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In Love and Trouble: Climate Change and the Power of Honesty

For Related Articles and More Information, Please Visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center Page and our Organic Transitions Page.

"Warrior up!" Even though we know there will be climate change tragedy, no matter what we do now, we can still avert some disasters, save some species that would otherwise be lost and reduce the number of prospective victims - if we act.

"If it's not ferocious, it's not love."
- Kathleen Dean Moore

"Warrior up!" - Sundance Chief Rueben George's mother (hearing him hesitate to abandon his comfortable life to fight the Keystone XL pipeline)

Fighting the roots of climate change, like fighting the roots of many - perhaps all - degradations, sometimes involves making people uncomfortable. As Bill McKibben has pointed out, asking Americans to fight climate change is a bit like asking slaveholders to fight for abolition. While we all know who the worst actors are - the ones throwing (our!) money around to make sure our options are limited, the ones lying about the problem, the ones creating toxic waste ponds so large they're visible from space - the truth is that we benefit from the system they've created every day, and most of us could choose to withhold our participation far more often than we do. We've fed the beast, and it's just about big enough to devour us whole.

I've lately clashed a little with people - allies - who believe that because talking about climate makes people uncomfortable, we need to reframe the issue, as one about love. By getting them to focus on what they love - and how it's at risk - the thinking goes, then we can touch their hearts without making them feel bad.

But I feel bad, and I think you should too.

I'm kidding, mostly - the truth is, I think many or most people already feel bad, in an inchoate, proto-accountability way, and it's true that this does no one any good. But I think our job is not to make people feel better, but to help them understand, contextualize, and use our guilt, our actual accountability, as fuel. People too often forget the difference between shame (I am a bad person) and guilt (I have done bad things). Shame is usually a show-stopper, because the person feeling it doesn't feel like he or she can make changes. Guilt, on the other hand, is an essential step in the process of change, an acknowledgment that (in this case) willfully or not, we have fed the beast: We have contributed meaningfully to a problem whose scope is almost unimaginable and whose effects are being felt first by great numbers who are blameless (or at least, least responsible). My right to throw a punch ends at your face; my right to buy a T-shirt ends well shy of the poisoned watersheds of cotton fields in Pakistan or India; my right to buy stuff and drive and fly and otherwise live a freely chosen developed-world life does not include the right not to feel bad that these things have, in the aggregate, profound repercussions.

The important thing about guilt is that it implies agency - and indeed, if we choose to use it, we have tremendous power. Without us, Rex Tillerson is nothing. Without us, Keystone XL cannot be built.     


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