“I don’t want to scare anyone, scaring is not the solution” Martha Beck said during her interview as she touched on the topic of environment.
And in 2013, when Elon Musk spoke at TEDx he had a similar obstacle.
As his interviewer strongly challenged the realizability of green enterprises, Elon casually explained that without them we will die. Simple as that. The interviewer baulked. It was if he had just yelled “Lord Voldemort!” in the mess-hall at Hogwarts. “My friend, this is isn’t a threat we name. Let alone challenge.”
What do these two radically different figures have in common? Well, they both faced the phenomenon I’d like to address today. The idea of environmentalism being a “dirty word”, a taboo that many do not trust themselves to speak of.
There was an air about both these interview moments, as if both Elon and Martha had just had a turrets-like doomsday outburst, or had, during the interview, suddenly become pants-less and drunk (how inappropriate!) -why is it, that perhaps the most important story of our lives, the story of our collective survival, is spoken about in such hushed little sound-bites? It’s probably fear, but to explore this question further, I’d like to introduce you to Timmy:
Timmy, is one of the most successful people I know, but he has a problem, and everyone around him has begun to suspect it. For years, Timmy’s been “on top of it” in every aspect of his life: a loving wife and kids, a high paying job, security, the whole nine yards. He’s also the best seller at his company, has been named employee of the month several times, and is coming up for a promotion. Timmy’s been a star leader and the right hand man for so many, that when his friends, colleagues, or family saw the unmistakable signs, they just couldn’t bring themselves to say anything.
No one can imagine Timmy –their Timmy– needs this much help right now. Because no one likes the idea of Timmy not being the star player they always thought he was.
Timmy is a fictional character, but what he represents is in all of us: our human ability to overlook things in favor of what is safe, comfortable, and known– to cling to our past accomplishments with the hope that those successes will inform our self-worth now. Timmy’s character isn’t necessarily good or bad, he’s just going through a big transition, and like all humans has hit a point where he needs to make a choice. One that we know could send him down a deep spiral– to addiction, homelessness, abandonment, and early death… or to something he could just as easily overcome with a little positivity, honesty and help, and emerge from it with new found perspective.
In some cases, when a person needs change, we may notice but not speak of it, because we can trust that they will heal on their own with time, and we don’t want to judge them, or impose. We also may not know what to do exactly- how to help them.
But what if the problem we are looking at is not just one problem, not just an inconvenience to some and a risk to one person, but a risk shared by all, one that we all need to work on? And what if, like Timmy, we all fancied ourselves model citizens, who once “had it all goin’ on” (or worse, someone Timmy supervises the hierarchy– who perhaps feels powerless)?
Over the years I’ve been astounded at how little we talk about climate change, and yet, the signs are all around us. The addictive qualities of our culture can be staggering. And the rapidness of climate issues still sometimes seem faster than our cultural interest in addressing them. We all participate in climate impacting, and many of us have felt the environmental effects already: have witnessed oil-spills, landfills overflowing, unprecedented heat-waves, climate refugees and species dying out. And yet, a funny thing is happening: still too few are talking about it, –regarding the discussion as distasteful, like politics or religion at the dinner table.
“I’m not trying to be a downer”
“I don’t want to rain on this parade; mess up your party…”
This issue isn’t even about climate itself, but our cultural relationship to it. This is about how we remedy it. And big solutions to this will perhaps not happen on their own, most certainly not in a culture where we feel the need to say “sorry” before and after speaking of it. When we think about protecting our land and our people, the biggest threat to this world is how we deal with the biosphere. Yet denial seems to have held on, touted as the ideal patriotic attitude, as American as apple pie (that is until bees are gone, and we forget what apples taste like).
As a country (and I’ll use America as an example, because of our influence, but truthfully, this applies to every society not scrambling for clean water and food), we don’t want to admit that what made us glorious and powerful may be keyed into the very dire risks we are now facing. And as Americans we were taught that we were powerful, our cultural values absolute, our democratic systems were a salvation and model of success for the world. We were all taught, from childhood, that this was the best system in the world, that it would always work for everyone who accepted it. It’s a hard pill to swallow, losing ones grip on that idyllic kind of pride. Americans have grown and accomplished a lot, societies on the whole planet have made so many strides toward knowledge and advancement, but now is not the time to look back at those accomplishments, patting ourselves on the back in reassurance. No, we have more work than ever to do, and whatever greatness we thought we had, pales in comparison to the vast complexities of our ecosystems, and our true fragility within them.
Lets go back to Timmy… in his microcosm of a life, Timmy’s become very powerful, respected, influential, he’s not a bad guy, and maybe the stress and hunger of all the success just got to him, but if the reality of someone’s dark side is too much to look at, we may go on pretending everything is fine, and the recent dip in earnings is just a phase– not the beginning of our friend stealing the company’s money to buy hookers and crack or something.
Eventually, Timmy could lose his health, his family, his job and his sanity if no one talks about it. Timmy has to want help and to want to change, and the people around him also need to not be afraid to acknowledge that what worked for Timmy before, is no longer working today. He isn’t evil, he’s only human, and humans make mistakes– one of the biggest ones, is fear-based denial, and hesitating to grow or change in the first place.
If Timmy represented the entire country– the people, and the environment, we would have a hard time saying something too. Its just too dark… Timmy’s downward spiral, our own possible extinction is just too hard a reality to imagine– and yet the more we sweep it under the carpet, the more solid that approaching reality becomes.
This isn’t to scare you. Or make anyone feel bad, or guilty or less than the people who grow their own food and live 100% sustainability, never hurting a fly. It’s just that we all have this really big problem to look at, and we’ve made it impolite to speak of, a negativism that we’d often rather pretend it isn’t there. Or, more oddly, just don’t know “when the right time” could be between soccer games, corporate meetings and getting the weekly groceries. When you are cleaning baby vomit off of your shirt, or are rushing a deadline to submit your next proposal, how can you possibly afford the luxury of pondering your entire biospheres survival?
But if we can talk about it, we can let change become a regular part of our daily awareness. Being able to talk about environment respectfully, and non-apologetically, is the first step at looking how to innovate solutions, and teaching ourselves and each other how to really help.
So the next time you have something to say. but are scared that your cause could sound like a dirty word, use these tips, and help set the pattern in motion:
1) Stay positive.
It’s hard during what appears to be the end-times, but a story about someone providing a real solution or an idea you’d like to collaborate on goes a long way to grabbing peoples attention and movivation –much longer than the latest sad atrocity. Don’t bring up topics that make people feel powerless. Of course, there are some huge news stories that we all need to know about, but discuss such things with brevity and respect to your audience, and never in lieu of brainstorming real solutions. You can casually mention hunger is a cause of yours, while going into bigger details about the ingredients you use to cook with at the shelter, and donations that your community there really benefits from.
2) Choose your audience -your allies- wisely.
There are a lot of us who’ve gotten ourselves riled up in a soapbox frenzy, preaching to those who could give a f*** less, who either don’t believe climate change is happening or do not believe it is their problem. Yes, that’s still a thing. It surprises me too… but talking to these guys is like trying to get train arrival times from a guy in a tin foil hat talking to the shrubbery. These people generally will not help the cause until its totally necessary and has become 100% mainstream, so let them wait it out. Instead, focus on like-minded people to collaborate with, or, if you must “educate”, choose people who already seem open to what you have to say (and, more importantly, listen to gain their perspective, to understand where they come from in return).
3) Do! (More than you say)
Don’t talk about problems for the sake of talking about them. It’s tempting, I know, but everyone sane and productive would rather hear about your next project or event, or how someone can help get involved in the work you’re doing to make a change. And, ahem, are you doing any work? (And by “work” I do not mean pushing around depressing memes online with fellow depressing meme pushers and trolls alike in a clusterf*** of peer “education”) Go outside, do something real (unless “real” for you is coding indoors on open source projects) but do something actionable, and take your friends with you.
In closing, I want to thank the people brave enough to speak out in productive ways about what our species is transitioning through. I think we should talk about climate change, all the time, until we have real solutions and a realistic future to look forward to. Removing the stigma from the discussion is important for most of the world, but more than that, for those of us who do already have the discussion, it’s good to put our money—our work– where our mouths are, and stay positive to inspire others to do the same.
Because thoughtful words and action in tandem are pretty strong medicine.