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How to talk to your friends about climate change

Really Awkward Moments in a Time of Cataclysm

I may soon end up walking the streets of Boston with a sandwich board and a tinfoil hat. I know you’ll all remember me fondly when that day comes, and stop to say hello and maybe buy me a sandwich. But in the meantime, with my wits still somewhat collected, I’m going to tell you about my present struggles with self-expression and what I think they mean.

I was lucky to find an old friend on Facebook recently, and then to have breakfast with him in Washingon D.C., where we were both attending conferences. Eric and I spent a summer together in NIcaragua in the 80s, and now he’s a professor of physics at a reputable university, and I am someone who is building a zero-carbon house, with thick padded walls, and making it known to all and sundry that I think we’re likely headed for social collapse. It was Eric who suggested that I wear the tinfoil hat. I challenged him to a debate on the subject. Here’s my part of our email exchange, which summarizes my answer to his question “Do you really believe that we’re in a state of collapse?”

“The short answer is, yes I do, but I’d like to elaborate a bit, because I can see that you fall into a category of people in my life (friends and family), who are worried that I’ve become ungrounded and perhaps apocalyptic.

With people as educated as you, I generally just say “consider the evidence”, and leave it at that. With those I feel don’t have the interest in doing so, I change the subject. But it’s become clear that I need to be able to back myself up with facts and figures and reliable professional opinions, so I’m practicing doing that. Bear with me.

The economic crisis of last year—in which I lost 1/3 of my money which was invested in the stock market, and that was nothing compared to what I saw happen to friends and neighbors—was a major milestone in this process. The fact that the government has bailed out large banks and corporations with taxpayer money reveals the inherent corruption of the government, as does the Supreme Court decision of last week. Obama, however much we may like him, seems utterly stymied by the power of the corporate interests in government. Better heads than I have declared that we are living in a failed state. This isn’t so unusual—governments and empires collapse all the time.

I know much more about climate change than I do about the economy though, and I find the evidence that our way of life is unsustainable to be incontrovertible there. I keep up with the science pretty well, and follow the work of James Hansen, NASA climatologist, very closely. His conclusion, after years of research on glacial melting, ice-core samples, temperature data, etc., is that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 must be kept to 350 parts per million or less in order to preserve the planet as we know it. Anything more is going to lead to runaway warming due to feedback loops (those are the natural mechanisms that accelerate warming once it’s already underway, such as melting permafrost, which releases methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas). Runaway warming will lead to sea-level rise, ocean acidification, massive extinction (already happening), drought and catastrophic weather events, etc. Right now the CO2 is at 387 ppm, and the promises made at Copenhagen by the major emitters, to cut their emissons, are so weak that they will lead us to 770 ppm within this century. It would be arrogant to assume that we can both survive that, and continue our way of life at the same time.

I think I can safely challenge you, because I remember that you enjoy a good debate! So here’s what I would say to you, or anyone with your smarts: What makes you think we AREN’T in an early stage of collapse?”

I didn’t get a good answer to that question “What makes you think we AREN’T in an early stage of collapse?” and it didn’t surprise me much. Eric’s response was that he thought it unlikely that things would go bad all at once—he felt that positive change could happen over the course of a century or so, without great upheaval in the process. But while I had given a good deal of the evidence that I find persuasive, Eric’s reply was only a few sentences. I felt as though I was being patted on the head reassuringly.

Many, many conversations with friends and family have ended with me changing the subject, and I did it because I found I was making people uncomfortable. The people I upset are always educated. They include my father, a decorated and highly respected professor or molecular biology, who doesn’t like to see me get upset. They include my writing class, a group of journalists with multiple publication credits, one of whom said to me, angrily “I don’t know why you think that climate change is any worse than anything else! I feel like I hear about this all the time in the news. There’s a lot of stuff being done, you know—wasn’t there just a big conference in Copenhagen?” They include a good friend, reeling from a divorce and a year of unemployment and an ex with breast-cancer, who says “I know about this stuff, but I just can’t deal with it right now.” Who can?

I prowl the internet for writing by psych professionals, or anyone really, on the emotional and spiritual effects of living with the threat of cataclysm. What can we expect to see as typical reactions as the crisis progresses? What are the historical precedents? How can people work, love and parent under these circumstances? Until about two years ago, I could find almost nothing written on this subject, and I felt isolated and fearful of my own mental health.

I”m a little embarassed to be talking about my communication problems with family and friends, but I’m doing it because I think it’s important to remember that the personal IS political. We are all involved in creating the story of our culture, and that story can be so powerful that it obscures the evident truth. The story of this culture, that we have all been steeped in for our whole lives, is that we are entitled to thrive, prosper and grow. Growth is in fact necessary for our well-being, for our powerful status in the world, and for our capacity to help the less fortunate. Many in this country believe that American prosperity and leadership is mandated by God. To suggest that all this success we have achieved and will achieve and seem destined to achieve, is actually failure, and will soon implode, is to contradict the story of our culture. But we can only change the story if we tell new ones.

This is an American story, and a conversation with almost any immigrant will turn it on its head. Most of the world’s poor already live in a state that we would call collapse. And even prosperous Europeans remember the Second World War in their homelands, and the countries formerly known as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and know that such disasters are possible.

I recently came across the work of Dmitry Orlov, a Russian-American who saw the Soviet Union collapse up close, and has lived in the US for many years. His work compares the collapse of the Soviet Empire to the present US economic crisis, factoring in climate change and peak oil, as well as other resource depletion. It is particularly compelling to me because I witnessed the Soviet collapse from a closer vantage point than this—I was living in Czechoslovakia in the 1990s, in a post-communist society rebuilding itself to look more like ours.

Here’s an excerpt from Orlov’s essay “Thriving in an Age of Collapse”:

“An economy collapses one person, one family, one community at a time. First the dreams evaporate: the future starts looking worse than the present, and ever more uncertain. Then people are forced to withstand ever greater indignities and privations, which they tend to accept as their personal failings. The resulting stress causes them to experience a variety of physical and psychological symptoms. Our pride, our habits and expectations, and our unwillingness to adapt can kill us faster than any physical hardship. But eventually something has to give, and even if life does not get any easier, one morning we wake up, and not only has life all around us been transformed all out of recognition, but everyone we encounter recognizes that times have changed. And we realize that none of this is about us personally, and feel better.”

“An economy collapses one person, one family, one community at a time.” Does this seem right? Can you picture unemployed friends? Whole communities losing homes to foreclosure? Families taken down by health-care costs? Detroit, maybe? Dmitry Orlov’s writing struck me with the force of plain-spoken truth, based on what I know of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, what I know about the US economy at this time, what I know about the implications of climate change, and what I see around me. His story, which is about surviving, and even thriving, through collapse, is the one that compels me now.

I am talking about the difficulty of expressing the truth—or what I think is the truth—about how imperiled our country and our world is right now. The news is unwelcome, it makes for deadened conversations, it furrows brows and it irks people. Responses to the bad news on the environment and the economy range from denial to rage to hopelessness. Many good folks do not think about this stuff, or change their lives in accordance with the new reality, because they have no idea what to do in the face of cataclysm.

I have found solace in the words of Dmitry Orlov and many others, and there are two reasons for this. One is that the voices of truth relieve our anxiety that the liars are right and we are crazy. The truth, however awful, is safe and real. The other reason we can embrace the truth is that it allows us to move past denial into action. I know that this is almost a cliche now, but I have found it a huge relief in my life to contemplate the reality of a world without cars, of local gardens and revived community and useless television sets. We may have to spend much of our energy finding food and water, maintaining our homes and taking care of our families; we may have to school our own children, tend to the ill without hospitals, and bury our own dead. But it’s our spiritual work to take this on now, to prepare, and that begins with acknowledging the truth.

But, as Orlov says, wryly, “Your participation in this program is optional.”

Andrée Zaleska is the co-founder of the JP Green House, and a community organizer who works for the Institute of Policy Studies. More information about the JP Green House can be found at jpgreenhouse.org .

Editorial Notes: Recommended by EB contributor Jason Bradford. It may be my imagination, but Grist seems to have moved in EB's direction over the last few years, now featuring sections on: Placemaking Climate & energy Food Andrée Zaleska has other articles on Grist as well as a website at jpgreenhouse.org. -BA

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