by Mary Pipher
My turning point in thinking about the environment was reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. Basically, what he says is very simple: what we’ve previously thought of as Planet Earth no longer exists. The weather, the biological diversity, the oceans, the coral reefs, and the polar icecaps aren’t the same. Global climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen in our grandchildren’s lifetimes, it’s happening now, and it’s going to accelerate. We don’t have 50 years to wise up and save the planet; we have the next 10.
When I first read Eaarth, it just knocked me out. For a couple of days, that’s all I could think about. I wanted to forget what I’d read and go back to just eating shrimp cocktails and having fun and not worrying. Then I decided to face the reality that disastrous climate change might not be something we could avert. Even if we all do the best we can, who knows what might happen? But I determined that I wasn’t going to be miserable about this problem all the time.
So I decided to get to work, because action has always been what pulls me out of despair. I tend to be someone who, once I think I’ve done all I can, relaxes about things I know I can’t control. I decided to form a group in Lincoln, Nebraska, my home town, that we originally called 350.org Lincoln after McKibben’s international group. The figure 350 is the parts per million of CO2 that we need to have a sustainable planet. Now, sadly, it’s already way above that, so it’s not a question of sustaining that level; it’s a question of coming back down. But that’s why he chose that name: it’s an instant reminder of what we’re dealing with at the most basic level.
At our first meeting, I didn’t know anything about being an environmentalist or a good community organizer, but I had the sense to know that, whatever else happened, we needed to have a good time at these meetings so that we’d want to keep getting back together. So I bought some wine and cooked a really good dinner, and we started to talk.
If you can create a safe environment with people who are eager to help, even with people who don’t necessarily know what to do, commitment to make things better begins to pour out. We talked a lot about the idea of “distractionable intelligence” versus “actionable intelligence.” Distractionable intelligence is all this stuff out there that makes us real uneasy, like knowing that the coral reefs are dying or the albatross are dying on Midway Island because they’re eating plastic. Those kinds of facts can make us really sad, but don’t give us any idea what to do tomorrow.
Instead, the really important information that we wanted to get out in our community was what we called actionable intelligence: given this information, you know what to do when you leave the meeting. We decided everything would be action oriented, and that was a great help to all of us. Early on, our focus became stopping the XL Pipeline, which the oil companies wanted to build across our state. I decided I’d write a book about facing the challenge of climate change, because I’m a writer and therapist. I understand denial and resistance, and I know how to take a problem that’s utterly puzzling to me and help other people by sharing what I learn about it.
Our group started teaching local people that all you have to do to be a community organizer is invite two friends into your living room, serve tea, talk together, and make a plan. That’s what a community organizer is. It was fun to see people who’d never have described themselves as activists or community organizers start to learn how to engage and educate other people.
The biggest obstacle to doing anything about a climate change is getting past how traumatizing it is to think about it. By now, we all know that people shut down when they experience trauma. But there’s also a cycle that goes from trauma through awareness to resilient coping. Then, at a certain point, resilient coping can become what I call a transcendent response. To get to that kind of response, you need several elements. One is what Martin Luther King called the beloved community, a sense that people are working together with you in the service of a larger cause.
Another important shift is helping people grow their moral imagination. I define that as the ability to understand how the world looks from another living being’s point of view. Ecophilosopher and author Joanna Macy has a wonderful exercise called the Council of All Beings. In this exercise, people are appointed to represent the viewpoints of, for example, the hawk, the river, the rancher, and the fox. They sit around a table and discuss whether or not a certain situation should be allowed to occur or should be made to occur.
For me, the whole point of life is to grow my own moral imagination and help others cultivate theirs. That doesn’t mean every time I see a fly I develop a relationship with that fly, but it does mean that I see the fly as having a valid place in the universe. Of course, mostly we don’t enjoy flies being around us, but they have an important place in our ecosystem.
The idea of the “good” for me is easy to define: it’s what increases the moral imagination. “Bad” is what decreases the moral imagination. Much of psychotherapy is about moral imagination, which means helping people try to understand the point of view of the human beings they’re involved with.
Therapy and Social Activism
When it comes to climate change, it’s still hard to know exactly what to do as therapists without proselytizing to our clients; however, if a client brings up sadness about an environmental issue, it’s important to not just label that person depressed and suggest getting more exercise. We need to be ready to see that person’s response as a deep sadness, a grieving for the loss of our mother—our Mother Earth—which in some people induces a kind of primal panic. In fact, those kinds of thoughts and feelings contribute to a lot of the free-floating anxiety we see in the culture today.
So I think climate change can be discussed as a legitimate issue, as opposed to a foil covering up other “deeper” issues. I remember at one point, I started telling clients who came in and complained about poverty to take things to the next level. What action would you be willing to consider that would be of use to the world and also probably of use to you?
In fact, all my arguments about social action and activism are mental health arguments. I have no idea if our group will stop the XL Pipeline. What I do know is people are happier if they’re engaged in communities doing good work—if they’re acting on their despair, as opposed to just sort of stewing in it. I believe that therapists are likely to be most useful using their abilities to be educators and community organizers to move forward the dialogue about climate change.
The question for many of us is where to find the strength and inspiration to face the tough road ahead, if we hope to do something about climate change. For me, the most reliable way to get renewed is to experience bliss and awe. As I was working on my book, I remember one time when I was feeling extremely stressed, reading all this god-awful bad news about the environment. So one morning, instead of writing, I drove out alone to a little prairie about 20 miles from my home and lay down in the prairie grass. It happened to be in the spring, so the snow geese were flying over. I just looked up at the sky and listened to the wind and felt the dirt on my back. I probably stayed there half an hour, just listening, watching, and smelling the beautiful smell of prairie grain. And when I got up and went back to my car, it’s like my entire arousal system had tamped way down. I think all of us have had those moments when we realize that we’re very small, and we let ourselves feel grateful to be included in something so vast and wonderful.