That Oh Shit Moment: or so you’ve received your climate call

It might show up as a sinking feeling, a knot in your stomach, a sudden realization that your life plans don’t make sense anymore. Maybe you read Deep Adaptation or you just couldn’t look away from the mountains of (in many cases, tangibly felt) evidence any longer. 

However it happened, you’ve received your climate call.

I received mine in early December 2015. You see, at the time, I was busy preparing for the adventure of a lifetime. In just a few short months, I would be moving to the City of Lights. I had saved up for it for years. Yass, honey! I was going to live my best life ever, reaching fluency in French, writing my memoir, and just focusing on me.

I had always thought, climate change? I’m doing my part. I’m vegan, I recycle. I’ll leave the rest up to the experts. The people in charge aren’t going to let it get that bad, right? (lol!) 

Plus, I mean, the environment is important to me, of course, but it’s just not my issue. And shouldn’t I be following my bliss anyway?

But then the talks began, talks about two degrees, talks about losing island nations to rising seas, talks that laid bare a cold calculus to save the wealthy of this earth and to sacrifice the rest. 

Spurred on by COP21, I tore through Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. And quite literally it changed everything.

Klein painted a dire picture. With each page I turned, I became more incensed — and filled with grief.

Oh shit — my heart dropped — the people in charge had let it get that bad. 

At the moment, I might have had a few choices. I could have tucked the truth of the climate crisis away in a corner of my brain and gone to Paris anyway. I could have numbed out by drinking or smoking. I could have rationalized to myself: I’m just one person, what can I do? Other people will fix it. Or not . . . I mean, if it’s our species’s time to go, it’s our time, right? I might as well go live it up in Paris.

But really, there only seemed to be one choice. On one level, the cognitive dissonance was tortuous. At a deeper level, though, I knew I was being invited to become something greater.

Within weeks I had left my midtown Manhattan law firm job and begun volunteering with a small climate nonprofit, supporting myself with my savings earmarked for Paris.

In the years since, I’ve learned a whole lot about what it takes for someone to effectively answer their climate call.

As I see it, there are five critical elements to it: we’ve got to tend to our minds, create from the future we want to see, build community, get political, and just say no to Earth-killing systems.

1. Tend to our minds.

Fear and anxiety really only beget more fear and anxiety — and they don’t produce effective planning or action. That’s why tending to your mind is the necessary first step toward answering your climate call. It’s really from a tended mind that the rest will flow. 

Tending to our minds means first committing to a daily spiritual practice. That might sound a bit woo woo, but we can think of it as training our brains for the future. I practice mindfulness, compassion, and interbeing or interconnection meditation. 

Tending to our minds also means seeing our thoughts clearly and then choosing wisely. That’s because we recognize that our thoughts create our feelings, which create our actions, which create our results. 

As gardeners of our minds, we have the ability to weed out the thoughts that no longer serve us and to water the thoughts that do. When we do this, we can watch beautiful flowers bloom.

2. Create from the future we want to see. 

We are working to create something that has never existed, a regenerative future. If we look to our past and our current moment, though, this future might seem pretty damn near impossible. 

That’s why we’ve actually got to go into our imaginations and feel into what that future would be like. We’ve got to hang out there, in that regenerative future, to allow it to become tangible to us. 

What does this regenerative future look like? What does it feel like? What are you thinking as you walk around in this future? It probably isn’t something like “we’re fucked,” or “God, I hope we’ll be okay.” It’s probably something like “we did it!” “We’re okay!” 

Test it out for yourself. Which thought feels better: “we’re fucked” or “we did it”? Which energy would be more helpful for your work?

It’s from this energy — this knowing that we made the impossible possible, that it is already done — that we can then start asking how we got to our regenerative future. Put differently, we ask “how did we get here from there?” as opposed to “how do we get there from here?” 

When we ask how do we get there from here, we’re stuck with all the evidence around us that points to our goal not being achievable, with all the ideas and solutions that already exist and clearly haven’t succeeded. 

When we ask, from the future, how did we get here from there, we’re opening ourselves up to much more creative ideas and solutions — ideas and solutions that don’t yet exist. 

We simply can’t create the future we want to see from the same thinking that created the current moment, to paraphrase Einstein. 

3. Build community.

In order to answer our climate call, we must build community around us. At base, we must unlearn our hyperindividualism. We must actually begin to see and think of ourselves as part of the greater whole again, and to moderate our choices accordingly. 

Our whole culture is built on the lie that we are separate, and that as separate beings we must compete with each other for scarce resources, a lie that finds ostensible support from the way in which evolution is thought of and discussed.

But if we look to nature and events from our collective past on this planet, when singular organisms experienced environmental stress, it’s the ones that came together and worked cooperatively that actually survived and eventually thrived. 

An interesting example of this is the Great Oxygenation Event, way back ~2.4 billion years ago. During this period on Earth, blue-green algae (called cyanobacteria) was having a heyday. These little one-celled organisms were living their best lives, reproducing like crazy (asexually, of course), and doing what they do best, creating oxygen through photosynthesis. 

But all that oxygen was too much to bear for the other organisms that existed at the time, leading to the mass extinction of as much as 99% of life on Earth and making way for the dominance of multicellular organisms. 

And that’s just one example. Relationship and community are actually the sine qua non of evolution. As cosmologist Brian Swimme wrote in a chapter of Order of the Sacred Earth, “The universe gives birth to itself by assembling communities with the capacity to awaken the creativity of their members. If a hydrogen atom finds itself in an interaction (relational) community called a star, it discovers it has the power to transform itself into the elements that give birth to life.”

4. Get political!

There’s just no getting around it: in order to act on our climate call, we must return to community, to civics — and yes, to politics. 

We have become consumers, relegated to making decisions about which cereal or laundry detergent to buy; no longer are we citizens, making decisions about the functioning of the political bodies of which we are a part. 

Make no mistake, this has been purposeful, as evidenced by the systematic dismantling of the public sphere in the past generation. As long as we’re worried about what to buy next, we’re not going to worry about whom our government is bombing or how much money they’re extracting from us upwards (this is not a trickle-down economy but rather a siphon-up economy).

We must shed our consumer identities and acquaint (or reacquaint) ourselves with our political identities, because it is through our collective assertion of political power that we will give ourselves a fighting chance. 

What is more, as we’re reengaging at the political level, we must recognize the interrelatedness of the many other ongoing crises (e.g., racism and white supremacy, democracy, housing, police violence, income inequality, just to name a few). 

At the core of these crises is a voracious economic system that exploits people, other animals, and planet for profit and a story of humanity as separate from Nature and from each other. While the climate may seem the most pressing of these crises, the other crises are no less important, and it’s only by viewing them as part and parcel of the same underlying wrong that we’ll be able to overcome them all. 

5. Just say no — to Earth-killing systems. 

There’s a lot of debate in and out of climate circles about personal choices, like going vegan, eating local, and stopping shopping and flying. Do they really matter? Shouldn’t we be focusing on collective change?

In my view, the answer to both questions is yes. It comes down to a key concept in nonviolent resistance and the shift of power from the few to the many: withdrawing our consent to be governed.

But really, who is governing us? Is it our respective national governments? Or is it a rogue economic system that has actually overtaken our governments?

An evil system is an evil system. And an Earth-killing system is Earth killing. Our continued economic support of Earth-killing systems (like the animal agriculture industry, big ag in general, the gas and oil industry, plastics, fast fashion just to name a few) at the personal or collective level is acting in tacit agreement with it.

Could you imagine Gandhi and his followers seasoning their food with salt bought from the British during the Salt March?

Or what if there were a few Black Montgomery residents during the bus boycott who said, “Look, I’ve got to get to work, and personally I can’t handle this walk anymore” and decided to take the bus?

Nevertheless, because of the pervasiveness of Earth-killing systems in our world, we’ve got to do the best we can, adjust when necessary, and forgive ourselves (and each other) when we fail.

To close, I’d love to hear from you, dear reader.

  • Have you received your climate call?
  • What was it like for you?
  • Have you accepted the call?
  • If you haven’t yet, what’s stopping you from accepting it?

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