Climate Shame

Polar bear

Polar bears have become a symbol for climate change.

Or, climate change: it’s a shame. I’m starting to notice a trend, are you? A trend where people probably with the best intentions, use guilt and shame to try to get the rest of us to sacrifice for the greater good. The conversation starts like this “would you give up your drier?” or “who else rode their bike here today?” both mild challenges and carry a sense of the sacrifice each person feels they have made for the greater good.

Shame makes people feel horrible. Who needs more self-loathing? It’s not very life affirming and not a great emotion to rally around. Empathy will take us much further down the road to climate solutions.

How different the conversations would have been if the person who no longer has a drier had said they loved the fresh outdoor sent their clothes had from hanging on the line or if the cyclist had said how much healthier he felt now that he bikes the majority of his errands instead of driving. And, the person receiving the information might be interested to learn more, and perhaps change their habits instead of taking an offensive position and, in one case, noting there wasn’t any bus service and they weren’t able to bike for health reasons.

Shaming Others

The rub comes when we start to create an us-versus-them approach to climate solutions. Paul Ehrlich’s book Humanity on a Tightrope  does a wonderful job of explaining why empathy is critical for a viable future. We don’t need to alienate people we need to welcome people into the fold to change business as usual. There are many ways to approach climate solutions from political action to personal lifestyle changes. As long as we are conscience of the problem we’re already on our way to finding and acting on solutions, big and small.

We’re all at different points on the climate disruption spectrum of understanding. It’s nice that some people have focused on climate issues and have reached a plateau of sorts where they can see solutions in the distance. But it doesn’t do much good to point out and in the very act of doing so shame people who have not made learning about climate change a priority, such as Harvard President Drew Faust in her famous explanation of why Harvard was not going to divest from fossil fuels: “we extensively rely on those company’s products and services for so much of what we do every day.”

Ultimately, she has a point. Currently, we do use fossil fuels for many aspects of our American lifestyle that we hold near and dear (plastics, running our cars, heating our homes, clothing, etc.). We need to listen to people who see things differently and understand their view points, maybe change our messaging before we can all move forward together toward a more sustainable future.

Feeling Ashamed

At Whidbey Institute’s Climate Conference, Climate Solutions‘ KC Golden referenced Zadie Smith’s NYT Review of Books article, Elegy for a Country’s Seasons (worth a read!) when he talked about the Moral Vortex – shame or denial. Her article reminded me of Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring.

“’Oh, what have we done!’ It’s a biblical question, and we do not seem able to pull ourselves out of its familiar—essentially religious—cycle of shame, denial, and self-flagellation.”  – Zadie Smith

At the same conference, I felt the audience collectively nod at KC Golden’s description of a moral vortex where one extreme takes you to shame, the other to denial. Oddly, I don’t feel any shame about climate change, and I don’t think I’m in complete denial either, for that matter. I feel like a student. I’m learning and changing as I learn. Why is there a sense we should have all the answers already? We’re learning that we can no longer use fossil fuels. Ok, let’s find renewable energy that will enable us to continue to live comfortably without killing our life support system (earth) – we’re smart, we can do this.

Let’s keep sharing information and be as inclusive as possible, growing intellectually as a community.  (There are 7 billion people on the planet and we need to get a majority onboard to see real change.) What do you say?

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