Over the past few years I’ve observed scientists and environmentalists presenting the threat of global climate change to various audiences. One of the more lively talks presented our current predicament as follows:
We are all in a car, going fast along a road. Up ahead is a deadly precipice, and we know it’s there, but it’s so foggy we can’t see where we are going. We don’t know where exactly the precipice is or when we will get to it. And—our brakes aren’t working.
There were two reactions from the audience. The first was, “Well, if from now on I take my bike instead of my car to go fetch my newspaper, at least I’m doing something.” This reaction is very common, and it’s how many people are reacting to climate change news. There are countless small things we can do to make minor adjustments in our lifestyles that may make us feel better for the moment.
The second reaction was, “This picture is just too depressing; it’s a doomsday perspective. How are you expecting me to receive this? What am I supposed to do?” The presentation seemed to be having the opposite effect than the one intended—discouraging rather than encouraging action, and drawing blame to the messenger. The speaker’s response to this final question was, “I haven’t given up hope.”
I was left sitting there thinking, “Hope? Hope? Surely we need something more than hope? We have to engage capacities beyond hope!” If hope was all he could offer as advice I didn’t blame the group for their reaction.
Here’s the dilemma: Presenting frightening and shocking images and “doomsday scenarios” generally has a negative effect. People become numb, indifferent, or reactionary. But the encouraging “Here are 10 simple things you can do today to limit your carbon footprint” approach is simply not enough. These types of individual solutions are not commensurate with this particular challenge.
What’s going on?
With global climate change, we are up against an issue unlike any other. I have, for all of my professional life, and before that my student life, been thinking about and working on lots of social and developmental issues. However, in all of those issues, the change is largely incremental, and damage done can generally be repaired over time.
What makes climate change so different is that according to a vast scientific consensus, there is a tipping point at which climate change, due to feedback loops in the climate system, becomes irreversible. This issue has a kind of deadline, most likely not far into the future, and there is a great gap between the level of reductions scientists say is needed to bend the curve of rising carbon emissions in time and the current level of commitment by governments, citizens, and businesses.
The uncomfortable metaphor of the precipice then appears quite accurate if you listen to climate scientists. There are different ideas about when this deadline will be reached. Jim Lovelock, one of the world’s most well-known environmentalists, thinks we’ve already passed the point of no return. According to onehundredmonths.org we have 100 months—actually 89 months now—to establish a low-carbon economy. Veteran US environmentalist Bill McKibben’s movement 350.org, says 350 parts per million is the CO2 concentration we need to stay within, in order to maintain a stable climate (we’re now at nearly 400 ppm). Most people are using the number 2 degrees Celsius as the main figure we need to know. That’s the maximum warming we can manage, and the year 2020 is our deadline to bend the curve.
No one can say for sure where exactly the point of no return is, but there is widespread agreement that it exists, and that’s important. As a friend said to me recently, “If I knew that a plane had an 80% chance of crashing, I wouldn’t board it.”
Why is this message not getting out and why, if it is being communicated, is it not being heard? I know it is partly because of the fear of being labeled “doomsday prophets” and of causing the opposite effect of discouraging rather than encouraging all of us to act. I spoke to a scientist recently who was deeply struggling with this dilemma: “If we tell people the truth, they get reactionary and overwhelmed and take even less action. How can we connect the scientific reality to political and psychological capabilities?”
From what I understand, what is limiting us is not primarily technological capabilities or financial resources, but rather political, emotional, and psychological will.
I want to offer an alternative response. It’s called “surrender and imagine”. It’s about two fundamental capacities that I believe are key to climate leadership.
Surrender: Releasing preconceptions and confronting what is now true
When faced with overwhelmingly complex and disturbing problems, we have three choices: we can fight, we can flee, or we can surrender.
Surrendering is very different from giving up. Sometimes these two words are used interchangeably, but in this context they have fundamentally different meanings. Giving up means sticking our head in the sand or running away–going to the mall, turning on the sitcoms on TV. Surrendering, on the other hand, is about radically accepting the reality of the challenge, even without having an immediate solution to offer.
This is not about just being able to speak at an intellectual level about what the newspaper says, but about letting the story in to your heart. It is not about accepting that there is only one way this can go, that we are “doomed,” but it is about recognizing the direction we are currently heading and acknowledging our unique position in human history as the generation capable of acting in these times. It is not about judging whose fault it is, or judging one’s own lifestyle or feeling guilty, but rather, as the Buddhists say, “accepting the suchness” of climate change.
It’s not easy and it’s not instantaneous. There is an old Grimm Brothers fairy tale called The Frog Prince that may illustrate the gesture I’m talking about. Most people think that the princess in the tale kisses the frog, who then instantaneously turns into a handsome prince, and they live happily ever after. In the original story it is not so easy: The princess drops her favorite golden ball in the water and cries to get it back. The frog appears saying he can get it for her in return for spending three nights in her bed and three days eating from her plate. She promises, yet when he appears with the ball, she at first runs away up to the castle and denies having met him. When he comes after her, she slams the door in his face. Seeing this, her father, the King, tells her she must keep her promises, and so she allows the slimy, ugly frog to sleep in her bed for three nights and eat from her plate for three days. On the third morning, he turns into a prince.
This is a very interesting story of transformation through radical acceptance of the problem. Letting the frog sleep in her bed, the princess lets him into her most intimate world. In her accepting him as he is he transforms. When she allows the frog in, she doesn’t know of any possibility of a prince inside. She accepts him grudgingly at first, but then grows used to him.
The message for me is to start by letting in that story we don’t want to hear, to listen instead of reacting, to notice the fear and make an effort to stay open.
Justice Oliver Wendel-Holmes, in reference to Einstein, once said “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.” The simplicity on this side of the complexity is the simplicity of taking the bike to fetch the newspaper. The type of surrendering I’m talking about is about moving into the complexity without being able to see the simplicity that comes on the other side.
It’s natural to feel some despair in this process. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of despair. Some of the most creative ideas come, not from fear and despair themselves, but from the other side of despair. When we stop denying, when we really surrender, the faculty of our imagination is given space to start working.
Imagination: Making creative connections that are grounded and inspired by reality
While living in South Africa, I worked for a time with Ashoka, an organization that supports social entrepreneurs, or people who’ve managed to create new institutions that change practices, norms, values, and mindsets in a given area. What struck me most about working with the social entrepreneurs was how they managed to look at really problematic situations and imagine possibilities.
One of my favorite Ashoka fellows was Trevor Mulaudzi, an ex-geologist. One day, Trevor met some children on the road and asked them why they were not in school. When they said they had to leave school to go to the bathroom because the toilets there were so filthy, he went into the school to have a look. Most people would at this stage run away as fast as their legs could carry them, but Trevor stayed. He saw how the school’s soiled toilets were connected to the whole situation of his people: They were affecting the health of the children and leading to them missing classes and so they were in turn affecting the human and economic development of the country. In that moment, he imagined what a difference clean toilets could make and so he started cleaning. Soon he created an innovative and participative organization working on cleaning toilets in schools and mining hostels with this systemic picture in mind. He’s one of the most fulfilled people I know. The last time I saw him he was on his way to a meeting of the WTO—the World Toilet Organization—in Scotland!
Imagination is different from fantasy. Fantasy is essentially projection: It’s the process by which we create images that fulfill our own desires and project those onto the world from the inside out. The idea that a technological fix alone will solve the climate change problem is fantasy. Fantasy is generally in the realm of the impossible.
Imagination, on the other hand, is about engaging with possibility, being able to look at the world differently, and making new connections in what exists. It’s a creative interaction between the external world and our inner capacities.
According to Lego SeriousPlay, the various connotations of imagination fall into three categories of meaning: descriptive, creative, and challenging.
Descriptive imagination is about being able to see what is in new ways, to see patterns and connections, and to use metaphors to make sense of complexity. When Trevor saw the connection between the toilet and the whole country’s economy he was applying descriptive imagination. Descriptive imagination is also what enables us to absorb and make sense of the science and politics of climate change.
Challenging imagination is the ability to “wipe a slate clean”: to change the rules, to deconstruct, throw away, and start all over. The challenging imagination is often not recognized as a positive imagination, but in engaging with climate change, our ability to imagine the world without certain things is fundamental. Can I imagine myself and my family without affordable air travel, without owning a car, without imported foods and foods out of season, without cheap and disposable products, without economic growth as we understand it today?
We need our creative imagination to put things in the place of what the challenging imagination deconstructs, so that responding to climate change is not only about sacrifice. Creative imagination generates new possibilities from combination, recombination, or transformation of things or concepts. It draws heavily on the descriptive imagination, to see what exists that can be used or combined in new ways.
A year ago, my family visited friends on the Danish island of Samsø, which is powered by 100% renewable energy. Impressively, they managed to engage the island’s broad population around the need for energy independence, generating a variety of creative solutions to cutting carbon emissions. This took place in a traditional farming community whose most recent common project was in the 1950s.
We had an unforgettable conversation with a local about the value of localized production, and of aligning one’s activities more with nature’s cycles—washing clothes when there is hot water because the sun is shining, watching TV when there is more wind energy available. They were talking about this life with a profound joy.
Practicing Surrender and Imagination
The interplay between surrender and imagination isn’t intended as a linear process, but rather an iterative one. Imagination helps the process of surrender, and truly surrendering can push our imaginations to expand. It’s an ongoing practice requiring some level of patience and persistence.
What helps us to surrender and imagine?
Connect with nature.
Nature has an extraordinary power to help us ground ourselves, shift our perspective, and remember what’s really important. I have learned two main lessons from spending time in nature on my own, just being there without any activity, without a watch, without a book to read… just me and nature. The first is about our interconnectedness with nature: the sense of connection between what is happening to our natural systems and what is happening to ourselves, and the knowing of the gap between how we are currently impacting on nature and what it would mean to be a true participant in the natural world. The second is the ability to let go of the stuff that’s not essential. When we spend time in nature without all that stuff we depend on in our daily lives, we can also imagine ourselves living more sustainably. We can let go of those things – the fears, attachments, and habitual ways of knowing, seeing ourselves, and being seen—that block us from surrendering.
Spend time in silence.
When working on a question that is so important and so urgent, it’s hard to create the time for silence. Finding times to sit in silence with the “slimy frog” and with oneself, or just creating some empty space, helps bring clarity, to ground and settle, and heightens our awareness that we are not separate from everything that is. Silence is often the transition between surrender and imagination, and out of the silence fresh ideas emerge. It’s helpful to make a regular practice of going into silence, even if briefly, whether or not in nature.
Ask, what’s this an invitation to?
Asking ourselves what this situation is requesting of us, what it is an invitation to, helps us embrace the situation and to activate our challenging and creative imaginations. Often we discover that the answer to that question is not only something that helps with climate change, but an opportunity to address other challenges and imbalances in our systems.
Know that you are only one person.
While I said upfront that individual solutions are not enough, it is at the same time important to recognize our limitations, and to surrender to the fact that each of us is just one person. As Zen Master Bernie Glassman says, “Work with the ingredients in front of you.” No one of us is going to change the whole world alone, but we do need to reflect on some key questions about our own role: What can I do? What is my place in this transition? Where do my own talents and resources meet the needs of this challenge?
Get together with others.
While surrendering is, at one level, an intimately personal act, it is also extremely difficult to do alone. It’s important to be in conversation with others, and to connect with others who are working on transitioning to more sustainable economies and communities. The amount of effort that goes into offering people ideas for individual actions isn’t balanced by ideas for collective action. We need much more collective action. And if we surrender, only collective action will feel satisfactory. Ask: Who can I work with? How can I participate in a collective, and work at the level of an organization, a network, a community, or movement?
I recently led a workshop in São Paulo on sustainable consumption. We created a map on the wall of the events, patterns, structures, and mental models related to this issue. We then asked all the participants to put a green sticker on the patterns and structures that they participate in creating, and the mental models that are alive in them. All the patterns and all the mental models had dots on them. We then asked the participants how they felt looking at this image. The first response was “responsible.” The next was “I’m not alone.”. The third was “potential”—that sense that if we are a part of the problem, we can be a part of the solution as well.
The problem with the “doomsday” communication is not, I believe, the content. The problem is that the tone is often purely intellectual, lacking in emotional intelligence, and generally judgmental. We need to hold each other with care as we grasp the reality of climate change. I know that it’s not easy to surrender to the message that if we keep going in the direction we are going in, we are headed toward runaway climate change. As a mother of a two-year-old, it gives me stomach aches at times. Yet, I have also seen immense creativity and exciting possibility emerging when we manage to combine the capacity of surrendering with the capacity of imagination.
“Humans have a responsibility to find themselves, where they are, in their own proper time and place, in the history to which they belong and to which they must inevitably contribute either their response or their evasions, either truth and act, or mere slogan and gesture.” – Thomas Merton
The ideas in this article are inspired by conversations with Vanessa Sayers, Maikel Lieuw-Kie-Song, Hugo Penteado, Adam Kahane, Jeff Barnum, Christel Scholten, Elisabeth Dostal, Earl Saxon, Rebecca Freeth, Sean Legassick, Jorgen Bojer, and Margaret Wheatley and by work with the U-Process (www.theoryu.com) and Reos Partners (www.reospartners.com).