We need to talk about the climate crisis

A few weeks ago I went to a Climate Café at Sparks in the centre of Bristol. Sparks is in the old Marks & Spencer’s building located along The Horsefair – for any Brit the name should now make more sense. It is has been repurposed into an eco-hub and ethical marketplace, with upcycled fashion items vying for space with a feminist bookshop and digital micro-exhibit-cum-infographic about water use.

It is a suitably strange experience stepping inside this space – a space that still feels steeped in traditional commerce, but where the atmosphere the makers have tried to create is one of radical alterity. However, I was late, so didn’t have time to linger and make sense of my impressions.

The Climate Café was on the first floor, in a cavernous department store hall where clues about the building’s former life were more obvious than in the seductive clutter on the ground floor; mirrors, indented lines on the wall where detachable racks would have hung.[1] I sat down in a circle of chairs, feeling slightly nervous about being in a group and opening up about my feelings related to the climate crisis.

Climate cafes are facilitated sessions where people who are concerned about the climate crisis can meet to share thoughts and feelings. Our session lasted 2 hours. We spoke about the emotions we were bringing, our fears, sadness, anger, love and hope.

After the 2 hours was up, I immediately felt there was something I wanted to write down. I had a moment of thinking, “This really needs to be shared.” It took me a little while to work out what it was. Was it about the experience of the café itself? Or perhaps just a reflection of how I was feeling after this?

The session enabled me to think about the emotional and psychological components of the climate crisis which, whilst always there, are given less attention than solutions – than the practical things we can do to combat this crisis. And the act of sharing my feelings made me realise how infrequently I had these conversations with friends and family.

This was what I wanted to write down: the climate crisis challenges how we relate to each other. You can conceive of this in both large and small terms. In any case, I felt I understood a little better the difficulty of maintaining relationships in the context of the climate crisis, because if you feel strongly about it, you know you might have to have some difficult conversations, or cause others to feel guilty. So, I started to write…

No-one wants to alienate their friends, upset them, or make them feel ashamed, especially not in a world in which the moments of joy we get to share with other people are so precious. Shame is not a particularly effective motivator for constructive, positive action. But how, in the current crisis, can you maintain an honest relationship with someone who is taking a short haul flight to spend three days at a festival, in addition to the other flights they’ve taken over the summer to go on holiday?

You do not want to be judgemental, but you cannot help yourself. you make judgements all the time. You also know that at some point in the past, you were behaving in the same way, until you reached a point at which you could not continue to act like that. Your reaching this crossroads came after a build-up of pressure, from the way you were brought up, your class, your cultural identity, from your genetics, and from what you were exposed to at school, with friends, at work, or university.

There is a lot of baggage behind our identities that it takes energy to unpick. We know this, but sometimes doesn’t it seem somehow false to maintain the kind of relationship alluded to, full of judgement and pain? A lot of relationships have points of tension and divergence, gaps where the distance between differing perspectives seems like a gulf. Often, it feels like the relationship is more important than those differences, and even that those differences make the relationship more important.

I don’t think we really want to be cocooned in our echo chambers all the time – and it is becoming increasingly difficult to be, despite what some people might think – inured from the fluctuations of a reality in which change is the only constant. At some point we must meet difference. Acknowledging and facing difference makes us more resilient and better able to deal with shocks when they come about. But when the cost of not challenging a specific kind of difference is catastrophe, how can this outlook, this cornerstone of the liberal world, be sustained?

These are not easy questions to answer and I’m not suggesting we should all break away from these kinds of relationships, turning our back on those who make different decisions to us. The world is divided enough as it is, it doesn’t need even more of us to succumb to hopeless tribalism (though perhaps some of this is inevitable, given how things are going).

And then there is another aspect of this, that of the way in which the climate crisis and our responses to it are framed.

Frequently, it is seen as a technical problem, and technical problems have technical solutions. I think technology will inevitably play an important role in the future, but there is a lot of problematic and sometimes dangerous dialogue around the promise of technology. This induces a complacency and forecloses much important discussion about social and cultural changes that are definitely required to respond to this crisis in a reasonable, equitable and just way.

In many ways, I think this framing is a perfectly natural response to a threat, an obstacle, an impasse. Technicality keeps us in the world of manageable shifts, rather than the altogether more challenging realm of personal, social, and cultural revolution. Technological innovation is hard work, but it is somewhat less messy and often seems more easily achievable than behavioural change. What’s more, behavioural change often occurs directly because of new technology, which alter our relationships – with things, with each-other.

However, technological changes, especially when they’re geared towards efficiency – which is the stated aim of many new technologies, particularly in relation to the climate crisis – can sometimes have the paradoxical effect of excusing or turbocharging damaging behaviour. The Jevons Paradox is an oft-cited example of coal-use increasing at the same time as efficiency of its use increased: “by becoming more economic with coal, machines became more profitable, their use spread and the national consumption of coal finally increased.” (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2013).

I’m not saying we should forget about efficiency (and the Jevons example also has counter examples), but focusing on this just seems like a way of avoiding a conversation. Doubtless, advances in technology in spheres like medicine have had dramatic positive effects for health, but the climate crisis is a crisis in part because it throws us back on ourselves. We cannot talk about it without talking about our own behaviour; this is especially so for those of us privileged enough to live in rich countries who, historically, are most to blame for our current position.

There is a school of thought that approaches this by compelling us to give up things. The climate crisis is, they say, about sacrifice. This is not an easy message to stomach if you’ve got less to give up than others. It is more pertinent for those of us in privileged, comfortable positions, like me. In general, I have a lot of understanding for this view, partly because it fits with the Christian narratives I grew up with. I am no longer a Christian, but those narratives still have an impact on my worldview.

However, I often feel that there is another side of this which, perhaps because it lacks the same sort of media currency, does not feature as prominently in climate dialogues. That is, what we stand to gain from giving up some of those things it seems like it would be inordinately painful to lose. In addition to this, something that already receives a fairly substantial amount of attention is what we are already losing because of our unsustainable societal structures.

But when comparing the loss of a yearly holiday to Spain against the loss of a certain species of plant or butterfly we would struggle to recognise, one currently holds a lot more meaning than the other. This is indicative of the way our current economic and social structure shapes (warps) our relationship with the world, creating a dynamic in which partaking in ecologically damaging behaviour is perceived as more worthwhile than behaving differently.

There are several challenges here: How do we have more of those difficult conversations without burning the bridges that connect us to others? How do we create narratives that demonstrate the ways in which behaving differently can be incredibly meaningful? How can these narratives also encourage us to challenge damaging structures that prolong our dire ecological predicament? How can we make this narrative work active, vociferous and resilient in the face of inevitable change?

I do not have the answers to these questions, but I think acting with honesty, love and care is a good place to start. Don’t fear having difficult conversations. Don’t be afraid of challenging others, and being challenged yourself. Encourage people to learn about what we’re losing, and to find meaning in this. Look for what there is to gain by spending more time locally, slowing down, being attentive, practising gratitude and acting with hope.

Postscript: This article could have been much more wide ranging. There are important issues of class, value, climate justice, social change, inequality and alternative theories of knowledge it has been necessary to brush over for the sake of brevity. Our responses to the challenges those issues pose require more than honesty, love and care, but the intent of this article has been to focus on the conversations we have day to day (not the be all and end all, but an overlooked aspect of this crisis we should face up to).

[1] In a subsequent Urban Hosts event also held on the first floor, one of the speakers asked the audience “What used to be here, where I’m now standing?” An audience member replied quickly, “Lingerie!”

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