I love what this unpublished research tells us about climate change, and how we might address the future.
For her Master’s thesis, my friend Heidi Hendersson conducted in-depth interviews with Swedish students who were planning for a career in sustainable living. Believing in the power of story and narrative, she had them write the story of climate change up to the present moment. Then she then had them project the story forward into the future and write a best possible scenario: the future of climate change in their lives if it were to turn out for the best.
But the telling thing – the astonishing thing – was that when interviewed, not one of the students actually believed in that upbeat imaginative ending to their own stories. They felt that their endings were utopian fantasies that, when subject to rational examination, couldn’t come true. “Let’s be honest,” one of the participants stated.
There was a profound disconnect between what they were working toward and what they actually thought and felt were possible.
“None of the sustainability students wanted to claim authorship of the story and did not see how they would be able to re-write the ending in real life,” Heidi writes.
Closely related to the lack of authorship were the feelings they felt: fear, frustration, overwhelm, self-doubt and hopelessness. I am not surprised these were present. Of course the students would have no way of moving those feelings forward to something more powerful because we as a tribe or culture have no way of doing so. We’ve no place to hold or hear such feelings.
The students had never been exposed to a context within which they could voice their concern just as it was. Just like all of us!
They, like us, were left mute and unable to experience movement in their feelings around climate change.
This was so for every one of the 15 sustainability students. These were young people who are literate and bright and longing to be part of the solution. It’s hard to believe the rest of us who aren’t professionally interested in sustainability are better prepared.
While not hard data, this information is something more than anecdotal since the same result arises 15 times without interruption.
Let’s unpack some aspects of what may be happening here?.
The students had an impoverished palette for understanding system change. They’re hardly alone in this though it’s the nature of what they felt that they thought they were.
They didn’t have the experience they did because they’re emotionally stunted or different from other people. On the contrary, it’s because they were normal and ordinary that they felt that way. This lack of language to hold their experience simply reflects the way the public sustainability conversation is constructed. It’s likely that the experience of the students will apply to many or most climate change activists, all those who haven’t had extraordinary training.
But feelings need a living network of senders and receivers just like a language does. There can be no single speaker of “feeler,” not really. If there are no other ears to hear, no mouth that can respond, nothing can be said. A verbal language can’t be learned or spoken without others, even if those others are only implied. Language happens between speakers. It’s a shared syntax, a vocal code sent and received.
Feelings also need other “speakers,” in this case other feelers, to witness them so they can be well felt and become real. They’re expressions of the connection to the other, a kind of language in themselves.
Coming back to Heidi’s sustainability students, we can see why they’re inarticulate and confused around climate change. Of course they are! Of course we are! As a culture we’ve literally not developed a feeling-language for climate change or a place and time to speak it. The result is people have no socially approved way to express how they feel about climate change, even as it explodes like dark fireworks around them.
In Part 2 I’ll show how this cultural truth is set up for dramatic change and how the answer to the cultural blindspot may portend good news for all of us.
(Adapted from my soon-to-be book Evolutionary Blues: Discovering the Depths of Radical Change which goes out to reviewers next week. Exciting!)