Sometimes I wonder how I got picked for this job. I don’t remember applying for it, and I get paid very little to do it. It’s especially odd given how conflict-averse I am by nature. I hate standing out from the crowd. My need to fit in, to belong in my tribe, runs deep in my genes. So how is it that I keep coming back to the inconvenient truths no one seems to want to hear? I’ve spent years trying to dodge this calling as a reluctant prophet, but to no avail. I left the ministry thirty years ago in a vain attempt to damp it down. I was tired of hearing people tell me how guilty they felt because they hadn’t been coming to church – like I was some kind of ecclesiastical cop. That's not what I'd signed up for. But here it is again. These days I’m a climate activist, and my presence in the room is more likely to bring up comments about how guilty people feel because they’ve been driving so much, or because they just flew back from a vacation in Mexico. Like it’s my fault that they have to bother with all these guilty feelings. This is the part of the activist calling that can really make me grouchy. Mention climate change at any social gathering and it is a guaranteed conversation stopper every time. Which is especially odd, because I live in a liberal island enclave that prides itself on its progressive politics. Few members of my "tribe" dispute that climate change is real, or that there is an urgent need to transform the way we live. In fact one hears a lot on my island about "the Decisive Decade", "the Great Turning", the "Paradigm Shift", the dawn of a "New Story". At least one hears a lot about these things during the gaps between trips to Europe, Bali, and Costa Rica.
I was talking about this pervasive contradiction with a prominent Northwest climate activist recently. He pointed out that, “We are all climate science deniers when it comes to how we are living.” I found it refreshing to hear this dirty little secret acknowledged by a leader I respect in the climate community. We are all caught in the same web of contradictions, even those of us who are dedicating our lives to unsnarling those contradictions in the public and private sphere. We are all caught in the same gathering storm, of which we are both victim and perpetrator. It's no one's fault. The point of keeping this question before us is not to amplify the guilt, but to crack the code that uses guilt as a substitute for actual change. There is a huge amount of personal energy locked up in guilt and denial that can be liberated for use in constructive action and community-building. Guilt is the last thing I’m interested in – for myself or anyone else. Honest self-appraisal, yes, but that’s a different animal. I find it fascinating to probe this mystery of our human nature, that leads us to believe one story about who we are, and live a completely different one, even when to do so is flagrantly self-destructive.
Acknowledging this contradiction, even if it is uncomfortable, is a good fork in the road to pause at. Getting curious about what makes a truth so uncomfortable is a good first step on a more realistic and satisfying path. It is not the same thing as assigning blame. These contradictions are ancient ones - the need to belong to a tribe, the need to project blame away from ourselves by creating enemies to project it on, even our tendency to go after the messenger when the truth being delivered is an unwelcome one. As E.O. Wilson has argued, these tendencies are coded into our genes. They are responsible for our greatest successes as a species, as well as our greatest atrocities. Curiosity and humor about these ancient contradictions can help us ask the right questions, and dare to strike out in new directions. What are the "reassuring lies" that we are currently flocking to, in our vain attempts to avoid the inconvenient truth about our disintegrating climate? Barbara Kingsolver asks, “Is anyone thinking this through? In the awful moment when someone demands at gunpoint, ‘Your money or your life,’ that’s not supposed to be a hard question.”