A Necessary Conversation

06/06/2017 04:49 pm ET

Back in 1984, when the eternal durability of the Cold War was still assumed, a U.S. philanthropist told me that he wanted to help end that conflict. Relying on the common wisdom, I gently suggested that his goal would be very hard to achieve. “I know it’s impossible, Craig,” said the rich man, “but it's necessary.” (The whole story is told in Enlarging Our Comfort Zones.)

Now Dean Spillaine Walker is about to give us a useful and wide-ranging book, The Impossible Conversation. It concerns climate change. If you felt an immediate resistance, that faint warning sign is Walker’s starting point. Especially if they are not funded by fossil fuel purveyors, most educated people laugh at “deniers,” but apart from survivalists, many of us shy away from talking in detail about mega-storms, floods, crop failures, heat waves, mass migration, wars, and sea-level rise (as Greenland and Antarctica melt), to mention only a few of the catastrophes that seem likely to become the new normal in the Anthropocene Epoch.

Walker begins his book with a recounting of the scientific evidence for what he calls “abrupt climate change,” and even what one of his sources calls “near-term extinction.” Most of us resist these predictions: as after a diagnosis that one will die soon of stage four cancer, the surprised patient feels that this can’t possibly be true.

Surely the scientists are exaggerating, some of us feel. If they’re not, though, surely we’ll find clever ways to prevent the worst effects, or at least adapt to them. Besides, how can we cast aside the fossil fuels that have powered the industrial revolution and that remain as pervasive as gasoline-powered vehicles and electric outlets? Anyway, hasn’t each generation been forced to meet its challenges? With regard to the climate, we’re talking about the grand-kids, right?

In fact, climate change might be abrupt because, as Walker explains quoting writers for Arctic News, slight warming could release methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. In this case, further warming would release more methane in what one climate scientist calls a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

Well, conversation about the facts is not only impossibly dreary; it’s also totally unnecessary, at least according to “think tanks” and “citizen groups” funded by fossil fuel purveyors. And besides, even if we disrupt the economy with a quick transition to renewable forms of energy, what would we get for all the turmoil except the non-occurrence of something bad? Say the new energy system costs the same. Say it provides the same number of British thermal units. Say we could thus go on as before. We would have made a huge effort for no observable gain.

But our real situation could be even worse. Some of the climate scientists quoted by Walker suggest it’s too late to prevent disaster. From now on, we can only grieve what we have inadvertently done: grieve, and live intensely; behave well as we witness the gathering storm. Very few people want to accept this, and prefer to persist as if our way of life could continue. Besides, as someone always says just before the attempted conversation dribbles away, “what can one person do?”

Walker has some answers, which go less to preventing disaster, than to living with the knowledge of what’s happening. (For additional approaches see Better Ways to Live: Honoring Social Inventors, Exploring New Challenges.) Walker praises reconnection with the deeper self, with other people, and with nature. As for nature, Walker’s colleague Carolyn Baker, often posts some lovely scene in the woods or mountains or on a lake, with the tagline, “see you in church.” As for some indigenous people, the deity is immanent.

About arriving in a wild place: my dad’s ancestors came early to North America, which may have contributed to a fantasy that I recently had after reading some speculative fiction. In this fantasy, when the first European boat-people stepped ashore they realize that they don't know how to live in a wilderness, so they decide to adopt local ways. They discard their European identity, which is just a step beyond boarding ships to depart that continent. They go North American native. They then socialize the next wave of European settlers into the expanded tribe.

Of course this fantasy is a huge stretch. In fact, the Puritans regarded the indigenous people as “savages” and, apart from sharing an iconic Thanksgiving feast, pushed the indigenous people back, killed some, “educated” others, and kept pushing, ending up with the reservation system. These red-skins were the “other,” rather like today’s “undocumented immigrants” and Syrian refugees. (From the viewpoint of the indigenous people, of course, it was the white settlers who were the invaders.)

In The Impossible Conversation, Walker’s prescription for how to live during the upcoming years of climate change is not unrelated to this fantasy. “Indian” society was based on sharing, whereas settler culture was governed by a religion that sought to “convert” everybody and eventually, in economics, by the “invisible hand” of capitalism. One way an indigenous person could get in trouble within a tribe would be to hoard food instead of sharing, or to seek to control others instead of seeking consensus. By contrast, white society welcomed “individualism” and respected “big men,” who sought to dominate. For us it’s what Walker calls “business as usual.”

According to a letter by Benjamin Franklin, one of the problems of settler society was the disappearance of some former Europeans into the woods, where they went to become part of a tribe. Apparently nobody went the other way: indigenous people were not attracted to become part of white society.

With Baker, Walker is launching a new project, offering many forms of transformative experience for those who wish to take climate change seriously. Baker has already teamed up with climate scientist Guy McPherson (Extinction Dialogs). She has also written a book with spiritual leader Andrew Harvey (Return to Joy) and given workshops with Francis Weller, a psychotherapist, expert on grief-work, and author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow.

Walker quotes each of these people at length, along with Buddhist scholar and visionary Joanna Macy (World as Lover, World as Self), Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything), an expert on propaganda Edward Bernays (Public Relations), and many others. He dedicates The Impossible Conversation to Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) and Jacques-Yves Cousteau (Silent World), who made a life-changing impression on the young Dean Walker.

With regard to human-caused climate change, the scientific evidence has persuaded a growing number of educated people, and the workshops being offered will awaken others. Baker and Walker are aware of the various forms of human denial, not only efforts to say, with regard to climate change, “the science is unsettled,” but also the pervasive phenomenon of what Jung called the “shadow.” What is this shadow? Jung directed our attention to the parts of each person cast behind us, ignored or denied, perhaps projected onto some out-group. Another form of denial appears in national myths that may have a grain of truth but ignore other facts (as some white folks tend, in practice, to ignore the after-burden of slavery and the communal needs of “rugged individualists”).

What is the main gap in winning the attention of more people to climate change, the reason the conversation tends to be impossible? Perhaps we need to find not only things to protest, but also things to build. Back in the Cold War, progress accelerated because of a little-noted social invention called citizen diplomacy. (Disclosure: I worked for a foundation that helped to support this endeavor.)

Citizen diplomacy involved an exchange not of negotiators, but of unofficial travelers who wanted to discover the other side, to go beyond the propaganda on both sides, to begin to envision and share another kind of relationship. Much else was necessary, including in the 1980s a leader named Gorbachev. But the act of mutual discovery gave thousands of people a way to get engaged. This did not mean the spy services of both sides stopped their work, but citizen diplomacy made an opening for other kinds of people.

Nobody is to blame for the early stage of global warming: apart from a small number of scientists, who knew? As for the science now being “unsettled,” the general public doesn’t fully grasp the skepticism inherent in science, which limits almost all investigators to making conservative predictions. Again and again, in terms of the pace of climate change, later results are much more extreme than the predictions.

In Walker’s book, what a relief to see the situation defined not as a “problem” that can be “solved,” but as a “predicament” that we must live with. The kinds of “reconnection” described by Walker would be attractive even if the situation were normal. Given our situation, they are, to use the word of my friend long ago, necessary.

The project announced by Walker and Baker is based on the practice of psychotherapy, a knowledge of history, and experience in organizational consulting. For readers, their books offer some of the very best ideas for the enlargement of a community that can makes the conversation more possible.

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