Kurt's Blog: Conversations Around the Fire
In this blog, join Kurt in a weekly “conversation around the campfire,” sharing stories of courage and inspiration for the bold work of restoration that we are now called to embrace.
Joe Brewer is a policy analyst with Cognitive Policy Works in Seattle, and co-founder of DarwinSF. He is an energetic speaker who loves what he does and knows how to be serious and have fun at the same time. Recently Joe joined forces with a Hungarian colleague named Lazlo Karafiath to found the Climate Meme Project. He spoke about their groundbreaking work at a recent climate conference on Whidbey Island.
According to Joe, “Memes are the genetic code of culture. They generate ideas and thoughts. Memes are viruses that replicate and spread throughout society. They activate across social networks to change human behavior. Cultural evolution comes about through the generation of new memes.”
The first photos of earth from space, for example, were powerful memes that redefined us as interconnected passengers on “spaceship earth”, and helped launch the environmental movement. Memes often function beneath the radar of conscious awareness as they drive our thinking and behavior toward new forms of cultural expression and understanding.
While global warming is arguably the greatest threat to human well being of our era, it has remained a niche concern, and has so far refused to spread virally. Joe and Lazlo started the Climate Meme Project when they realized that “global warming is a really lousy meme. It does a terrible job of spreading. It is really hard to get people to think about it and act upon it, it is really hard to get people on their own to feel compelled to tell stories about it, or to bring it up at cochtail parties.” Their research shows that the global warming meme has infected the minds of at best 5% of the world’s population. And given the scale of the actual thread posed to humanity by climate destabilization, this failure of the climate meme to infect our culture, and move us toward large-scale behavioral change, is a really big problem.
The Climate Meme Project is creating an ecological map of the memes that have arisen around climate change – both positive and negative. What Brewer and Karafiath have found is that “a gloomy outlook pervades the whole global warming meme landscape. Choosing between extinction and a long-shot at basic survival is not appealing to the masses.” Memes that capture this feeling well include, “I don’t want our pale blue dot to be a brown smudge.”, and “Climate change is humanity’s ‘mission impossible’.” We tend to develop a culturally immunity to memes that make us feel helpless or overwhelmed.
“The food of memes is human attention”, and memes that are not nourishing to our sense of possibility and well-being starve from lack of attention.
Examples of more effective memes include those that elicit a sense of agency, personal power, and the capacity for joy; “We can change really fast when we want to.” “There are so many solutions that we haven’t even thought of yet, that could be game changers.” “A fossil-free future is totally possible, here and now. And our lives will definitely be made better by it.”
Joe and Lazlo have identified “symbiotic” memes as especially promising in this regard. These are memes that move our behavior in the same direction as climate memes, but without the baggage and negativity associated with gloomy climate thinking. These would include entrenpreneurial thinking around the new energy economy, social media that connect us in lively and joyful new ways, aiding the rapid spread of new social memes like the local food culture, the new bicycle culture, and new, more effective forms of political and activist engagement.
The Climate Meme Project helps underscore how deeply this crisis is rooted in human perception, and how important the science of perception will be in dislodging our culture from its fossil fuel addictions. A synopsis of the current climate meme landscape, and how we can change it for the better, is presented in their new report. Learn how you can help Joe and Lazlo build and spread new climate memes based on collaboration, creativity, innovation and love.
In my blog post this week I want to share more of the inspiring words spoken at our Whidbey Institute Climate Conference entitled “Calling the Choir To Sing“, that took place on April 19th.
Anna Fahey, Communications Strategist at Sightline Institute, gave a powerful talk on “Tapping Into Dark Optimism”. Dark optimism, she says, “is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential.” She consolidates many of the core ideas that I’ve tried to highlight in this blog, in a wonderfully condensed and heartfelt way, from the perspective of a dedicated policy professional. How, for example, do we get people exactly like ‘me’ to care about climate change, if I’m not really facing the hard truth myself? How do we harness the necessary intensity within our movement that has proven so elusive? And how do we confront the difficult emotions that our climate crisis evokes in all of us, with courage and resilience rather than fear and avoidance?
Here is the text of Anna’s moving “flash talk” to fellow climate activists:
“[As a communications specialist with Sightline Institute] I usually hand people well-researched talking points and tell them to repeat them as many times as they can, and then go on my way. Here I want to talk about our personal, emotional relationship with climate change, beginning with the question of “how do we get people exactly like ‘me’ to care about climate change? I’m talking about people who already care a lot, but not quite enough to be really angry, or sad, or energized or motivated. I understand this problem, because when I look at my own three year-old daughter, I almost never allow myself to think about climate change in her future. I don’t dare. It’s too hard. Maybe you know the feeling.”
“Psychoanalysts tell us that we can both know something and not know something at the same time. Even for someone like me who is steeped in climate policy and climate science day-in and day-out, I find it extremely difficult not to push that emotional part away. I feel that every day with climate change. Maybe you do too. I witness this in my own colleagues as we uncomfortably joke about climate impacts rather than having those deep, meaningful conversations around the office about what it actually means for ourselves and our kids.
“So the problem is to move from the intellectual acknowledgement of the crisis to a more emotional place, and I think that starts with us. I mean, if WE can’t do it, how can we help other people do it, right? If we let down our guard, we may feel helpless, skeptical, jaded, sad or afraid. We certainly feel a little bit lost when we think about democracy being broken – a pretty big deal. To cope and stay sane, we have to sort of ignore. This tension between knowing and not knowing makes our job pretty hard, the job of pushing for policy solutions, and getting other people – a bigger percentage of the population – to stop ignoring as well. We have to do it ourselves before we can ask others to join us. . . Dave Roberts of Grist has said that talking about climate change at a cocktail party is like farting. (laughter) You’re laughing because you’ve experienced this too. It’s basically a taboo. It’s not discussed in polite conversation. . .
“But rather than changing the subject, many scholars looking at the psychological dimensions of climate change are suggesting that we actually talk about it more, talk about the seriousness, and talk about the emotions. This is important not only for our own mental health, but because what drives social change isn’t necessarily broad-based support – like everybody has to get on board, but the intensity of the minority. An intensely committed minority can act as a lever that moves larger populations. In fact, research shows that the tipping point, where a minority belief becomes a majority opinion is only 10%. . . Opinion research shows that we already have 10% when it comes to climate change, but I think that that intensity is not there – certainly not the level of intensity that we see among the climate deniers, or the pushers of doubt. So what we need is a core group – maybe more than 10%, because of those pushers of doubt – who feel the climate threat in their bones. And luckily 10%-20% is pretty do-able. Those people are already sort of with us. But the feeling part is really hard. So I’m not alone in thinking that this starts with us, with people like me, allowing ourselves to feel this in our bones – which is scary, but it could actually give us strength. If we are a choir singing, that emotional underpinning gives the song its force, its power, and makes our voices stronger.
“A colleague of mine, Renee Lertzman from Portland, who is a researcher in climate and psychology . . . draws from a tradition called “engaged Buddhism”. She talks about bearing witness – not pushing away our despair and our concern, but relating with it as evidence of our vitality, our commitment and our humanity. She calls it “becoming friends with despair.” That friendship can actually empower and embolden us, rather than dragging us down.
“I’m going to close with Renee’s recommendations for starting this process . . . , and allowing ourselves to have those feelings that are so hard.
- The first is to pay attention to your feeling and thoughts. Notice when you judge or stifle your own feelings.
- Speak and write about those feelings. Break that cocktail party taboo.
- Listen to friends and colleagues, and practice creating space for feelings, rather than downplaying or joking about those feelings.
- Identify people you can talk to about your emotions without fear of judgment, or being considered too negative.
- Create support forums in your social or workplace networks – (that’s what we’re doing today).
- Recognize that these emotions do not negate the power and importance of the work that we do. It’s natural and normal. And it’s important to remember that it saps more of our energy to suppress this stuff than it does to let it out . . . there is liberation and freedom in letting out those feelings.
“And I’ll add to Renee’s list that we need to hold others, and maybe especially our leaders and our media, accountable – but also ourselves – accountable for the seriousness and the emotion that’s involved in this. Don’t let them dismiss or sideline it.
“And we need to celebrate our victories. Celebrate this community, and celebrate when we get to sink our teeth into something like coal exports or campus divestment. I think all this has helped us break out of a rut, but it is also a process that is going to help us learn how to bring others along with us. So our intensity, and our emotions, and learning how to process all of that, is going to help us bring that 10% or that 20% of the population along with us.
“Dark Optimism” is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential, and I think we can harness that.”
Why do Anna’s words matter? Because we are in this for the long haul, and it will take all the emotional intelligence and personal courage we can muster to stay with the truth of this crisis as it continues to unfold.
This week a number of global CO2 monitors recorded 400 ppm (parts per million) for the first time. This is a huge symbolic threshold, a “dark truth”. The last time we had this concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was several million years ago. 350 ppm is now considered by many scientists to be the upper limit to sustain civilized human life on earth. In other words, “If not now, when? If not us, then who?”
Last Friday, April 19th, a remarkable conference of over fifty climate activists gathered at the Whidbey Institute from around the Puget Sound region. The theme was “Calling the Choir To Sing“, based on our growing sense that the “climate choir” needs to unleash new songs, new voices, new and more powerful harmonies – more profound collaborations, to meet the scale of the challenge we face.
The idea for this conference grew out of a conversation last fall between Larry Daloz and myself. Larry had just returned from a scorching summer in Vermont with his grandchildren, where the record heats had cooked off his remaining denial about the urgency of this crisis. I had also been thinking about what to do next, in the wake of my book The Circumference of Home. I was feeling the need to enter a more resolute and collaborative phase of my own climate work.
We soon recruited three colleagues to help us design and facilitate the event – Heather Johnson from the Whidbey Institute, Kate Davies from Antioch University’s Center for Creative Change, and Derek Hoshiko from YES! Magazine. Climate Solutions, Sightline Institute, YES! Magazine and the Center for Creative Change joined the Whidbey Institute as co-sponsors of the event. KC Golden, Policy Director of Climate Solutions, agreed to be our keynote speaker, and we were off.
Our invitation to regional climate leaders emphasized these questions for discussion:
How can we widen the scope of our collaborations to include arenas beyond those we have touched?
- How can we deepen our understanding of the institutional and social factors which thwart effective action, internally and externally.
- How can we gain insight and courage to work more skillfully with the strong emotions evoked by our climate crisis, including denial, despair, anger, judgmentalism and overwhelm?
How can we highlight the ethical and moral dimensions of the climate crisis, beyond our usual focus on the scientific and technical aspects of the challenge?
KC Golden’s “State of the Movement” talk struck just the right tone for getting us started. He pointed to important shifts he sees happening in the climate movement this year. It isn’t abstract or distant anymore, and it isn’t just local. The growing immediacy and intensity of our climate crisis has blown us outside the box of the environmental movement and of conventional politics. We have realized that we cannot win this fight if we don’t have the fight, and we are starting to really show up.
KC spoke to our need to ”approach our activism not just as political strategists, not just as tacticians, but as whole people, and to think about what it means to do right on climate from the perspective of our place and who we are and how we walk in the world. A lot of our time is taken up with relatively short-term tactical and strategy maneuvers, and the opportunity to spend a whole day together, learning from people who are struggling with a lot of the same things, and reaching down a little deeper and see what’s really moving us – where we’re scared, where we’re challenged, where we see hope and opportunity – that’s just a rare and precious thing to be able to do.”
He goes on to say, “I think we’re undergoing a transition now, to a place that is more firmly grounded in what it means to approach the climate challenge as human beings who live and work and occupy a place. I think people are taking it deeper – partly out of fear, partly out of hope – but completely out of a sense that we need to get around to approaching this challenge from a deeper, more powerful place as human beings, if we’re going to generate the kind of personal power, and attract the kind of political power, that we need. And I hear that in people’s voices in a new way now.”
In the coming weeks I will share more ideas from talks given at this wonderful gathering. Anna Fahey of Sightline spoke about “Tapping Into Dark Optimism”. Joe Brewer of the Climate Memes Project spoke about “Why Global Warming is a Bad Meme (and What We Can Do About It)”. Julie Trimingham of Coal Facts spoke about “Local Organizing for Action”. And Richard Conlin of the Seattle City Council spoke about “The Role of Food in Climate Change”. Stay tuned.
In the May issue of Yoga Journal, Sarah Saffian profiles six teachers who are bringing contemplative strategies into their commitment to restore ecological health to our planet. Focusing on practices that range from one minute to one year, Saffian challenges readers to explore the benefits of similar practices at a level that feels appropriate to them.
My work with Inside Passages Alaska was Saffian’s pick for the week-long profile. In her introduction to the piece she writes, “It is easy to feel powerless in the face of an ailing planet, especially when the demands of daily life leave you feeling like the Earth’s myriad problems are separate, distant concerns. But each of us is affected by the planet’s welfare, and each of us has power to impact it. Get inspired by what six passionate stewards of the environment did to reconnect with their commitment to protect the Earth. Then take a moment, a day, or a week to nurture your own relationship with the planet, and let that inform your actions in the world.”
Here is Saffian’s short piece on Inside Passages, titled “In 1 Week You Can…Expand Your Boundaries”
“Nearly 20 years ago, Kurt Hoelting, a writer, commercial fisherman, and meditation teacher, longed for a perfect storm of physical and spiritual engagement. “I wanted to combine my Zen practice, my love of being out on the wild edge of nature, and my commitment to environmental activism and ecological literacy,” he says from his home in Whidbey Island, Washington. He set out on a backpacking trip in Nevada’s Clan Alpine mountains, where he combined silent hikes with morning and evening Zen meditation. It was a profound experience that he says deepened his connection to nature in a visceral way. Realizing that bringing other environmental activists into the wilderness could help them renew their calling, he organized a sea kayaking expedition in southeast Alaska for 10 colleagues. The response from participants was so positive, Hoelting says, that he began to offer similar weeklong trips for activists every year.
Many environmental activists, he says, can feel distanced from the environment they’re striving to protect—as if they were working on behalf of a separate entity. Wilderness retreats are a way to bridge that gap. “When we work on behalf of threatened ecosystems, we are working to heal and protect ourselves,” he says. “It is so important to get that at a bone level, not just at an intellectual level.”
Each day on the expedition, sessions of kayaking are punctuated by periods of traditional sitting and walking meditation, yoga asana, and conversation, specifically about “what it really means to care for the well-being of our larger selves—the eco-self,” Hoelting explains.
The intention is to bring contemplative practice and meditative discipline to the active exploration of ecological and social issues, and to grapple with how to be fully human in the face of them. “To hold those questions in a spacious way, with an open heart and a lot of curiosity, is rare,” says Hoelting, “but that’s what usually happens on these trips. We discover that sense of the natural world as an extension of our beings—a more full-bodied awareness of connecting with the vastness of that outer and inner terrain.”
This coming summer will be my twentieth season of offering these week-long sea kayaking meditation retreats in Southeast Alaska, and I continue to marvel at the power of bringing a listening heart, and a discipline of contemplative practice, into encounters with wild nature. The combination of meditative practice in a primal setting evokes deep currents of connection to our wider nature, and a more profound understanding of why it matters to care for the well-being of natural systems as a dimension of caring for ourselves.
And if I may add a touch of promotion, for those who find this intriguing, we still have one spot available on each of our two Alaskan kayaking retreats this summer. If what Saffian has described here resonates with you, contact me to ask about joining in this adventure. The skill level required is modest, and the setting for exploring a practice-based life could not be more evocative. Here is what others have said about these trips. Consider joining us.
Edmonds United Methodist Church, Sunday, April 7, 2013
This is the text of my Earth Sunday sermon last Sunday entitled “Turning for Home: Healing the Earth by Loving the Places We Live”. I don’t often give sermons, but it is an interesting and useful challenge for me to work on different ways of communicating about why it matters to care. And the faith community is obviously an essential partner in crafting the changes we are now called to make.
Earth Sunday is a special time set aside to explore our deep kinship with the earth that sustains us, and what it means as Christians to honor that kinship, what it means to return that love as stewards and sustainers of the earth community. It’s an honor to be with you on Earth Sunday.
I want to start by acknowleging some of the important steps that your church has taken already, under the leadership of your Green Team, to build an earth-friendly congregation, doing the important nuts & bolts things that make that happen – like changing all light bulbs throughout the facility, eliminating styrofoam cups, and composting food wastes. And doing some of the bigger things too like investing in a new and more efficient furnace. We should never doubt the importance of even small, concrete steps to align our faith with our actions. It is all the more significant when our efforts to make change can grow out of community, and generate a more vibrant community in the process, as your efforts here clearly have. Earth Sunday is a time when we can celebrate these efforts, make them visible, and renew our commitment to grow more deeply into an earth-honoring spirit of faith and practice.
Many of us who care about ecological concerns are feeling a growing urgency these days. The stakes have become huge. It occurs to me that your Earth Sunday this year falls right between Easter and Earth Day, and there is actually a compelling link between the two celebrations. When you think about it, both are rooted in the renewal of life in the face of death.
Earth Day may have more in common with Easter than I had previously imagined. The earth too is suffering a kind of human betrayal and abondonment, just as Christ did on his way to the cross, and this abuse is coming back to engulf us. I think many of us feel this new urgency, this gnawing sense that we have to change much more than just light bulbs. We have to find the courage to change ourselves, to transform the way we live in response to the magnitude of crises facing us. We live in a time of staggering losses to our living earth, losses that are rooted in our human forgetfulness, manifesting as pollution of the air we breath, the water we drink, the soil that grows our food, as loss of habitat and species extinction. And now it confronts us in the form of climate disruption that has been clearly tied to our unbridled patterns of consumption.
The earth itself is developing a dangerous fever. Remarkably, it turns out that we humans are both the cause of that fever, and the doctor on call, the only ones with the power to bring healing. What an astonishing situation!
Quite literally, the fate of our human lives is no longer separate from the fate our endangered earth. This is certainly not a new insight. Our interdependence with nature is part of our biblical understanding. But it could be said that the scale to which this is now true is a new thing under the sun. Who could have imagined that our species might prove capable of changing the very climate upon which all life depends? This presents a powerful challenge to our understanding not only of what it means to be Christians, but of what it means to be human. For people of faith, Earth Day needs to be recast as the moral crucible that it is.
What this suggests for me is an expansion of our moral concern to include the sanctity of nature, and not just the domain of human activity. These two dimensions of moral concern have become inseparable in our time.
I think God has given us these great ecological challenges to see what we are really made of. And I don’t think God would have given us these challenges if we didn’t already have within us the capacity to meet and heal them, to learn and grow from them, to become better human beings because of them. I think there is no greater measure of faith in our time, or of the call to moral integrity, than our willingness to become dedicated healers and restorers of the Creation God has woven us into, and not merely passive consumers of it. No one who is paying even modest attention to ecological trends can dispute the moral imperative these trends bring to us.
It’s an exciting moment to be alive. It could be seen as a great testimony of the confidence God has placed in us that we have been given our life at just this time, with exactly this set of challenges before us. When someone asked the great eco-theologian Father Thomas Berry what they could do to meet this crisis, and not to become mired in despair, he said, “Make a creative response.”
That sounds deceptively simple. “Make a creative response.” But is that not what God is now calling us to do. The time of waiting for others to step forward, for others to invent the miracle technologies that will save us from our own excesses, for others to enact the laws that will save us from our own excesses – that time is over. It is time for us to make our own creative responses, individually and together, that will show what a more vibrant and sustainable life on this earth actually look like.
I was invited to join you for Earth Sunday because some of you have read my book The Circumference of Home, and felt that my story is relevant to this task we share of re-inventing our lives along more sustainable pathways. I won’t recount much here about that story here. What I want to say this morning is this. My choice to live car-free for a year in 2008, and to stay within walking distance of home, grew out of a growing awareness that I was not walking my talk. An enormous gap had opened up between my profound ecological concerns, and the way I was actually living my life. I felt trapped inside that gap, and it had become too painful for me to take sitting down. Something had to give.
The insight that led me to this yearlong vow – my “Ah ha!” moment – was that I could turn toward this crisis as an adventure of the spirit, rather than languishing on the sidelines in fear and despair, which I was becoming very good at. As I wrote in my introduction, “If I can’t change my own life in response to the greatest challenge now facing our human family, who can? And if I won’t make the effort to try, why should anyone else? The question is no longer whether I must respond. The question is whether I can turn my response into an adventure.”
I was actually quite nervous when I began this experiment. It carried some real risks. By swearing off cars for a than I already was, more isolated from my community. Would it unsettle my marriage and make me even harder to live with? These are fears we all face when we meet with big changes. Change is hard. It can be scary.
But for me, once I had begun my experiment, the opposite happened. I have rarely felt more alive, more engaged, more held by community, less burdened by self-doubt, than I was during that year. My wife still tells people that she has never seen me happier. And as she shared in parts of my adventure, it brought us closer together.
By drawing a circle on the map with my home at the center, and by spending a year exploring this home circle on foot, by bicycle and sea kayak, I not only loosened the shackles of fear and despair that had held me in their grip, I not only gained in health and vitality, but I fell back in love with the place I call Home. I fell in love again with the ecological and cultural richness of this bio-region. I discovered deep reservoirs of local community that I had forgotten in my too-busy, far-flung lifestyle. I shared grand adventures with my wife and children close to home, deepening our affection for each other, even as we grew more intimate with this place on earth that we all so love. I learned how to get almost anywhere in my home region by public transportation and bicycle, transforming my addiction to cars into a more embodied and creative way of moving through my home terrain. And in the process, I lowered my carbon footprint dramatically, easing that painful gap between my beliefs and the way I was actually living.
Of course I still have a long way to go in healing these personal gaps. That year was just a beginning. I never meant these actions as a blueprint for others to follow. Nor was it intended as a permanent solution for me.
I do drive again. But I am a lot more careful about when I get in my car, and why. I’m committed to using the best available technology when I do drive. I drove my all-electric car here this morning, a car that gets the equivalent of 112 mile per gallon. But that’s no reason for complacency either. My bicycle gets 1,000 miles per gallon. The bicycle is still the most efficient machine ever invented for moving a human body through the landscape. Just give the driver a sandwich, and you have all the fuel you need.
So I still use my bike whenever I can. And when I ride these days, it’s not to make a moral statement. I simply feel better when I do. I feel more alive when I ride my bike or walk. I feel more hopeful. I feel more connected to my community. It is a long term shift in my lifestyle that has made my life richer and better.
The important question this morning isn’t what I’ve done, or what I’m doing next. The important question is what are you going to do. What are we willing to do together to make a creative response, to turn these challenges into a shared adventure. Our unborn grandchildren are watching to see what we come up with. Their life is literally hanging in the balance of the choices we make now.
So may the adventure continue. May we share in it together. May we gain in confidence and resilience. And may this Earth Sunday mark a fresh beginning in our commitment to bring that adventure Home, to live joyously and simply in the miracle of our lives, right here in this exquisite place on earth.