This is the final post in a series of blogs from our Guest Editor Kate Heath, an ex-humanitarian worker now based in Paris – exploring how to have constructive conversations about climate change.
In this, my final reflections on the value, science and art of talking climate change and energy issues, I lift this to you: do this together. Do this in community. Traverse the valleys, the slopes, the bogs and the boulderfields, the heights of this quest in company – and then share the stories that roll from it.
Those of you involved in Transition are in a particularly unique and rich position from which to start conversations, given your involvement already in an active community of belonging. Human connections rally people like no other factor. Tales of action, from a trusted space warm with relationships, where the whole emotional shebang can be explored – anxieties and doubts alongside hopes and plans – is one of the best starting points for talking about climate change. We as people love to tell and hear stories of how ‘we all came together…’ in the face of adversity; we make decisions based massively on whether enacting them will increase our sense of belonging; and regarding climate change issues specifically, people really like it when we talk in terms of ‘we’re all in this together, everyone doing their bit’. Before Christmas, I asked my Grandma what some of her favourite winter memories were. We reminisced about the depth that snowdrifts used to reach, and the story she chose to tell was my great-aunt Vera sledging off to ensure my grandfather’s produce got delivered to everyone when their village got cut off in the 50’s. Everyone doing their bit.
The pricelessness of connecting
I was prompted by Transition to interview others for this blog – and realised this was the first time I’d thought to talk about talking about climate change with anyone. And how, how I wish I’d done it sooner! There are other folks out there also grappling with the same questions and quandaries that have gripped me. Of course there are! We none of us need to grapple alone. Hearing some of the same hopes described, seasoned with their different, valuable perspectives on the matter, was enormously enriching and emboldening. As my second interviewee G put it:
“I think it’s really important [to talk about climate change and energy issues]..and I’m still not clear about how we can do that without provoking more silence. It’s also really nice for me to reconnect with this conversation, because I think there needs to be a bridge between really facing it, that reality about climate change and all of the impacts, and your wellbeing in amongst all of that, with that knowledge, and how you converse within your community about it positively…..It really is so good to talk about it! It makes me think that it would be lovely to have a discussion support group around where climate change activism and wellbeing meet. Yes, it would be very nice.”
My two interviewees were two folks both committedly engaged with minimising their carbon impact:
- L: a lecturer in climate change, who also does public talks about climate issues. Mid-30s, married with two young children
- G: also a mother of two young kids and mid-30s, who over the last decade has been exploring ways to live low-impact, including living within various intentional low-impact communities around the UK. A trained therapeutic horticulturalist, she is currently also training to be a doula and lives with her partner, their kids’ grandmother and a friend in West Wales. She comes from a Jewish background and her brother is a climate activist
So both, being youngish females with children, from the demographic that as a whole talks least about climate change issues….
L: “I don’t think many people ever acknowledged the fact that I study climate change!”
Both could relate to climate change and energy issues as topics that don’t readily spark conversation, outside of groups already explicitly engaged with them:
G: “It feels like climate change, like for example the subject of Israel and Palestine, is one of those subjects where the shutters go down a little bit. And I think it depends on how you talk about it…. People might be interested to talk about it on a news and political level: ‘Oh, this country’s doing this’ or ‘This country’s doing that’, but there definitely feels like there’s a shutdown when it comes to the ideas of having to actually make changes in your own life.”
I was surprised though, how little conversation came up for L, whose job revolves around these matters:
L: “I definitely think it’s something that doesn’t get talked about. I think it’s something that’s a very difficult subject to talk about… People don’t talk about it with me. Friends ask me about how my work’s going, but not about the content of my work. Same with extended family. [muses]…I don’t think many people ever acknowledged the fact that I study climate change! – and therefore brought up a conversation about it.”
G: “How do you communicate what you feel is right without being disrespectful of the choices that people have made?”
Interestingly, both drew the same overarching conclusion as to why they themselves find it difficult to talk about these issues, particularly regarding taking positive action to reduce their impact: wanting to avoid being interpreted as disrespectful of or judging others.
G: “So I think the silence has come to us in a kind of exasperation of ‘how do you communicate what you feel is right without being evangelical and without being disrespectful of the choices that people have made?’…You feel the real fervour of ‘this is not the way to live’, and yet you’re in this system which is mostly completely ignoring that… So I think finding a voice which feels like it can make some tangible difference can be quite difficult.”
L: “I think it’s because what you’re doing, implicitly, as a peer to peer in an equal footing, is that you’re making a negative judgement about someone else’s choices; there is some kind of embedded judgement in it. You’re NOT saying that, but that’s what you ARE saying if you’re not careful… about EVERYTHING to do with someone’s life: their home, where they go to work, how they get to work, what they do on their leisure time, how they get there, the things they buy, the things that they have. To raise the CO2 impact as one of the factors in their choice to do whatever action, you’re somehow making a judgement that that’s the right choice – and someone else is making a wrong choice or a bad choice”.
For L, empathy for the struggles and pressures already faced by friends and extended family contributed further to a conscious decision not to broach this in social settings – particularly friends who were also new parents:
L: “I’ve got a lot of friends who are struggling, working and raising children, and it’s a non-pleasant experience in life to constantly feel like you’re failing at being a mum, and everybody’s judging you for failing at everything. And so for me to lob on top, “Oh, by the way you should be reducing your emissions as well”…..! I’m more inclined to give my friends a break! So I do it in the avenues where it’s my job to stand up and do it. I am not inhibited in what I will say to people in those situations. But I find talking to close family and extended family and friends (even friends with an environmental background) [difficult], because of that judgement element.”
This led both to rather adopt an approach of reducing their own impact as an example, but to hold back on discussing this with others (unless asked): as G phrased it, “The voices reaching out are lessening.” This awkwardness and reticence links again back to the value of discussing actions within the context of groups with an established ‘shared conviction’. As George Marshall (2015) highlights:
“We…have a virtually unlimited capacity to accept things that might otherwise prove to be cognitively challenging once they are supported within a culture of shared conviction, reinforced through social norms, and conveyed in narratives that speak to our ‘sacred values*’…..The personal reward for action would then come from an intensified sense of belonging and the satisfaction that comes from contributing to a shared project.”
(*deeply held cultural convictions which enable people to make short term sacrifices for the long-term collective good)
Retiring the ‘enemy’
G: “The kind of language that is used in a lot of actions and protests is very binary: evil vs good.…yet I think that’s a very important life lesson: to always approach subjects from a very human level”
G also raised an important point, which comes up too in the guidance
around talking inclusively about climate change – to be sensitive
about who we might be casting as the enemy of the tale in the stories
G: “The kind of language that is used in a lot of actions and protests is very binary: evil vs good. …yet I think that’s a very important life lesson: to always approach subjects from a very human level. [Recounts an issue at her child’s school regarding women being allowed to breastfeed there]. The first friend I spoke to said, “Right, have you got a Twitter account? Right, we can put it on there, and you need to write to the papers…”, and really stirred me up. But I thought, “Hmmm, this doesn’t feel quite right”; and I spoke to a few different people and ended up getting other advice, which I’m so glad I took – which was to come in from a very person/human perspective: tell them you feel really sad that you were trying to do the best thing for your child and you feel you weren’t supported by the school, and that you really want other people to be able to breastfeed. And start from a really human level, and you’ll be responded to in the same way. And I was, and I’m so glad – we have a really positive relationship with the school now. But we live in a world where the status quo with the media we have, the mainstream media, is all about being a bit mean to each other, and assuming that someone’s a b£*&%@d!! And I just don’t think it’s true”.
Though it’s a natural human tendency to want to cast someone/something as the enemy in any story, Marshall and others also advocate trying to avoid this entirely when talking about climate change issues – given the desperate and urgent need for collaboration across the full breadth of society at this moment. Instead, he suggests experimenting with other narrative structures – not wistfully cooking up tales with a false whitewash of unity, but ones which tell of cooperation. Such as a Quest……..
“The majority of people across the world already accept that [climate change] is a major threat and might be prepared to support the necessary changes. They currently feel isolated and powerless, but could readily be mobilised if their concerns and hopes became validated within a community of shared conviction and purpose”.
Crossing the threshold into connection
Talking climate is not easy. Let’s face it – it’s surprisingly complex and can be fraught with emotion and baggage. But if you find it hard to talk about climate change, I’d encourage you to start by asking someone else you trust about how they find talking about it, and hear what they have to say. Break the climate silence in the simplest way first, and then listen.
Because this Quest, I’ve realised, is as much about shutting up as it is about talking.
Bonne chance, et bonne conversation,
Meet the author
Kate Heath is a mishmash hodgepodge originating from Norfolk. Over the last 6 years she has worked overseas as a humanitarian worker, having trained as a water, sanitation and hygiene engineer – including responding to the earthquake in Nepal, to Ebola in West Africa, to conflict in eastern DRC and most recently to drought in Ethiopia. She started out, however, by training as an actor, before reskilling in her mid-20s in Environmental Sciences. She writes poetry to make sense of stuff and is increasingly intrigued by how the arts may help open up the issue of climate change. Along the way she’s worked with various marginalised groups, including substance users, sex workers and homeless people. She currently lives with her husband in Paris, where he works for a French humanitarian agency. She now works for an NGO supporting freedom of information and quality of media in developing countries, including improving environmental coverage. She is mid-way through a year-long experiment making the invisible visible: holding herself accountable for her carbon emissions by writing them daily in a visible place on her body for others to see.