by Priscilla Auchincloss, August, 2021
I've written and spoken about climate change and our larger ecological emergency in depth. I’ve noted that it is a "super-wicked problem" and a "hyper object" meaning it's hyper-complex, non-linear, abstract, elusive and unpredictable. It's difficult enough (impossible, really) for us to mentally or intellectually grasp it adequately — let alone emotionally and spiritually.
If we were to truly face the present realities, as well as the likely future outcomes of climate change, we may feel challenged to our limits, we might be taken to the depths of our feeling capacity and care, and we might actually need to transform just to be with it all. That can seem like a great risk and a daunting task. However, it can also be seen as a profoundly sacred gift or opportunity — a rite of passage to become the very people we've always longed to be — deeply awake and caring souls who are alive to the whole ordeal of this human experience, the darkness and the light, and able to stand strong in service of the light with much greater capacity.
Because climate change is asking us to transform, it's essential that we find one another, support one another, and receive support from one another as we face what's hardest to face and become capable agents of change.
- Terry Patten, author of A New Republic Of The Heart
Someone recently sent me the above quotation. She sent it to a small group that had been meeting online weekly for eight weeks, as part of the Pachamama Alliance Game Changer Intensive. Something in this very small group, five women ranging in age from 18 to 69, had “clicked” in a way that surprised all of us.
Terry Patten may have written this years ago, but I was seeing it for the first time. I was seeing it when the countdown to the climate tipping point had just advanced, again, with more, and more authoritative voices stating that time is up for modern civilization, along with all its premises and ramifications. Change or else… the suffering will be great.
On the same day, I heard part of a conversation between Rochester’s radio host Evan Dawson and teachers in the city school system regarding the return of kids to classrooms this fall. This time the talk wasn’t about masking, vaccination, and health – it was about learning. What the teachers were saying was quietly radical: “Let’s change things, starting with the schedule.” The pandemic had magnified problems that were there all along. So let’s change things, the educators said, based on what we have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt.
It’s a turning point, the seasonal change that brings children back to school. It comes layered upon another, large-scale turning, from the confinement consciousness of the COVID pandemic towards a cautious opening to a new unknown—of in-person learning, working, living—of in-person interacting. And this turning also comes layered with the message that climate disruption is upon us. There’s no going “back”, no matter which way you turn. Everything feels a bit strange now, even as people pick up the shreds of practices and routines (like going back to school) that, at least from where we are now, seem like they once worked.
Nonetheless, what was hitting me, in these various expressions of the current moment, was a kind of wonder. Patten’s naming of the immensity of “the present realities”, being challenged to the point that one “might actually need to transform just to be with it all” – gave me a moment to try to just be with it all, without preconditions. Transforming to me suggests something like being struck by lightning, having one’s nervous system swept clean, so there’s the possibility of a new imprint. And there’s a possibility of choosing what comes in, rather than operating on the agreed-upon reality one had accepted before. Or one might see in familiar objects and facts a surprising truth, a vital essence that was hidden before.
What was hitting me was the idea that people can imagine – are imagining – radically transformed systems; that people are starting to rebuild the very frameworks, internal and external, in which their interactions take place; and that even under circumstances of enormous disruption, the slate wiped just about clean, people can and do and will imagine, remember, and build frameworks for their interactions.
I saw, quickly, that new imagining called for new images, like circles and spirals in place of linear progressions, or hubs and networks in place of hierarchies.
And I understood, even if none of this was really new, that the sense of newness might be what matters. That’s how life – aliveness – feels at the cellular level. Or maybe it had something to do with longing to feel “alive to this whole ordeal of this human experience… and able to stand strong…“
The next day I was in another conversation, sharing the above quotation, especially the last sentence: Because climate change is asking us to transform, it's essential that we find one another, support one another, and receive support from one another as we face what's hardest to face and become capable agents of change.
These words fell like water, connecting climate change, inner transformation, relatedness, and agency. Part of me was asking, “Why can’t I just transform on my own?” And another voice was answering, “You can’t solve this problem at the same level of consciousness that created it.” As others have said, transformation takes place in a relational field.
An outline began to form in my mind of the steps involved in the process of becoming able to meet disruption, to bring greater capability and agency to the situation. I had previously encountered each piece in a separate, more-or-less self-contained context. Now they arranged themselves in the following order.
Presencing vs absencing. There’s a decision to be made, in the face of great disruption, either to turn away from what is happening or to show up – to face it, open to it, become present to it.
Inner work. Whether or not inner work comes before action in the world, there is a lot of inner work to do. Like, going through the kinds, and layers, and stages of grief that great disruption brings up. Facing the personal and collective trauma that systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and domination require for their establishment and maintenance. Inner work also means exploring and cultivating your sense of gratitude, your innate capacity for resilience and healing, your sources of vitality, strength, and courage – what you love, what brings you alive, what gives you a sense of purpose.
Relational work. Relational work begins with developing the capacity of listening. Listening to other people, becoming aware of how you listen, letting listening change how you respond. Listening encompasses attending -- to your body, to the more-than-human beings all around you, and to relational fields affecting you. Relational work also takes you into the evolving frameworks and skills of authentic allyship with persons who identify with non-dominant social groups.
Practice and study deserve to be pointed out for the role they play on the path toward change and agency. Practice and study not only support inner and relational work, helping to bring about new awareness, but also develop and stabilize the whole process of living with greater awareness and capacity for action. And (maybe this is a key point), a lot of practice and study occur with other people, in relational fields. There is no part of this process that is done completely in isolation.
Meanwhile, events are happening in the world, major shifts are taking place – in the natural world, in realms of social, political, and economic exchange, in paradigms of thought. Everything is calling for you to be present, to enlarge your capacity to be with it and to engage in a helpful way. Events in the world – like the effects of climate change and entrenched injustice – are driving the need for change, not just at the individual level but also on a collective level, in institutions, organizations, municipalities, corporations, and government bodies. Presencing, inner work, relational work, practice and study – all have counterparts on a collective scale, in the actions of reimagining and rebuilding the frameworks for how people are going to live and interact, with each other and with the natural world.
What does action look like, what can action look like, when the inner work is being done, relational awareness is being practiced, and new frameworks are being forged? People see injustice they didn’t see before, they hear voices that were previously silenced or kept down, they feel … a lot of things that don’t feel good – sadness, anger, fear, overwhelm, desperation. And from this, people seek out each other and the relational human processes through which they generate ideas, prototypes, creativity, and courage, and remember interconnectedness as a central principle of life.
So begins the work of a “just transition”. Through inner and outer channels of action, people prepare themselves to adapt to, align with, and assume agency within a new paradigm, while they build the practical, living frameworks which will go on to generate challenges to collective human creativity.
Movement is underfoot. So much groundwork has already been laid. So many are on the path, it’s a road. It’s a river. To let go of “independence” and become part of a river is in the nature of this transformation. Maybe the practical question is simply “Where do I join in?” When you have an idea what to look for, you begin to see it everywhere.
In addition to the links in the text above, I want to acknowledge the Deep Adaptation work by sharing links to the Deep Adaptation Facebook group and the original ground-breaking paper by Jem Bendell: https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf
Melissa Peet, Ph.D., the Generative Knowledge Institute: Post the Generative Knowledge Institute
“Stopping Climate Change Is Hopeless. Let’s Do It” (10/6/2018), by Auden Schendler and Andrew P. Jones, mentions practice as part of the process.
“Just Transition is a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. This means approaching production and consumption cycles holistically and waste-free. The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations. If the process of transition is not just, the outcome will never be. Just Transition describes both where we are going and how we get there.”