Getting real about our environmental predicament

by Carolyn Baker

Dr. Susanne Moser is a climate researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz and author of numerous articles on environmental leadership, including Getting Real About it: Meeting The Psychological And Social Demands Of A World in Distress. After discovering this article I shared it far and wide because it articulates so much of what I have been writing and teaching. While the focus of the article is on environmental leadership, and although Moser casts this article in the light of climate change, it applies to all other global crises confronting our planet at this moment.

While grounded in hard science, Moser incorporates right-brain, intuitive exploration of the emotional and spiritual aspects of our predicament, not with an eye to providing us with a reassuring conclusion, but rather, to compelling us to “grow ourselves up,” a notion emphasized by ecopsychologist Bill Plotkin.

For example, here is a sobering quote from John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, cited from a 2010 issue of The Economist: Facing the menace of growing, human-caused disruption of global climate, civilization has only three options: mitigation (taking steps to reduce the pace and the magnitude of the climatic changes we are causing); adaptation (taking steps to reduce the adverse impacts of the changes that occur); and suffering from impacts not modified by either mitigation or adaptation. We are already doing some of each and will do more of all, but what the mix wilt be depends on choices that society will make going forward. Avoiding increases in suffering that could become catastrophic will require large increases in the efforts devoted to both mitigation and adaptation.

As Moser notes, this is a choice between two kinds of transitions which leave us with two or maybe one-an-a-half different scenarios for the future: “…one, in which we have done too little too late, resulting in our communities, economies, and the ecosystems we depend on being overwhelmed by the pace and magnitude of climate change, and all attendant losses and disruptions in the transition to that future, we will experience a range of essential systems degrading over time, or collapsing outright, but in either case shifting into completely altered states. In the other scenario we will act very soon and very fast and thus experience radical changes in our energy, transportation, industrial and food systems, with deep implications for everything else we do how and where we live, how and what we eat, how we get around, how we interact, how we work, and how we take care of our health and illnesses. in a span of merely a few decades we will de-carbonize our lives completely. And while this happens, we will still experience significant impacts of eliminate change already set in motion from past emissions, and which we are committed to (lags in the system make the second scenario really just a modification of the first).”

Obviously, the human species at large is in no way prepared for these scenarios. My work would not exist if it were, and my work does exist because about five years ago I realized that someone must focus on emotional and spiritual preparation for confronting the consequences of our predicament in a world where so few individuals are willing to “grow themselves up” and get real about what is so.

As stated above, Moser’s focus in this article is on environmental leadership, and so she asks what it will mean to be an environmental leader in a collapsing world. She searches for the proper metaphor such as “Be a steward, shepherd, arbiter, crisis manager, grief counsellor, future builder?

Her answer is that the environmental leader will probably need to be all of these, and this is precisely what I have intended as I have consistently written and spoken about becoming an elder – a metaphor that arises from my affinity with indigenous traditions and the role of the elder as a steward of the culture on many levels.

As I have stated often, an elder is not necessarily an “older” but is mature enough to “get real” about what is so and be the steward/shepherd/arbiter/crisis manager grief counsellor/future builder, or whatever metaphor we may choose to describe someone who has “grown themselves up” enough to face the truth of our predicament and utilize his/her gifts to be an elder for the culture.

Moser quotes Bill McKibben who says that “We must accept the fact that the world we have known is going to change in hideous and damaging ways.” When people first begin waking up they often panic and want to fix the situation immediately by doing nothing in their lives but focusing fiercely on it. Rather, Moser suggests, “… coming to grips with the reality we now are in takes time, and it is critical that we give it a quiet space inside ourselves, and that we ground ourselves in the face of it with any practices of balance we may already have or could adopt.

Here, this climate scientist is re-emphasizing what I so doggedly asserted in Navigating the Coming Chaos, namely that we must build what I call, our “internal bunker” through developing our inner world in preparation for navigating our external one and that we must work consciously and creatively with our human emotions to ground ourselves for interaction with a civilization in chaos. This takes time and commitment and, yes, you may protest that we don’t have the time. But I would ask – time for what? Time to save the world tomorrow?

In the first place, the world can’t be saved, and certainly, not tomorrow. Moreover, if you are genuinely “getting real,” then you know that many more millions will die during and after collapse than will physically survive. As Moser notes, the landscape you will find yourself in, once you allow this realization to take hold, is a different one. Despair lives there, along with helplessness and anger, fear and disorientation, undoubtedly also unspeakable sadness. You are likely to came to recognize that this is a new time. The time before was one in which we insisted and relied on hope, on better tomorrows, in the US on the “American Dream.” Now we have to accept that “better tomorrows” may not come. It is akin to accepting one’s own mortality, maybe a doctor’s prognosls of one’s impending death, but on a much grander scale” (my emphasis)

The moment we begin to consider our own mortality, we are in the territory of emotional and spiritual preparation for collapse, whether we want to go there or not. At that point we need someone or something to help us navigate all the so-called “negative” emotions that surface, and we need support for finding and making meaning in every aspect of our lives.

Thus, after this section of her article, Moser immediately introduces “grief work,” and I would add, work with fear, anger and despair. What all of this is about is connecting with our deepest humanity and the deepest humanity of our fellow earthlings.

So we need to stop focusing on physical survival and focus instead on transition from the old paradigm to the new one. Why? Because, Moser notes: The transition framing, with its inherent need to let go of the old, a time of the new not yet being farmed, and the vision of a desirable outcome, this archetype of change provides us with a roadmap. Just having one will be a helpful thing. lf sets an intention. it aids in recognizing markers along the way: the signs of decay, people’s emotional reactions to it, experiments as seeds, the road blocks and setbacks, the emergence of innovative ways that foster social, ecological, and cultural renaissance, and the spectre of an ending (even if it is beyond our own lifetime). Such a roadmap helps sustain the inordinate persistence, authentic hope, and unprecedented commitment to moral action that will be required of everyone even though the transition time is uncomfortable and dangerous. It will evoke a very different kind of behaviour than merely “confronting collapse.”

Moser asserts that we need to grow our capacity to be with our own distress and to be with other people in distress. So often I have stated that psychotherapy as we know it today will probably not exist in ten years and that it is likely to be eclipsed by people coming together to engage in deep listening and deep truth telling.

Equally essential will be our ability to hold the tension of opposites. Readers of my work are certainly familiar with that notion, articulated beautifully here in the words of Dr. Moser: A logical concurrent demand then an future leaders will be to hold the paradoxes with which we all need to deal: with what is here and now and what could be globally and in the future; the distresses and jays in front of us and the possibilities of better o{ worse yet to came; the grief over what is being lost and the gratitude for what we still have; the fears that are inevitable and the hopes that we need; the practical realities of daily life and the vision of systemic change. in fact, a deliberate practice of visioning in the face of the unravelling will be a critically important practice.

Getting real about our predicament also means a willingness to answer the call of leadership in helping to hammer out what Clinton Callahan calls “the next culture”. For this reason, building one’s isolated doomstead or underground bunker is not only profoundly dangerous, but astoundingly unrealistic.

In Navigating the Coming Chaos, I emphasize that we cannot enter collapse consciously without deeply exploring our life purpose, our gifts, and our emotional landscape. Emotional and spiritual preparation is inextricably connected with the questions: Who do I want to be in the face of collapse? and What did I come here to do? lf you understand anything about collapse and are no longer living in denial, you are already an elder. The question is: are you willing to claim that role and live your life purpose to the best of your ability in collapse? Are you willing to fully “grow yourself up”?

And thus, Susanne Moser concludes the article with this: There is nothing easy about the path of a true leader in these times. Accepting the responsibility of leadership will be a heavy burden, and those who take it on must help shape realistic expectations of what a leader can do. Clearly this is not the kind of leadership that one takes on for the glary, the lure. and prestige of a top position. No one, not even the leaders, will have all the answers, and pretending to have them will be quickly unmasked. in the difficult times ahead, people may want quick and easy fixes, but what will sustain you and them are not flip answers, but quiet wisdom (Badaracco 2002). Who, who indeed, will be those leaders? Inside you, a voice may make an answer to this question, to our ravenous, beautiful world.

Posted by Don Marshall with the permission of the author



  1. “We must accept the fact that the world we have known is going to change in hideous and damaging ways.”
    Let’s not overstate. That isn’t a fact–that’s a prediction based on certain assumptions. For instance, it assumes people and nations will be unable to respond to the challenge. I don’t buy that. I see our job to wake people up–and telling people, we’re doomed, we’re really doomed, oh the horror of it all, isn’t a particularly good way to do motivate them, in my opinion.

    1. Susanne Moser’s point is that society can act in one of two ways, either too little too late which leads to communities, economies and ecosystems being overwhelmed by the pace and magnitude of climate change, or soon and fast to change our energy, transportation, industrial and food systems. Carolyn Baker says that getting that message across effectively is the only way to wake people up and motivate them. I agree.

    2. Dear Neale, you raise two questions: 1) Is the collapse of civilization likely, by 2050? 2) If the answer to 1) is “yes”, is it beneficial or harmful to express this to those who haven’t considered this likelihood before?

      If we were still in the ’90’s I would answer 1) with a hopeful “no”. Remember, at the beginning of the 90’s, David Suzuki said ‘This is the turn-around decade (re climate change)’. In Al Gore’s ’92 book, he called for the equivalent of a Marshall Plan to move the world economy away from the very dangerous path we were on, and we are still on that “business as usual” path to collapse.

      Even with many countries meeting their Kyoto goals, the economic growth of Asian countries, and the profligate burning of fossil fuels in North America, Australia, and petro-states, the quantity of CO2 going up and staying in the atmosphere has increased year after year. We’ve been heading in the wrong direction, and Canada is among the worst.

      So now, in 2015, the answer to 1) is “yes”. The trajectory we are on WILL lead to the collapse of civilization, as we know it, by 2050 because 450 ppm CO2, the rough measure of what will lead to 2 degrees increase is ALREADY IN THE PIPELINE, even if we slammed the brakes on the Tar Sands, etc.) That’s a pretty safe prediction.

      UNLESS we continually pump a lot of SO2 into the upper atmosphere AND tighten our belts worldwide to reduce the frivolous consumption of fossil fuels and possibly the border line “necessary” consumption (e.g. flying, eating beef, pets, driving alone, etc). Reducing population in high per-capita consumption countries (e.g. Canada) is also important.

      The second question: Should we tell anyone how bad things are, and that the time to make major changes is imminent (or may have already passed) before positive feedback loops kick in and make it virtually impossible to stop runaway global warming?

      At one point, a few years ago, David Suzuki answered “no”. Because then people will stop trying and collapse will become a self fulfilling prophecy. Because without hope, hedonistically burning fossil fuels becomes more likely for more people: “What’s the point of conserving?”

      Another reason for saying “no” is that all predictions are based on what we know now, or what we can now imagine. But there is always the possibility of the known unknown (e.g. small safe fusion reactors), and even the unknown unknown (what we cannot imagine).

      Personally I’m hoping for an unpredicted technological breakthrough. The problem is, will it come soon enough to ramp up quickly and remove any need for fossil fuels (even for airplanes and helicopters)? And then, what will be the reaction of the owners of stranded assets?

      Well, the answer to the latter question is simple, if expensive. Buy them out. With what? With the carbon taxes raised since UN COP 21 in Paris, 2015–this coming December. We must absolutely ensure that the Canadian government by December is willing to catch up to the rest of the world in actions to reduce our per-capita fossil fuel consumption, painful as that might be in the short run.

      In a more egalitarian, more democratic Canada, more people could be happier and even healthier.

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