“I cannot do all the good that the world needs. But the world needs all the good that I can do.” – Jana Stanfield
In the wake of news that climate change may be happening even faster than we previously thought, how should we react?
In any person’s life, there will be at least one time when they feel too small in this enormous world. How can one person change an entire society, or an economic system, or prevent natural forces from making our world uninhabitable? The more passionate a person is about wanting to create change, the more often they are likely to fall into this type of existential crisis.
The bad news
Recently, the climate movement was hit with some really terrifying news: In order to keep warming below the 2* limit stated in the Paris Agreement, we can globally only release half of the carbon emissions that we previously thought were acceptable. More specifically, we had been overestimating our carbon budget by anywhere from 50% to more than 200%.
Yet another blow: While the recent Paris Agreement has called for a global maximum of 2°C warming compared to industrial temperatures (and ideally no more than 1.5°), the northern hemisphere surpassed a 2° increase for the first time, just last week. This has happened much faster than anticipated, and is bad news for our international targets.
You’re not alone
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” – Fred Rogers
So what are you going to do about this news? Can one person change a society? Probably not. Nor should they try by themselves. There will always be thousands, if not millions of other people who want to see the same changes that you want to see. When you place all responsibility on your own shoulders, you can’t focus on your individual strengths – what you actually have to offer a movement. Everybody is different, and we need diversity and community to make change, not an individual saviour who can do everything under the sun. “I’ve started trying not to take the world’s problems personally; to stop feeling guilty and upset and interpreting bad news as my fault,” said one 350 Aotearoa volunteer. “I’ve gotten better at managing hopelessness over the last year.”
Some people are surrounded by grumps who either don’t think change needs to happen, or don’t think it can. But the people in your vicinity do not represent everybody in the world, or even everybody in your town. Find that one person or hundred people who have the same passion as you, and you can be the local representatives of a wider movement! If you choose not to be active, just remember it’s still not hopeless. There are other people, all over the world, doing the work that you know needs to be done.
Responding to the news about the new carbon budget, the Executive Director of 350 Aotearoa, Niamh O’Flynn, was distraught: “My first reaction was, ‘Oh my God, we’re screwed, let’s just hunker down and hide away and spend time with people we love.'” But after processing the information further, her view changed. “My reaction now is, ‘Good thing we have so many incredible people on our team. We’re just going to have to recruit more and go harder.'”
You can’t convince everybody…but you don’t need to
Your uncle says climate change isn’t an issue. Your cousin-in-law thinks capitalism is grand and will solve all problems. Your close friend has unyielding faith in growth-based economics. This may seem like an uphill battle, and they are obstacles that need to be overcome. Perhaps for your friendships, it would be easier to have similar values. But when it comes to a wider movement, you do not need to focus your energy on these individual people.
Movements succeed through a change in zeitgeist – cultural values – not by making every single person agree. They require a core group of people to start pressuring social institutions, but these groups usually start out as a small minority. Take a look at the slow but measurable progress that the marriage equality movement has made. Originally, the vast majority of people in the West were opposed to same-gender relationships, but now it is culturally much less acceptable to have a problem with these relationships that were once completely taboo. So now, while a small minority may still be openly homophobic, most have slowly come around to things, and still others have embraced everything non-straight.
Hopefully, we will see the same thing around climate change: Fossil fuel use will be significantly decreased and no longer an acceptable energy source in the eyes of most people. With this change, your cousin will argue on your side. Your close friend will attend protests with you. And yeah, your uncle might still be waving his fist at Al Gore and his conspirators, but who cares? The world will have moved on without him.
Reframing the problem
At the heart of our despair is this question: Should we be reactive or innovative? Our volunteer asked the same question. “I realised that what’s important is working to build a better world, rather than simply working to stop bad things from happening. I needed to shift my mindset. I needed to reframe my mission so it’s about building a better society.” Will we continue to only respond to bad news? Or can we envision a different world altogether?
Collaborating with other people to determine what a better world might look like can bring hope. There is a surprising amount of evidence out there that people can do better. Psychological studies that show how inbuilt human empathy is, and that we have an inherent concern for fairness. History shows us that people are capable of building egalitarian societies and cultures. We are complex creatures, and focusing on war, destruction and greed does not show us the whole picture.
If you feel like being inspired today, I invite you to look at this short documentary about inspiring people taking effective action against the fossil fuel industry, and what the 350 movement is all about.