The third week in August 2018. The end of a long dry summer and I’m headed into Stockholm for the day. My phone pings, an SMS from one of the people I’m due to meet: ‘If you happen to walk by parliament on your way, you’ll see a school strike for climate.’
I’ve got a three-year-old in tow, and I’m rushing to park him and my parents at the Astrid Lindgren-themed children’s museum on Djurgården before my first meeting. The detour will have to wait, but this is the first I hear about Greta Thunberg and the movement she is about to start.
‘I’m optimistic about the future because of youth around the world like Greta Thunberg,’ tweets Christine Lagarde from Davos.
‘I don’t want your hope,’ says Greta in a speech the next day. ‘I want you to panic.’
After that, the German tabloids hail her as the ‘Eco Pippi’, but if we need a children’s literature reference, then surely it’s that Greta is channelling Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games.
The massive popularity among young people of a series about a society that sends its children to do battle in a snuff movie remake of TV’s Big Brother ought to come as a warning to the grown-ups. At least that’s the thought that struck me reading those books a few years back. That was around the time Jay Springett wrote about ‘The Coming Asperity’: the moment when the young turn against the generations before them. I’m not saying that’s what this is, but you can taste the edge of that energy.
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Whatever else, it should be clear by now that a shift is underway, a change in the cultural weather that goes back at least to the summer of 2018 and perhaps a little further. In hindsight, we might see David Wallace-Wells’s original New York magazine version of ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ and the response it generated as the first sign of what was coming. Certainly, his publishers aren’t shy about calling him the man who launched the movement. On hopeful days, I’m tempted to say we’ve crossed a cultural tipping point.
Seasoned observers talk about the Issue–Attention cycle, the long rhythm by which different issues rise and fall on the news agenda. Seen through this lens, the climate issue is enjoying its latest season in the sun. The last wave of attention rose around 2005 and crashed four years later on the failed hopes of the Copenhagen summit. We know how this story ends, the old hands seem to say.
For those living the headiness of a wave, the mobilisation of emotion, such detached analysis can come as an unwanted slap in the face. Whatever lessons it has to offer, the voice of experience risks being heard as know-it-all, seen-it-all cynicism.
Something else might come into view, however, if we stay with this longer perspective for a moment: a difference between the current climate wave and the one that many of us lived through a decade and more ago; a qualitative shift in attention.
If there was one figure who embodied the public focus on climate last time around, then it was Al Gore. He strode onto the stage with his after-dinner patter – ‘I used to be the next president of the United States’ – to talk the audience through the high-end PowerPoint presentation that was An Inconvenient Truth. The effect of all the well-crafted rhetoric was to walk you up to a safe viewing point, about a quarter of a mile from the abyss, to gesture in its general direction, and then to walk you back and leave you with a list of things we can do to make the horror go away, starting with changing our lightbulbs. Al Gore didn’t want you to panic.
Those at the centre of this new moment of climate awareness have little in common with Al Gore. I’m thinking of Greta Thunberg, but also of Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion, and of Jem Bendell, whose academic paper ‘Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Climate Tragedy’ has been downloaded half a million times. Of the four of them, only Jem has a touch of the insider’s training, but the attention his work has received owes much to his willingness to sacrifice his credibility and go against the conventions of the institutions through which he built his reputation.
For millions, their encounter with Extinction Rebellion, Deep Adaptation or the school strikes movement over the past year has thrust them out over the abyss, hanging there with little promise of what lies beyond it. The strange collection of public figures giving voice to these intersecting movements are hanging out there too, dangling into the void of what we know and fear about the changes already underway. Their voices are powerful in part because they’re as scared as any of us.
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As word began to spread last autumn, in the weeks before Extinction Rebellion kicked off, I saw a run of articles from professional campaigners and climate communications experts, explaining to Gail and Roger and their co‑conspirators how they were doing it wrong. I found myself wondering why we even have climate communications experts. Surely if there was anyone around who actually knew how to communicate successfully about climate change, we wouldn’t be as deep in this mess as we are?
Still, confident in their credentials, these experts explained that the messaging was a mistake: it’s no good scaring people, talking about how bad things look; you need to give them hope, where hope means a story about how it can all be OK. Well, no one listened. Instead, a strange alliance of the scared and the disillusioned proceeded to launch a mobilisation around climate change that has captured the cultural agenda to an extent we haven’t seen in a generation.
I have a hunch as to what caught so many of the professionals off guard. It’s that the toolkit of ‘communications’ is not adequate to what is at stake, to the kind of process that is called for and already underway. After all, the techniques of the communications industry were developed mostly for delivering commercial propaganda to promote the habits of consumption that brought us to this pass. Clever as the communicators are, their models may not encompass the range of possibilities for how people come to know a thing like the climate crisis, or how we come together in the experience and enactment of change.
What kind of process is it, then, that has been underway this past year? Here’s what I’ve been picking up from the people I meet, the audiences I speak to and the stories that come back to me: on a scale not seen before, people are having an encounter with climate change not as a problem that can be solved or managed, made to go away, or reconciled with some existing arc of progress, but as a dark knowledge that calls our path into question, that starts to burn away the stories we were told and the trajectories our lives were meant to follow, the entitlements we were brought up to believe we had, our assumptions about the shape of history, the kind of world we were born into and our place within it.
The power of this encounter stems not least from the sense that some secret part of us already knew. We had been sitting silently with this pouch of unnamed fears and darknesses, and now it becomes possible to find each other, to share our fears, to name something of the dark material we were carrying all along. And for the first time, we have movements in which our engagement is welcome without us having to suppress all this in favour of a can-do rhetoric we can’t quite believe in.
If this read on the processes at work is anywhere close to accurate, then we are in territory where the tools known to mythographers and anthropologists are more help than the standard equipment of communications, campaigning or activism. I can’t find another language for what’s going on, without risking the suggestion that this is some kind of initiatory process.
In the first instance, the risk is to my own ability to say anything intelligible, since most of us were born into a time and place that hardly knows how to take a thing like initiation seriously. If it has any connotations at all, they will be the National Geographic photo essay with boys in tribal costumes, or the humiliations enforced on new members of drug gangs and college fraternities, or the cringeworthy cultural appropriation of white dudes selling their services as shamans. Not a promising frame of reference, then, but it’s what I have.
What we know is that across a great range of times and places, people have taken practices of initiation seriously. They have constructed and relied on rituals, tied to moments of transition, in which the participants are taken out of their everyday reality for a time and brought to a confrontation with limits, to the rough edges of knowledge and perception, to the lived experience of their own mortality. The purpose of the ritual may be to mark a transition in the life of the participants – as with rites of passage into adulthood – or in the collective life of the community itself, as it encounters the limits of its current way of being. The literature on such practices is considerable, though much of it is corrupted by the colonial lenses through which other ways of being human have been studied.
My claim is that there are elements here that resemble the experiences people are having right now around climate change – and, if this is so, then thinking about these experiences in terms of initiation might help us get oriented to their implications and also to the dangers that go with them.
For one thing, in a context where initiation is taken seriously, the skill of holding a safe-enough space for such experiences is not seen as something you can learn in the course of a few weekend workshops. We are starting with precious little common language for this work, in a context where deep skill is hard to find, is marginalised or is simply absent. When it comes to the initiatory encounter with the dark knowledge of climate change and the mystery which it represents, those who are propelled into roles of leadership are often there because of the power with which they articulate their own experience of being broken by the encounter, rather than because they are equipped to hold a space in which others can be broken well and have a chance of healing. The hardest part of initiatory work is not the rupture from the everyday, the getting ‘far out’, but the return, the reintegration of what we have learned, how it has changed us, who we have become.
Without the depth of skill, without the steady hands of people who know this work, we can get lost out there. I see people trapped in loops of panic and fear, fed by a Facebook algorithm that serves up endless paralysing slices of apocalypse. This is not where we need to be. It’s not the encounter with darkness in which we have a chance of coming alive, but a spell that keeps us in the outer layers of hell.
Or else the encounter is rendered safe: another experience to be consumed. We are so well trained to approach the world as consumers, we can hardly help it, and pretty soon the grief ritual becomes another form of catharsis-on-demand. Here, too, we are under a spell – and it may be that the only way to break it is to raise the stakes, to put our own lives on the line, to violate the logic of the transaction and go beyond cost–benefit analysis. ‘The price of entry is to be consumed,’ writes Martin Shaw, who knows as much as anyone I’ve met about the stakes involved when initiation is for real.
Around the edges of our world, even today, there are characters like Martin who I would trust to hold this work. What keeps me awake at night is the question of what this looks like on the kind of scale that is called for now. This isn’t a countercultural pocket, a couple of hundred souls gathered around a campfire; this is crossing the horizon of the wider culture. Let’s say we’re talking hundreds of thousands of people, over this past year, having an encounter that calls their lives into question, that contains an element of revelation, which can look a lot like despair. What would it take to catch that many people as they fall?
There is one large-scale modern Western example of an initiatory movement that I find convincing and it’s Alcoholics Anonymous. Its strength is directly related to the stakes involved. You don’t arrive at an AA meeting without having burned your life down, one way or another. The thing you all have in common in that room is the price of entry.
I wish I knew what that looked like, transposed to the kind of ‘recovery’ that is called for now. We’re not talking about a pathology that lies at the level of the individual. There is no getting clean when it comes to climate change. I’m not even convinced that climate change is the root of what we’re talking about here. But this is the question that flickers through the conversations I’ve been having lately: what does Alcoholics Anonymous for a whole culture look like?
Dougald Hine, Västerås, 23 September 2019