Terry: Which brings us to the reason we’re having this conversation in the midst of a summit on collective trauma. The human emotional toll and overwhelm are important.
I think we thought, oh, we will see the facts and respond. What we’ve discovered is very much like trauma, people have shut down. They’ve been wanting to go into denial, we’re conditioned to resist these ideas. Maybe we’re sometimes too traumatized to do what we need to do. How are you seeing and feeling about trauma in the midst of all of this?
Karen: I think many people don’t know how to hold onto climate change. It is overwhelming, we want to turn away. I often mentioned that I don’t get invited to many parties because I think it is like, ‘oh, she’s just going to raise climate change at the dinner table’.
One thing we’ve really learned within science and communication is that it doesn’t work to only talk to people’s heads, to fill us with facts. Data and evidence don’t really help. You have to tell stories, you have to connect with our hearts, you have to connect with values—the deepest values because we have different worldviews, different identities and beliefs. We touch each other in different ways.
Consequently, there’s a huge engagement within arts communities. They’ve defined other ways of not just communicating the science but of really dealing with, embodying, what’s happening to us collectively.
The trauma dimension, really healing that trauma, can release a lot of the energy, energy we need to be able to face, head-on, the challenges, now and in the future. This is especially for young people who are almost getting this problem dumped on them. We need to be able to show them that the possibility space is much bigger than they think. That is something we have to believe, and enable in ourselves, in order to communicate it to young people. We can’t try to get people to think something we don’t authentically understand to be true.
Terry: There must be moments when you see the trajectory of change, you feel overwhelmed, you feel a sense of despair and begin to think an apocalyptic vision may come into being. And then other times when you feel more heartened.
We all have stuff, personalities in dialogue, different voices and different points of view. And, I know there is another interpretive form which is that, after we face the darkness, after we recognize that we may be the last generation or two of people growing up imagining we could take the future for granted, we might discover incredible gifts. We might say our souls consented to be here for this and that it’s an honor to be here at this time.
There’s an opportunity to tell a story with the way we live our lives that express our values and that this is perhaps a sacred opportunity, that it is inspiring to us and, even in the worst of worst-case scenarios, it’s still possible to be a force of all of the best in the human spirit.
Karen: That’s beautifully said because I think it’s part of what drives me,
I read the news a lot. Reading the latest news on Antarctic ice or species loss or … It just does break my heart. I can remember editing the IPCC summary for policymakers where you look at what the probabilities of sea-level rise and you know it is heartbreaking. It is so hard to actually imagine and we just take it kind of dryly. But we’re talking about not just like the beach moving up. We’re talking about water covering vegetation that shouldn’t be underwater, toxic waste, all these types of things.
We can’t even fathom what we’re actually doing, that border between oh my gosh, you know, it’s game over. To, no, we can actually do much better.
I remember when I was a student taking a course on the extinction of species. The professor said you are alive at the most important moment in history, the time where you can make the biggest difference. It really was one of those moments where I realized this matters. The work we do really makes a huge difference right now. I think that, hold that, to be able to deal with the loss, the grief and to look in front at what could be coming.
Then again there is so much potential and possibility on this planet right now for social change. That’s where I’m very interested, social change and transformation is the sustainability. In many ways, like a lot of my earlier research on impacts, vulnerability, adaptation and human security—looking at what the problem was—it has really twisted towards what the drawdown project is. Let’s look at the solutions and how we do it in an ethical, equitable and sustainable way? That really drives my research now, getting into that deeper part.
It’s how do you connect with people who don’t see the world the same way that you do? People who are traumatized, people who have been oppressed, people who have given up on caring for or just don’t think that life is worth it, don’t care what happens.
In my own development, I’m thinking of a paper probably around 15 years ago on winners and losers. Where did this idea of winners and losers come from? Is this a natural inevitable evolutionary idea, kind of like Darwinian, or is it socially and politically constructed and generated?
My aha moment was that not everybody cares about the losers. That was a real wake up call for me, that there are people who would say like, “I don’t care if the whole Greenland ice sheet melts because it will reveal some interesting geology, mineral wealth or something.”
It breaks my heart, even more, to think that there are people who couldn’t care if millions of people lose their homes because there’s gold. We’ve all read those fairy tales and fables, the King Midas sort. I think, for many people, social justice (and not just for humans but for nonhuman life) is a powerful, strong driving force. That hope is that our hearts do break open and not break down, right now.