By Rosemary Faire
“I’m an activist first and a therapist second”, I heard myself saying to Sally with surprising clarity and quite a charge. We had been discussing how to structure a short “self-sustainability” session for staff in a government environmental department as part of “mental health month”. The theme I had proposed for this session was: How do we take care of ourselves as we face the global challenge of climate change? Sally was suggesting that perhaps beginning with workplace issues and then broadening the discussion to more global issues would be wise? Some of them might not even have thought about climate change?
I found myself reacting quite strongly to this suggestion. I had spent most of my career teaching and supporting people, with body-oriented and arts-based approaches, to take care of themselves in difficult life and work situations; but now the spectre of climate change and its implications for life on earth loomed large for me, overshadowing other self-care issues. “If they haven’t yet thought about climate change, maybe it’s about time they did!” I blurted.
Reflecting on these statements of mine later, I am reminded of Jungian psychotherapist James Hillman’s work, with which I resonate. For Hillman, modern psychotherapy needs to be situated in a larger context, the context of our currently dysfunctional relationship with the ecological world. In the 90’s I had enjoyed the conversational book he and Ventura had written, We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy - and the world’s getting worse, which explored the idea of the therapy room as a place to support people’s expression of their discomfort with the status quo and the arising impulses toward social change activism - “awakening civil courage” - rather than pathologizing and ameliorating these as unhealed personal past trauma.
I’ve never been able to stomach the idea of being paid to do corporate “personal growth/team building” sessions whose purpose is to make workers more efficient and happy while their corporations are busy adding to the global capitalist growth enterprise that is rapidly extracting, exploiting and decimating the planet. So I guess that’s what I meant by being an activist first, therapist second.
My urgency voice is stroppily saying: At this late stage of my working life, I don’t want to “pussy-foot” around putting people’s comfortableness before the life-death challenge of climate change. It’s clear to me that socially sanctioned climate change ignorance/denial is not bliss, but a ticket to oblivion for human civilization as we know it and most of our fellow species.
However, then I am faced with the “yes, but…” that George Marshall has so eloquently described in his book Don’t even thing about it: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. I realise that Sally was right in being cautious, not only for considering client wellbeing, but even in terms of supporting mobilization: confronting people with the facts has been tried by scientists and activists for many years, and instead of mobilization it has resulted in a backlash response. Clive Hamilton refers to as “sinister” the recent labelling of non-violent and legal activists, by Australian Senator Brandis and others in our climate-recalcitrant government, as “eco-terrorists”, “sociopaths”, “climate catastrophists” and “bullies” who practice “vigilante litigation / lawfare” in order to prevent new massive coal mine developments or coal-seam-gas expansion. Hamilton says these words reveal a deep loathing for environmentalists. Such a loathing presumably springs from the defence of a world-view, and a beloved business-as-usual scenario that is now on increasingly shaky ground.
So how do I honour my feeling of urgency without alienating those who might not yet have dared to come face to face with climate change? How do I find a middle ground: facilitating a movement forward toward engaged citizenship rather than either fostering “comfortable numbness” or feeding a reactionary loathing for “greenies”?
Does one answer lie in sharing stories? When I think about the most memorable aspects of recent talks I’ve attended by inspiring social change agents, what stays with me are their stories. Christopher Wright, co-author of Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: processes of creative self-destruction, has collected and analyzed many climate change narratives from corporate environmentalists; at a recent Living in the Anthropocene meetup in Sydney, he described how his own “climate aha” epiphany actually came after meeting an Al Gore Climate Reality presenter. Scott Ludlam, WA Greens Senator took what he described as “a risk” at a Festival of Democracy session to tell us a personal story: his mind-expanding experience when he, as a young white city-raised environmentalist, was first exposed to the indigenous perspective on uranium mining on their country. At the same session, Julian Assange spoke to us, via Skype from his prolonged confinement, with some humour about how he draws some optimism from the bungling incompetency of the bureaucratic surveillance machine.
The questions so often asked during Q&A sessions after such presentations are: How did you first become involved…? and How do you keep going in the face of…? We want to know the human story behind the scientific facts and the moral imperative.
Because it is the human stories that contain the seeds of empathy, resonance, that can awaken in us, and make it safe to feel, the enormity of this challenge – because others have trodden that path and survived. Thus perhaps it is by sharing our own climate change stories that we can find that delicate middle way toward a movement that can transition us into a liveable world…
By Sally Gillespie
Staying engaged with the realities of global warming is one of the hardest things I have done in my life. Not physically hard, although there are times when I read reports and feel overwhelmed with weariness and a need to lie down, but hard emotionally and mentally, as I face into the enormity of the phenomenon and the limits of my ability to respond to its many challenges. Often I recognise how I want to minimise, or distance myself from, the problem, and the ways that I do this. However once consciousness is expanded to include the reality of escalating global warming, it cannot be readily put aside. So along with admitting this truth comes the need to develop compassionate and resilient ways of sustaining my engagement.
Seven years ago after doing some writing and speaking on a panel about climate change and depth psychology I did try to ‘move on’ to other concerns. However I was stopped in my tracks by a dream that seemed more like a vision; an experience so intense that not only did it halt my back peddling from further climate change work, it left me with a resolve to commit the rest of my life to actively engaging with it. In my dream I had an apocalyptic vision of the end of the world through climate change. I saw whole continents sinking beneath the sea as water levels rose while millions of people were attempting to cling to land and their lives. I clung to a rope swinging above the Earth as land masses shifted around beneath me until I let go and dropped into this catastrophic world, becoming one of many grasping for the heaving shores. Then in the midst of this overwhelming horror crept some tenderness, when a desperate poodle swam into my arms and I cared for him as best I could, even while feeling the fruitlessness of everyone's struggle to survive.
I awoke from this nightmare with my heart thumping and questions pressing in on me: “How do I respond to this? How can I respond to this?” The experience of dropping into this world in upheaval was shocking and awesome. Any possibility of distancing myself from climate change reports collapsed through this night vision which awakened intense feelings of vulnerability for myself and all beings on Earth, propelling my personal consciousness towards collective realities. I did not believe my dream was precognitive or prophetic, but I did feel that it cracked my psychological foundations, rupturing myths about the primacy of personal autonomy and independence. The dream crashed through my justifications and denials, insisting that I live fully in the knowledge of the seriousness of climate change, recognising and accepting that all my known parameters were being reshaped by the chaotic upheaval of our planet’s climatic patterns.
The nightmare proved to be the start of a series of ‘rising water’ dreams in which I had close contact with animals. I dreamt of seals and dolphins leaping into my arms, stretching out to touch me or to gaze into my eyes, repeated scenarios which brought me into communion with animals already feeling the effects of changing climates, rising sea temperatures and acidifying oceans. Within these dreams my initial feelings of horror and despair about ecological destructions gave way to feelings of guilt about my own and other’s destructive and neglectful behaviours, grief and confusion. For some time neither my dreaming nor my waking self was sure of how to respond other than to value the dreams and to accept the invitation of the animals to connect and care in whatever way possible. I found that what grew in the presence of these dreams was an acceptance of my own and others’ flawed humanity: frightened and vulnerable, neglectful and nurturing, disconnected and connected. This acceptance continues to foster a humility, grounding and focus which buoys me as I learn to swim in the currents of the ethical dilemmas thrown up by our current global ecological crisis and to negotiate sustainable personal and political action.
A year after my apocalyptic dream I made the decision to undertake doctoral research on psychological responses to climate change engagement, triggering major upheavals in myself and my life. Through my doctoral research I met many inspiring people engaged with climate change issues and who, through reflective discussions, were able to identify the challenges and the gifts of developing consciousness around global warming and other ecological destructions. While for me, significant companionship and guidance continues to come from working with dreams, I also find, along with many others, that conversations, time in nature, meditative practices and creative expression are equally vital ways to develop feelings of connection that nurture rewarding ways of being with and working in our disrupted world. These days when I recognise my urge to disconnect I try to recognise that within this urge also lies an invitation to navigate the sea of feelings I am trying to distance myself from, and to find there a tender acceptance for the dilemmas and the possibilities of ourselves and our times. What I am constantly learning is that staying conscious and engaged has to be more than just an act of will and conviction, it also has to grow through soulful means that nourish and nurture heart and mind, leading us into richer and truer experiences of ourselves and our world.
by Rosemary Faire
I have a "Planet Rescue" notebook made from recycled paper, which I bought to record my notes from a training course with activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy at Tyalgum Tops in the 90s. As part of the training we were asked to make a mask representing the parts of ourselves that we were ready to let go of, for the sake of the Earth. After I had made it, I drew a small picture of my mask in my notebook. I named it "My Cynical Despondency"
We burned our masks in a ritual fire that night. But, (perhaps because I still have my drawing?), I have not yet given up my cynical despondency.
Every time I see, on the nightly news, or in my Facebook feed, some new example of the horrors perpetrated by my own species on other humans, animals, ecosystems...my cynical despondency rises again, or rather sinks to a new low. Considering how dysfunctional we are, might it not be better that we do carry on with business as usual until climate change wipes us off the planet so she can start again?
During one of these bouts, brought on by some awful example of animal cruelty for the sake of making money, I drew this cartoon:
I didn't show anyone my cartoon, however, because, well, it's too negative! How could I be a climate change activist and secretly feel that the planet would be better off once it sneezes us off? I closed up my cartoon folder and got on with my attempts to "save the Earth"...But I did Google "does homo sapiens deserve to live?" And amazingly I found a lot of people who say "No!"
Recently, listening to a series of seminars called " The Future is Calling Us To Greatness", I was perturbed to discover a lady who is doing "palliative care for the Earth". There are a lot of people now who believe that it's already too late, that we are about to see the end of life on this planet due to runaway climate change. Perhaps we should all just be trying to enjoy each moment we, and life on Earth, have left, in the manner of someone with terminal cancer?
I am repelled by this idea. I don't want to give up the fight and do palliative care! I want those f***ers to put a price on carbon, stop subsidizing fossil fuels, transition to a green economy; I want global justice for all humans and non-humans. Yet the cynically despondent part of me wishes for the end of my species. It lies submerged under lots of do-do-doing, until the next wave of despair hits and I wonder why I'm even bothering.
But do I have to stomp my cynical despondency back into its box? What if I were to let it see the light of day, tell my closest friends, even share it in a blog? What if I could "come out" to my cynical despondency, hold it in one hand, and in the other hand hold my love for this blue jewel planet and all its wonderful, precious inhabitants, even its dysfunctional pathetic humans, us, me? So that I can keep going, keep moving towards the world I want to live in, no matter how dysfunctional we are at this moment in our history, and no matter how unlikely it seems that we're going to pull out of this nose-dive?
Is that, perhaps, what Joanna means by "Active Hope"*? I think my goosebumps are saying "yes!"
* Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.
By Merle Conyer
Twice I have experienced shattering ecological awakenings, when a fog that I never knew had enveloped me lifted. Both times it was as unexpected in its revelation as it was surprising in its impact. This article is a personal story which shares how these moments shaped new understandings and calls to action.
The first instance was almost twenty years ago, in a Queensland seaside town 1000km from home. I randomly opened a book overflowing with recipes and holistic wellbeing guidance. I was stopped in my tracks as I read about the impact of a carnivorous diet on the environment. Instantly I shifted towards a vegetarian diet, and soon after reduced consumption of manufactured goods and toxic products, increased repurposing and recycling, and started a worm farm. This felt like a big shift at that time as I had not previously given any attention to environmental matters or green politics. So it was not engagement with these that shattered this veil of delusion, but rather the horror of waking up to the complicity of my consumptive choices.
The second instance occurred a couple of years ago about 4000km from home in the Great Western Desert of Western Australia. I had joined a two-week ‘Sufi Walkabout’ with Aboriginal and Sufi guides for my first bush camping experience and was well and truly out of my comfort zone.