by Alicia Hamann
Sarah Jaquette Ray’s A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet is an excellent resource for all who struggle with finding their place in the climate movement. Striking the right balance between remaining informed of our impending doom and engaging in meaningful action is difficult for all of us – but particularly so for those in what Sarah dubs the “climate generation”. This generation, which I like to extend a bit beyond GenZ (those born between the early 1990s and early 2000s) to include many millennials as well, is as Sarah puts it “uniquely affected by global warming [and] poised to organize and bring about real change.” Sarah’s book is relevant to every generation, but especially geared toward those in this generation who are faced with the longest road ahead dealing with societal ills they did not help create or support.
Sarah’s book is divided into eight chapters that each stand alone as helpful guides to things like cultivating and wielding emotional intelligence; understanding the stages and forms of eco-grief; scaling our actions; using compassion and social justice to bridge the political divide in climate justice efforts; avoiding the trope of meaningless hope; resisting burnout and nihilism; and envisioning the future we desire. I want to touch on a few topics I found most enlightening to my work as an environmental leader.
Understanding the role of emotions is incredibly important to inspiring effective action. While emotions like fear and anger play an important role in motivating us, neuroscience has taught us that they do not help us engage in rational thought. Rather, they make us more susceptible to impulsive behavior and manipulation. This is why tactics like “infowhelming” – inundating audiences with facts about our increasingly dire reality – are actually not helpful to inspiring engagement and action. As Sarah points out, the idea that there is an “information deficit” is a myth, and we should “bring to the job the tools that it requires, and stop pretending the issue is merely a battle between facts and alternative facts.”
So how do we cultivate the kind of emotional intelligence needed to meaningfully engage without suffering from guilt and nihilism? Sarah suggests we laugh more. Find the joy and love in what we are working to protect. I found her graphic below, the affective arc of environmental studies curricula, very helpful in understanding how to move past the hump of guilt and nihilism.
Sarah references author adrienne maree brown’s writing about “misery resistance” practiced in Black communities, and how expressing joy and love are used as forms of resisting oppression. While clearly a different magnitude, I think an appropriate comparison in the environmental movement is, as Sarah put it, to “practice green consumerism because it feels right – because you wish to – not because you’ll feel guilty if you don’t.”
Finally, to end with hope. As an environmental leader I have previously considered it necessary to end doom-ridden message with a note of hope – we saw X species on our game cam, or we filed a lawsuit which is likely to result in some form of statutory protection years down the road, or it finally rained and rivers are flowing. However, Sarah points out, as Greta Thunberg has famously done, that hope on its own is not our end goal. Hope will come when we have earned it – when we have made meaningful progress toward a future we can feel hopeful about. Until then, let’s not be distracted by hope, but rather inspired by this incredible planet and what it provides for us.