This essay is part of our July 2019 Uncertain Future Forum on the topic: “If collapse is imminent, how do we respond?” We invite you to comment below, and to read the other essays here.
Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.
There’s a fine roll of honour where the maypole once stood,
And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.
— Austin John Marshall, melody traditional, “Dancing at Whitsun”
Earlier this year, I went to a May Day festival in a small town in western Massachusetts. Adults gathered by the maypole on the village green and the children paraded around it holding ribbons, weaving a joyful rainbow in celebration of Spring. Someone handed out dog-eared songbooks. I stood with friends in a gentle rain; we sang, and watched the Morris dancers.
Morris is an English tradition. It’s always looked to me as though Easter eggs have come alive, as colorfully-clad dancers weave geometrical patterns through the grass with ribbons and white handkerchiefs floating behind them. Dancers are usually accompanied by an accordion and/or a fiddle; I was told as a child that the bells they wear strapped to their legs are to wake up the earth in the springtime. Morris is a peasant’s dance, thousands of years old, likely influenced by paganism.
The other thing about Morris dance is that it was traditionally a male pursuit. But changes within the tradition offer us a metaphor to think about the crisis we face now.
During World War I, so the story goes, so many English men were away from their farms fighting at the front that Morris dancing was in danger of dying out. With male mortality hovering at 70%, and over strenuous objection from traditionalists, women in these little agrarian villages came out to dance. They learned the men’s parts; they formed their own teams. They changed some dances, and kept others the same—the ladies went Morris dancing at Whitsun.
And today Morris Dance is alive and thriving, not just in England, but in North America as well.
Upending tradition takes courage (even today some men in England advance the tired argument that women’s bodies aren’t strong enough for Morris). But those women dancers understood something about their moment in time: the choice was to adapt—to include new people—or to permanently lose something that their community cherished. Either women got to dance or nobody would, quite possibly ever again.
We are faced today with a similar set of choices. The range of possible outcomes of the climate crisis is staggering in its breadth. While it’s clear that some level of collapses is imminent, the difference between best- and worst-case scenarios boggles the mind. And the experience of climate change is generational; those who will still be alive when the worst of it hits are understandably the most concerned.
But the changes we need to make as a society require all of us, not just those who will live through Armageddon. Either we include each other and draw on each other’s strengths, or we will perish in a sea of infighting, oppression, and actual salt water. Crises require a radical form of solidarity. They require us to do things differently than we have done them before.
The most important question in the world right now is whether a capitalist society like the United States, and a capitalist international order like the one we all live in, is capable of reducing our emissions enough to sustain life. But that question reveals another, deeper question: are we capable of reimagining our world in a way that prioritizes our relationships to each other and to the planet, rather than our relationships to wealth?
I think we are—even in the face of so much discouraging news, I think we are. But it will require turning toward each other rather than taking refuge in isolation, numbing ourselves through consumption, or hiding in traditionalism. It will require doing things in a new way.
At my day job I’m a sociologist, a professor at a public university. I also co-direct an organization called Conceivable Future, which is focused on making space for people to explore the emotional dimension of the climate crisis: how it has shaped their visions of the future, particularly with respect to parenting. I’m also a local politician in Rhode Island.
One of the interesting insights, for me, of doing all three things simultaneously is that the lessons are similar. And the gist of what I see is this: Humans live—literally—for each other. Our connections to each other are our shared humanity, even within cultures and systems that can be so cruel. Our relationships are the only thing worth surviving for. They are also the only things that will help us literally survive.
Sociology has taught me that strong, loving relationships can and have moved mountains, and that community organizations are the driving logistical and organizing force behind social change. Indeed, such groups are the only ones that have ever moved mountains, and right now we have some political mountains that need moving. (Check out Aldon Morris’ remarkable book about the role of Black churches in the U.S. civil rights movement if you want a deeper look at this). The basic idea is that we only take risks for the people that we love: we’ll sit in for them, march for them, risk arrest, or run for office to ensure a better world for our kids. And the structures we build around the communities that we love—our congregations, our parenting groups, our neighborhood associations, even our CrossFit gyms—can be the backbone of the political work that needs doing. Those groups give us strength, hold us accountable and make logistics easier, in large part because we already care about and trust people within them. Non-political groups help build relationships that can be transferred to organizing work; it is much easier to run a carpool during a bus boycott if you’ve already been organizing church suppers with the same folks for years. There ain’t no power like the power of the people, truly—and the power of the people is much more easily evoked when we are fighting for, and alongside, those we love.
But what do those connections actually look like, for most of us? A recent study showed that the average American hasn’t made a new friend in five years. There are many reasons for this, but it suggests that one of the first and most obvious steps anyone can take is to connect with other people—by making new relationships and strengthening existing ones. Have drinks with a colleague after work. Join a kickball team. But seek others out: no problem is solved alone, especially not one as big as this.
Working with Conceivable Future has taught me more or less the same thing—that we count our lives in loving relationships, even in the face of unfathomable grief and certain loss. Our group offers space for people who are grappling with the question of whether or not to become parents in the face of climate threats, and to think about how to parent the children they already have. Those joining our network are struggling with big, troubling questions about what sort of world their children will inherit from a society for which self-interest and pillage are the order of the day. We don’t tell anybody what they should or shouldn’t do; we just make space for whatever they are thinking or feeling. And it’s clear to me that these concerns come from a place of love as well. Nobody would worry about the world they’re leaving to their children if they didn’t love those children fiercely.
Our group tries simply to offer space for people to share their stories, on the logic that this will help us find the strength to take political action. Grieving with others eases pain. It helps to talk openly about what hurts, and often just naming the hurt lets us do something productive with it. At the beginning of the landmark book The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan describes getting letters from middle-class housewives across the United States in the late ‘50s who were all feeling persistently discontent. She calls this, “The Problem That Has No Name.” Throughout second-wave feminism (which has been rightly criticized for being very white and heteronormative), an important part of the work was simply giving the problem a name, and in doing so, giving it political power. The problem was sexism, among other things. But naming the problem gave it leverage, and leverage changes systems. At Conceivable Future, talking about how the climate crisis affects young people’s views of their future has helped name the problem, and endow it with political clout. Sharing our feelings is the first step toward liberation.
My third role—being a politician in Rhode Island—has helped me see both how people’s love and their fears flare in times of crisis. In a democracy, the government is only as strong as our own values and connections to each other. Because there’s a flip side to community: our love for our “own” can become perverted, an excuse to exclude rather than to include. Fears for our own children, our own congregation, our own way of life, can rapidly transform into excuses to push away other people’s children, other congregations, other ways of life. This becomes more likely as the stakes get higher and resources get scarcer. And it’s where we need our communities to both lift us up and hold us accountable; to acknowledge our shared fears and, instead of amplifying them, help us seek the best in ourselves. Xenophobia scratches the itch of uncertainty and anger and disempowerment. It has never solved any large-scale problems, but it gives people an “out” when they’re feeling scared, which is why it tends to surge in times of upheaval and confusion.
The power of community can be a bulwark against fear. Moreover, community is what helps build the organizational capacity necessary to challenge the entrenched power structures that ask us to settle for faint and ineffectual strategies. There are more people than there are politicians, by definition, even in the face of massive power inequities. Juggernauts can be moved. It takes time, planning, organization, and a whole lot of legwork, but it happens.
I believe that politicians and community leaders—who are often reluctant to expose the delicate process of policymaking to outside scrutiny—need to do a better job of putting our decisions into context. An argument about affordable housing is actually a debate about how we want to live together in a shared place. Decisions about subsidies are decisions about the things we value. Whether or not we privatize our water supply tells us how we think about the resources entrusted to us. How we talk about these problems gives us insight into what they mean to us, and can reveal just how different their meanings may be to different people.
All of this affirms to me that turning outward, toward each other and into conversation and community—rather than turning inward toward our fear—is what’s required.
And that takes work. Life in community is both exhausting and exhilarating. We need community to manage the crisis, and we need it for solace as the crisis unfolds. Dealing with other humans isn’t always fun; “turning toward” each other demands patience, compassion, and a willingness to live with imperfection. We will lose things and people that we love along the way, assuredly. But the knowledge that we can be secure in our connections to each other, even in the face of terrifying prospects, is my favorite thing about being alive.
If crisis is imminent, we must respond with the best in ourselves—by making a more inclusive world, built on relationships with each other rather than with wealth. This means changing how we live, and what our definition of success is. It means taking the high road. It means having uncomfortable conversations. It means processing our grief and anger, instead of pushing them away. It means building longer tables. It means letting go of ideas about how things “should” be, to make space for what might be possible.
Either we all get to dance—or nobody does.
Editor’s note: The version of this essay posted on July 16 and July 17, 2019, was missing the paragraph that starts with “My third role.”
Meghan Kallman is a sociologist who studies how social movements succeed, why they fail and how we can sustain social commitment and activism in a globalized world. She earned her PhD in sociology in 2016, and is the recipient of two National Science Foundation grants, as well as grants from the Horowitz Foundation for Social Policy, the Cogut Institute for the Humanities at Brown University, and others. Kallman’s work uses organizational theory to make sense of social change. Her current research uses a case study of the US Peace Corps to understand how organizations shape the politics of their intrinsically motivated participants. Kallman also works on network theory and social movements. Her first book, The Third Sector, was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2016. Her second book, The Death of Idealism, is in preparation. She is a city councilor in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and a professor at the graduate School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at University of Massachusetts – Boston.