It seems inevitable that we’re headed for a climate dystopia. Projected climate scenarios for the state of California provide a grim prognosis of what the next few decades entail: deadly droughts, exacerbated wildfires, and massive crop failures. A survey of Gen Z — 1,200 individuals aged 14 to 24 — from last year demonstrated that 83% are concerned about the health of the planet, experiencing a term coined by psychologists known as “eco-anxiety,” or fear of environmental doom.
The paralyzing uncertainty around the climate crisis is not without reason. A good scroll through many media sites on any given day will associate “climate change” with words like “disaster,” “collapse,” or “apocalypse.”
The words we use around climate are important because they elicit our level of emotional response. A term like “global warming” can come with a neutral or even positive connotation (warmer winters, right?), while a term like “climate apocalypse” leaves us feeling hopeless and nihilistic.
I don’t believe the narrative that our generation is doomed for an “apocalypse,” nor do I believe the narrative that we can fix climate change by casually reducing emissions. It does not take much convincing to see that the climate crisis is no longer a problem that is distant in both time and space. It’s a slow motion disaster affecting us right now.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out with their latest climate report in June of 2021 —“Code Red For Humanity.” In the report, the world’s top scientists were asked about their views for the future of climate change, with the majority saying they believe we will reach 3°C of warming above pre-industrial levels within our lifetimes. This is far beyond what concurs with the scientific consensus on climate change from many international climate experts, which asserts that even a rise of 1.5°C is too high.
Understanding the roots of the climate crisis requires a deep look into the evolution of humankind’s relationship with nature. Much of the Western view of nature stems from perspectives about human rationality from the Enlightenment, in which it was understood that our world is composed of radical, hierarchical dualisms: mind over body, man over woman, human over nature. This worldview employed a logic that influenced the rational scientific method and now heavily influences the Western scientific belief system. Western science tends to be text-based, mechanistic, categorical, and solution-oriented. Hence, Western perspectives and solutions to the climate crisis tend to offer immediate, single-pointed solutions.
We cannot look at the climate crisis through a purely objective, scientific lens. We must begin to see nature as not only an instrument to fuel our demands, but to frame it as part of our identity again.
Are we part of or distinct from what we see as nature? What does it mean to examine the relationship of the human psyche and nature? Do we even have time to consider this relationship? What is the best way to manage our deep uncertainty in a time like this?
In the process of mourning a changing planet, I believe there is a case for looking to non-dualistic spiritualities for a perspective about the notion of the “self” in relationship to other beings, living and nonliving alike.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen master and renowned peace activist, passed away Jan. 22. Over the course of his 95 years of life, he became renowned for relating the teachings of the Buddha, including mindfulness, nonviolence, and peaceful communication, to a modern world fraught with social, political, and environmental issues. In a statement to the UN, he expressed, “Once we can accept the impermanence of our civilization with peace, we will be liberated from our fear. Only then will we have the strength, awakening and love we need to bring us together.”
In Buddhism, the idea that we exist as an autonomous “self” is an illusion. The more that we attach ourselves to who we are as an individual “self,” the more that we suffer. Joanna Macy, an ecophilosopher and Buddhist writer, calls for a moral ecology in her book The Greening of the Self, citing how the value of individualism in a late-capitalist society not only leads to separation and polarization, but also poses an existential threat to the future of our species.
Common spiritual practices, like meditation or daily gratitude, can help us gain more clarity into the causes of our individual and collective suffering in relation to the climate crisis — to help us notice our emotional responses and channel our anxiety and anger into compassion and joy. Cultivating these emotions remains important not just to feel better in our daily lives, but to sustain an active climate movement for the rest of our lives.
Being a part of the climate movement is not just about fighting what we oppose, it is about bringing attention to how we can reframe the climate crisis as a tremendous opportunity to fix some of our greatest societal ills. In order to heal ourselves and the planet, it’s worth looking at the values of individualism that dominate Western society and ask if this is really working for us.
In reality, the personal is the political. Yes, it is true that personal choices, like transitioning to more climate-friendly diets, commutes, or consumption habits, will not alone mitigate warming to our goals. But entirely blaming politicians and fossil fuel companies relies on the narrative that climate action is someone else’s problem, removing the power of the individual in catapulting change.
To an extent, the future of climate is out of our control. But getting excessively caught up in futurist narratives about what will happen to our world centuries from now deflects attention away from the climate action we can take in the here and now. The more small, meaningful actions that we take, the more we will feel a positive sense of urgency and vitality for what we are doing, creating a stream of motivation to just keep going.