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I am a "climate denier" (and maybe you are too)

This statement may come as a surprise to some of those who know me, the work I do with Muni, and the Masters I am currently pursuing in Sustainable Development in the UK. How could someone so "pro-environmental" be a climate denier? Read on 'til the end.

Naomi Klein had first made me come to this realization when I first encountered her book This Changes Everything in 2015. In it, she writes:

"I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure. Not like Donald Trump and the Tea Partiers going on about how the continued existence of winter proves it's all a hoax. But I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my "elite" frequent flyer status.

A great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial. We look for a split second and then we look away. Or we look but then turn it into a joke ("more signs of the Apocalypse!"). Which is another way of looking away.

Or we look but tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever and will come up with a technological miracle that will safely such the carbon out of the skies or magically turn down the heat of the sun. Which, I was to discover while researching this book, is yet another way of looking away.

Or we look but try to be hyper-rational about it ("dollar for dollar it's more efficient to focus on economic development than climate change, since wealth is the best protection from weather extremes")--as if having a few more dollars will make much difference when your city is underwater. Which is a way of looking away if you happen to be a policy wonk.

Or we look but tell ourselves we are too busy to care about something so distant and abstract -- even though we saw the water in the subways in New York City, and the people on their rooftops in New Orleans, and know that no one is safe, the most vulnerable least of all. And though perfectly understandable, this too is a way of looking away.

Or we look but tell ourselves that all we can do is focus on ourselves. Meditate and shop at farmers' markets and stop driving--but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable because that's too much "bad energy" and it will never work. And at first it may appear as if we are looking, because many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut.

Or maybe we do look--really look--but then, inevitably, we seem to forget. Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it's hard to keep it in your head for very long. We engage in this form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right."

And that was just in her introduction, folks. @_@

Yup. Knife through the heart (and lungs and spleen and everything, basically), and she was just opening her book.

I felt I had identified with those perspectives (read: excuses) at one point or another; sometimes I thought several of them at once.

  • "It's too complex; let's leave it to the smarter folks." - check!

  • "Oh, not another climate change warning from the IPCC." - check!

  • "Should we be exerting effort on other things instead?" - Bjorn Lomborg makes a case for priorities bigger than climate change. While I do not agree with his views, he argues it quite convincingly, and I imagine if someone who hadn't really formed their opinion on such matters listened to him, he might persuade them to believe what he believes.

  • "I'm too busy / stressed / tired / lazy to think about this." - check!

  • "I probably won't be affected by this as badly as others. It's not an immediate concern." - check!

  • "It starts with the self; and every action counts. So, we should focus on ourselves and our lifestyle" - This is the one that punched me in the gut the most in 2015 because I feel this was the extent of the impact that I was making with Muni.

Enter the Trough of Sorrow

People lauded the efforts we were doing to create a culture of empathy, build community, raise awareness on conscious consumption and mindful living through our events, but it wasn't enough. I knew that simply shifting how people consumed was not the end goal. And I didn't quite know what to do differently, or how to do something that created more impact, or perhaps I just didn't put in enough effort to think harder. Whatever the case may be, Naomi's introduction sort of slapped me in the face about my climate denial that "every little change counts", as most sustainable lifestyle advocated might tout. It simply wasn't enough anymore.

At the same point that I had encountered the book, I was about halfway through a month-long volunteer program doing reef surveys to help monitor or identify potential marine protect areas for an international NGO. I had come into it with such excitement and eagerness, not expecting that the side effect (or benefit) was that it exposed me to what was wrong with the system. And I then wondered if our presence there was doing more harm than good. I could dedicate another whole blog post to that, but it wasn't that the people who ran it didn't have good intentions (again, another problem similar to those pointed out in Poverty Inc.) as much as that it kept on with the inertia of a system that was not optimal.

I didn't get to finish the book because the NGO volunteer who I borrowed it from was leaving earlier, and I had only reached page 100 out of 466. And so far, what I read had been pretty bleak, and people, capitalists in particular, seemed like such shitty creatures. I couldn't let her leave with her book, with me left hanging there in hopelessness when reviews on the book cover promised that "crucially, she [Naomi] leaves the reader with a sense of optimism". At page 100, I was not seeing this so-called optimism one bit. So, I skipped over to the conclusion to try to find this so-called optimism. In the conclusion, she said something about changing "patterns of thought". She also says: "We will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy -- the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics".

I stayed on for another week or so in that remote coastal area, completing the rest of my reef surveying in the Visayas, witnessing some somewhat subdued drama unfolding between one of the local staff that had served the NGO for nearly a decade, and the white folks from elsewhere running the programs for a year before they set off to some other coastal area.

I left the Visayas carrying with me the frustration and resignation of the local staff, along with the imprint of a book that slapped me in the face about my denial, and yet called on me to keep working on the seemingly futile effort of changing people's mindsets. I don't recall vividly what happened in the two weeks following my return home. But I know for sure it was filled with a lot of lying in bed contemplating the meaning of life, binge-watching sad shit (obviously doesn't help), and possibly lots of chips, cake and ice cream.

The Resistance and a Naive Hope

Luckily, having pre-existing commitments (to yourself and to others; hopefully, good productive ones) helps us keep on keeping on. I got out of that slump because I had already made certain pronouncements about things we were going to do as Muni in 2015. I've had several organizational existential crises since then, but somehow, both the gap we felt we were filling, along with the support from the community, has kept us going.

At this point, I am not yet certain about what our future holds, but I know we need to keep resisting the urge to slip back into complacency that we've all "done our part"; and we need to start non-violently disobeying old ways of working that don't actually work.

On one hand, it may seem (to me) like not much has changed since 2015, but upon reflecting upon it further, much has changed after all -- in my pursuits and perspectives, and in the world and the conversations around climate change and sustainability.

2017 and 2018 were the years where the term "zero waste" exploded all over, and I could see the interest in the growing number of people attending our Muni events; we also have movements like Extinction Rebellion and Youth Strike 4 Climate (inspired by Greta Thunberg), and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement pushing for the Green New Deal; I also wrote this 2019 "Fearless Forecast" for the planet because in spite of the doom, gloom, and slow progress thus far, I stubbornly believe there is hope. When I began trying to live more sustainably a decade ago, it seemed like there were few who could support your journey, and then now, suddenly, I'm surrounded by people who want to make the world a better place.

Nearly four years after I first encountered the book, I still haven't read This Changes Everything in its entirety, but I got my hands on a copy recently. I re-read the conclusion, this time, in another light. Suddenly, I can see it with more optimism. In the rather gray, bleak and dismal state of the world, I do see rays of sunshine peaking through.

Empathy is in our interest

18th century economist Adam Smith famously said: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." Human self-interest is what has fueled neoclassical economic thinking and greedy capitalism. Should we disrupt the system altogether and radically rid the world of capitalism in all its forms? Or can capitalism take a drastically more humane, sustainable, and mindful form?

In a world where greater inequalities exist, is empathy for other humans and inhabitants of this planet not in our self-interest as well? How is a mindless accumulation of more and more (more money, more stuff, more materialism), well beyond what we need for ourselves, in our own self-interest? Is there not more joy in sharing, and seeing others thrive with you? How can we continue to live lives of peace, happiness and clear conscience, knowing that we willfully caused harm on others, or that we didn't do the best we could to make this world a more livable one, in the meaningful senses of the word?

In her conclusion, Naomi quotes sociologist Kari Norgaard, author of Living in Denial, saying: "Denial can -- and I believe should -- be understood as testament to our human capacity for empathy, compassion, and an underlying sense of moral imperative to respond, even as we fail to do so."

It seems like a Sisyphean task, to transform humanity and create a global culture of caring, and to fix the broken systems that we still work in but have continually increased inequality and injustice. But I do know that more and more people all over the world are working hard to figure it out, and bravely taking action. I believe the youth of today are more woke than the generations before them, and don't wish to sit idly by.

So, what kind of denier are you?