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June/July 2007
Beyond Despair
By Pattrice Jones


It was a typical winter night at the Eastern Shore Sanctuary, meaning I was sitting on the couch brooding about big problems while dogs chewed carrot sticks on the carpet and catnip-fueled felines chased each other around the chaotic kitchen. Some new piece of wretched information—probably something about polar bears—had punched me in the stomach. “Why aren’t people doing more about global warming?” I muttered angrily. Elder dog Zami regarded me levelly until it hit me: I am people. Why aren’t I doing more about global warming?

Feeling a bit abashed, I decided to really ask the question rather than rhetorically: Why aren’t people doing more about global warming?

Since I am people, I asked myself first. I discovered that climate change didn’t feel real to me, even though I knew it was happening. Only by making myself do so was I able to really feel the fear that ought to be associated with such a scary situation. Balanced against that fear were two unrealistic and opposing assumptions: 1) the environmentalists or scientists or somebody will take care of it; and 2) there’s no use doing anything because we’re doomed. Only by challenging those unconscious assumptions—which did not match my conscious beliefs—was I able to get past my own internal impasse.

Next I looked into the scholarly research on inaction concerning climate change. Many early studies found that people don’t do anything about global warming because they don’t understand it.

You might think that this is no longer a problem. But the college students in my classes still, more often than not, mention the hole in the ozone layer when talking about climate change. Asked what you can do about global warming, they tend to think for a moment and then suggest “maybe...recycle?”

Which brings us to the next reason people don’t take action against climate change: They don’t know what to do. Perhaps they don’t understand the mechanics of climate change or maybe a planetary problem seems self-evidently too big for individual action to make a difference.

Which brings us to what may be the deepest reason for inaction: The feeling of futility. Research shows that many people won’t make changes that cost them in any way—in money, time or lost pleasure—unless they believe that enough people also will be making the same sacrifice for it to be meaningful.

With these ideas in mind, I began to have conversations about climate change. I learned that even people who grasp the mechanics of climate change often have not thought through all of what they might do to reduce their own emissions of methane and carbon dioxide. They are often even less certain about what collective action against climate change might look like. Most importantly, many—perhaps even most—people believe that it simply will not be possible to get enough individuals/corporations/governments to make the changes necessary to save the world.

This is despair. Hopelessness forestalls action. Without action, there really is no hope.

From Cold War to Global Warming
We’ve faced a similar situation before, when very real fears about nuclear war left many people immobile in the face of a grave and mounting danger. When I was researching my book Aftershock I looked into the research about why people did or did not become involved in anti-nuclear activism during the years when the U.S.-USSR arms race made the prospect of nuclear annihilation even more likely than it is today.

One study concerned participation in the November 1, 1961 day of protest during which tens of thousands of women, many of whom had never before engaged in any sort of activism, took to the streets to demand an end to nuclear testing. It turned out that most of the participants in this action, which JFK cited as a determinant of U.S. participation in the Test Ban Treaty of 1963, got involved because a neighbor or friend asked them to do so.

Research related to nuclear activism also sheds light on the persistent problem of despair. In the 1980s, psychologist Joanna Rogers Macy conducted “despair and empowerment” workshops in which participants directly confronted, rather than avoided talking about, their feelings of fear and hopelessness about the prospect of world wreckage due to nuclear technology. She found that talking about such feelings helped to lessen their paralyzing impact and promote action.

That makes sense. When despair remains unvoiced, we cannot argue against it. Meanwhile, the effort used to suppress the terror that springs from and feeds the despair deprives us of vital energy. Because flattening one feeling tends to dampen others, we become benumbed.

Getting Past the Impasse
What, then, can we do to promote action on climate change? Whatever else we do, we have to talk about it with everybody we know. In order to do that effectively, we need to be prepared.

Taking the easiest tasks first, we all need to be good at explaining climate change so that everyone can understand. Practice explaining the mechanics of global warming in a few simple sentences. Be sure to include the fact that greenhouse gasses come not only from vehicles burning fossil fuels but also from power plants, manufacturing and animal agriculture.

Because denial is still a significant factor in inaction, memorize a few key facts proving that the problem is both real and urgent. I like to stress that polar ice is actually cracking, because this is easy to visualize. I also like to quote top climate change scientist Jim Hansen, who has said that we have less than ten years before the world becomes “a different planet,” and to note that climate change turns out to be happening even faster than scientists have predicted.

Next, because most people don’t know what they can do, get good at listing the full spectrum of ways individuals can reduce their own emissions. These include reducing direct energy usage in both fuel and electricity; radically reducing consumption of new consumer goods by recycling, reusing and doing without; buying from local sources; and, of course, eliminating meat, dairy and eggs from the diet.

People also need to know what individual or collective actions might be taken to provoke institutional change by governments and corporations. Options range from lobbying for government controls on emissions to direct action aimed at raising the costs, or reducing the profits, of the industries responsible for carbon dioxide.

When beginning conversations, don’t start with the facts and prescriptions. Remember the despair that must be voiced and dissipated. Start by saying, “I’m really worried about climate change. What about you?” Then, listen. Ask questions. Share your own feelings. Then, remembering that people are most likely to do something when invited to do so by someone they know and remembering that people need to believe that enough other people also will be acting, tell about what you’ve done, are doing, or plan to do.

Learning from the Birds
Where can you find the hope to do this? You already have it in your muscles.

Here is what I learned from the birds: Hope is something you do. “Spent” hens arrive from egg factories in a state of abject shock, half-starved and barely able to walk. Nothing in their lives has taught them to expect anything other than constricted movement and misery. They huddle, shoulders slumped, in a corner of the barn. But then they take a step. And then they take another step. They discover freedom and their own abilities. They learn to use their wings.

Hope is something you do. We create hope by acting. As our actions create change, our hopes are realized. When it comes to climate change, action is our only hope.

How can we start? Follow the birds. Take a step. Then another step. Then...

Pattrice Jones coordinates the Eastern Shore Sanctuary in rural Maryland and is a Satya consulting editor. Her guidebook for activists, Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, is available from Lantern Books.