climate anxiety

Practicing love when the future is uncertain

Practicing love when the future is uncertain

Dark clouds gather in the future and fog obscures our path. The days when the future seemed sunny and idyllic have passed. Occasionally, rays of sunlight shine through—promising news of a COVID vaccine, for example, or our recent election results. Have we, as we compulsively doom-scroll our excruciating national story, become so addicted to doom that good news hardly registers? Or is there simply so much darkness that these glimmers of light offer little hope?

Whether we see doom or the clearing of skies, we are obsessed with the future. And, not without good reason—layers of heavy conditions weigh on us. We’re waiting for them to be lifted, for things to return to normal. Four years ago or so, the toxicity and absurdity of our politics intensified. The anxiety-activating news cycle has seeped ever further into our lives. And, in March of this year, when we entered lockdown, we put on hold so many of the things that bring us meaning, direction, and joy. As our COVID-inflected present has stretched on, it’s been easy to defer life to the future, when we imagine things will return to normal.

Meanwhile, to the detriment of our collective wellbeing, much of our country has refused to likewise defer their lives. There’s something about this refusal to stop living that could be beautiful, if only it was paired with an active love of following public health guidelines. Somewhere in there is a commitment to appreciating and living life, in spite of suffering and uncertainty. These two sides, present-oriented aliveness and future-oriented altruism, roughly trace one of the perennial dialectics of the heart.

A dialectic of the heart

This dialectic is central to the endeavor of living well in an era of climate change. From one end we are squeezed by the destabilization the future holds, and from the other by our complicity in great suffering. Refuge in a secure future is no longer possible; refuge in the present is complicated by unfulfilled ethical responsibility. Neither climate action nor ignoring the future is satisfactory—what is called for is a richer and more nuanced inner conversation between surrender and peace on one side, and responsibility and love on the other.

Climate change invites us to surrender the search for a secure future

Climate change invites deep and radical responses. One of these is releasing our tendency to seek ultimate meaning, security, or resolution in the future. Our worldview, conditioned by fossil fuels, includes entitlement to progress and control over the future. These expectations are maladaptive in our changing world. Leaving the palace of fossil fuel based ways of life involves leaving them behind.[1]

Absorption in the drive to become diminishes us

The particular form of future-orientedness encapsulated in our expectations for progress and control Buddhism calls becoming: the security-driven process of envisioning a future state of being or identity, seizing it, and setting things in motion to become it. This natural process is vital to our engagement with life. It’s a way we express love and creativity. But it’s also something that we can get too absorbed in. When we do, we lose contact with all our other ways of finding meaning.

Jim Corbett articulates this well, tracing our relationship to time to our mode of subsistence. He contrasts becoming, which he calls man-in-time, with a more present-oriented way of being, man-in-nature:[2]

Pastoral nomadism is similar to most hunter-gatherer cultures in its concentration on the present, in its reliance on and adaptation to the given aspects of nature, and in its emphasis on unrelenting observation and awareness. Peasant and commercial economies, on the other hand, place their emphasis on the work needed to transform and develop unimproved conditions and raw materials into wealth. For the nomadic hunter-gatherer or pastoralist, wealth is created by sun, rain, and soil. To think of one’s life as time to be invested or to sacrifice the present to an uncertain future is foolishness for man-in-nature; it is as obvious that life is a gift rather than a reward as it is obvious to man-in-time, who labors for future fulfillment in an ever-dying present, that life can be supported only by work, investment, the accumulation of wealth—above all, that the past is dead and the present moment in which one’s life is trapped is just the point where the future dies. Man-in-time labors in an empty present that is death; he grasps for a future that must die when he touches it.

Jim Corbett, Goatwalking

It has always been true that finding ultimate meaning in the future is a lost cause. Climate change drives this point home—there is nowhere safe and the future can’t be controlled.

Finding meaning here and now

We have so much momentum driving us to orient around the future. Our biology, psychology, culture, economic conditions, and news media all push us in this direction. But we can change course and come home to the present moment, little by little. It’s here that we can find meaning independent of an unreliable future. And as the future’s uncertainty grows, it’s here we can find points of intervention.

As we return to the present we may discover anxiety fueling our drive to become, whether climate anxiety or otherwise. We can feel this in the body, care for it, hold it, breathe with it, let it settle. We can offer it warmth and space, and, in seeing it, become free of it’s power.[3]

When we relax our obsession with the future, we become available to what’s here and now, even if only temporarily. Then space is available for appreciating the traces of meaning in the present, and joys, large and small. Can these be enough?

Discovering world as gift

When we’re really here, not fixated on making something happen, not focused on creating some kind of meaningfulness or security in the future, we can see life as a gift. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes of experiencing the world as gift:[4]

In the old times, when people’s lives were so directly tied to the land it was easy to know the world as gift. When fall came, the skies would darken with flocks of geese, honking “Here we are.” It reminds the people of the Creation story, when the geese came to save Skywoman. The people are hungry, winter is coming, and the geese fill the marshes with food. It is a gift and the people receive it with thanksgiving, love, and respect.

But when the food does not come from a flock in the sky, when you don’t feel the warm feathers cool in your hand and know that a life has been given for yours, when there is no gratitude in return—that food may not satisfy. It may leave the spirit hungry while the belly is full. Something is broken when the food comes on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in slippery plastic, a carcass of a being whose only chance at life was a cramped cage. That is not a gift of life; it is a theft.

How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers—the living world could not bear our weight—but even in a market economy, can we behave “as if” the living world were a gift?

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Returning to the present, beginning with finding gratitude in small moments, is a beginning. When we step out of our future-based ambitions, the smallness of our lives can be seen in proper perspective. This lets us remember our belonging to a larger world. This belonging is not something we need to earn or prove, but intrinsic to our being.

Receiving the gift of the earth calls for reciprocity

And with this remembering, we can remember more— that the gift of belonging asks for reciprocation. We have a responsibility to the elements of our world—to the sky, the earth, and the other beings we share it with, human and non-human.

The resolve to care

As we loosen our grip on becoming and search for more resilient sources of meaning, it’s time to bring back the other side of this dialectic, compassion. Otherwise, we risk becoming estranged from the realities of the world and our responsibilities. So the second part of this contemplation is remembering the intensity of the suffering in the world, our complicity in it, and our ethical responsibility to care for it. These two sides, releasing the future and active love, or gratitude and reciprocity, form a dialectic in our hearts, an ongoing conversation that works on us as we work on it.

With hearts opened and nourished by gratitude, we can remember that the systems that support our comfort also create injustice and suffering throughout the world. We can drink this reality into the depths of our hearts, not letting impulses for urgent action divert it, but letting it’s dark waters pool in our depths, fermenting into resolve and seeping into the bedrock of our being as a refusal to participate in these systems. Its burning acidity can keep our eyes open and senses sharp for opportunities to intervene, to dismantle, to step aside, to yield, or to contribute to an alternative.

It’s true that we can keep our eyes open here and now, and it’s true that caring for the world requires thinking, planning, and considering the future. This conversation doesn’t end; the dialectic remains for us to carry in our hearts.

Shaping change, yielding to change

Ultimately, we can’t resolve the dialectic between surrender and action, we can only express it through living. When we, perhaps temporarily, abandon making demands of the future, our preconceptions for how it should unfold, our entitlement to control and progress, we can find an openness to the present, to touch and be changed by it, to be in relationship with life. I love the way Octavia Butler’s character Lauren Olamina expresses this:[5]

All that you touch,

You Change.

All that you change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

is Change.

God is Change.

Rather than being oriented toward fulfilling becoming, we can find ultimate meaning in being open to change, in learning from it, in being in communication with the changing unfolding of reality.

She continues (remember, God is Change):

We do not worship God.

We perceive and attend God.

We learn from God.

With forethought and work,

We shape God.

In the end, we yield to God.

This is another expression of the dialectic I’ve been discussing—between actively loving the world and surrendering, between gratitude and reciprocity, between shaping the future and yielding to it. And it points to how, along the way, we can find meaning in the process rather than the outcome.


[1] Edmund Mills, It’s time to leave the palace that fossil fuels built

[2] Jim Corbett, Goatwalking

[3] Edmund Mills, Building a home in our vulnerability to climate disruption

[4] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

[5] Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower

Posted by Edmund Mills in Essays, 0 comments
Building a home in our vulnerability to climate disruption

Building a home in our vulnerability to climate disruption

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

Posted by Edmund Mills in Reflections, 0 comments