The earthquake in Nepal. California’s drought and oil spill. ISIS threatening to destroy Palmyra. The earlier-than-expected break up of the Larsen ice shelf. Cameron and Osborne’s plans for plunging us deeper into the pit of austerity and inequality. Half the world’s saiga die in less than a month. A disease wiping out ancient olive trees in Italy. Trauma and loss, and people being wrong. Relentless, everywhere and real. Presented and heard as stories, but real.
There is a mantra that climate change and ecological collapse is hard for people to believe and act on because “it’s not clear, it’s not here, it’s not me and it’s not now” (quoting Jonathan Rowson quoting the poet Oliver Payne). This mantra rings true but it is wrong. The science is strong, the effects are already being felt in the UK and in the global economy to which we are tied, we are all implicated and affected ultimately, and it very much definitely is now.
But ecological and social collapse still doesn’t really feel real, because it is mostly mediated by screens and because most of us who can afford screens are also still able to eat. We can project it ‘outside over there’. However, my own life is lived mainly staring at a screen, mainly looking at and thinking about the world outside over there. The sadness of it sinks into my body from my eyes, and once inside there’s nowhere for it to go.
When I feel bad about too much reality, I might read a novel or watch an old French or Italian film, and imagine living inside a delicate story with a limited purview and a sense of closure. I try to prolong that feeling by saturating my waking hours with music. But then the news comes back to me, and I feel that raw openness to the world again. It’s not only the news now but what I imagine will be the news tomorrow and beyond. And it’s not only the news via media channels but the news that is written in stormy rainfall, in wasted packaging, in traffic noise, in logos writ big where there should be trees, in whey-faced anxious-eyed children and in besuited men heading to Canary Wharf on the Jubilee Line. The reality I observe resonates between my growing pile of knowledge of ecological histories and with my lack of certain knowledge about our ecological futures. Sometimes the resonating shakes me numb.
I posted this on Facebook the other week:
“Finding the world news hard to take this morning (as most days actually), swinging from guilt that I’m not solving it and not living others’ struggles, to determination to try, which manifests itself in constantly turning off news sources then turning to them again. It’s not a very productive state. How do you/we deal with it?”
I received a really helpful outpouring of advice from 27 friends. But I had an intriguing reaction to it. Much as I appreciated their kindness and wisdom, I felt resistant to much of it, to three key threads in particular. And then because of my resistance, I felt guilty and more stressed than before. I shouted at the cat and had to go and stomp around the park. This is an attempt to work out why I was so resistant to their advice.
These were the three threads in their advice that niggled me so:
- Reject the news, stop watching it, or at least consume a lot less of it and choose only the best quality.
- That the news plays along with a self-dramatisation of ourselves as caring, making us addicted to it.
- Don’t think you can solve the big global issues (e.g. saving the rainforest) but focus on doing what you can locally, trusting that all our local actions will build up to change.
Why did I resist the first one? The most obvious answer is that I must be addicted to news (or information generally) and don’t like to be told to stop using. My addict’s defence is that I rarely consume trash, mostly only long-form articles and documentaries, gleaned by subscriptions and scanning Twitter with highly selective strategies. I rarely watch TV news. I am aware how compromised and corrupt most mainstream media is, and if I’m interested in a story, will seek at least 3 different versions. When I posted about consuming news I was thinking of a very broad category, including creative non-fiction, art and the kinds of digital communication that are more direct than media-mediated channels.
I feel unable to settle if, by the end of the day, I haven’t spent at least an hour (or much more), being stimulated by analysis. I recently went away with no wifi or deep reading for a week, and although it was wonderful, like a very long bath, I couldn’t do that often. In my childhood, the BBC, the Guardian and the library were our family’s bread, butter and drink, and I can’t let go of that diet. So it really rankled with me that the most common advice was to stop or reduce news consumption. If ‘cut the news’ was such a common response to crisis, aren’t we stalling our enlightenment, stopping the progress of self-managed learning? Shouldn’t we try to ride the tides of sadness and horror, keep pursuing more information so we know how to manage it?
I realise of course, that my friends were advising only a temporary or paced withdrawal in order to re-engage. Or they were referring to their own coping strategies, about which I cannot make any judgement, as we must all do what we must to be well. Or, some were saying it’s essential to avoid the most manipulative and biased news. I think the root of it was that I was pissed off because none of our strategies really stop the horror, once we are aware of it. Apart from the most common and negative responses of blind hedonism or bigotry, the only choices we have as change-makers are to expose ourselves and get equipped, or to deliberately switch off and seek awareness elsewhere, or to switch on and off between these two. Each path depends on your own physical health, mental state, experiences, habits and calling, and all these change over time. I used to be much more on the ‘full exposure’ path, and in recent months have been switching on and off. However, this is still not really working for me, because the world gets worse while I get more passive.
The second thread, that the news plays along with a dramatisation of ourselves as caring, was more of an unfamiliar provocation. I think there is a lot of truth in this in terms of how the media works to hook us into stories, how media organisations feel they deliver their public service by evoking empathy, and how this often tips over into bias and agonism. We get a fix of shock-and-empathy, and apart from a few clicks or comments, we move on. Social media draws it out even more. We can show we care by Liking and Sharing, safely emoting and projecting an altruistic impression. I find it harder to explain why this bothered me. Probably because it hit on a truth in me. But I do believe that I think about my ‘clicktivism’ more than is common, and that my feelings about it twist into both guilt and a need to take action. I do take action, in the form of attending lobby and protest meetings, writing to MPs, signing several petitions a day, donating money, organising projects and writing articles etc etc. This isn’t quite working for me either. It doesn’t feel like action enough. It doesn’t feel focused enough. The change I want to make is literally beyond me.
Thread number three (act local) tapped into an old source of confusion for me, and many others. Basically, I don’t trust that if we all do generally positive actions locally, without enough systematic organisation, it will have enough of a positive overall effect to overcome the planetary disease. I am interested in the Emergence theory, that suggests that as humans are part of nature, they will organically work collectively towards homeostasis and global wellbeing. However, I don’t believe that this will happen, especially not in the speed required to overcome climate change, without massive and rapid systemic overhaul. We have so little time that we can’t wait for regeneration to come at a natural speed, if we want humans to survive. (I want some humans to survive.) I do plant trees (in rewilding schemes and in city streets) but I don’t believe that planting trees locally is a replacement for trying to save the rainforests. I believe that all institutions should ultimately be turning themselves towards the big systemic challenges of environmental and social injustice. When people come together to make a product or service for a specific or local challenge, they should also see if that product will solve two or three other bigger problems too. I think the source of my recent stress is because for financial and family reasons, I’ve gone through a phase of NOT thinking about how my work contributes to solving the bigger systemic challenges. I really need to start thinking about it again, and by turns, helping others to do so.
Kelly Gerling responded to my call saying that he copes by writing reviews of films, and judging by his review of the film Divergent, he uses the reviews as a Trojan Horse to promote big change thinking. At the end of this review he says: “Let us wake up to the capacities for advanced, divergent, multi-dimensional thinking for solving the problems we face.”
So, this was a trigger to renew my determination to work more in ways that will raise awareness of, and affect, global systemic change. There have been so many media pieces about why people won’t change, why they’re going ‘la la la’ about climate change, why we campaigners must not scare people. There is useful psychological information in these pieces but they also make us campaigners feel bad. Have we just been moaning, and scaring people, all these years, making it worse? So, I’d love, if I could, to apply some ‘advanced, divergent, multi-dimensional thinking’ to this problem: How are we going to help people, who like most of all to do what others do, take an active path to greater awareness of and solving global problems?
Some of the threads of possibility are in these thoughts:
- Changing people is not about educating them from a position of knowledge but learning alongside them from a position of uncertainty.
- Dealing with the conundrum of time, that we have so little left (a handful of years) while drawing on centuries of human heritage and considering future generations.
- Admitting failure, and changing the culture of debate to allow failure and uncertainty to surface.
- Allowing wrong actions and effects to be visible so that we can learn from them, in ways that involve ‘truth and reconciliation’ for those doing wrong.
- Admitting grief and despair about losses (of land, species, security etc), but converting it into fuel for the struggle to find alternative ways of organising global systems.
- And, most importantly, the power of imagination.