On a recent Zoom I joined about a potential program collaboration, one of the organizers admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that she was not in the same place in her understanding as she perceived others on the call to be. “I’m not an activist,” she said. “But you are!” replied one of the collaborators. “You just don’t know it.” 

That meeting threw me into a bit of a maelstrom as it highlighted – once again – that when it comes to environmentalism and navigating the present-day climate crisis, we are all in different places. The wisest guidance directs us to meet people where they are, and that involves active listening, non-judgment, and empathy. For me, especially, it requires patience. And as I feel growing urgency about the dire consequences of our economic and political choices, that patience is hard to muster. 

“Truth is, despite our best intentions, we rarely meet people where they are,” writes business coach Hiro Boga here. “To start with, none of us are singular selves. Within us we contain multitudes. The self I am this afternoon is not the same self I was yesterday afternoon. … Secondly, our selves are not just personal but also social and cultural constructs. To a greater or lesser extent, we are the products of multiple layers of systemic conditioning – ancestral, familial, educational, political, social, linguistic, cultural …  We are the sum of our history, our integrated and undigested experiences, our radiant consciousness and grope-in-the-dark heedlessness – and so, so much more. To meet someone where they are is to meet an ecosystem of personhood that is rarely cohesive and never singular.”

Honoring the personal ecosystems of those I interact with then becomes as important as protecting the natural ecosystems that exist all around me. Why do I fall into the trap of critiquing others and applying labels when I have only minimal data to rely on? Is there something that compels me to focus outward instead of paying attention to my own identity and my own journey? At a species level, we are hardwired to judge in order to protect ourselves from threats, but we need to consciously override this instinct to collaborate.

“We can only meet others where they are to the extent that we are able to meet ourselves where we are,” Boga advises. “And meeting all of our inner selves is a life-long, daily practice in nurturing inner relationships.”

I have not been a decades-long environmental activist like many of my Climate Action Team members. My political engagement has been paltry compared to many in this congregation. My charitable giving probably doesn’t come close to what others regularly contribute. So what? I’m motivated, anxious, curious, confused, and hopeful, and I’m trying to navigate these shifting times and evolving worldviews just like those around me. I hope people will continue to meet me where I am as I gently remind myself to do the same.

In her book Eco-Types: Five Ways of Caring about the Environment, Emily Kennedy offers descriptions of the categories that might describe where many of us find ourselves. She summarized them for The Toronto Star

“The Eco-Engaged, politically liberal with high cultural capital, cares about the environment by having solar panels on their home, driving electric cars, and shopping at farmers’ markets.

The Self-Effacing are also liberal but have less cultural capital. They care by trying to use less plastic, recycle their waste, and eat less meat but wish they could do more.

The Optimists are politically conservative and have high cultural capital. They care about the environment by spending time in nature and teaching their kids about local plants and animals.

The Fatalists are politically conservative, young, and have low cultural capital. They care by thinking and talking about the greed and excess of consumerism and the failings of corporations and governments to uphold the common good.

The Indifferent, who tend to be older political conservatives, have little connection to the environment, although they want to see it protected and admire those who garden, cycle, and have solar panels.”

Kennedy says that focusing on the differences and maligning those who fall into a different category from us lead to greater political and class polarization. That doesn’t help the planet at all. She offers suggestions:

“First, instead of judging a person’s behaviors or attitudes about environmental issues, we can become curious about why they believe or act as they do. And we can trust that if we had grown up in the same circumstances, we would likely think and do the same.

Second, we can remember that everyone cares about the environment, even if we don’t like the way some people demonstrate it.

When we blame individuals for complex problems like climate change, it shifts our attention away from the actors and institutions who should be doing less to harm the environment and more to protect it. It divides civil society at a time when we need to be united.”

In his 2009 article “Bright Green, Light Green, Dark Green, Gray: The New Environmental Spectrum,” Alex Steffen offers a different way to classify environmentalists. Here’s a rundown of each group’s basic beliefs as Steffen sees it:

Deep Greens: The living planet and nonhumans both have the right to exist. Human flourishing depends on healthy ecology. To save the planet, humans must live within the limits of the natural world; therefore, drastic lifestyle transformations need to occur at social, cultural, economic, political, and personal levels.

Lifestylists: Humans depend on nature, and technology probably won’t solve environmental issues, but political engagement is either impossible or unnecessary. The best we can do is practice self-reliance, small-scale living, and other personal solutions. Withdrawal will change the world.

Bright Greens: Environmental problems exist and are serious, but green technology and design, along with ethical consumerism, will allow a modern, high-energy lifestyle to continue indefinitely. The bright greens’ attitude amounts to: It’s less about nature, and more about us.

Wise Use / Environmental Managers: Ecological issues exist, but most problems are minor and can be solved through proper management. Natural resources should be protected primarily to enable their continued extraction and human well-being.

Cornucopians: The earth is made up of resources that are essentially infinite. Ecological problems are secondary. Technology and the economic system—whether free-market capitalism or socialism—will solve all ecological problems.

Technocrats / Transhumanists: Humans should transcend biology by investing heavily in technology and developing synthetic meats and other foods. We can also avoid the possibility of human extinction by leaving planet Earth behind, and we should ultimately move towards cybernetic enhancement and uploading human consciousness into machines in order to defeat death.”

Do you align with any of these descriptions or find them helpful? Have you moved from one group to another over the last decade or year? Do you feel any negative judgment about a particular group as Steffen describes it?

Meeting people where they are is a critical goal – and a challenging one. I long for planet-based ethics to guide policy decisions and for climate justice to benefit all people, not just those with “cultural capital.” That means working for mutual understanding, affirming interdependence, and encouraging solidarity. That means meditating on my own growth, aspirations, and blind spots and appreciating the willingness of others to engage wherever they are on their journey. That means dropping counterproductive critiques and finding the common ground that can help us save and savor the Earth together.

“It turns out,” Emily Kennedy writes, “something we all share is an appreciation for this astonishing planet we live on.”

• • •

JOIN US: The Climate Action Team extends a radical welcome to activists, contemplatives, readers, meditators, questioners, tree hugging hippies, scientists, policy wonks, radicals, pacifists, nature enthusiasts, and all who seek community as we navigate our changing times together. Contact Nicole Haines to connect to the CAT. Our next meeting will be in person on Saturday, Jan. 21, at 1 PM at the church. Learn more about the CAT here.

READ UP: Our peer-to-peer lending library boasts over 75 titles that cover a broad spectrum of environmental, climate, and ecospirituality topics. Review the list, schedule an exchange with the book owner, and cozy up with a book worth reading!

FUNDS AVAILABLE: The Carbon Offset Fund is now ready to offer grants. Read more here and consider working with another member or church group to prepare a grant request. The process is simple!