Climate change despair and empowerment

May 25, 2007

An interview with Australian climate change and rainforest protection activist Ruth Rosenhek.

In Australia a few weeks ago I had hoped to connect with my old friend John Seed, but learned that he would be traveling in the US doing a road show on climate change despair and empowerment until May 20. His tour schedule is here.

I first met John in the 1980s when he was touring around the US doing a road show on rainforest destruction and species extinction. I would miss seeing John at his home, but he connected me with his partner, Ruth Rosenhek, who was doing their workshop tour in Australia. Ruth met me at a café in the small town of Nimbin in the beautiful hinterlands of northeast New South Wales where we were surrounded by rainforests, macadamia nut orchards and permaculture gardens. What follows is my interview with Ruth about her climate change workshop.

Q: I was thinking about John’s first road show in the US. John Seed was one of the first to bring a more spiritual element into the wilderness protection movement and it was very important.

A: Yes. Someone was asking me the other day about where we got the idea for the road show and I told them about John’s US road show in 1984 and how that led to founding of the Rainforest Action Network.

Q: The movement seems to go through these cycles. There’s a wakeup cycle and then a bunch of people get recruited. They get committed and then hopefully they start to do things. Although I’ve seen people kind of wake up and then go back to sleep again.

A: Yeah, but not with climate change.

Q: You don’t think so?

A: No. There will be too many reminders.

Q: So what got you started on doing climate change empowerment workshops?

A: I’m not sure what exactly sparked us. The term “despair and empowerment” is one we’ve been using for years based on Joanna Macy’s work. We realized that people would have to deal with climate change emotionally and we wanted to support people as they move from denial to the possibility that they might feel despair and the shield of apathy that might arise after that. There’s a line in Al Gore’s film where he says too often people are moving straight from denial to despair without stopping in between and the problem with that is that is it lets you off the hook. With denial you don’t have to do anything and with despair you don’t have to do anything. So the idea of the road show is how do you intervene in there and if they have gone to despair, to use some of the despair and empowerment workshop principles.

Q: I think people have to go through that stage don’t they? I don’t know about you, but I know that I personally have gone through despair. And I go through it every day a little bit.

A: Yeah. I haven’t personally been in despair for a number of years because climate change isn’t new for me as I’m sure it’s not new for you. Years ago I had more despair.

Q: But how do you deal with hearing how the news gets worse every day? It has been so bad in just the last year. So yeah, sure, we’ve known about climate change for a long time but I don’t think we’ve realized how quickly it is coming and how little time we have to act.

A: For me it has been more like I am excited that it is front page news and finally I can have my favorite conversation with the average person standing in a queue. It hasn’t really surprised me that it’s here now. My feeling is more one of excitement that, wow, I’m alive now when the shift is happening and I get to see what I can do to help make the transition away from the industrial growth society. I’ve been expecting things to crumble at any time just based on my understanding of what’s happening to ecosystems.

Q: Are you able to convey that excitement to other people and get them to feel it too? Is that what you’re aiming for?

A: Not really. Most people don’t have that point of view, although the people who are becoming active are really excited. Instead of endless debating we can finally move forward with solutions.

Q: So what are you finding out there? How did your last tour go?

A: From the time in January when we began until now there’s been quite a lot of shifting. People are that much more knowledgeable and that much more ready to get involved and that much more ready to take action. You hear a lot more emphasis on action. People are saying we are not here to discuss, we are here to take action, whereas when we formed our climate group last year, we called it a climate study group and spent the first few months studying the issue. But people are pretty savvy at this point about what’s going on and are ready to do something about it. What used to be a presentation where I’d stand up there and deliver all these things has become largely a meeting and there is a whole discussion about real vs. false solutions. But I still do presentations on despair and empowerment and on deep ecology because that’s new material.

Q: What else is new to people?

A: One thing that is always left out of the mainstream conversation is deforestation. Forests are always left out. People don’t know that deforestation is causing 20 plus percent of greenhouse emissions. So they aren’t thinking in their solutions that we also have to protect forests and so I always have to point out that Tazzie’s [Tasmania’s] forests are being woodchipped at 10 dollars a ton and exported to Japan where they become toilet paper and you can almost hear a gasp in the audience. Previously if I’d been giving a presentation on forests and said that kind of thing I’d have either been preaching to the choir or talking to people who would just dismiss it as a concern of tree huggers and instead you can see people taking it in and realizing we have to protect our forests because of climate change. The other solution they don’t know about is the fact we are pumping subsidies into the fossil fuel industry. There’s between 6.5 and 9 billion dollars every year.

Q: Is that mostly to the coal industry?

A: It would be coal and also some oil; so one of the things we’re espousing is that some of those subsidies be halted and then shifted to renewables and also to a just transition for coal mining communities. So what used to be a presentation on solutions has become a meeting about what the real solutions are.

Q: And is this true in all the communities you’re going to?

A: Pretty much. I think the only thing I’ve found is that some places have attracted mostly burned out activists, people who’ve been involved for a long time. There were a few places where it wasn’t that great of a meeting because people were tired out already. So the really good meetings are when there are all new people in the room.

Q: How long is the presentation? Is it a day-long workshop?

A: No, it’s an hour and a half. I talk for about 20 minutes and there are some video clips and then a discussion and at the end of the time we form a climate action group if there’s not one in the town already and set a date for the next meeting.

Q: Is there a whole range of actions people talk about doing? You say action but that can mean a lot of different things.

A: Climate action groups in Australia are working on things like food networks to localize where they get their food. Ridesharing seems to be a big one. Lobbying. All kinds of stuff around lobbying like writing letters.

Q: So it’s not just about reducing your personal carbon footprint.

A: No not at all. It’s more about what we can do as a community. First, how can we support each other in personal changes like shifting to green power in our homes, and next how can we work in our community to shift our community. At a recent meeting here in Nimbin, we talked about how can we get our own decentralized power plant here that’s grid interactive so we can pull our own power off of a suite of green power sources like solar and wind before getting it from the main grid and then feed into that grid as a community. Some are working at the council level to get councils to ratify the Kyoto protocol, and some are working with an international project called ICLEI where the councils assess the emissions of the different sectors of the community and set forth a strategic plan to lower those. And they’re also working on the state and federal level. If you look at what climate action groups are doing it is amazing. Ordinary people getting together. Some are trying to get every business in their town to turn to green power and every citizen to turn to green power. The last group I did was sponsored by the city council and that’s what their climate action group is doing. That’s their sole mission.

Q: How are young people getting involved and how are they dealing with despair around global warming?

A: I had one group from a high school where 200 thirteen year olds came to one of my presentations. They were so onto it. They were all in a climate change class. The school actually has a year-long class in climate change. They knew all the solutions and they had some funny ones too that made them laugh. So they seemed to be coping. There were a few sad faces though in the audience.

Q: What are the steps that you go through in the workshop presentation?

A: First we talk about why we’re here and that we are not in the delusion of reprieve, and then move on to despair and empowerment, the discussion Joanna Macy pioneered about how there’s a taboo in this society against expressing feelings and that actually feelings contain intelligence and wisdom and can be transformed from despair to inspiration and innovation and that if we stopped pushing them down and instead allowed them to come forth, we would not have lost the energy involved in suppressing them. Feelings are a much older part of our intelligence along with our intuition. So we talk about that and then a little bit about deep ecology. I introduce them to the idea of anthropocentrism or human centeredness and how it’s important to have a larger perspective and to dispel the illusion of separation between ourselves and nature. It’s more important than ever before. For anyone who is involved in this work I advise them to go out into nature to help heal the despair and the grief and to seek wisdom, because we really need it right now!

Q: You don’t get people accusing you of foisting a religious belief on them?

A: No, it’s not. It’s a philosophy, not a religion.

Q: Because we’ve gotten that a lot in the States. We get told that deep ecology is a religion.

A: No, it’s a philosophy and it’s compatible with whatever religion people practice. This is not about having to believe that nature is a this or a that. I keep it pretty pragmatic.

Q: Good. So what else?

A: Well, at the very beginning I talk about Exxon’s climate change cover up scheme where they paid off scientists and we lost ten years in the fight. The other day I saw a woman’s eyes go wide with horror and shock when I said we lost ten years to this cover up and that these were the same scientists involved with the tobacco industry. Her jaw just dropped. She’d never heard about it till that moment. And then we discuss the false solutions.

Q: What are those?

A: Clean coal and nukes. Clean coal – the technology is not here and won’t be for ten years. The cost will be high and where are they going to store all that CO2? Nuclear – I point to the fact that beside the concerns over weapons proliferation, uranium mining and waste disposal, it would take at least ten years to put in place power plants and again, they will be very costly. So neither of these address the window of the next ten years and the IPCC is saying we need an aggressive plan for the next ten years. But our prime minister, John Howard, all he talks about is that nuclear power is the solution to climate change.

Q: But Australia doesn’t even have one nuke plant, does it?

A: No, but we have a few reactors that are used for health technology and maybe to produce weapons, and we have Pine Gap out in the desert and who knows what’s there. And then we talk about biofuels like palm oil and that by the time palm oil gets to your vehicle it’s ten times more polluting than diesel. Then I talk about emissions trading, a very complex and confusing issue, and then we move on to real solutions and have a go at what people think the real solutions are.

Q: Do people come up with good ideas?

A: Yeah they do. Someone at the last meeting had something I had never thought about. If you have a dishwasher, then run it after 11 pm at off peak hours because these coal plants actually have to burn a certain amount of fuel to keep running so you not only save money but you don’t create extra demand for coal.

Q: The kind of things that in a different era people paid attention to because they were trying to save money. I remember growing up hearing: Turn out the lights when you leave the room! It was about the electric bill, not the environment.

A: Right. So from there we go on to the grassroots and we talk about the Bradley method – that’s a bush regeneration method that says if you are trying to regenerate native bush, instead of taking the weeds out of the weediest place first, go to place where the bush is the healthiest and take the weeds out of there, so you strengthen it. You keep doing that until the only areas left are really weedy but they are surrounded at that point by healthy areas. So here we’re using weeds to represent consciousness and the weeds are those who are prohibiting the growth of a healthy future.

Q: So that’s the program. Tell me a bit about the longer despair and empowerment workshops you do.

A: After we do 8 or 10 workshops in an area, we offer a one-day despair and empowerment workshop and we do a Truth Mandala.

Q: What is a Truth Mandala?

A: It’s a process for people to express strong feelings of anger, grief, despair. You sit in a circle and there are four objects in the center. As a person feels moved, they come into the center and pick up one or more of them. There is a stick for anger, and a rock for fear, and leaves for sadness and grief, and an empty bowl for despair or not knowing what to do. Or you can just come in and be freaked out if your feelings don’t fit into those. Basically people go in there and they cry or they get angry and express what’s in their heart and everyone says I hear you when they go and sit down. That witnessing of ourselves and our feelings creates the potential of the transformation.

Q: Into a strength rather than a drain.

A: Right, because each one of them has an opposite or a flip side. Our grief and sadness is a measure of our caring and our love. The stick for anger is a measure of our desire for freedom and justice. The rock shows it takes courage to express our feelings because until we can feel despair we can’t feel empowerment.

Q: Beautiful.

A: And we do more empowering exercises to connect with nature and remove obstacles that might be keeping us from being as effective as we can in our work. The Truth Mandala has been really what we call “going off.” They are consistently strong and from a group of people who are not hippies or some kind of New Agers used to catharting.

Q: Catharting?

A: Right, we are not getting any professional “catharters.” [laughs] These are regular people who don’t do catharsis everyday

Q: So in all the list of actions that people are doing is there any discussion of more hardcore political pressure tactics like hunger strikes or mass protest marches?

A: No, not yet. We do have a march against global warming every year and there were 40,000 people out in Sydney for that last year, but a lot of people got disillusioned because they protested about the Iraq war and we went to war anyway. But that was not during an election year. This year we’ve got an election in the fall.

Q: So there may be a shift at that point.

A: Right, but what we don’t have here is what they have in the UK where the different parties are vying against each other to produce good policies. That’s not happening here because John Howard is steering to the right and Kevin Rudd [the labor opposition leader] can move as he would like.

Q: It’s the same in the US where the democratic candidates are not coming forward with really strong policies as of yet. And of course Bush and Howard are the two famous Kyoto holdouts.

A: We just have to keep the pressure on. As Al Gore says, we need to do that to give the politicians the courage they need to make the changes. Until they see that the people want this to happen, they won’t make those changes. I don’t feel too pessimistic about what changes we might see in the political situation. We are just at the beginning of this trajectory.

Q: So what’s on for the next six months?

A: Check it out at our website. I’ve got one more tour and then I’d like to synthesize and integrate and maybe write up more of what we’ve done and think about what is needed as we move closer to the elections.

Kelpie Wilson is Truthout’s environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of Darwin’s Radio, says: “Primal Tears is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family.”

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