How to face your fears of the climate crisis

A lot of my recent posts have been very energetic (ranting and shouty, even…) but today I want to take a moment to breath deeply, and talk quietly about how terrifying this all is, and how to deal with that.

First, a brief summary of the facts, just as a short reminder of how scary the situation really is:

The science and scientists tells us that we have a massive problem: global warming will lead to more extreme weather: heatwaves, droughts, floods, and storms. The physics of why is simple: more heat energy in the air means more energy to the air’s movement, which makes weather events stronger than they would otherwise have been.

Heatwaves and floods are going to damage crops; as these events become more frequent and stronger more and more crops are going to be damaged and fail. That’s going to reduce the food supply, eventually getting to the point where people start to go hungry (this is already happening).

Climate change → hunger

Hungry people will seek out food by moving to where they think they can find some. Mass migration, itself a humanitarian disaster, is thus going to lead to conflict: hungry people will try to move to places where there is food, but the people already in those places will not want that: this will lead to violence. (this is already happening, for example in the Middle East).

hunger → war.

And since climate change is going to get worse and worse, there is going to be more and more hunger as the years go on, and thus more and more war. It’s going to hit the world’s poor first, but it will be coming to our rich countries next. (It already is: Brexit is (in part) a violent reaction to immigration from Syria). Our money and social structures will not protect us for long: We are not so rich and clever that we can protect ourselves from massive food shortages and the resulting social breakdown.

Rich successful civilizations have collapsed before: the Roman Empire, the Mayan and Aztec empires, Easter Island, Germany after the world wars, the Soviet Union. Look at Venezuela right now: a once-rich society now collapsing. The reasons for collapse are different in each case, but my point is simple: societies collapse. Ours can (and on current trajectories, will) collapse too.

War → collapse

What this means is that the younger you are the more likely it is that you are going to die, not in old age after a genteel retirement, but rather as a victim of war and famine sometime this century (maybe even in the next few decades). This fate is not yet sealed – a lot depends on how human society conducts itself in the next few years. However I feel I must point out that even going to zero emissions tomorrow still wouldn’t save us from upheaval – there’s a lot of warming already locked in and coming. This is one more frightening aspect of this problem.

That’s a summary of our situation, brief and with many details omitted, but enough to introduce my real point today: our societies are facing collapse.

And this, if you pause long enough to look at it and feel it and take in the implications (for you and your family, for your community and country, for humanity worldwide, for all the living things in this evolutionary miracle we call “life”), is completely and utterly terrifying.

It may well be that it is so terrifying that you prefer not to look at it. That’s a very natural, human and understandable reaction – I’ve been doing it myself for many years. Unfortunately, not allowing yourself to feel an emotion doesn’t actually make it vanish. We are not in control of our emotions – if we were, then the words “cheer up” would have long ago revolutionized psychotherapy:

Patient: “I’m depressed”
Therapist: “Cheer up”
Patient: “Oh, I didn’t think of that, thanks I will….yaaay, I’m happy now, thanks doctor!”
Therapist: “You’re very welcome! If you ever need reminding do come back again, always happy to help. Have a great day!”
Patient: “I will! Thanks, you too!”

Oh, if only it were true…but it’s not.

Telling someone to “cheer up” is about as useful and practical as telling me: “don’t be tall”. I can bend my knees, or even sit down, but my height hasn’t changed: only my approach to the fact of my height has changed. And spending my life trying to deny the truth is only going to lead to problems: a stoop, and back pain, and (ultimately) a lack of belief in my own worth as a human being.

(Note: I’m 180cm / 5’11”, which is not that tall in England but quite tall in Japan, so this analogy works a little better in Japan than in England – nevertheless, you get the point).

The phrase “bottle it up” is a familiar one, and we all have some understanding of why it is not a good thing to do:

  • Someone feeling grief needs to grieve, not “bottle it up”.
  • Someone feeling their job is pointless needs to talk about and explore that feeling, and their employment options, not “bottle it up”.
  • Someone feeling anger needs to express that anger (in healthy ways – there are good and bad ways of “expressing” anger, though that’s too big a subject to go into today); “bottling it up” will simply lead to further problems: addiction, violence, suicide.

Thus, when you have an emotion, that is a fact of your existence. You have only two choices: admit that fact, or pretend it’s not true.

There is no third option.

So if you are aware of the facts of the climate emergency, you are likely terrified.

And if you are terrified, there are only two possible options open to you: admit that fact, or “bottle it up”. Let’s be realistic: You’re probably bottling it up. Mainly because fear is itself very frightening….so now you have two emotions:

Emotion 1) You’re frightened of the unfolding climate catastrophe.
Emotion 2) You’re frightened of feeling your fear of the unfolding climate catastrophe.

In fact, if you’re anything like me (I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but unfortunately you might be) you’ve probably got at least one more layer going on:

Emotion 3) You’re frightened of even feeling your fear of your fears about the climate…

And maybe even a couple more layers on top of that:

Emotion 4) You’re frightened of even feeling your fear of your fears of your fears about the climate…
Emotion 5) You’re frightened of even feeling your fear of your fears of your fears….you get the idea.

(This concept comes partly from Buddhist philosophy: every feeling you have is an arrow you shoot yourself with: the more feelings, the more arrows: if you’re going to have to shoot yourself with arrows (the first one because your emotion is a fact and cannot be wished away), it’s probably best to limit it to as few as possible, preferably just the one. Ann Weiser Cornell calls this “the feeling about the feeling” The Radical Acceptance of Everything, p53).

At this point it’s not that important how many layers you have (or arrows you’ve shot yourself with): to be perfectly honest after the first couple they all really just mush into one anyway. And the best word to describe that mush is this: numbness. (Or if you are rolling with the arrows analogy: after the first couple the number of arrows becomes pretty immaterial, and you simply do what you can to numb this pain).

You are (probably – I’m just guessing here, feel free to correct me if I am wrong!) deeply frightened of the climate crisis, but going through your daily life numb to that:

  • perhaps just shrugging and thinking “well there’s no use worrying about something I can’t do anything about”
  • perhaps thinking “it’ll all get sorted in the end”
  • perhaps making dark jokes about how the end is nigh – this was my preferred method: not so long ago I posted on Facebook: “Our civilization is doomed. Discuss.” Nobody did, but it was just a dark joke anyway: I’ve been in just as much denial as everyone else.

Until quite recently.

Now I’m feeling a little more willing and able to feel my fears and talk about them. Hence this blog post.

And the remarkable thing is, and this is something that I have repeatedly heard from people involved in the XR community: feeling those fears (and in particular: sharing those fears out loud) is amazingly cathartic – you feel much much better once you do it.

Here, roughly, is how that worked for me:

I’ve spent the last ten years or more being increasingly concerned about global warming, but not really doing anything about it, because…well, because the problem felt so huge and I felt so tiny that it seemed there was nothing of any meaning that I could do.

And then in the last couple of months, as XR became a thing and I became more concretely aware of it, I began to look the situation in the eye (or more precisely, I began to feel it in my heart…if that isn’t too touchy-feely for you).

And then I moved from looking at websites to participating in online communities (mostly the XR japan facebook groups). And that led to starting to post about the issue on my own FaceBook timeline. Which led to meatspace conversations with my friends and colleagues (the first time, just a week or so ago, was really scary), which led to me becoming yet more active and assertive in my internet activities (posting more and more, designing graphics) which fed back into talking to more people.

And on Sunday I did my first real piece of public(ish) speaking on the issue: it wasn’t a big deal, but at the end of a surfer’s beach clean event I stood up in front of the gathered beach-cleaners (30 or so Okinawans, my local surf community) and gave a 5-minute elevator pitch about the climate crisis. (Doing this was again pretty scary – I felt like they probably thought I was crazy, but I don’t mind: I at least planted the first seeds of awareness).

And the result of all this is that I feel, perhaps paradoxically, calmer than I think I have ever felt in my life.

Now, to be clear it isn’t all roses over here in tensaimonland:

  • I am terrified (I can see the possibility of me and my family dying from war or famine sometime before my old age);
  • I feel crushed (I know there isn’t much I can do to save the people in the 3rd world who are being hit first)
  • I feel guilty and regretful (I wish I had started shouting about this ten years ago)
  • I am furious (because the super-rich have been doing this knowingly and deliberately for profit)
  • and there are probably a whole slew of other emotions I haven’t even noticed yet.

But I also feel calm, and clear, and in motion, where before I simply felt numb and paralyzed.

And I can assure you, feeling calm and clear and in motion feels a lot better than feeling like a deer in the headlights.

And the reason I feel better, not worse, for feeling my fears and dealing with how frightened I am is very simple: “bottling it up” doesn’t do any good.

Whereas the converse, actually feeling what you were previously bottling up, really does feel good (maybe not initially, but soon).

In our (very clever, but with some blind spots – this is one of them) culture we tend to regard emotions (how we feel) as immutable and unchanging. But this is not an accurate description of the experience of being human. The actual truth of our emotions and feelings is this: if and when we allow ourselves to actually feel them, they can heal.

Feeling fear, actually sitting with it and listening to what it has to tell us, allows it to change and grow and heal. And a healed fear is no longer a fear. In healing it changes into something else: in my case it is turning into motion. I have no idea what your fear will turn into (everyone is different, so you’re going to have to find out for yourself), but healing, by its very definition, is going to feel a whole lot better than the wound it once was.

Of course, I’m making this all sound very easy, when the reality is that facing your fears is very difficult. Full disclosure: starting nearly 8 years ago I learned a self-reflection technique called Focusing with a teacher called Ann Weiser Cornell, and I have maintained my practice at least twice a week since (with partners over internet chat), so I have had A LOT of practice doing this. If you haven’t done anything that involves your emotions before then you’ll be starting at the beginning, with a big learning curve ahead of you.

But don’t let that worry you: you’ll learn fast, and you’ll heal fast. Even mentioning in conversation that you’re worried about the climate crisis is a great start, and there are many many individuals and communities, both online and in your locality, that will welcome you and help you get better at with sitting with your fears in a way that allows them to heal.

Here’s a few practical suggestions you might try: mindfulness, meditation and yoga, activist groups (including XR, though there are many others), church and faith groups, counseling and support groups, any kind of counseling-based helpline, and seriously: even your friends, family, and work and hobby communities may be a useful starting point.

(However if you do start with your friends or family, do also seek out a supportive environment with more experience in helping people deal with their emotions. Your friends, etc, although a great start, but may lack the skills and experience necessary to be helpful in the long term.)

Being frightened isn’t actually as frightening as you think it’s going to be, but being frightened alone really is terrifying and paralyzing and a horrible thing to have to live with. Please reach out to someone, anyone, (me, if you like!) to start the process of sharing your fears.

Before I finish there is one tricky (and somewhat ironic) aspect to this that I want to point out: you are alone until you connect with someone (pretty much by definition…).

So the first step towards connecting is unfortunately a step you are going to have to take alone. And it’ll feel terrifying, like stepping off a cliff into the abyss. Try to breathe, and remember: although it looks terrifying from the top, there are people down there who will help you land safely. (too much analogy? aah, let’s go with it…)

I wish you good luck and all the strength you need to make that first step. We’ll be with you for the second, and for the rest of the journey.

This is about to become a pretty wild time to be alive. Let’s ride it together.

with love,
Simon

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