The Climate Action Team that I co-lead at UUCA has the potential to be my closest community of support as I navigate the emotional, spiritual, and practical consequences of the climate crisis. The group is composed of dedicated activists, subject-area experts, avid readers, well-connected networkers, practical gardeners, and outdoors enthusiasts. The team is friendly, engaged, and committed to staying current on climate news. Between us, we are affiliated with over 60 environmental organizations. 

Why “potential” then? I feel like my evolving path may be a bit different from others in the group. Most of them are older and have been walking the walk and talking the talk far longer than I have. And that’s part of the rub. They have followed notable green thought leaders who have served over the decades as their instructors, models, and exhorters. Many of those wise guides have laid the foundation for my understanding, too. But my path has led me to writers whose questions and conclusions challenge the mainstream approaches that seem to appeal most to my Climate Action Teammates.

“Reduce, reuse, and recycle,” the trusty mantra for decades, is one of those approaches. It reminds us to mitigate the impacts of our extractive, often-wasteful, consumer-driven habits. The profit-driven reality of the marketplace, with its focus on convenience and its reliance on cheap landfill disposal, has thumbed its nose at the three Rs, but this is still what underpins the work of most green teams. Despite statistics that question the usefulness of this approach, the benefit, I’ve come to understand, is in the trying. It’s in respecting the science, paying attention to intuition, discerning what can help, and aligning lifestyle choices with conservationist values. I respect that members of my Climate Action Team community are serious about this.

Where is my path diverging then? And why does it feel like shaky ground? First, you should know that the study I’ve been doing over the past several years has led me to systems expert Joanna Macy and her explanation of The Great Unraveling. It has led me to philosopher Charles Eisenstein and his worldview of the Story of Separation. It has led me to Professor Jem Bendell and his analysis of collapse and his call for Deep Adaptation. As I draft this post, a copy of Douglas Hine’s new book At Work in the Ruins: Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate Change, Pandemics & All the Other Emergencies has just arrived on my doorstep. According to the publisher, it is “his reckoning with the strange years we have been living through and our long history of asking too much of science. It’s also about how we find our bearings and what kind of tasks are worth giving our lives to, given all we know or have good grounds to fear about the trouble the world is in.”

Hard as it is to process and accept, I’m aligning with the perspective that Bendell put forth in his 2018 academic paper that went viral. “Some of us may take pride in upholding the norms of the current society, even amidst collapse. Even though some of us might believe in the importance of maintaining norms of behavior, as indicators of shared values, others will consider that the probability of collapse means that effort at reforming our current system is no longer the pragmatic choice. My conclusion to this situation has been that we need to expand our work on ‘sustainability’ to consider how communities, countries, and humanity can adapt to the coming troubles.”

Diving deeper into this idea, which critics have derisively described as “Doomerism,” means challenging the eco-narratives advanced by climate scientists, by corporate interests, by politicians, and even by mainstream environmental groups. And this is shaky ground to trod in society at large as well as with my CAT friends, who regularly engage in movements, campaigns, and protests, fueled by the hope that their efforts will effect necessary change to avert biome and societal collapse. I feel a pressure to “maintain norms of behavior” within my group because I don’t want to exacerbate despair or to undermine the motivation that keeps their activism going. But this is what is on my mind and on my heart, and it challenges my optimism and sense of agency. And it’s why I need my community to help me navigate it.

In his new book (available in print or as a free epub) Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse, Jem Bendell shares a letter that he wrote in 2019 to his parents, who were then in their mid-seventies. He makes several recommendations, the most important one being to search for community. “Find other people who are talking about [collapse]. I am setting up a [Deep Adaptation] network to connect people who have this awareness and want to explore together what it means for their lives. Some of them are getting involved in activism to try and get a shift in government policies on both slowing and preparing for these disruptions. Without talking to people, I believe we will be bulldozed back into denial by a media that tells us to be positive, hopeful, and to carry on shopping and complying.”

“Dad, when we last discussed this topic, you said I should give people some hope,” Bendell continues. “I have thought about this and believe that hope is acting as an escape from reality. For most people it involves wishing that something is not so. I am discovering I don’t need hope. Instead of hope, I have a sense of what is important to life, whatever may come. Which, for me, is mainly about truth, love, and courage. I think hope can sometimes be a lie to postpone letting reality change us. Instead, I know many of us will do good stuff amidst all the bad.”

He did not send his parents the letter. Why? “Looking back at it now, my recollection is that I didn’t want to suggest ideas for how to respond which are not easily accessible to them,” he writes. “That could mean they just felt bad and then pushed it all away from conscious awareness.” This contributes to my feeling of being on shaky ground with my Climate Action Team. It does not have to be all doom and gloom, though. Really.

“Just because it is too late for modern societies to be maintained does not mean it is too late for influencing the future,” Bendell offers. “Just because it might be too late to significantly influence that future, does not mean it is too late to learn how to participate less in destructive or delusional behaviors. In fact, precisely because we sense our mortality more immediately, it could increase our sense of gratitude for the experience of life, so we live in more kind and wise ways in future. It is not inevitable we deny this knowledge, suppress the emotions, and cling to our worldviews more tightly. We can let the despair pull us away from that. We can discover a renewed desire and capacity for lively engagement with the present, including creativity and play, precisely due to a collapse of our old stories of self, society, and world.”

Shaky ground precludes sure footing, and that necessitates staying on our toes. I’ll see how my teammates react to this post. I have confidence that our shared concern for the planet and commitment to the UU seventh principle can sustain our bond and permit us to lean on each other as the climate crisis unfolds.

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JOURNEY WITH US: The Climate Action Team is for you. Yes, you. Because you want to act on your love for the planet and because you need caring companions as you navigate these changing times. Learn all about the group here, and check out our lending library and Carbon Offset Fund. Contact Nicole Haines to connect to the CAT and join us for our next Zoom meeting on Oct. 16.