This post is also available in: French
In May 2019, my climate denial bubble burst. It was a terrifying and disorienting experience that made me question everything about my life. In retrospect, I realize this was a zen-like gift of ‘terrified awakening’, of ‘clear seeing’, but at the time, I was paralyzed with emotion and dread.
What triggered my climate denial bubble to burst?
I feel compelled to share this personal experience, in the hope that it might help others who are also struggling with the current sustainability crisis and searching for a path forward…
On the morning of May 13th I came upon an article in the Guardian, We’re Doomed: Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention, where Hillman predicted that ‘the outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps.’
Hillman’s comments triggered a visceral reaction that woke me out of an emotional stupor and instantly transformed my world view. I could now feel what I previously only thought. The shock of absorbing this ‘outcome is death’ statement shivered my bones. I came crashing out of my bubble of denial and full speed into reality.
As I observed my surroundings with this lens, I kept thinking: why are we talking about trivialities when the world is on fire? Why are people living in a sheltered bubble when the doomsday evidence is so clear? Is there any hope?
I recalled curator Paola Antonelli’s thoughts about how ‘humans will inevitably become extinct due to environmental breakdown, but we have the power to design ourselves a ‘beautiful ending’.’
A beautiful ending: Is this where we are at? And if so, what does it look like?
On May 14th, our 17-year-old daughter was debating her choice of university program. She was facing a fork in the road and my heart was bleeding for her. Gifted in science, she wanted to study a field where her skills will have the most impact in relation to the sustainability crisis: engineering or earth sciences? When I asked her what she wanted to do – quelle est ta passion? – she responded, with resignation, that it did not really matter.
Her focus, like many of her generation, was on what needed to be done, not so much on what she wanted to do. The words of another teenager, activist Greta Thunberg, came to mind: ‘the climate change crisis has already been solved. We already have the facts and solutions. All we need to do is wake up and change’.
I reached out to climate change photographer and writer Joan Sullivan, who introduced me to Emily Johnston’s essay, Loving a Vanishing World: ‘we can’t leave this world better than we found it — it will be lesser for a long time. But we can change the path that it’s on now, and we know how to start making up for what we’ve done. We have beautiful work to do before we die.’
I remember telling my daughter that week that I was working on art and climate change strategies and she said, with emotion: thank you so much for doing something. A mix of sadness and hope rushes through me every time I think of that moment…
On May 15th I kept reading. I absorbed the IPCC’s October 2018 statement that ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of societyis required’, which means rethinking everything. I contemplated the bleak Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells and the uplifting Drawdown: 100 Solutions to Reverse Global Warming.
I exchanged with friends and colleagues. One friend pointed out the dangers of ‘world-has-gone-to-hell psychological abuse’ while another noted that ‘action and a sense of community with like-minded spirits have proven to be an antidote to despair’. Artist colleagues reminded me that the arts are uniquely placed to transform conversations around climate change and translate them into action. I agree, but first I needed to unpack my emotions.
George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change helped. Marshall identifies climate change as a psychological ‘perfect storm’ that confounds human cognition through ‘disattention’. In other words, we have difficulty seeing and planning for ‘invisible’ issues like climate change and tend to focus on the immediate and tangible threats.
Marshall concluded that we need to build trust about climate change by communicating common values (e.g. authority, responsibility, loyalty) as opposed to factual or ecological persuasion. It seems that our minds are wired to believe engaging narratives that appeal to our ‘emotional brain’ and that we need passionate storytellers to break habitual patterns, discover alternative values and consider new perspectives.
I recalled that Hillman’s ‘doomsday’ foresight also said that ‘so many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness.’ It became clear to me that this is where the arts and culture can contribute, with their capacity to delight, educate, provoke, stimulate, console, inspire and influence.
Finally, a path forward through the doom and gloom…
On May 17th, I was relieved, but disappointed, to find that I had stopped experiencing a strong emotional connectionto the climate crisis and had slid back into my oblivious and anxious life.
However, I could not go back into denial and as I still needed to function in day to day life, I developed a plan:
- Panic? No.
- Experience life mindfully? Yes
- Engage in ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change’? Yes
- Lose hope for the only world we have?
I like Joan Sullivan’s thinking on this: ‘I would want to spend my last few months or years doing whatever I could, in my own little way, to make this world a better place for my daughter, for the bees, for the forests. Even if we are doomed, and I think we are, I refuse to do nothing…’
Emily Johnston suggests that ‘if you can retire, then the world needs you, and it needs you right now, because anything that we do this year or next is worth ten of the same thing ten years from now’.
I actually will retire as soon as possible and fight for a sustainable world with the most powerful tool I know artistic practice. In other words, to design that ‘beautiful ending’ that Antonelli refered to, while trying with all my might, to avoid it.
And when things get dark – and they surely will – I will turn to art and traditional knowledge for inspiration and grounding, such as these words by Indigenous writer Richard Wagamese (from For Joshua):
‘We may not relight the fires that used to burn in our villages, but we carry the embers from those fires in our hearts and learn to light new fires in a new world. We can recreate the spirit of community we had, of kinship, or relationship to all things, of union with the land, harmony with the universe, balance in living, humility, honesty, truth, and wisdom in all of our dealings with each other.’
Thanks to all the authors who have been quoted in this blog and to Sabrina Mathews and Joan Sullivan for their invaluable support in editing.