Max St John – Why we all need to stop worrying about climate change (and what to do instead)
I’m writing this from my little desk in my children’s ‘reading room’ (where we also keep the xbox). I’m surrounded by their books, piled up on shelves, scattered on the floor. ‘Brave Bitsy and the Bear’ gawps at me as I tap at the keyboard and, if I glance out of the window, I can see a picture perfect view of spring in rural Cornwall.
And this morning I read about the collapse of the insect population, decimation of soil productivity and saw — for the fifth (or is it sixth?) time — someone share that post by academic Marc Doll about how woefully positive the narrative on climate change is that we’ve been given by the IPCC.
And in the room next door, my four-year-old (who wants to be a dog) and seven-year-old (who wants to be a marine biologist or live in Minecraft, I can’t be sure which) are fast asleep.
Personally speaking, it’s hard not to feel worried and stressed about climate change.
For most of the summer last year I carried round this edgy feeling, a sense I was already living in a dystopian nightmare.
Somewhere inside me I think I’d already given up. Resigned myself to the collapse of civil society and eradication of so much of life on earth.
Along with this, a sense that I’d been deeply irresponsible bringing my children into such a world.
Given that you’ve chosen to read this, I wouldn’t be surprised you have experienced or are going through something similar.
The reason I’m writing is that I feel that I’ve come to a different place with it all, and I want people to know that the narratives we’re sharing and behaviours we’re encouraging in each other are potentially working against us.
What I want to tell you might be difficult to read. It might be triggering. And if it is, that’s probably a good thing.
What I want to tell you is that the anxiety we’re producing for ourselves — while it feels very much justified — could be a symptom of everything we’ve been doing ‘wrong’ and is making things worse.
And the alternative isn’t inaction but instead wiser action.
Hear me out.
Stressing ourselves into consumption
Like me today, many of us are being constantly bombarded by facts, figures and narratives that tell us our days on earth are numbered, that it’s our fault and that it’s also largely out of our control.
This is impossible for any human being to process and still remain calm. Things that present a threat trigger us into a stressed state. When we feel helpless in the face of that threat, everything gets much worse for us.
In this stressed state we change physiologically — we become more problem-focused and look for other people or things to blame.
This is a function of our evolutionary development. In more precarious times it’s been critical in keeping us alive but in this instance it’s not helping.
When we enter this state we are incapable of thinking creatively or compassionately. We look for quick fixes, easy solutions and bad guys.
We also want to consume more. We crave salt, sugar, fat, simple carbs. We’re not hungry it’s just that our bodies are gearing up for the fight or the flight.
And as a result of these changes, in this state none of us are fit to act wisely. We haven’t got a hope of addressing complex problems or creating a future fit for everyone.
The difficulty is that in this state we feel utterly compelled to act. The function of the state is to deal with the perceived problem — to flood our bodies with stress hormones so that we can do whatever it takes to make it go away.
The sneaky thing is that we might not even realise that this is going on, because we’ve got so used to it.
It’s not just the obvious, adrenaline-infused headspins I’m talking about, triggered by a stranger shouting abuse or being chased by a dog.
What I’m seeing all around me is people operating at a low level of stress and anxiety, triggered by perpetual busyness and information overload.
It’s almost like our lives are being engineered this way. Cuts to benefits, dismantling of free healthcare, Government openly allowing the majority of wealth to be passed on to those who are already most wealthy.
And we seem to be ‘happily’ participating in making life more stressful — busying ourselves into the ground, glorying in our busyness and our achievements from it. Actively choosing to consume news that makes us angry and fearful.
This news now includes a constant feed of existential threats, taking many of us to an extreme level of baseline stress.
Given the challenge we’re facing — one that’s complex, systemic and long-term, if we carry on acting from this place we’re going to really screw it up.
Not because we’re stupid or bad, we’re just on the wrong setting.
How we got here in the first place
Climate change and the destruction of our ecosystems seem to be the result of persistent, rampant over-consumption.
This is because our modern society is a consumer society. It’s based on one simple idea: that consuming will meet your needs.
We’re educated to work, so we can earn money, so we can pay for things things so that we create jobs, so people can work… and so on.
To keep this going we’re told that if we don’t consume the products and services offered to us then life will be more uncertain and we’ll be less than we need to be — loveable, sexy, successful.
Once upon a time religion and spirituality would have played a more active role in our lives and, at its best it would have reassured us that ‘you are enough, you are loved, have faith’.
Conveniently religion has been made the enemy of rationality and the domain of nutjobs, so consumerism has helpfully stepped in to take its place and shore us all up against our insecurities.
Its message is instead: you are not enough, you are not loved, there is no reason to have faith but — lucky for you —here are some things you can buy to make you feel better.
Some of them we know are bad for us: smoking, alcohol, fatty, processed foods.
Others we think are harmless but still serve to numb us: Netflix boxsets, gym subscriptions, smartphones.
And some masquerade as the answer but are really just part of the same system — insurance policies, private healthcare and the multi-billion dollar ‘wellness’ industry.
None of these things can or will ever meet our unmet needs for love, connection or trust in the world so we continue consuming, throwing more things into the bottomless pit inside.
We try and do it consciously. New industries pop up to give us what we want without the guilt — sustainably sourced, vegan, fairtrade — but even aside from the minefield that is working out whether it’s really ‘sustainable’, it’s still built on the same system.
A system built on a disconnection from your needs, that can never leave you satisfied with who you are and the world around you.
The future is not a zero sum game
We’re being led to believe that the society we’ve built has to ‘collapse’ if we’re to save the world.
The message is that all the things you rely on to keep you safe: jobs, booze, Netflix, specialty coffee, vegan sausage rolls (etc) are no longer part of a viable future fit for everyone.
The sense is that when these things disappear, life will be unbearable. That we’re going to turn on each other.
We’re presented with a binary choice — save the planet and live a miserable existence, or accept that some populations (plant, animal, human) will have to act as collateral damage to ensure a quality of life that vaguely resembles our current one.
I believed this until a good friend of mine, Charles Davies, said:
“The more we let go of, the more truthful we are, the closer to nature and reality — and our own creativity — that we get, the more beautiful life becomes.
This whole thing of it being ‘a trade-off’ or ‘tough choices’ is based on our current lifestyle being awesome and the future being a kind of worthy ascetic hardship. And that story needs to be stabbed in the head.”
And I thought: Dammit, he’s right.
We’re being fed — and feeding each other— a lie.
The lie is not that we won’t have to radically change the way we live, or that many people (some of the most vulnerable) will experience severe economic hardship and loss.
The lie is that the future *has* to be worse than the present from the perspective of human experience.
The lie is that letting go of our current way of living is a bad thing.
How about we dismantle that lie?
In my experience we seem to be more unhappy than ever before. More physically and mentally ill. More divided than ever. More stressed about our impact on the world.
And yet we are told that taking apart the trappings of the world that create these outcomes is a bad thing.
We tell each other almost gleefully: you need to be scared! This way of life we have can’t go on!
Be scared? Who on earth wants this way of life to go on??
Our current model of relating and cooperating is built on a model of disconnection.
Educated and co-erced into disconnecting from our needs in order to be good participants in a consumer society.
And (as I was reminded in a conversation Brendan Montague, Editor of the Ecologist website) that it’s this disconnection from ourselves that leads to the disconnection from each other that in turn leads to disconnection from our environment — which is the only thing that has enabled us to create the extractive, destructive system we have in place.
Disconnected from your needs. Seeing others as threats or problems to be dealt with. Walking around with a tightness in your chest because you feel the world our kids are growing up in is being trashed.
Numbing ourselves with dopamine hits from glass screens between consuming things we don’t need to make ourselves feel semi-satisfied for five minutes.
No. What meets our needs is connection.
Connection to ourselves, to others and the world around us.
Feeling at home in our own skin, having meaningful relationships and being friendly with our neighbours. Creating things that feel like they matter, with like-minded people. Being in natural environments, caring for living things.
These are what help us sleep at night, that make us feel whole.
They are also the enemy of consumer society, which is why it’s evolved to reduce their prevalence in our lives.
When we get these needs met we stop throwing endless consumer products, services and experiences into the void that can’t be filled.
And when we stop doing that, we start creating a different kind of world together.
I’m not saying that we don’t also need to make clear and difficult choices about the lives we live.
Personally I turned down two jobs last year because they were with companies that were involved in promoting consumerism in an active way.
I’m self-employed and so is my partner. I earn nearly half of what I did a few years ago working in take-every-job-that-comes-along-regardless-of-what-they-do-because-I-am-a-freelancer mode.
We don’t always meet our overheads. It can seem pretty precarious (financially speaking) at times.
But two things make this a choice that I can stand firm with.
Firstly, this way of life has put me firmly back in the role of active parent and community member. I’m more available for my kids, I’m more involved in their lives. I volunteer at the local school and I help to run wilderness sessions for Dads and kids some weekends.
Nothing money could buy will give me what this gives me.
Secondly, I have found that in order to do anything different requires me to disconnect from my needs again. It takes a kind of energy that I’m no longer willing to spend. My kids and my neighbours can have that instead.
I’m not for a second judging anyone else’s choices. We’re all doing the best we can to get our needs met. There are reasons I’m able to do this and others might not, and there are many (many) things about my life which I know are very unsound, ecologically speaking.
Away from stress, towards connection
Given all this, ‘concious consumerism’ and ‘green new deals’ will never offer the solution we need if they are built on the fundamental idea of citizen is as consumer, working to earn, earning to spend, spending to consume etc.
I think the fundamental answer lies instead in rebuilding our lives around connection.
And this has to start with coming down from our persistent, stressed state.
If we are facing complex, systemic challenges we need to be able to bring our full capacity and creativity.
We need to be able to see and hold multiple perspectives, cross divides and have healthy conflict.
None of this is possible if we continue to stoke the fires of stress and anxiety in ourselves and each other.
My invitation is to recognise that any time you’re looking for quick solutions, or people to blame that you’ve lost your way.
To see that looking after your mental health, staying calm, being open-hearted is the most subversive act of our time.
Recognise that if you would love other people to live in a certain way or see the world from a different perspective, this is only going to happen if they sense you’re not judging them to be wrong.
Know that the thing that’s most firmly under your control is how you show up for your children, your neighbours and your wider community.
This rules nothing out — from this place we can still protest, dismantle, subvert.
You might still feel this is far too measured: “There’s a fight on our hands — a fight for our children’s future! How can you be so irresponsible?”
As a martial artist, ex-doorman and someone who’s been in a few violent confrontations I can tell you with certainty that if there is a fight, it’s not the angry, anxious person who wins.
It’s the person who is very, very calm. Who is totally present and has no sense of wanting to hurt you. They are very comfortable using whatever means necessary but without malice or pleasure, simply because it gets everyone to a better place.
It’s already happening
I can already see a growing recognition that connection, inclusion, creativity and celebration are the keys to a genuinely better future.
You can see it in the best of the climate protests — garden bridges, calm nonviolent protest , dancing police officers.
People are slowly but steadily finding that their real needs are met more consistently in self-awareness and relationship than they are in quick fix consumption.
We can’t all join a five-day protest and we’re not all ready to sit in a circle and talk about our feelings but that’s not what’s being asked of us.
The invitation is to start building the new society from inside each of us.
Resisting the urge of distraction and consumption, rejecting the voices (inside and out) calling for us to divide ourselves, not taking in any more information that will stress us out.
Instead showing up to each conversation with family, neighbours and community with genuine willingness to engage in something different, knowing that it’s one of the most likely paths to a better future.
To be a calm, loving human, raising calm, loving kids (if you have them) and fostering a calm, loving society.
Even if that means dismantling a load of stuff in the process.
My name is Max. I show people how to listen to their needs, realise their ideas and deal with all the conflict that shows up in their lives with skill and ease. I do this from my smallholding in the rural Southwest of the UK.