Why make time to feel when there is a world to save?

February 16, 2021

My steps with integrating international development and deep adaptation.

It’s heart breaking to witness how intentions are real and absolutely beautiful in international development. Everyone wants a more beautiful and fairer world. But the issue is how we manifest those intentions. How do we manifest the more beautiful world our heart knows is possible, to quote Charles Eisenstein.

Sadly, when you work in international development, you have, what I think, are two main coping mechanisms to deal with our work in the context of an unfolding global crisis with climate chaos – and what has been termed by scientists as a period of biological annihilation.

One way of coping is to be more ambitious in the desperate attempt to manage the crisis, and by that, we expect that the world has got to get better. A wishful thinking lens that we refuse to take off. If only I, my organisation, this partnership, do better, surely the world will get better. We can and will have more impact because the alternative is unthinkable, perhaps, we sense, unbearable. And with that starting point, even curiosity, exploration, learning, trust, and collaboration becomes a means to sustain a lens of wishful thinking. What we are doing in that mindset is reinforcing the idea of an outcome-oriented world, constantly strategized, constantly measured, and via this, a highly cognitive way of operating, rather than a broader way of sensing life or being alive.

I know that when I become highly cognitive in solving a crisis, I also become highly competitive. I become like a single chess piece, and by that analogy, every other player is either there to thwart, interrupt or to serve my plans in the game, towards the outcome-oriented world. The current world (the game) becomes something you’ve got to control so you’re constantly fighting it.

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The other coping mechanism is to try not to feel too much. Why make time to feel, and by default do nothing, when there is a world to save? In an outcome-oriented world, we think that despair would be useless, and therefore somehow immoral to allow ourselves to fall into.

Each of these responses are helped by maintaining attachment to  past hope. Attachment to such hope is false hope. Such as the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Everywhere, for everyone, already yesterday. Such false hopes bind us to unliveable situations, and blind us to real possibilities.

As time passes, I realised I could not cope through avoidance, either by being busier or choosing to be numb.

I have allowed myself to feel things deeply. And I wonder what if more of us do things because we feel it deeply. Not because our development projects will be more successful if we feel deeply. Not because the world will get better if we feel deeply. But simply because it is allowing our reality.

What if the best thing I could do is to just sit under an oak tree and cry? I just don’t know the answer out of this crisis. The best I can do is to feel this crisis fully, in the company of as gracious a being as an oak.

As a child, my dream was to talk to animals and trees. I left home at 18 to be in the forest and worked as a park ranger, first in Mauritius, my own island, then Seychelles, New Zealand and Madagascar. I headed the conservation programme of WWF Madagascar for several years. No one working in the sustainability sector whom I met had learnt to talk to the trees and animals, nor even to indigenous cultures.

To get closer to my dream, I did my PhD in human-nature conflicts at the University of Oxford. I wanted to learn the minimum standard of sustainability, that is to reduce conflict, especially in the agriculture and mining sector. After my PhD, I worked for 15 years in international development, sustainable production and consumption, natural resource management, and climate adaptation, as a sustainability practitioner and systems scientist across the world from Asia, Australia, and Africa to South America. I then became an academic and, with some of my earlier energy of doing more, not feeling more, I published over 30 papers in international journals.

In my time as a sustainability practitioner, I struggled with how to deal with climate change.  I worked on it indirectly by trying to improve resilience of forest and food systems as well as strengthening indigenous leadership in natural resources management. It did not feel sufficient, but then little does in the field of international development. Then in 2018, when I read the Deep Adaptation paper, I realised how much I had been pushing the topic of climate change aside because I did not know how to engage on it fully. I realised how much grief I had been holding about the topic, especially after living in Madagascar, and experiencing the food system collapse there because of climate change.

For me, engaging with Deep Adaptation has meant inviting back my emotions about climate change from my personal life into my professional life. Letting the emotions take their rightful place. It has meant manifesting more who I am really.  Both West and East. Both Modern and Ancient. Both Scientist and Shaman. Integrating all this and integrating my personal and professional life in a more human way.

I am still in academia, as a Research Associate with Humboldt Universidad zu Berlin where I undertake participatory research on ecosystem services, indigenous people, sustainable production, consumption, and trade. However, I found that I had to complement that with other ways of engaging with our predicament. I founded the Sensemakers Collective to support facilitation of systems change bringing mindfulness, embodiment, systems science, and ancestral wisdom in decision making. I’m still learning – not perhaps to talk to nature but to listen to it more.

Now I wonder how more people who work in international development cooperation might bring their full selves to engaging the predicament of climate-disruptions and even societal collapse. Many of us are motivated by the principles of human rights, equality, democratic participation, internationalism and humanitarian action. These are important values from which to engage others about the political implications of the worsening situation. However, many of us also bring the same mindset to the table: outcome-oriented world, always thinking we know what’s best for the world and always trying to control it so we can fight it.

That will not help us imagine how to be useful to each other in worsening situations, or how to not fight for but rather feel and sense fairness, justice and healing over economic indicators. As people in international development jobs reflect on their work given the latest situation with climate change, the Deep Adaptation outlook and framework will be helpful to many. It focuses on emotional processing so that we can allow our grief and despair to transform us.

I know that more people in this sector can, like me, reconnect with their original motivations of love of nature and humanity, and be open to the pain that will bring. The inevitable despair can release us from the trappings of careers imagined within an era that is passing away. We are all greater than our past decisions and investments. We can all find new ways of loving the Earth and humanity within the crucible of climate chaos. Because there will be no saving of worlds if we are not feeling them first. And it is by loving all life, no matter what, that a more beautiful world already exists.

Malika Virah-Sawmy

Dr Malika Virah-Sawmy is a signatory of the International Scholars Warning to humanity on the risks of societal disruption and collapse, and a guest in the 2021 series of Deep Adaptation Q&As hosted by Professor Jem Bendell.

Tags: climate change responses, climate grief, Deep Adaptation, international development strategies