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Climate change - if we were rational, we'd have it sorted by now

Has the climate debate stalled? Does extreme weather in the UK mean we’re talking about it more or less? When’s a good time to try to make the connections between climate change and floods? And is there anything Inner Transition has to offer to the questions about how and when to have these conversations?

Yesterday the Inner Transition group in Totnes ran a public event called “Weathering Change – a chance to talk about the weather”. We planned the event back in January just as the gales were starting to blow which took out the railway line by the coast, and the lashing rain was starting to build the large sea which still lies over the Somerset Levels. [This picture (left, below) was taken from the train, showing the Levels now more like a sea.]

Somerset Levels

As the floods and disruption worsened many people I talked to seemed really enthusiastic about the event – and I started to worry about numbers – what to do if forty people come? We offered guidelines for hosting a conversation to the local Transition Streets groups, imagining it might be a conversation others would want to have.

In fact just 8 people turned up, most already involved with Inner Transition. We had a rich and deeply connecting evening talking about how the weather has impacted us practically as well as at a feeling level. As has happened for me before, hearing others and having a space outside my daily life to be heard, enabled me to reach a deeper sense of how much feeling the changing weather brings up.

We also spoke about how we manage our responses in order to go on living. I could let myself feel how much anger I have at the destructive behaviour of our politicians and business “leaders” that I just don’t get in touch with – if I let all the anger through and tried to act on it I would burn out really fast. We acknowledged that we also live in a state of denial some of the time, carrying our lives on as usual.

happinessLast week I was invited to be part of the conversations at a conference called “Breaking the Deadlock: why the climate debate has stalled”. It brought together academics and researchers, “practitioners” – those involved on the ground of public engagement around climate change, and a couple of people involved in energy policy from the UK and Scottish governments. The aim of the conference was to look at whether “psychosocial approaches” can help move the debate on, starting with the interesting question of what kind of thing a human being is.

Underneath most ideas about our world are implicit assumptions about what humans are like and how we behave – and they often reflect our own inaccurate self perception. Two common misperceptions I’ve come across:

In classical economics humans are assumed to be totally rational, so that when they have full knowledge of a (supposedly perfect and fair) marketplace they will make rational choices. While the economic theory relies on this corporations and advertisers make good use of the fact that people are much more swayed by their emotions, identity, aspirations and aversions, and use this effectively to sell us stuff.

The second example is in movements for change which assume that once people get information they will take action based on a rational analysis of that information. “If I show you a film about peak oil or climate change you’ll join Transition to do something about the problem.” Many people who pioneer Transition may well be like this – when I heard about peak oil put together with climate change I changed the direction of my life. But I can see that for most people this isn’t how it works – there’s a long inner process between hearing information that can be shocking and overwhelming, making sense of it, and coming to some new way of acting in the world.

Here is one person’s definition of a psycho-social approach, and the insights it provides about how humans really work:

  • Our inner worlds are powerfully determined by emotions and the need to manage them, including defending against things which feel overwhelming.
  • We construct our inner world and understand the outer world through narratives and stories.
  • Humans are inconsistent and contradictory rather than rational and consistent.
  • Our sense of self and our behaviour is largely influenced by our social context and its norms, frames and values.

It was great to meet up with other “practitioner” organisations, including the Climate Psychology Alliance, Climate Outreach Information Network (COIN, who are developing an event to help places affected by flooding talk about what’s happened and link it to Climate Change) and Carbon Conversations.

Carbon Conversations designed an in depth process supported by a trained facilitator and workbook to give information and explore responses to Climate Change in facilitated small groups. Thousands have been through the process, and after the small number who came to the Weathering Change event I wonder whether we really need a smaller trusted group to open this emotional territory.

I read an article by Carbon Conversations founder Ro Randall several years ago, which described its focus on the process of loss, to help people work through the “Tasks of Mourning” as defined by psychologist J Worden from his model of loss. These include

  • acknowledging the reality of the loss,
  • working through grief,
  • creating a new identity in the changed circumstances,
  • and redirecting the energy of the old attachment to new relationships.

Looking at my own process I can see that the third task alone involved changing my work, living in a different place, starting a new relationship, renegotiating all my friendships – some of which I’ve lost as well as new ones I’ve found – and learning totally new skills like growing organic veg. All of this happened without a single gram of carbon being saved. It took a lot of time and internal energy. But it’s the foundation for all the changes in the way that I now live.

At the conference I could feel my disappointment that those working with limited models sometimes think that their way is the best. I’ve found that any model you use shows you a different facet of the whole picture. If we focus on loss and grief we may forget that actually the system we’re losing is in many ways more like a self destructive addiction than a beloved friend. Yes it’s supported life for many countries and many people, but only through huge destruction of our natural world, of many other cultures, and the creation of huge inequality. So an addiction lens helps us to see something else – that the end of the industrial growth system potentially has huge benefits if we can find a different system that’s rooted in something more healthy.

I found it really helpful that one of the key speakers at the conference gave us a much more complete overview of ways of understanding and taking action in the world. [It looked to me very like Wilber’s four quadrants, which I’ve also used to help teach a complete and integrated understanding of healthy and destructive human systems.] The four quadrants can roughly be defined as inner / outer and individual / collective. Here’s an abbreviated version of the model:

The Quadrant Approach To Engagement (Renee Lertzman, PhD)

Emotional experience

Feelings, construction of meaning, defence mechanisms, denial, narrative, empathy, dialogue, motivational interviewing

Activities: conversation / support groups, qualitative research, workshops, leadership development, arts

Behavioural

Movitiations, reasoning, probabilities, levers and drivers, cognitive processes, rationality, triggers, shift, switch, incentives, proactive change, quantitative research

Activities; Behaviour change programmes, energy efficiency, utlitities, transport (incentives / taxes), employee engagement

Socio-cultural -

World views, ethics, ideologies, beliefs, messaging, frames and values based engagement

Activities: faith based programmes, public opinion polls

Contexts: marketing, political messaging, policy segmentation,

Systems

Collaboration, design, social practices, systems thinking, resilience, infrastructure, solutions focus

Social innovation projects, pu blic / private partnerships, community based projects, participatory design, piloting

Activities; Resource issues (regional / watershed),

Renee, who brought this model suggested that these different modes of engagement tend to operate only within their own set of systems which then limits and weakens their practice, since the reality is that humans are operating in all four quadrants all the time. This strongly reflects what I’ve seen particularly in the two major movements for positive change that I’ve been involved with. In the personal growth movement the focus starts with personal inner experience – “The change starts with what’s inside me, to make positive change in the world I need to heal myself first”. Political and environmental change movements take the opposite view: “We can only act within the systems around us – the systems need to change before people can change”

switchesFor me this is a classic case of the need for “both / and” – arguments about which of these is more true are a waste of time. I think it’s part of the rare potential of Transition (some have told me that for them it’s a defining distinction which makes Transition worth giving time to) is that we attempt – despite difficulties – to include both ways of creating change.

Here’s why this inclusive approach is important. People who only see the personal inner quadrant can get stuck in their personal journey. Is it helpful that there are people with great inner peace and even accessing states of enlightenment if their personal practice includes unsustainable consumption of carbon through flying to workshops or particular diets? Surely at some point there has to be a connection between our inner practice and the needs of our community and the ecological systems that support life, or we’re living our own individual version of separation and denial.

And on the other hand, many social and political movements have ended up either burnt out, or split apart by conflict because they didn’t have the inner insights and process skills to deal with their own their unconscious process – which will naturally include unhealthy dynamics around power and privilege which permeate all of us however deep our aspiration to cooperation or equality.

So the strongest and most lasting movements will be those which truly practise inclusivity – by rising to challenge of understanding the different worldviews and language of those who focus on other quadrants, and who can truly embody the quality of peace and resilience that comes from valuing diversity.

A final word about Happiness!

A nice coincidence is that yesterday, Thursday 20th March is International Happiness day. I’m not sure if the timing is deliberate, but on this day you can listen for free to a discussion between Hilary Prentice – who first dreamt up Inner Transition in Totnes - discussing exactly that question. Starting from the perspective of why self awareness and inner disciplines are invaluable for activists – but I imagine also acknowledging that the bridge needs to go both ways.

My final meeting in London was with Mark Williamson from Action for Happiness, part of a growing movement that aims to make Happiness a political priority, the thing governments should focus on growing rather than our material or financial economy. I’m planning to write more about this, but the work that underpins the Happiness movement is key to Transition because it explains how it is possible to create energy descent – a steady, major reduction in our use of energy and resources – while creating a better way of living.

The key to this lies once again in understanding what a human being really is and what makes us happy. Increasing evidence shows that this does not come from material possessions or consumption beyond having our basic subsistence needs met – but rather from things like having happy, close, loving relationships, meaningful and connected work, and knowing that those around us are also in a state of well being.

Have a happy day of happiness!!

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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