Standing at the crossroads of the climate crisis
Three simple, psychological ways to deal with society's climate calamity. One of them leads to positive change. Which will you choose?
The following is an edited excerpt from "The Happy Hero" by Solitaire Townsend (Unbound, Autumn 2017).
A crisis always starts with some small shifts in "normal." A tiny ember burns, the sky fills with cloud, a few pebbles fall. For individuals, a crisis might start when damaging behaviors (like heavy drinking) that have slowly built up suddenly start causing real and visible problems.
On a more global scale, with something like climate change, we can track those little pebbles falling from a long way off. We’ve been burning up carbon for centuries but it’s taken a lot of pebbles and a few rocks to fall before we’ve started to notice anything.
One of my favorite Albert Einstein quotes is his definition of insanity, which he says is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." As individuals or societies head towards a defining crisis point, which I call the crossroads, things can look a little crazy. More and more people become aware of the crisis, talk about it, argue about it and worry and worry and worry. But they don’t do much differently. This is a familiar stage in crisis theory, especially for individuals. And the signs of intensifying crisis are easy to spot:
- Growing anxiety: people begin feeling fretful and ineffectual; individuals and
whole governments seem chaotic and uncoordinated. Everyone feels "at sea" and "lost."
- More frustration: we keep trying the same old things and feel increasingly irritated when they don’t work.
- Anger: some people get defensive and blame others or deny the problem.
Sound familiar? These are the symptoms of any crisis, be it personal or climatic.
Human beings have always known that decision moments are important and that one decision can take you to a radically different destination. That’s why crossroads have a special status in our literature and mythology. Individuals can stand at psychological crossroads for a few moments or can struggle to decide their next steps for years. And there is always a mindset shift before people take a step beyond their crossroads. We are either able to move past our crisis mentally, reset our attitudes and improve our lives, or we succumb to it, lacking the will for change.
To those watching, it may seem obvious what we need to do, but until we’ve seen our own path out, they can’t help us. Happy heroism is the mindset that serves us best when we face a crisis. It accepts the possibility of a better future and puts us in service to that purpose. Attain that mindset and the right actions will follow. As you read through this book, that mindset will slowly develop, until you can pass any crisis you meet.
And the same principles apply to the crisis our entire society faces. Right now, we’re shuffling closer to a big crossroads in terms of climate change. We’re not quite there yet because we’re not fully exhibiting the signs of a society at the very threshold of change, but we’re getting very close. Psychologists have learned how to spot a patient who is ready to change, and their definitions are helpful for any crisis management. We’ll know our collective feet are unambiguously standing at the crossroads when we all feel:
- Openness: when we have maximum awareness and interest in the crisis, looking for lots of ideas, being open and suggestible to both good (and bad) advice.
- Energy: when we put all our focus on emergency methods or creative, novel solutions to the problem, trying everything and agreeing on nothing.
Some might argue that we’ve already hit this point in our climate crisis, but I suspect there’s a little more to come (or we need to stand at the crossroads a little longer to fully experience it). Being fully there will feel like a bizarre mixture of panic and calm, frenzy and reflection, everywhere in the world. There are rules for making the right choice, whether as one person or an entire civilization. Both our collective history and individual psychology agree that how you think will dictate what you do. And hard experience shows that at a crossroads there are only three directions to choose.
Being bad is the worst and most foolish path. It means pretending there isn’t a crossroads, or saying we’re doomed to walk down only one pathway. In the context of climate change, the bad mindset right now is either denial or doom. They might sound different, but they are both trying to drive us down the same terrible route. And it’s a path with no rewards; all you are left with is a last-ditch fight to survive a certain disaster. This path should have a big "Beware: Dead End Ahead" sign hanging beside it.
Happy heroism is the mindset that serves us best when we face a crisis.
Being blind in this context means deliberately squeezing your eyes shut when you can actually see. It means hoping to reach the destination of one path, but by walking down a different one; asking for the big reward without doing any of the things guaranteed to deliver it. We’ve all done this when trying to put off a difficult decision or when hoping that things will just work themselves out. For climate change, this means accepting the reality of the problem, but not what we need to do about it — trying the old solutions to the new problem. The blind mindset is technically referred to as "maladaptation," and right now there’s a lot of it about. We don’t want to make a blind choice at this crossroads because the destination of that path is delayed disaster, but disaster nevertheless.
This is the road to major payback. Take this path and we’ll all change — a lot. But every change will come with its own reward. It’s bright to choose your path at the crossroads based on the destination you want to reach. It’s bright to think positively and hopefully when you stride out along it. It’s bright to join together with others when you travel. And it’s bright to try new things and explore possibilities.
This is the happy-hero pathway, and many are already taking it. It’s the smartest choice, but not always the easiest, because it means radical change. But right now, change seems inevitable anyway; too much has already happened. It’s up to us either to be swept along in the change or to direct it towards the outcome we want. Because bright knows where it’s going.