able to discover our fallen civilization and learn that to live even longer than humans, they need to respect the environment as life sustaining.
If you’re like me this seemingly absurd prediction of the future is enough to heal climate change’s existential trauma. If you’re not comforted by this I recommend practicing Active Hope in your day to day life. It will help you build a foundation on which to grow and plan a healthy future. One I look forward to sharing with you.