Harnessing Our Dark Optimism

Anna Fahey talks about the power of facing emotions about climate change.
Anna Fahey at Whidbey Climate Conference. Photo: Jim Carroll.

Anna Fahey at Whidbey Climate Conference. Photo: Jim Carroll.

Editor’s note: Wilderness guide, author, and activist Kurt Hoelting was one of the organizers of a recent Whidbey Institute conference for regional champions of climate solutions entitled “Calling the Choir To Sing.He’s been writing about the conference on his blog, Inside Passages: Conversations Around the Fire, including this post with his commentary and a transcript of the talk Sightline’s Anna Fahey gave at the conference. Many thanks to Kurt for letting us republish it here.

Anna Fahey, Sightline’s communications strategist, gave a powerful talk on “Tapping Into Dark Optimism.” Dark optimism, she says, is a term coined by Shaun Chamberlin to describe “our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential.” Anna consolidates many of the core ideas that I’ve tried to highlight in my writing, 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?

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?”

Here is the text of Anna’s moving “flash talk” to the fellow champions of climate change solutions who gathered on Whidbey Island on April 19:

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: “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 it at the same time. I feel that every day with climate change. 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. Maybe you do too. I witness this in my own colleagues as we uncomfortably joke about dire, scary climate impacts rather than having meaningful conversations around the office about what it actually means for ourselves and our kids.

So the problem is to move from 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, as someone mentioned earlier today—a pretty big deal, making solutions seem even more remote. 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.

But pushing this stuff away is the norm. Dave Roberts of Grist has said that talking about climate change is like farting at a cocktail party. (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 nothing will happen until everybody gets on board, but the intensity of the minority. In fact, an intensely committed minority can act as an amazingly powerful lever that shifts the rest of the population—or enough to shift the mainstream.

In fact, research shows that the tipping point, where a minority belief becomes a majority opinion is only 10 percent. Opinion research shows that we already have 10 percent 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 this means is that what we need is a core group—maybe slightly more than 10 percent, because of those pushers of doubt and all the other weird psychology around climate change—who feel the climate threat down to their bones (This also comes via Dave Roberts, who has done some of the best thinking and writing on how to move the needle toward solutions).

Luckily 10-20 percent is pretty do-able. Those people are already 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, then that honest emotional underpinning will give the song its force, its power, and can make 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 “making friends with fatalism.” The point is that this friendship can actually empower and embolden us, rather than dragging us down.

I’m going to close with some of Renee’s recommendations for starting this process of putting ourselves “on the couch,” 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 those times when we get to sink our teeth into something like coal exports or campus divestment. I think all this meaningful work at the local level has helped us break out of a rut, but facing deeper emotions is also a process that is going to help us learn how to bring others along with us.

Our intensity, and our emotions, and learning how to process all of that, is going to help us bring that 10 percent or that 20 percent of the population along with us with the same level of conviction and emotion.

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


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  1. Paragon says:

    Did anyone get this on video? Or youtube? Would have liked to seen it; the crowds responses, Q & A, etc.

  2. Shaun Chamberlin says:

    Thanks for this Anna (and Kurt).

    On a similar theme, I thought this article by Anne Karpf in the UK press was rather good, on those among us who don’t deny climate change, but sort of ignore it:


  3. James Adcock says:

    Well, I try to keep a couple thoughts in mind: 1) Someone has to speak the truth. As an engineer I see myself as an applied scientist. When some politician, “Christian”, or activist — for or against — says “Well you can just strap these plastic wings on a pig and make it fly” I believe I have an obligation to say: “No you can’t, actually.” — even though that makes me unpopular with the politician, the “Christian” AND the activists BOTH for and against. 2) Even tiny little partial successes represent saving millions of human beings from death or untold suffering, including watching their children starve to death, die of heat exhaustion, or from lack of water. 3) Even ONE American [could it be you?] changing their own personal behavior saves the lives of about 5 other human beings, today or in the future. 4) The morality of one’s actions is not dependent on the morality, or lack thereof, of one’s neighbors. If you live in the land of pirates, does that make it “OK” to be a pirate? What if you live in the land of ax-murderers? Should you also be an ax-murderer? You personally choose to live a moral life, and then encourage others to do likewise. Living a moral life is NOT a sacrifice. Rather, it is a privilege. Pity your poor fellow human being who believe they cannot afford to live a moral life, but rather believe they are somehow forced to live in an immoral manner. Really? And Why? 5) SOMEONE has to speak the truth in a democracy. Its not going to be the politicians, and it certainly hasn’t been the news media. SOMEONE has to speak the truth. How about if it be YOU ?

    • Richard Pauli says:

      I blame the age of computers – since the computational rule is to radically restructure and redistribute everything – including ethical culpability.

      So instead of politicians or carbon fuel companies accepting responsibility and halting, taxing or warning – instead the benefits and burdens are widely distributed as cheap carbon fuels. Heck, I love cheap gas, but a car puts out about a pound of CO2 per mile. And planes, taxis and private buses are not much better. The guilt, blame and responsibility is fractured into millions of tiny pieces, where nothing other than unanimous change or doom is possible. Gone is the ethical power of government, companies or product liability. It is now redistributed from producers to consumers.

  4. Richard Pauli says:

    The wonderful thing about global warming is that it is an equal opportunity destroyer.

    Those who hold vast wealth and power cannot dodge this bullet. The 1% have very little advantage over the poorest — maybe a few more months of comfort, or the ability to migrate to locations of the last calamities (hey the Pacific Northwest is perfect!)

    The problem is not global warming – because it’s just following the laws of physics. The real dark problem is the inability of humans to unify in fixing out life support systems.

  5. Stef Frenzl says:

    If you would like to go deeper with this idea, check out Joanna Macy’s work. She has been a pioneer in this work for the past 40 years, and is one of the movements true elders. There is also a local group in Seattle called Great Turning Seattle that meets monthly to address the real grief that arises by looking at the state of our world in the face, and provide powerful tools for how to use the “dark optimism” to keep your fire lit. Great stuff. Check out Great Turning Seattle on Facebook if you’re interested and want to check it out. Thanks!

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