"Tapping Into Dark Optimism" - Whidbey Institute Climate Conference

In my blog post this week I want to share more of the inspiring words spoken at our Whidbey Institute Climate Conference entitled "Calling the Choir To Sing", that took place on April 19th.

Anna Fahey, Communications Strategist at Sightline Institute, gave a powerful talk on "Tapping Into Dark Optimism". Dark optimism, she says, "is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential." She consolidates many of the core ideas that I've tried to highlight in this blog, in a wonderfully condensed and heartfelt way, from the perspective of a dedicated policy professional. How, for example, do we get people exactly like 'me' to care about climate change, if I'm not really facing the hard truth myself? How do we harness the necessary intensity within our movement that has proven so elusive? And how do we confront the difficult emotions that our climate crisis evokes in all of us, with courage and resilience rather than fear and avoidance?

Here is the text of Anna's moving "flash talk" to fellow climate activists:

"[As a communications specialist with Sightline Institute] I usually hand people well-researched talking points and tell them to repeat them as many times as they can, and then go on my way. Here I want to talk about our personal, emotional relationship with climate change, beginning with the question of “how do we get people exactly like 'me' to care about climate change? I'm talking about people who already care a lot, but not quite enough to be really angry, or sad, or energized or motivated. I understand this problem, because when I look at my own three year-old daughter, I almost never allow myself to think about climate change in her future. I don't dare. It's too hard. Maybe you know the feeling.”

“Psychoanalysts tell us that we can both know something and not know something at the same time. Even for someone like me who is steeped in climate policy and climate science day-in and day-out, I find it extremely difficult not to push that emotional part away. I feel that every day with climate change. Maybe you do too. I witness this in my own colleagues as we uncomfortably joke about climate impacts rather than having those deep, meaningful conversations around the office about what it actually means for ourselves and our kids.

“So the problem is to move from the intellectual acknowledgement of the crisis to a more emotional place, and I think that starts with us. I mean, if WE can't do it, how can we help other people do it, right? If we let down our guard, we may feel helpless, skeptical, jaded, sad or afraid. We certainly feel a little bit lost when we think about democracy being broken – a pretty big deal. To cope and stay sane, we have to sort of ignore. This tension between knowing and not knowing makes our job pretty hard, the job of pushing for policy solutions, and getting other people – a bigger percentage of the population – to stop ignoring as well. We have to do it ourselves before we can ask others to join us. . . Dave Roberts of Grist has said that talking about climate change at a cocktail party is like farting. (laughter) You're laughing because you've experienced this too. It's basically a taboo. It's not discussed in polite conversation. . .

"But rather than changing the subject, many scholars looking at the psychological dimensions of climate change are suggesting that we actually talk about it more, talk about the seriousness, and talk about the emotions. This is important not only for our own mental health, but because what drives social change isn't necessarily broad-based support – like everybody has to get on board, but the intensity of the minority. An intensely committed minority can act as a lever that moves larger populations. In fact, research shows that the tipping point, where a minority belief becomes a majority opinion is only 10%. . . Opinion research shows that we already have 10% when it comes to climate change, but I think that that intensity is not there – certainly not the level of intensity that we see among the climate deniers, or the pushers of doubt. So what we need is a core group - maybe more than 10%, because of those pushers of doubt - who feel the climate threat in their bones. And luckily 10%-20% is pretty do-able. Those people are already sort of with us. But the feeling part is really hard. So I'm not alone in thinking that this starts with us, with people like me, allowing ourselves to feel this in our bones – which is scary, but it could actually give us strength. If we are a choir singing, that emotional underpinning gives the song its force, its power, and makes our voices stronger.

"A colleague of mine, Renee Lertzman from Portland, who is a researcher in climate and psychology . . . draws from a tradition called “engaged Buddhism”. She talks about bearing witness – not pushing away our despair and our concern, but relating with it as evidence of our vitality, our commitment and our humanity. She calls it “becoming friends with despair.” That friendship can actually empower and embolden us, rather than dragging us down.

"I'm going to close with Renee's recommendations for starting this process . . . , and allowing ourselves to have those feelings that are so hard.

  •  The first is to pay attention to your feeling and thoughts. Notice when you judge or stifle your own feelings.
  • Speak and write about those feelings. Break that cocktail party taboo.
  • Listen to friends and colleagues, and practice creating space for feelings, rather than downplaying or joking about those feelings.
  • Identify people you can talk to about your emotions without fear of judgment, or being considered too negative.
  • Create support forums in your social or workplace networks - (that's what we're doing today).
  • Recognize that these emotions do not negate the power and importance of the work that we do. It's natural and normal. And it's important to remember that it saps more of our energy to suppress this stuff than it does to let it out . . . there is liberation and freedom in letting out those feelings.

"And I'll add to Renee's list that we need to hold others, and maybe especially our leaders and our media, accountable – but also ourselves - accountable for the seriousness and the emotion that's involved in this. Don't let them dismiss or sideline it.

"And we need to celebrate our victories. Celebrate this community, and celebrate when we get to sink our teeth into something like coal exports or campus divestment. I think all this has helped us break out of a rut, but it is also a process that is going to help us learn how to bring others along with us. So our intensity, and our emotions, and learning how to process all of that, is going to help us bring that 10% or that 20% of the population along with us.

“Dark Optimism” is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential, and I think we can harness that."


Why do Anna's words matter? Because we are in this for the long haul, and it will take all the emotional intelligence and personal courage we can muster to stay with the truth of this crisis as it continues to unfold.

This week a number of global CO2 monitors recorded 400 ppm (parts per million) for the first time. This is a huge symbolic threshold, a "dark truth". The last time we had this concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was several million years ago. 350 ppm is now considered by many scientists to be the upper limit to sustain civilized human life on earth. In other words, "If not now, when? If not us, then who?"