7.5 billion ways to be radical

Guest post: Imagine, there are 7.5 billion ways to be radical in response to the nature crisis

By Stephen Woroniecki

We are in a world wracked by crisis. The headlines arrive day by day. Species extinction. Plastic pollution. Climate breakdown. Economic inequality. What can one person do amidst such world-changing loss and damage?

The first reaction is to bury one’s head in the sand and carry on as if nothing was amiss. This is a fairly logical reaction to my mind. It allows one to carry on. There are of course usually a thousand more pressing concerns and head burying feels easy if you live in an echo chamber in which such fears are downplayed or denied. It feels even easier if the crises are talked about in abstract ways – distanced from real people and places, through widespread use of numerical estimates to gauge change.

The second reaction is to assume that everything will work itself out. This is often motivated through historical examples of how technology has enabled people to reach beyond limits that were otherwise considered insurmountable. However, people are starting to see through such a tech-fix mentality, since it is not producing the kind of transformative changes that we need across the board.

‘Trees display canopy shyness when they meet. Can we see this as a metaphor for how we grow together under one sky? Let’s make space for each other to breathe and come to terms with the way we see our worlds changing.’

‘Trees display canopy shyness when they meet. Can we see this as a metaphor for how we grow together under one sky? Let’s make space for each other to breathe and come to terms with the way we see our worlds changing.’

The next reaction is to proclaim the world has already ended. That there is nothing we can do, except embark on some kind of managed retreat, like the Elves in Lord of the Rings. The ‘shut down’ response to global environmental problems is no accident either. It is a hallmark of some of the discourse emanating from prominent Deep Adaptation authors like Jem Bendell and Roy Scranton. Young people are being told that there will soon be nothing left; in 20 years the world will be smouldering hell hole, along the lines of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Such powerlessness in the face of terrifying change is also encouraged by the dominant scientific approaches. According to some climate change models for instance, human beings are just predictable variables in a computer model. Our behaviour as human beings – the sum total of our capabilities and creativity – is often reduced to a simple coefficient; the Kaya identity, which says essentially that we boil down to nothing more than our consumption of energy.

What room within such tremendously huge issues and reductive storytelling, is there for human agency? What space is there for us to use that which marks us as uniquely human? We have the opportunity to devote time to exploring the limits of our minds. This gives us, in turn, the ability to understand our behaviour, to learn, and to communicate what we have learned and why and how we could change.

Prescriptions of denial or doom, or the anticipation of a tech-fix, close down the options we have to respond to the nature crisis. In fact we might look at these as symptoms of a crisis of imagination, which could then be seen as a key barrier to widespread and meaningful behaviour change. Even the ways of being ‘radical’ can be reduced to just a few straightforward pathways of action, such as joining a political party or changing consumer spending patterns; “Vote with your wallet”. Can we really say that such straightforward prescriptions for action bring forward the best in us? Do they unleash the potential that we all have to think and act differently; to diverge from the business as usual?

Donna Meadows famously used the metaphor of Leverage Points to describe the relative power of intervening at different points of a system. She left behind a legacy of intuitive wisdom to understand how one might approach the elements of a system one is part of, in order to change it.

Project Drawdown is a good example of how redrawing the possibilities of action enables a broader number of people to recognise themselves and their potential for action within transformative solutions to the nature crisis. The one hundred solutions to the climate crisis described in that project are just the tip of the iceberg, others exist too. Inspired by Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation work, and driven by Bendell himself, a ‘Positive Deep Adaptation’ movement is emerging. It seeks to nurture compassionate and collaborative, not competitive and conflictual, responses to climate change driven social collapse. It encourages us to imagine what a world freed from fossil fuels might look like, so that that world might materialise. By stepping forward into action, we change the game, and new vantage points become visible from which to act again.

Not all forms of action are created equal. What works in one place won’t work in another. The trick, wherever you are in the world, is to listen to what is going on around you and respond to that accordingly. Trust in the hearts of those around you. Listen to what worries them, and expect the same respect. Then, as best you can, practice the future you imagine together, all 7.5 billion of you.

Stephen Woroniecki is a Doctoral Candidate in Sustainability Science at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies. He is studying for a PhD in Climate Change Adaptation. His recent Guardian article on the intersections between social justice and tree planting was well received across the sector. You can follow Stephen on Twitter at @StephenWorniec.

The Glacier Trust is a UK registered charity (no. 1124955). We enable climate change adaptation in rural Nepal and work with Tribhuvan University (Kathmandu) to help develop the next generation of climate change adaptation professionals. You can support our vital work by following the link below.