Visionaries Project: Rev. Chelsea MacMillan on Coronavirus, Sacred Activism, Climate, and the Apocalypse
Interspiritual minister Chelsea MacMillan talks faith and healing in a time of tremendous change.
The Visionaries Project is a subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Rev. Chelsea MacMillan is the founder of the Brooklyn Center for Sacred Activism, the co-host of the podcast The Rising: Spirituality for Revolution, and a dedicated activist, community organizer, and "warrior for peace and change." She recently taught a course called "Reclaiming the Apocalypse," and her wisdom is invaluable in these times of crisis, and always. We spoke about the overlaps between religion and spirituality, collective healing, mutual aid during coronavirus, climate change, and more.
LIBERTY PROJECT: Did you grow up spiritual, or involved in activism?
CHELSEA MACMILLAN: I grew up in a really evangelical, conservative Christian family, but I rejected it pretty early on. My parents divorced when I was like ten or eleven, and that was around the time where I realized that being a Christian doesn't mean you're a perfect person. I was just woken up to a lot of hypocrisy. I started rejecting the exclusionary attitude of the churches that we went to, and I called myself an agnostic for a while. I started to question my epistemology without realizing it, wondering why I thought the way I did.
Then I started traveling the world in a performing group, and I had a lot of really intense, magical experiences that I think were mystical experiences. I remember feeling really connected to all people and all creatures everywhere, and I felt this sense of oneness. I definitely felt spiritual, though I didn't want to put it into any form.
Then I worked on staff at a place called the Omega Institute, which is a big retreat center in the Hudson Valley. I tried out different forms of Buddhist meditation and Earth-based practices and things that were vaguely pagan or shamanic, as well as more New Agey things. But I was always really impatient with the way that spiritual communities were in terms of what was happening in the world. I couldn't really accept the idea that we were all one and that we could "be the change we wish to see" while sitting on our yoga mats. The world doesn't reflect that. Yes, it's a spiritual truth, and I've experienced that feeling of oneness and connection, but I think it doesn't do any good to just sit here and believe that. We have to realize and actualize this belief.
During one of my summers at Omega, I learned about this interfaith seminary called One Spirit. I went there and was ordained as an interspiritual minister, and it was there that I learned about sacred activism. I actually took a class with Andrew Harvey, who basically coined the term "sacred activism." He was one of the only people really talking about how activists and spiritual folks needed to come together, because there's a shadow side to both of those groups.
And I realized...this is why I came here. This is what I've been looking for my whole life. Sacred activism is the idea that activism in itself is a sacred path, because all the great spiritual teachings tell us to live our lives with compassion.
I had also been going to a lot of activist meetings and circles and thinking that the people there really needed spirituality. Everybody was so caught up in blaming and shaming. No matter what your ideology is, rigid and dogmatic ideologies are harmful. That's what I had grown up with—but now I was with the liberals, and it was the same sh*t. It wasn't loving and wasn't accepting.
Along your journey to finding the place where activism meets spirituality, are there any experiences that stand out to you as particularly formative or that you feel set you on this path?
I did have a moment recently that confirmed for me why I'm on this path. This past October, Extinction Rebellion had a global week of rebellion. We started with actions at Wall Street and threw fake blood on the bull, and we did this dramatic die-in in front of the stock exchange.
We were also doing RebelFest in Washington Square Park, which felt like an example of realizing that you don't have to perform a direct action to be disruptive. Building community is disruptive, and feeding each other for free is disruptive, and doing art together is disruptive.
That week, I also took part in the Times Square takeover with XR. We shut down an intersection with this big bright green boat, and there were 13 of us who were glued and chained to it. My comrades and I were put in the tombs, which is where they take everyone who's been arrested, and there was a woman detoxing from heroin on the floor and a pregnant woman who totally should not have been in jail. It was a really intense experience, and I remember thinking—could I go to jail for longer? Would I be willing to go to prison for this cause?
I was going through these ups and downs of feeling like I was losing my mind, and there was a moment where we all just were laughing at ridiculous things because...you lose all your power in there. You don't know [when] you're going to be let out; you're hungry and tired and dehydrated and dirty. And I was like… Could I do this more? Could I be here for months? Do I have it in me? I remember thinking, what am I called to do? How am I called to serve?
I thought of all the people who have inspired me like Dorothy Day and MLK and people who really followed that calling to make the world a better place. It's a spiritual calling.
I realized I do feel like I'm willing to sacrifice my life for building a more just and loving world. I was surprised to feel that in a moment of despair, but that's where I felt closest to God, spirit, or the great unknown. I felt like I was being called, and it felt very powerful.
What does your vision of a better world look like?
What excites me is thinking about the mystery, rather than coming up with the best plan for a bright new world. This requires us to be in the present and in the future and to bring the future into the present. When I think about a vision for the world, I ask questions like: How do I want it to feel? What does it look like, sound like, feel like?
I think what the future looks like is here now. I see it all the time. I see it with the current crisis, in the ways in which people have been jumping into action around creating and activating networks of mutual aid—and taking time to play with their kids, and rest and take walks in the park. I see it in places where we're really connecting with each other.
I think of a new world, or the future, as one in which we're taking care of each other, in which we're really connected. Can you imagine, if we really took care of each other? We wouldn't need housing justice. We'd already be doing it. We wouldn't let anybody not be cared for. We wouldn't have people going hungry, because we'd already be feeding each other.
It sounds a little overly simplistic to say all of that, but I think bringing things into the present and asking—what do we have that we want to grow?—actually helps us be more grateful for what we do have.
Humans have a limited capacity for understanding. We understand a lot and we're constantly innovating, and that's sort of what it means to be human—finding meaning—but we can't see the future, and we make mistakes. As soon as we have a plan for the future, it limits creativity and the emergence of something that can grow from the ways we're already connecting with each other and being with each other.
So many religions seem to boil down to this idea of compassion, and I'm definitely seeing that in responses like mutual aid. So in light of all your work, how have you been processing the current crisis? Are you seeing potential in it? I know you taught a workshop on the apocalypse—not that this is an apocalypse, but...
But we are! It's like a perfect example of the apocalypse. Apocalypse means "to lift the veil," and having this crisis is showing us how f*cked-up our medical system is and how f*cked up our whole economy is to rely on humans as capital. It's showing us how our leadership is broken, how so many people were living alone before this.
As a climate activist, we've wondered for a long time what can really change the momentum. It's so hard to make any change when there's such collective dedication towards keeping a system going, a system that is based on extraction and exploitation and corruption and domination and all of those things that are literally killing us and the planet. In XR we talk about stopping business as usual—well, here we are, and business is literally stopped.
It's my hope that it doesn't go back to normal. I don't want to go back to a world in which we're all hustling to make ends meet and we're working so hard and so long that we don't have time to connect to each other.
I do think it's showing us what's possible. All of the politicians and businesspeople have told us for a long time that it's not possible to stop the system and change it all in order to stave off the climate crisis—but we're doing it.
If the New York Times was reporting on the climate crisis as much as it's reporting on the coronavirus crisis… that could change things. If everyone was told that we have to stop using our cars and we have to stop doing this thing and taking flights and traveling for our safety and so we don't die…maybe we wouldn't have as big of a problem. The response we've been taking with coronavirus actually needs to happen with this climate crisis.
It all does seem like a wakeup call. Before this, it seemed like most of the people I know—even if they weren't plugged into the climate crisis—had the feeling that something unsustainable was going on, that something precarious was happening. And this does seem like a large planetary exhale to me.
We need to bow down and honor what's happening to us, to step back and see how enormous this shift is. It kind of takes my breath away. It's honestly the same feeling that I felt when I was sitting in jail.
It's interesting that you compare the feeling you're having in this crisis to the feeling of being in jail. Those both seem like moments of great change and shift. I keep seeing Octavia Butler's "God is change" quote everywhere and it feels like these moments could be related to that.
I love that quote. It's probably my favorite way to describe God.
I'm seeing all this in two ways: There's tragedy, but there's also growth that could be happening. It feels like if anything it's waking us up to the importance of community and the current lack of community. Even a lot of activism work doesn't seem to hone in on community or connection or rest and then there's so much burnout, and it feels like all this is kind of calling for a practice of rest and community-building.
I think it's so easy for humans to jump in and ignore all of our feelings and ignore connecting to each other, focusing on how we might fix this painful feeling, instead asking—what is this moment telling us? There's something beyond my comprehension happening right now.
It's easy for me to say that in times of crisis, people jump into action to help each other, because that's what I see in communities. But it's also true that there are people who get scared and hoard and only take care of their own.
I think every human has both responses possible in them, and this reminds me of a story that I read as part of my apocalypse research called Why the World Doesn't End by Michael Meade. He says there are three kinds of people in the world: There are the people who just only care for themselves and maybe their families, who in times of crisis will turn on their neighbor, and who are just trying to survive. Then there's a second group of people that really care about others and contribute to community and are attuned to other people's needs; but those people, under great stress, will also turn on their neighbor and contract and hoard and try to protect and defend themselves and their families.
But then there's a third kind of person that in the midst of crisis will rise up and reach out when the impulse is to actually turn back in. I think that's what being a sacred activist is: someone who can be with the unknown and who can be with the vulnerability of reaching out in times of danger.
I think in order to be able to reach out, you have to rely on something other than yourself. You have to be able to rely on something, even if that's your community or if that's God or spirit or even the earth. You have to feel supported enough to reach out to others in a time of crisis.
I think that's been sticking with me. Who's going to be that third group of people?
Alright, I'm done on my soapbox. That's my sermon for today.
What do you suggest people dive into, if you're looking for a way to get involved at this time? I know you mentioned mutual aid.
XR has been plugging into neighborhood groups and existing networks of mutual aid. That could be taking care of your neighbors and seeing what they need or delivering meals to aging populations. Also there's something called The Leveler, a wealth redistribution tool that allows people to donate a certain amount of money to people who just lost their jobs.
But also...check in with people. Be with the feelings. XR has ramped up offerings for people to connect with each other and share their feelings and meditate. It's called "Extinction Resilience," and it'll pretty much be happening twice a week right now, and that's a great place to cultivate inner resilience.
The event was a powerful challenge to capitalism and climate change.
This Friday, over 300 protestors from Extinction Rebellion took to the streets to draw attention to the climate crisis—as well as the undercurrents of excessive consumption and corporate greed that created and perpetuate it.
This week's protest was labeled a "Meditation Rebellion," and it featured speakers from a variety of different faiths, who gathered to call for unity and solidarity on the steps of the New York Public Library at Bryant Park. Though the event wasn't linked to any specific religion, in spirit, there was an underlying sense of worship.
Personally, I'd been a bit worried about the event's theme, worried it would be a bunch of white people idealizing Eastern religions, especially because it's widely argued that XR and the climate movement have a race problem. Plus, climate activists have long been written off as hippie tree-huggers.
The event wasn't free from these issues, but at the NYC rally, speakers didn't over-emphasize the meditation aspect and mostly featured speakers of color, who all called for an intersectional approach to fighting the climate crisis. Overall, the event's organizers emphasized compassion, interconnectedness, and solidarity. The result was something that felt immensely powerful and regenerative.
After several speeches and songs, protestors marched silently down to 34th Street. To march in silence in New York City, especially on Black Friday, is a bit of an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Even if you weren't meditating, simply being silent with a group of protestors sharing the same pain and hopes created a sense of unity, despite or maybe because of the lack of conversation.
During the march, I found myself really feeling my grief about climate change and its related and intersecting issues for the first time in a while. The grief formed a heavy mass in my chest. But I knew I was walking alongside people who felt the same thing, who were aware that this pavement-covered, ashen city was built on top of forests that were stolen from the Lenape, that it still bears the scars of that breach.
I knew I was walking alongside people whom, instead of marinating in fatalism, still hoped and believed change was worth fighting for and whom were willing to stand up and sacrifice to see that change become real.
Once the group reached Herald Square, which was completely lit up by garish Black Friday advertisements, 27 protestors sat down in the middle of the street and blocked traffic until they were forcibly removed by the police. (It's important to note that despite the aggressive police presence, the relatively peaceable nature of this removal was something that only could have been afforded to white protestors).
In the glow of Sephora, right outside of Macy's and H&M, the circle of trust formed by the protestors risking arrest felt temporarily unbreakable. As they were handcuffed and taken away by the dozens of cops that showed up at the scene, crowds of supporters cheered and sang from the sidelines.
Why Protest Black Friday: The Connections Between Capitalism and Climate Change
Why protest Black Friday as a climate change-focused organization? Climate change and capitalism have always been blood brothers. As Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, "Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life."
The consequences of this war, of course, are not distributed equally. Climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, who are often on the frontlines of the crisis's worst consequences. Like the climate crisis, capitalism (particularly in its vicious neoliberal form) disadvantages those who have less while propping up those who already have more (hence why a billionaire can effortlessly announce himself as a top-running candidate).
While individual consumers' choices won't singlehandedly end capitalism or stop climate change, mass movements, paradigm and consciousness shifts, and massive government action (such as plans like the Green New Deal) have that ability.
AOC and Bernie Sanders unveil their Green New Deal for Public Housing Grist
The climate crisis is not the fault of individual consumers and working people, and eradicating consumption completely isn't the answer. Instead, change will come through creating a movement large enough to pressure governments into holding corporations accountable for their actions, and it's going to be vital for these movements to connect issues like capitalism, climate change, and the ways they influence us internally as well as externally, and to stand in solidarity with those who they most affect.
Extinction Rebellion is part of this movement. It's also an arm of a worldwide reaction to frustration with economic inequality and neoliberalism, a movement that stretches (in different forms) from Chile and Hong Kong to Indonesia and Iran.
In recent months, NYC has seen an increase in anti-authoritarian protests (though they are far from new). For example, in October and November, the organization Decolonize This Place held two massive rallies in response to the MTA's crackdown on subway fare evasion.
Globally, a rising disillusionment with the false promises of billionaires and age-old toxicities rooted in white supremacy seem to be coalescing into a cohesive, if unstable, movement. Certainly, as these movements grow, things will break down and shatter, and roles and ideologies will shift and change.
As people with the privilege of choosing whether or not to protest, we have to be willing to be quiet and learn from each other during this time of instability, rage, and irrational, beautiful hope.
Each day, the Amazon loses over a football field of land to fire.
Right now, the wildfires in the Amazon forests are so massive they can be seen from space.
According to INPE, about a football field and a half of rainforest is being destroyed each day. Since Thursday, over 10,000 acres have been lost.
Since January 2019, the number of forest fires in Brazil have grown by 80%. It's normal for wildfires to clear away the forest to make room for new growth, but these fires are happening at an unprecedented rate that scientists say is caused by human activity and the rising climate.
The destruction has also been exacerbated by the sentiments of Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has been nonchalant when told that many of the fires are being caused by humans. Farmers are setting fire to the land in order to clear away indigenous forests, according to reports, and Bolsonaro has encouraged these actions with his anti-environmentalist sentiments.
In the name of development, Bolsonaro is endangering the entire world's future. The Amazon contains 40% of the world's rainforests, which are our best defense against a rising climate. Sometimes described as the planet's lungs, the Amazon rainforest provides around 20% of our world's oxygen and absorbs a quarter of the world's carbon. It also contains 10-15% of animal species, many of which are being incinerated along with ancient trees and rich biodiversity.
Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of these fires, as many of them live in or near the forests, but the loss of such a large portion of the Amazon will be damaging to the whole world.
Image via India Today
Many people have asked about what they can do. Here are some actions you can take in response to the fires:
1. The main thing you can do to help out immediately with these forest fires is give money.
It's particularly important to give to organizations that work directly with indigenous people and those who know and live in the Amazon rainforest. Avoid major, corporatized organizations like the Red Cross.
Here are several organizations to give to:
*Support arts, culture, and research about the Amazon through the Amazon Aid Foundation.
2. Unfortunately, even though donations will help, these wildfires will probably keep happening without massive political overhaul in Brazil. Contact your nation's Brazilian embassy to make your views heard. Here is a list of embassies in the US.
3. Sign this petition, being passed around by opponents of Bolsonaro and his policies.
4. Boycott beef and products made from rainforest trees. Check with the Rainforest Alliance to see whether the products you're buying are safe.
5. Switch your browser to Ecosia, which is run by an organization that plants trees based on searches—roughly one tree per 45 searches, to be exact. So far, it's planted over 65 million trees and has garnered good reviews from across the web.
6. To stop things like this from happening in the future (and to ensure that there is a future at all), you can also get involved in the fight against climate change and disaster capitalism.
Here are four ways to do that right now:
- Get involved with an environmental organization. For example, Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion are two active organizations that are making significant changes to environmental policy around the globe. Start by joining a mailing list, reading up on the organization's history and plans, and making time to attend meetings or actions. They might even give you hope.
- Plan on going to the worldwide climate strike on September 20. Greta Thunberg is currently making her way across the sea, and this strike is an offshoot of the Fridays for Future movement that she started one year ago. This time, both adults and children are being asked to strike.
- Lobby for a candidate who prioritizes climate change and environmental issues (and understands that these things affect every aspect of society). In America, Bernie Sanders just proposed a $16 trillion climate change plan, but many Democratic candidates have developed their own plans, and many will debate them at the CNN climate town hall on September 4.
- Contact your representatives and make it clear that climate change is a vital, non-negotiable issue. Here's a website that will help you do that.
There are no quick fixes with regards to the deep-rooted problems that have caused this tragedy to happen. However, a worldwide shift in political sentiment towards environmentalism could be the start of the changes we need to see to stop this from growing even worse.
To keep the earth's temperatures from rising, serious changes need to happen over the next year and a half.
While Robert Mueller and Donald Trump dominate the public's attention, experts have quietly come to the consensus that we have around 18 months to stop the worst effects of climate change.
Last year, a study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that in order to prevent catastrophic warming, we need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. Today, political theorists believe that in order to achieve that goal, we must immediately begin implementing the political structures that will allow us to reach it.
At a reception for the Commonwealth foreign ministers, Prince Charles spoke out in support of climate action. "I am firmly of the view that the next 18 months will decide our ability to keep climate change to survivable levels and to restore nature to the equilibrium we need for our survival," he said.
'It's happening, it's now,' says U.S. government report on climate changewww.youtube.com
A Critical Time
So, why are the next 18 months so vital for the future of the earth's climate? During the next year and a half, a series of important political meetings and conventions will take place. On September 23, the UN will hold a special climate summit in New York, where attending countries are expected to present their emission-cutting plans. Then the UN's annual climate change summit, known as the COP25, will be held in Santiago, Chile in December 2019. Finally, the COP26 will take place at the end of 2020, most likely in the UK.
Image via Twitter
According to Environmental Secretary Micheal Gobe, the importance of these meetings cannot be understated. "We need at COP26 to ensure other countries are serious about their obligations and that means leading by example," he said. "Together we must take all the steps necessary to restrict global warming to at least 1.5C."
Depending on what happens at these meetings during the next 18 months, we could see plans like the Green New Deal set into motion. On the other hand, if a climate change denier remains in the US office, the UK summit could be the moment where the US formally withdraws from the Paris agreement (which proposed the bare minimum carbon emission cuts needed to prevent extreme consequences from climate change).
No Choice but Change
If these conferences fail to spark large-scale action, "we will have no chance of getting to a 1.5 or 2C limit," said Professor Michael Jacobs, a former climate advisor to the Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
There are several other conferences happening in the next year and a half, namely the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, both of which are expected to craft plans to protect our livelihoods. It's promising that all these conferences are occurring. Still, many fear that they will not push for action radical enough to meet the 1.5 degree goal.
If the goal is not met, the consequences will be unimaginable. More natural disasters (like the wildfires we're seeing right now in Alaska) would ravage coastlines and could destroy entire nations. Chronic refugee crises would ensue. Disease would flourish. One in four animal species would go extinct.
Judging by the current state of politics and carbon emissions (India is on track to overshoot its Paris Agreement goal by 60%), things are looking bleak. Fortunately, a rise in activism and protest—helmed by figures like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—has drawn much needed political attention to the climate crisis. Still, it's not enough: In order to ensure a livable future for the earth, people around the world must come together and force their representatives and nations to listen to science and reason.
Image via World Economic Forum
Climate despair is becoming so widespread that some people are losing their will to live. Is this the new normal?
If you're reading this, you probably know that the earth is not doing well. A 2018 UN report declared that we have 12 years to keep the global climate from rising more than 1.5 degrees, or we'll face catastrophic warming levels. Even knowing this, our worldwide carbon emissions have only continued to rise, with atmospheric CO2 reaching a record high at 417.4 ppm in May 2019.
In essence, we know the world is ending, we know why, and yet we have done nothing to stop it. In fact, things are getting worse.
Image via blog.derby.ac.uk
The Argument for Despair
Faced with this truth, it's all too easy to slip into despair, and this is what's happening to people all over the world. A recent VICE article explored the mental health crises that many people are experiencing because of climate change. Known as "climate despair," sometimes called "eco-nihilism" or "human futilitarianism," chronic feelings of hopelessness about climate change are becoming all too common among those who have allowed themselves to fully comprehend the extent of the crisis.
For people who suffer from these feelings, it doesn't help that life appears to be continuing on as normal, while only a few of us seem to care that the world is burning down. This creates a sense of duality that can be even more painful than consciously accepting the reality of climate change, as it involves a deep suppression of pain and fear, which is then left to fester in the psyche. Living this "double life," according to Joanna Macy's essay "Working Through Environmental Despair," can be detrimental. "Awesome and unprecedented in the history of humanity, the awareness lurks there, with an anguish beyond naming," she writes.
This awareness can manifest in many ways; and often it has lead to depression or suicidal thoughts. Even therapists are having trouble knowing how to handle the looming specter of climate despair. Several people quoted in the VICE article described how their therapists attempted to trace their terror of climate change back to personal traumas, instead of acknowledging the validity of these fears.
Image via Its Nice That
Children are just as vulnerable to these feelings as adults. As they watch governments refuse to act, kids are growing up in the world with little faith in the government or the adults around them, and with the knowledge that they've been born into a disaster they never asked for but have to deal with.
Greta Thunberg was one of these kids. She's spoken extensively about the feelings of despair that nearly paralyzed her as she became more and more aware of the climate crisis. "Before I started school striking, I was … so depressed and I didn't want to do anything," she once said.
But when she began to speak, as many of us know, she became one of the most outspoken and well-known climate activists in the world. According to Thunberg, this was not a choice. "I feel like dying inside if I don't protest," she said. For those suffering from climate despair, that feeling of dying inside is a familiar one. But Greta's inspiring actions contain seeds of hope, perhaps the best hope against climate despair.
The truth is that things are only hopeless if we don't take action. Conveniently, taking action might also be one of the best things we can possibly do to work through climate despair.
Image via Handelszeitung
Our Best Shot at Hope
Although they might be realistic responses to the threat of climate change, feelings of despair—when they aren't turned into action, or are suffered through in solitude— present a terminal danger to the climate movement, as they promote stagnation when what is truly needed is unity and protest.
This doesn't mean that we should deny the gravity of the situation. Action begins with admitting the problem, not stuffing it away under layers of performative normalcy. "Until we find ways of acknowledging and integrating that level of anguished awareness," continues Joanna Macy, "we repress it; and with that repression we are drained of the energy we need for action and clear thinking."
Still, the answer is also not necessarily to let oneself fall down a hole of hopelessness. Often, the doomsday-esque reports that are inundating the Internet and certain academic circles can be the opposite of productive. Sometimes, these reports are inaccurate, overly dramatized and apocalyptic. These alarmist articles that proclaim that we are all doomed often have the opposite effect, shaking people into complicity when the truth is that though things are really bad, there is definitely hope.
There is hope.
Though we won't be able to reverse climate change, it is possible to salvage so much of the world and to prevent the worst consequences of ecological decline. Human beings have mobilized massively before—we've split atoms and spread cell phones across the globe in less than a decade—and we can do it again. We have the technology, the money, and the capability: All we need to avert immediate crisis is the will and the public support to elect people into office who will take action.
Image via Flickr
We have the resources to fight climate change. Many countries are instituting programs to reduce their carbon emissions. Small nations like Denmark and Belgium have successfully slashed their carbon emissions, and plans like the Paris Agreement are promising attempts at global change. What we need to do is fight, to spread awareness, to elect people into office who will take action, and to make it clear that we as a human race won't go down at the hands of an elite cult of carbon-worshipers determined to ruin all of our futures for the sake of their own fortunes.
Climate activism doesn't solely have to be a fight against something, though: it can be a fight for a better world. Though climate change is often painted as an entirely doom-and-gloom issue, some of the things that fighting it will combat it could actually benefit our whole society, healing some of the deep wounds that have caused our modern epidemic of mental illness, addiction, and loneliness.
According to Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, this impasse at the brink between oblivion and climate disaster presents an unprecedented opportunity for positive change. This crisis can be a beginning, not an ending, she argues: the beginning of a movement towards a more interconnected and compassionate world.
"Climate change—if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters—could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well," she writes. "The resources required to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge swaths of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from clean water to electricity. This is a vision of the future that goes beyond just surviving or enduring climate change...It is a vision in which we collectively use the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now."
This kind of future would require a paradigm shift, a complete departure from our current free-market model that glorifies isolated successes and prizes maximum consumption above all else. It would require that, among other things, we sacrifice our own desires for the good of everyone else.
We need to sacrifice the concept that the goal of life is to be able to pursue one's individual fortune to the highest level: And we have to acknowledge that we operate in an interconnected network, and must lift each other and our planet up, if we wish to continue to live on this earth.
The shift is already beginning. Organizations like Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion have emerged at the forefront of the fight against climate change; and artists are starting to wake up, too. But even if you don't have a massive platform or aren't going to protests, even just talking about the ecological crisis with others can ignite powerful chain reactions. Overall, probably the most meaningful thing you can do is work to elect officials who will make good on their promises to cut emissions and create a better world while doing it.
Image via Ethics and International Affairs
Where We Go From Here
Still, considering the amount of mobilization and effort that these changes require—and considering how determined major, extremely wealthy fossil fuel companies are to squander these efforts—it's extremely difficult to be hopeful all the time when it comes to the climate crisis. Plus we've already damaged some things beyond repair, and we've lost many people to the wildfires and hurricanes rooted in climate change; to name a few, the 79 people lost in California's Camp Fire, and the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives in Hurricane Maria.
And so, as the VICE article proposes, to comprehend the full extent of the climate crisis, first we need to let ourselves grieve. We need to allow ourselves to grieve as we would in the face of any other tragedy—to comprehend the harm that we've done to our planet and to recognize and honor our feelings about it.
Once we recognize these feelings, we can begin to deal with them. As Macy continues, "To experience pain as we register what is happening to our world is a measure of our evolution as open systems. This is true not only from the perspective of systems science but from that of religion as well. How many mystics in their spiritual journey have spoken of the 'dark night of the soul'? Brave enough to let go of accustomed assurances, they let their old convictions and conformities dissolve into nothingness, and stood naked to the terror of the unknown. They let processes, which their minds could not encompass, work through them. It is in that darkness that birth takes place."
While it's important to embrace one's despair and grief regarding climate, it's equally important to view these feelings as starting points for a spiritual and political revolution, instead of hindrances that need to be suppressed. If we view climate as a consequence of evils we've always been peripherally cognizant of—like selfishness, greed, and the hypocrisy that plagues human society—then we can view the climate crisis as an opportunity to at the very least connect with other people who understand that we, collectively, cannot continue this way.
Through this lens, climate despair is far from an end point. Rather, it connects us to the world around us, and to other people who care enough to want to see a better future for everyone and everything. "As our pain for the world is rooted in our interconnectedness with all life, so surely is our power," writes Macy.
So if you're pained by climate change, good. That pain means you love something. That love means you're alive.
Image via Occidental Arts and Ecology Center