Presented September 15, 2019
There is a video experiment involving several young basketball players. The video is on youtube, you are asked to count the number of basketball passes between the players wearing white. You watch them play and count. The video then tells the number of passes so you can see how accurate you are.
And then the screen goes black and the following words flash on the screen: By the way, did you see the gorilla walk by?
The first time I watched the video, I did not. While the basketball players pass the ball, a person in a gorilla suit walks into the middle, stops, beats his chest, and then walks out. I didn’t see it. Most people don’t on the first watch.
It’s called selective attention bias – you see what you expect to see or want to see. You filter out everything else.
That gorilla reminds me of the climate crisis. It has been walking by and beating its chest, roaring, for years, but no one noticed. We are too busy watching basketball.
Climate change is, as Al Gore so rightly said, an inconvenient truth.
Inconvenient because the climate crisis forces us to face a huge problem with no single solution. The roots of climate change are deeply embedded in the very nature of our economic and social systems.
It’s a huge inconvenient gorilla. It’s easy to let our eyes slide right past it and focus on our daily life. But now the gorilla has sat down in the middle of the basketball court and it’s not going away.
The earth’s atmospheric temperature is on the rise. For more than thirty years science has been pointing to the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions and activists have been calling for change.
But it has always been an abstract issue, until now.
The earth is now experiencing the impact of the climate shift – more and more extreme weather – longer droughts, longer heat waves, more and more dangerous hurricanes, increased rain, 100 year floods every season.
It’s now a climate crisis. A climate emergency. Scientists suggest we only have until 2030 until the climate change is irreversible. We need to keep carbon emissions down enough to keep the earth’s temperature from rising more than 1.5% in the next 11 years. Once it increases past 2%, ocean levels rise, permafrost melts, coastal cities drown, and we will be planting palm trees here.
Millions of people will be harmed, and not just through hurricanes and flooding; there will be political destabilization and economic devastation. Populations will be displaced; diseases, violence, poverty will rise with the water levels, there will be a global refugee crisis. Eco systems will crumble, and creature after creature will die, lost forever.
We have until 2030 to mitigate this global crisis. It is urgent and it is awful. This is not just an inconvenient truth, it’s a terrifying one. So hard, so painful, that I don’t know what to do with it.
As Unitarian Universalists, we have always accepted the science, we know the climate is changing.
But how can we wrap our minds around the scope of the issues, let alone our hearts?
When faced with issues overwhelming in scale and scope – people have natural protective mechanisms. I am sure you will recognize some of these.
The first protective mechanism is DISTANCE. We DISTANCE ourselves from the issue – the arctic ice is not here and now, there nothing I can do about it, so I focus on my facebook page instead. I DISTANCE myself from learning about climate change issues because it is not obviously impacting me.
The next defense is DOOM. The news is so sad and depressing, the DOOM brings paralysis, that sense that it’s too late, the damage is done, so why pay attention at all? Since climate change is DOOM, DOOM, DOOM, I avoid the topic.
Another defense is DISSONANCE. Most of my daily life, from turning on the lights to driving to work, contributes to global warming – I can’t help it, and it feels awful – not in alignment with my values. I don’t want to emit carbon emissions but I need to get to work. Living with a sense of DISSONANCE is discomforting all the time, so I try to justify my behaviour – it’s a prius, good mileage – and silence the discomfort.
Which leads to DENIAL. I know there is a climate crisis but I live like I don’t notice the gorilla pounding his chest. I go on with just living my life, which as a white middle class Canadian, is one of high consumption and high emissions. DENIAL causes more discomfort, but what else can one person do?
All of these very natural human behaviours allow me to continue living my life. We all practice them to some extent when faced with a painful truth. These are normal coping mechanisms of the human mind when faced with gorilla sized problems.
And we are very good at them. But now that the gorilla has sat down, a shift in our response is needed.
And that shift begins with…. Laughter yoga.
Now I don’t want you to think that I am trivializing the problem of the climate crisis. Laughter yoga is a way to release some of the discomfort.
The defensive strategies I spoke about are just that – defensive. They are ways we block uncomfortable and painful issues.
We build up big walls and hide within. But living under siege isn’t healthy for anyone in the long run. Defenses keep the good stuff out too.
To open the doors, to end the siege, we have to acknowledge the pain – my heart breaks when I see the impact of the climate crisis. I grieve the pain and suffering of those whose lives are devastated by hurricanes, wildfires, droughts. I grieve the loss of so much of earth’s beauty and wonder. I grieve for all of us, so privileged and fortunate, and so so destructive in our lifestyle.
When we un-barricade our hearts, and let the world in, grief comes too, often in a flood sweeping us away. But if we go with the current, keeping our heads up, eventually the flood subsides. We see that our hearts – even bruised and battered by the flood – are strong enough to hold the sorrow.
Our hearts are strong enough to hold the sorrow and large enough to hold more than sorrow. When we open our hearts, we shift from defensiveness to engagement.
Instead of responding with Distance, we turn SOCIAL. We bring the climate crisis into our SOCIAL realm. Peer to peer connections spread real change. If I see my neighbour using an electric vehicle – it might be possible for me as well. Talking to others normalizes the situation. There are amazing grassroot changes that happen when we get SOCIAL.
We move from Doom to SUPPORTIVE. There are good news stories in the climate action movement – wonderful things are happening around the earth as we speak – large scale reforestation, solar powered bike lanes. Foc using on SUPPORTIVE stories is inspiring.
From struggling with Dissonance we can move to SIMPLE ACTIONS. There are thousands of small system changes that can create climate friendly behaviours – public water fountains with the tap to refill a bottle – electric charging stations. The more SIMPLE ACTIONS available to us, the more empowered we feel.
Finally, we leave Denial behind by SIGNALS – receiving positive reinforcement for changes. I love seeing the numbers on water fountains that show how many plastic water bottles have been saved. It’s a SIGNAL that small actions accumulate, that change for the better is happening.
We need the positive engagement of SOCIAL connectivity, SUPPORTIVE stories, empowering SIMPLE ACTIONS, and reinforcing SIGNALS.
Now I am aware that these are small scale responses to the climate emergency. These are tools that help us process this overwhelming crisis. They empower us, strengthen our hearts, raise our spirits.
If you ask: What measurable difference do our choices make? The answer is only a little. But the better question is what do you love?
Do you love your children or grandchildren? Do you love the earth? Do you love sunsets or mountains?
If we love someone in trouble, we stand by their side. Not because we can fix them, but because we love them and support them.
We do the small things we can do, because they help that which we love. When we love, we make the effort. It’s about intentions, not outcomes.
What do you love? Is it worth fighting for?
The outcome of the climate emergency is unknown, but it will get worse before it gets better. The climate crisis will be mitigated only by global shifts in politics and economics. Systemic change is needed, we need new markers of success, focused on healing the earth and reducing inequality.
I want my grandchildren to live in walkable cities with good air quality, powered by renewable energy, filled with monarch butterflies and kestrel hawks.
I am convinced that that future is possible.
But we have to organize, to push for genuine, difficult political change. For economic transformation. For social transformation.
It won’t be easy, but it is necessary. And I know that we can rise to the challenge.
Susan Berry is going to speak in a few minutes about the Mississauga Climate Action Group and how we can get involved. In the coming weeks the United Nations is meeting for their Climate Summit. In response people are joining youth around the world in the Friday Climate Strike.
On Friday September 27th, I will be at the Brampton Climate Strike in Garden Square. I invite all of you to take the day off work and join me there. Watch the shining chalice for details.
As Unitarian Universalists we know we belong to the earth, that all people are part of this blue green wonder of life.
Let us support this hospitable home, with its fresh water and warm sun, let us choose, over and over again, in ways large and small, to keep this earth healthy.
If we love our descendants, our children and our children’s children, then let us stand with them in solidarity.
There is a climate crisis, and it’s an opportunity to express our love and live our values.
May we act for an equitable, sustainable world.
So Say We All
The shift from defence to openness comes from Per Espen Stoknes, TEDGlobal in NYC: How to transform apocalypse fatigue into action on global warming