Why emotionally intelligent climate work matters

Priorities for climate folks in 2021

Hello and a big, warm welcome back to Gen Dread! Happy refreshed year to you! 

(First time here? Why not sign up for free weekly articles about staying sane in the climate crisis, delivered straight to your inbox?)

It’s been a minute. Like many climate people, I am not good at taking genuine breaks away from this crisis (even when I say I’m doing exactly that). So I spent the holiday break looking at nature and reading Thomas Homer-Dixon’s new book Commanding Hope (which explicitly deals with the climate crisis) and Viktor Frankl’s old book Man’s Search for Meaning (which does not explicitly deal with the climate crisis but can 100% be mapped onto it). The books mix excellently together for thinking through some of humanity’s greatest challenges and what psychological resourcefulness looks like in the face of them. I highly recommend both.  

The way I see it, psychological/spiritual/creative climate work in 2021 needs to focus on 3 critical topics: 

1) growing the emotional intelligence of climate and environmental work

2) creating better stories about humanity’s future that generate honest hope and visions of flourishing, health, connection and abundance, which we can get behind as a diverse collective and work towards together (this is much harder than it sounds)

3) creating better stories that can teach us how to bid adieu to the old systems that are killing us and the planet; I’m talking about ways to say goodbye, to let go, to offer reparations, and to mourn what is often an uncomfortable passage.

These are some things I’ll be focusing on in this shiny new year at Gen Dread. 

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This week, I thought I’d share an excerpt from a talk I gave about the 1st topic - why emotional intelligence in climate work matters - which I wrote for the launch of Project Inside Out, which was founded by pioneering climate psychologist Renee Lertzman. If you haven’t checked PIO out yet and you’re interested in easily accessible yet psychoanalytically informed approaches to climate work, it is not to be missed!

Why Emotionally Intelligent Climate Work Matters

The emotional journey of waking up to our climate and biodiversity crisis can be very intense and extremely painful. We often call the ramifications of this “eco-anxiety” and figure that our emotional responses to feeling the Earth are all slightly different variations on the same anxious theme. But when we look at how our awareness manifests, we see there are myriad emotional reactions that people are putting into play. This includes the Californians who are looking to move to a less fire prone part of the country; the rich families that are snapping up foreign “bug out zones” and bunkers; the people on Twitter who call Greta Thunberg crazy and mentally ill; the parents wondering how to prepare their kids for the years ahead, or the prospective ones questioning whether to have them at all; and the people working in insurance, like my dad, who must emotionally self regulate when their clients angrily scream - as they increasingly are - about their policy prices going up because the climate crisis is throwing the entire industry into disarray. Then of course, there’s also the growing moral outrage -- the boiling anger at the injustice of it all. 

The philosopher Glenn Albrecht came up with a word for emotions that are related to perceived or felt states of the Earth. He calls them “psychoterratic”. And in his book Earth Emotions, he writes that as damages ramp up due to economic systems that value profit over life, “The truth about fiscal irrationality and the insanity of deliberate climate warming will shock all the generations, and they will enter all forms of negative psychoterratic states. It will shake the foundations of current human identity to its core.” 

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I believe that our species has entered this period and that we are in the early days of it becoming mainstream that people realize this. However, those living in close connection to the land like Indigenous peoples, and farmers, and frontline communities living near toxic waste sites, have been experiencing their environments degrade for a very long time and sharing stories of deep emotional distress. Meanwhile those who work at the cutting edge of environmental issues -- from climate scientists to activists to environmental writers like me -- have also reported on the emotional toll of their work for years. So this heaviness is nothing new but what is, is how much more widespread it is now becoming. One statistic that nicely illustrates this is that in 2019, Oxford Languages reported a 4290% increase in use of the term eco-anxiety compared to the year before.

For more than 40 years, we’ve limited the way we deal with this crisis to scientific fact, political argument, and technological ambition. But in all those decades, things have only gotten worse. The future of our species now depends on creating new norms for environmental leadership, which means centering the idea that we must also address this crisis at the level through which it was created: human behaviour; our psychology.

The knee jerk reaction is to ask, “why should we turn inwards now to process our emotions when we need societal change?” But that’s a false binary. When we apply emotional intelligence to our own internal world, we can more effectively come together with others and be part of pushing for the collective transformation that we need. That’s because emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage one's own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. We can understand the stakes when we look at where it is missing. Such places are easy to find in these times of unprecedented polarization and digital tribalism. Emotions are the gas you can’t smell or see but that fuel the public circus on social media that allows big tech to cash in. There are active incentives against us handling our emotions well. We can see clearly in the political arena how our lack of emotional intelligence is pulling at the frays of our democracies and our families. The thing is, even though we hardly talk about it, our lack of emotional intelligence is just as damaging in how we relate to the Earth. 

When it comes to healing from environmental violence and injustice, emotional intelligence can help us find compassion, common ground, acceptance, and the ability to offer reparations, from which forgiveness and partnership can be achieved. And that’s the ultimate goal here, since mutually beneficial partnership with each other, other species, and the planet, is what’s required to extend the time that humanity has on Earth, and make it worth sticking around for. 

To be good partners we have to “stay with the trouble”, as the scholar Donna Haraway says, even when it is much easier to look away, because the feelings that come with facing the truth of our reality are so intense. As many of us know, they include: anxiety, grief, shame, guilt, rage, depression, fear, worry, cynicism, pessimism, nihilism, hopelessness, helplessness, overwhelm, the sense of being torn or caught in a double bind...these are all signatures of our ecological crisis.But so are feelings of radical hope, excitement, aspiration, justice, solidarity, creativity, purpose, and meaning. Our job is to feel them all without getting stuck in any one of them, and allow them to meaningfully transform us. 

Crucially though, we need to find a balance in this matrix of feelings. The sweet spot where we’re not just intellectually engaged with this crisis but emotionally engaged with it. Where we’re familiar with how to integrate difficult emotions into our lives so that when they appear we don’t fall apart. Where we’re in touch with our care for the world instead of numbed by unconscious defences. And lastly, where we’re able to aspire for something more and see ourselves as being able to make a difference, knowing that it matters even if it is small. All of this requires a high degree of emotional intelligence. We have to practice it and we need support to do so because it is not innate to all of us. What is more often innate is becoming stressed, rigid, shutting down, projecting blame onto others, and being defensive -- all the things that are common in strongman politics but will not help us get through this mess while upholding the integrity of each and every human life, species, or wild place. Cultivating emotional intelligence in our ecological crisis is a process of emotional activism. 

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Environmental leaders have been ignoring the full spectrum of emotions that come with this work for far too long. I remember when I first realized this. It was 2011, and I was at an environmental film festival in Toronto, watching filmmakers pitch their documentaries to funders. We watched a moving trailer of a documentary about orangutans in Borneo that were being wiped out from deforestation. It was appalling, and the filmmakers captured that drama. When it came time for potential funders to respond, the director of one of Canada’s largest environmental foundations spoke first to say that they would not touch the film with a ten-foot pole because it told a terribly sad story. He advised the filmmakers to rework the narrative so that it felt hopeful, and then to give him a call.

At the time, I was an aspiring media producer and I remember feeling incredibly disappointed. One of the most influential environmental foundations in the country wanted to make the film less painful to watch, by pretending that the orangutans’ struggle seemed more solveable than it was. They needed it to end on a note that would send a positive affect vibrating through the bodies of viewers as they walked out of the theatre. Of course, they would like to see a return on their investment, and I suppose that’s what they’re looking out for. But I thought, doesn’t that need to be squared with the reality of the stories they’re in the business of popularizing? To get their support, the filmmakers would need to wrap their story up in a bow, serving a human viewer’s psychic comfort over an undeniably grim non-human reality. I remember the disturbing feeling of realizing that this requisite, that cares more about how smoothly the story goes down than creating new norms for processing vulnerability - the animals’ and our own - had likely been behind many environmental productions I’d already seen. 

The urge to focus on hope and positive messaging while ignoring what is stress-inducing is understandable. Cognitive psychology certainly backs up the idea that our brains over-respond to perceived losses over gains⁠, so negative information should be balanced with inspiring news. But avoiding the shadows of our reality at all costs misses a rich opportunity for climate storytelling to make people feel seen, their emotions legitimized, and their role in all of this something they can summon. Pitting hope against fear wrongly suggests that they aren’t equally important in this movement, as well as every emotion that lies between them. 

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Conversations about climate disruption can become fraught with disagreement and resentment, and we must carefully consider the ways we get into them, and sustain them, with compassion and respect for people’s lived experiences and multiple - often differing - truths. Conversational techniques that have a deep appreciation of human defences like motivational interviewing, show us that by talking about both sides of the dilemmas people feel caught in, their capacities for action can be freed up. Environmentalists need to spend more time learning about these tools, though we’ve not generally seen that sensitive approach exhibited by environmental campaigns. 

For decades, we’ve thrown more facts and figures at the public to scare them into action, and gotten mad when nothing happens. We do this even though science communication research has shown time and again, that when experts deliver information to the public as though they are sponges that will just soak it up, it does not work. People process information through their own worldviews, values, and desires, which is why conservatives and liberals can look at the exact same data and go away believing very different things about it. 

Another common approach is to present a moral high ground, shaming those whose behaviours we consider bad. But this only attacks people’s identities and raises defences. Something far more delicate is going on when we talk about this crisis, and we’re not often conscious of it . The moment demands that we honour it with an emotionally intelligent approach.

It is incumbent upon us individuals to upgrade our emotional intelligence inside of a culture that values corporate greed over compassion and has not yet developed these skills. The trick here is that many individuals doing this work are tied to organizations and communities, and we can inspire others in these spaces to apply emotionally intelligent tools. Organizations and communities have influence - they make things happen in the world, they push on societal levers, and they help create new norms. When we connect the dots like this, we see the fractal connection that goes from the personal to the organizational to the political to the culturally transformational... and then we understand why this work is truly inside-out.

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See you next week. Keep well ‘till then.