Op/Ed

Climate Matters: We should be feeling our feelings

OLLIE CULTRARA

27th in a series

I don’t know about you, but I hate talking about climate change. When I hear a story on the radio about the latest record-breaking severe weather event, I want to plug my ears. Or when I read a news article summarizing the most recent dire scientific report, my eyes glaze over. I think to myself, “Yes, we already know. Everything is very bad and getting worse.” 

Can we take a moment to acknowledge that climate change just sucks? 

It’s a wrenching, intractable situation that feels crappy to even think about. Most of the time, I just don’t. But it’s not going away — and neither are my feelings about it.

I’m 26. I’ve known about climate change for as long as I can remember, back when we called it global warming and worried mostly about distant polar bears and coral reefs. I don’t recall when it changed from feeling like an alarming possibility to an unfortunate inevitability, but it has never felt acceptable to me. 

Growing up, I felt frustrated, indignant and confounded as to how we could have gotten into this mess. Then in college, as I learned about the economic, industrial and political systems that have driven the climate crisis, I got angry. I channeled my anger into a burst of climate activism — meetings, marches, protests — that never seemed to lead anywhere. 

And now? Honestly, I feel stuck. I don’t like feeling angry. The emotion and the activism didn’t sustain me. I’ve been told and I believe there’s a role for everyone in this struggle, but I haven’t found mine quite yet. 

I suspect that’s true for a lot of us.

Most of us aren’t activists or scientists who spend our days thinking about what the world is facing. Nor are we national leaders or corporate CEOs who have the responsibility and power to make major policy changes to address it. So where does that leave us?

You may notice I’m asking more questions than offering answers, but I’ll start here: I think we need to get real about our feelings. 

It’s the responsibility of our age to tackle the climate crisis head-on — to do everything we can to slow, reverse, mitigate and adapt to it. But we can’t do any of that if we’re stuck feeling total despair or numbly ignoring it all. 

How I feel on a given day doesn’t really affect how changeable the situation is or is not. Except that it does. Our emotional state affects what we feel capable of doing — and therefore what we are capable of doing. 

While we continue taking everyday steps, as we’re able — voting for reps that take the problem seriously, voicing our support for needed policies, switching to renewables and energy efficient everything — climate change keeps raging on. As we are bombarded with crisis after crisis, losses large and small, how are we going to keep our heads above water, emotionally? 

Acknowledging and accepting, for one. Not knowing about a problem doesn’t make it go away, just as knowing about it doesn’t make it any worse than before we were aware. I’m practicing bearing witness more and looking away less. 

Grief, despair and anger are all appropriate responses to what’s happening to our world and our fellow human and non-human beings. Rather than stuffing those emotions down, I’m working on noticing, accepting and really feeling each of these emotions as they come so that I can move through them. Recently, this has looked like taking time to process between listening to episodes of a podcast series about the origins of the climate crisis. I’m letting myself curse when the host points out something infuriating and allowing tears to bubble up at the heart wrenching narratives of loss. Rather than forcing myself to listen to the next episode, then getting overwhelmed and giving up, I’m returning when I have the bandwidth to be present with the feelings it brings up.

And next? Let’s create and embrace the cultural transformations this moment demands. Taking climate action includes changing the way we live our lives. Many of the fundamental changes we need — resisting consumerism and rejecting the right of corporations to extract profit at any cost — aren’t fun or convenient. But I believe that we have a lot to gain.

Can we trade convenience for the social connectedness we receive from carpooling and public transit? Delight at the beauty we see when we take life at the pace of a walk or bike ride? Satisfaction in buying used clothes, and making them last as long as possible? Creativity in sharing tools, vehicles, homes, land. Generosity in growing food and sharing it with others. 

It’s easy to feel that if I’m not participating in political activism or putting up solar panels, I’m not being part of the solution. 

That couldn’t be further from the truth. This thing is too big and far-reaching for anyone to be left out. I love the model put forward by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson to help everyone find their personal path to climate action. She says to ponder three questions: What brings me joy? What am I good at? What needs to be done? Each of our unique roles can be found at the intersection of the answer to those three questions (see a great graphical representation of this online at ayanaelizabeth.com/climatevenn).

I feel excitement and joy when I envision a world that has “solved” climate change, and my role in it. What I see is not just solar panels, heat pumps and electric cars. It’s also thriving people who care for and are deeply connected to each other and the landscape. How about you?

I recently came across an interview with scholar, writer and activist Mike Davis, who said: “I don’t think that people fight or stay the course because of hope, I think people do it out of love and anger.” Anger doesn’t sustain me. Hope comes and goes, depending on the day. But love? I think we all have experience acting out of love. And it sure does feel good.

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Ollie Cultrara works at two local farms and serves on the board of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. They are beginning a Master’s in Leadership for Sustainability program at the University of Vermont this fall.

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