Talking about dread is not enough - we need action too

Reckoning with the feelings will make us stronger only when it leads to outer as well as inner change

Hey and welcome back to Gen Dread!

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Usually I get this newsletter out biweekly, but an op-ed came out yesterday in the Washington Post about climate dread that I need to follow up on, so here’s a bonus post.

The piece describes what it feels like to experience existential dread while living through the recent horrific heatwaves that have set new sky high temperature records for cities like Vancouver, Seattle and Portland (after months of collective grief from COVID, no less). The writer did a great job of honestly naming the feelings, talking about why it matters that we acknowledge them, and do so in a way that allows us to come together with others rather than sit isolated under their shade.

On the importance of having authentic climate conversations that make space for difficult emotions, I was quoted as saying “We can’t just do it when it’s 114 degrees in our neighborhood. We need to weave it into our social fabric.” Yes, I do think we need to have billions of climate conversations now in order to normalize what this crisis is doing to our wellbeing and draw attention to why this needs to be addressed. But a huge reason why we need to have these conversations is that there is a clear line that can be drawn between talking to others, legitimizing the need for bold dramatic change through feeling and expressing the need for it, and taking collective action. The piece unfortunately did not follow that line of thinking through to its completion. As a result, the political power of those conversations was largely left out.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Shit is getting dire, we know that, but tapping into the deepest parts of ourselves - that are moved by what is going on - can reveal stores of resolve to act from. As humans, we process information and gain new insights by communicating in relational environments. Often, having emotionally confronting conversations about dread or whatever else we feel can help us uncover existential meaning. They brush away the nonsense and help to focus our gaze on what feels most purposeful at this time.

Sarah Jaquette Ray rightly warns us about the potential to be shut down by the growing swells of climate anxiety that are rising in society. Fortunately, if we tend to this anxiety, it can be better managed and tapped into as fuel for the life-saving actions required. Research on young people shows that there is an association between the distress they feel about the crisis and their sense of agency to tackle the problem. Pro-climate activism has been linked to feelings of anger, frustration and even depression. Emotions shouldn’t be buried, but explored and understood, then taken up as tools.

So if we approach our psychological responses to the crisis with curiosity, we can become more self-aware about how we are showing up (or not) at this moment in human history, when we are needed most. Then, adjust accordingly. We’re all being called into the quest of creating a better future that is otherwise slipping out of view.

After decades of squandering time, the only choice we have now is to take striking justice-oriented approaches to addressing the crisis at all levels of society, at the same time that we are forced to contend with losses. The point of talking with others about the dread we feel on the inside is not to emotionally reckon ourselves into oblivion. It is to help ourselves cope as well as harness the feelings, so that when we connect with others we can more effectively transform the world on the outside.

In other words, it isn’t either/or, it’s always both. My most engaged with Gen Dread piece talks about the dangers of focusing only on activism. Consider this one as being about the dangers of focusing only on talking about the feelings. Make no mistake, we need to act. The personal is political and there’s still so much to save.

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xo BW