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Building a home in our vulnerability to climate disruption

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Two weeks ago, an unusually intense fire season erupted across California, amplified by climate change.1 Global heating’s presence was felt everywhere in smoke and ash. Along with tens of thousands of evacuees, I entered a period of intense unknown. Our approximate certainties of daily life were gone. We had to move without knowing whether to leave, the true risk of staying, the duration we might be displaced, the danger loved ones might be in, and the state of our possessions. So far, this has been the most directly I’ve been touched by climate change. I’m tempted to call this the new normal, but that doesn’t go far enough—we can expect these fires to worsen. This is merely the latest flare in a continuing escalation.

The sudden influx of uncertainty generated by the fires activated my cultural conditioning. When this conditioning meets California fire season, I feel the impulse to head for the exit—to move to Canada, or at least somewhere further north, or somewhere without a fire season. In other words, to seek security and safety as our climate deterioration accelerates. I come from a rootless culture, one that prioritizes self-interest and ambition over dedication to a place or community. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes

After all these generations since Columbus, some of the wisest of Native elders still puzzle over over the people who come to our shores. They look at the toll on the land and say, “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.”

Coming from such a culture, with weak ties to place or community, I am ready to pursue an imagined self-interest to the further detriment of my connection to community and belonging to place.

Climate anxiety in the body

The impulse to flight springs from a tightness in my chest, a constricted breath. I feel a kinesthetic memory of bolting, muscles tensing throughout my body in readiness. My thoughts take on a seeking quality, looking with anticipation for any possibility of security to seize. But the cup of my mind does not overflow this time, it does not spill into action. I am not reading up on Canadian immigration rules like last time.

Instead, I try to make myself a home in vulnerability to climate disruption. I feel my body, cloaking it in gentle awareness. I allow this vulnerability to be the constellation of physical sensations and thoughts that it is. I unlink it from action, allowing it’s momentum to spin harmlessly. Holding it in a warm inner embrace soothes the emotional activation and dissipates the impulse toward flight.

Why not just run with the momentum? The drive to find security pulls us out of the pool of shared vulnerability, drying out our compassion and solidarity. Instead, I want to be baptized in this water, bathed and cleansed of my colonialist conditioning, my rootlessness.

Now soothed and tender, I can take in the important and inescapable truths of this situation. There is no ultimate security—to be in accord with reality is to be vulnerable. Climate disruption is a facet of this truth that shines particularly clearly. I remind myself that my life and everything I hold dear will be taken from me. And that I share this basic situation with countless others, most of whom experience this more intensely than myself. By taking in my small measure, I affirm our shared fate and responsibility to care. When the heart is opened to compassion, the heart knows that to live in pursuit of security while others suffer is meaningless.

To practice making a home in climate vulnerability is to perform the alchemy of turning our climate anxiety into compassion, a way of finding meaning and aliveness in a catastrophe, a key to an open heart and peace in a disintegrating world.

Climate anxiety in the collective

Our collective anxiety is another storm intensified by climate change—it spins in our unconscious waters, spreads from body to body, floods into our conscious minds sometimes, accompanied by flashes of flight, fright, or freeze. We try to hold it at bay by ignoring or denying the situation. When anxiety and the drive toward security churn in the collective, there is real danger. It can be channeled in dangerous directions, toward authoritarianism and national self-interest. It can drive us toward lifeboat ethics, pursuing the survival and wellbeing of the few to the detriment of the many. It is one thing to embrace universal humanitarianism and compassion when our lives feel stable and secure, but can we do the same when we feel personally at risk? When doing right by those most impacted by climate change means sacrificing a measure of security, accepting a reduction in material wellbeing, or letting go of some of our cherished dreams for the future?

Alternatively, collective fear can be diverted into wishful thinking, into placing our hopes in saviors like negative emissions technology or geo-engineering. Fear leads to motivated reasoning, distortions in our thinking and perception. It prevents us from taking in our situation in a clearheaded way and responding appropriately and altruistically.

To collectively unhook our reactivity, to remain open as tides of fear wash through our bodies, to let them swell up, crash and recede from the shore of our hearts, to not lunge toward alluring illusions of safety, turns us into bulwarks against the storms of reactivity raging through our collective nervous system. Thich Nhat Hahn tells this story:

When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.

By not being swept along in our collective reactivity, we can steer our vessel towards collective gracefulness amidst chaos. And by renouncing our pursuit of security, we can find solid ground in our solidarity and goodwill.


[Image] Fire at Sea, J M W Turner

[1] Fast-Moving California Wildfires Boosted by Climate Change, Anne C. MulkernE&E News on August 24, 2020

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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