Waking Up

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February 20th, 2020
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How did I get here?

Do you remember when you first learned about climate change? I do. I was in 5th grade at Ecole College Park School in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan listening to Matthew O. talk about the greenhouse gas effect. It was around 1998, and Canada had just signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, an international policy to limit emissions to prevent dangerous interference with the existing climate system (wouldn’t that have been nice?).

like a leaking canoe, my story - my identity, my attention - starting to fill up with eco-anxiety.

Despite the fact that this memory stuck with me, I don’t recall thinking about climate change much at all until about 16 years later, A few years after Harper pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol (on the grounds that we were already too far from our targets). To be honest, climate change wasn’t really a part of my story at all until 2014. That summer, as 900 residents of Stanley Mission were evacuated due to climate-exacerbated forest fires, I read Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, and like a leaking canoe, my story - my identity, my attention - starting to fill up with eco-anxiety.

Is it just me?

As I began waking up to the urgency of preventing runaway global warming, some of the toughest moments to get through were those when I’d look around and not be able to see with my own eyes any proof that we are in a species-wide existential crisis. No one I knew seemed to be reacting as I‘d expect them to if we were really facing such a great challenge. This level of gaslighting causes doubt, frustration, confusion, and panic. I kept thinking “If it were really this bad, someone would be doing something meaningful about it, wouldn’t they?”

This is about me and the capacity of my generation to reimagine and rebuild the world around us.

The climate crisis took on a new meaning in my life when I realized that this isn’t a distant,  out-on-the-horizon, future problem for other people to solve. This is about me and the capacity of my generation to reimagine and rebuild the world around us. The climate emergency isn’t on the horizon at all, it is in our feeds, on the news, in our stories, and in our silence. And it’s impacting communities today - all around the world - and it’s only getting worse.

A tangled story

When I woke up to my own eco-anxiety, I dove in head first into conversations about how we might get out of this mess, and I chatted  with anyone I could about why we weren’t doing more, why we weren’t talking about it at all. Amidst all the silence about climate change in my spheres of life, I tried to figure out how to turn “convinced and caring” people into people “meaningfully mobilized” about the climate crisis.

You wouldn’t be the first person to feel like you’re the only one who gives a sh*t about this stuff, but the fact is most people around you are also feeling eco-anxious.

I titled my Master's thesis  “Making climate change meaningful: Narrative dissonance and the gap between knowledge and action.” But as renowned climate psychologist Renee Lertzman will tell you, there isn’t a gap at all - it’s a complex psychosocial landscape full of cognitive loopholes, coping strategies, and emotional melancholy. Navigating this terrain is hard work, and it takes a heck of a lot more than apathy to get through it. Dr. Lertzman’s work demonstrates that what might look like apathy is really a tangle of emotions.

You wouldn’t be the first person to feel like you’re the only one who cares about this stuff, but it's likely that the people around you are also feeling eco-anxious. We just don’t talk about it. Until recently, we haven’t brought much public attention to climatic change at all, save for a news cycle here or there.

Sociologist Kari Norgaard wrote about this in her book Living in Denial, where she explores the phenomenon of socially organized denial about climate change. Norgaard traveled to a community in Norway that is largely dependent on fossil fuel industries, and she noted that while few residents denied human-induced climate change explicitly, there was widespread implicit denial that showed up in a number of interesting ways: minimizing concerns about the problem through humour or projecting harm into the future; drawing on positive nationalistic identities to justify existing practices; suppressing deep feelings of grief, fear, or frustration in public settings.

A shared story

Sound familiar? Here in Canada, it’s all too common to hear about the climate emergency from the same leaders who are banking on expanding the fossil fuel industry. They invest, plan, and frame their decisions as if the story hasn’t changed a bit. It’s so frustrating to see this kind of dissonant behaviour from leaders with actual power to change systems. It’s inexcusable! But at some level, the phenomenon plays out in my own life as I struggle to imagine the future conditions predicted by climate science models. While, unlike my elected officials, I’m not accountable to a whole country full of people, I am accountable to myself. I struggle to reshape the story I’m telling about who I am, when I am, and how I fit into the transition ahead.

If you’re just waking up, welcome friend. It’s our story now, our time.

This Eco-Anxious Stories project is about ending the gaslighting and allowing the climate crisis to reshape how we think about our lives. What does it look like when we allow eco-anxiety to mark up our personal and collective stories?

Let’s tell stories of attention shifting, of eco-anxieties bubbling up, stories about channelling that attention and those feelings into something meaningful. We’re all members of the generation that will - that must - transition away from the ways of thinking that got us here, so we might as well hang out and swap ideas. If you’re just waking up, welcome friend. It’s our story now, our time.


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  • By Rachel Malena-Chan