Fire, Denial, and Hope

Othello Canyon, British Columbia.

As the west coast burns and fires erupt around the world, news headlines paint an eerie landscape of our future as smoke chokes the planet. Experts are confident that these events are just a glimpse of what’s to come as we get ready for more extreme weather conditions, unreliable rainfall, violent storms, reduced agriculture, and increasing deaths. As if this wasn’t enough, we also face a long list of social, economic, and political issues.

Homelessness, racism, and isolation are just symptoms that indicate something is very wrong and getting worse as more people around the world are thrown into uncertainty. It doesn’t help when Paul Gilding tells us to stop worrying about climate change and that we need to brace for impact, or when David Attenborough and Jane Goodall tell us that the earth would be better off with less than a billion people, or when the U.S. Department of Defense predicts confidently that there will be more climate change induced wars in the next 15 years. Is there any wonder why so many people are anxious and in denial?

We have a growing list of global problems and one of the largest is that we require about fifty percent more earth to sustain our current way of life. Distribution is only part of the problem. While we talk a good story about how we can gently transition to a highly efficient, knowledge-based economy transformed by science and technology this is likely magical thinking. It seems more likely that when the carbon bubble bursts, financial markets will spiral out of control, there will be more wars, collapsing governments, shortages of food and water, and huge unemployment around the world. While Project Drawdown may provide the blueprint, significant change is not likely to occur until something awful happens. Perhaps Rilke is right that great sadness brings us closer together.

While climate changes become more severe the instability of our world is no longer out of sight and out of mind as we run out of resources and one billion people come looking for a new home. We shake our heads and wring our hands over growing homelessness around the world, refugee camps and children in cages, but we tolerate them to the degree that they become normalized. The path ahead is indeed a daunting one. Perhaps David Whyte is correct when he says that “denial is underestimated as a state of being. Denial is an ever-present and even a splendid thing when seen in the light of its merciful and elemental powers to cradle and hold an identity until it is ready to move on. Faced with the depth of loss and disappearance in the average life, a measure of denial is creative, necessary and self-compassionate: children are not meant to know they will one day die and older adults are never meant to tell them. Refusing to face what we are not yet ripe and ready to face can help us to live in the present.”

It’s easy to understand why many people embrace denial rather than give in to fear and hopelessness. That denial comes in many shapes and sizes or “faces” is not surprising. Whyte believes that most human beings are at war with reality at least fifty percent of the time. He speaks of walking into our lives fully, and that when we do so we start to realise that we have manufactured three abiding illusions; that we can somehow construct a life where we are not vulnerable; that we can somehow be immune to all the difficulties of ill health and losses of the natural world; and that somehow we can plan our way to the end. These illusions can be for ourselves as well as our community, whether locally or globally as denial is pervasive.

Climate change is only one pathway that may invite new conversations. Climate change, colonialism, capitalism, racism, poverty, hunger, overconsumption, and other issues are all part of what Naomi Klein calls a “five-alarm fire.” The anxiety and stress that comes with how to fight these fires and our inner dissonance and denial can be overwhelming. Can we save ourselves without something disruptive happening that forces us to change? What must occur within each of us first before we turn our attention outward?

While disheartening, it seems that the public needs to be presented with a different message to be moved to action. Conversations with many different thinkers and activists speak to an urgency, as well as a need, to change our divisive discourse from liberal or conservative, right or wrong, good or bad, and broaden the edges of these dialogues. Meg Wheatly urges people to get more involved in their communities and get to know their neighbours. While the doing is important, finding entry points into a conversation that open hearts and then minds seems an essential part of this process. Paul Graham suggests in The Hierarchy of Disagreement that while divisiveness has spread throughout our society there is a way to move public debate forward without invoking anger and shutting down conversations. His Hierarchy of Disagreement provides an outline of understanding in what happens in conversation’s and how to recognize new entry points.

American Journalist and author, Krista Tippet, suggests that there is an art in starting new kinds of conversations that create new departure points and outcomes. She urges that we let go of old habits that are ingrained in establishing winners and losers. This may have its place and value in civil society, but it can get in the way of caring about each other. Alternately, exploring the world with generous listening and asking better questions to start new kinds of conversations can change hearts and minds. When we ask beautiful, heartfelt questions we open up a conversation and reach beyond veils of doubt and defences.

The silver lining in the irrationality that has descended on the U.S. has sparked a growing movement to promote scientific evidence and science-based solutions through thousands of daily conversations and initiatives around the world. As technologies change, fossil fuels, mining exploration, government corruption, social justice, and human rights are coming under more scrutiny. Nuclear power costs more to build and operate than to decommission while renewable energy sources are gaining momentum, albeit slowly. As humans become more self-aware it seems more important than ever to get off the couch and join movements large and small, to march, walk, talk, and get busy changing conversations in homes, workplaces, schools, houses of worship, and perhaps most importantly, our hearts. These conversations are not just about climate change but about how we treat each other, animals, and our planet. Regardless what the face of denial may look like, it would seem that the way to reach it is not just with facts and figures or more information, but with a genuine curiosity and caring through deeper conversations. Jonathan Haidt, Andrew Hoffman, and others suggest that asking beautiful questions that open conversations may allow us to build bridges and move from denial to action changing each other and our world.

There are unsuspecting movements, acts of bravery, activism, and love that may carry the day. The chaos theory deals with complex systems whose behaviour is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions where the smallest alterations can give rise to great consequences. Similarly, we know from history that social, cultural, or political change does not work in predictable ways or on predictable schedules. Humans don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and in that uncertainty, there must be room for hope. There have been great moral causes that have advanced humanity’s prospects that have all been based on hope and fundamental truths that were resisted and denied and fought against. Some examples include the abolition movement, the women’s suffrage movement and the broader women’s rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the effort to stop the toxic phase of the renewed nuclear arms race, gay and trans rights, and more recently, the gun control demonstrations that started in Florida.

Is it possible to prepare for climate change and avert the worst effects of it? Perhaps, but to do so, we need to understand why climate change is happening and to make informed choices as individuals and communities based on scientific evidence and our ability to reframe a new definition of the good life. We need to be able to confront our frailties and be open to challenge our beliefs. Information alone is not enough for us to choose appropriate policies and strategies to prepare our society for the changes that are well underway. Without understanding the basic causes and various complexities of climate change and ourselves, we will be unable to make informed decisions that will affect generations to come. This crisis is about much more than the science. Humans are being asked to go deeper, to find that existential part we play in change and how all of us can make a difference.

One of my first and, ironically, last interviews for this project was with Tzeporah Berman. She is a Canadian activist known for her work in Clayoquot Sound and Burnaby Mountain, former Greenpeace director, and author of This Crazy Time. She shared a story about returning from the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 which was a “disaster” as countries could not reach a global agreement, and scientists and experts from around the world were crying as the latest reports about the earth’s climate were devastating. She pointed out that the UN Secretary-General opened the conference by saying that “we either do a deal here, or we are sentencing humanity to oblivion!” Returning home depressed and thinking we are doomed, she wound up spending time with her ninety-year-old grandmother and shared her disappointment. Her grandmother smiled warmly and reminded her of how much the world had changed in her lifetime and that she was confident that the world will change even more in hers and that these issues can be addressed. Tzeporah admitted that when she gets overwhelmed, she is reminded of this loving moment with her grandmother. She is now certain that when she speaks to her grandchildren “about this crazy time in history,” she is convinced that “they won’t believe her, as the world will be such a different place from when we dug in the ground to get oil, chopped down the last old growth forest to make catalogues, or that we actually filled our cars with gas.” Prior to turning the microphone off as our second interview came to an end, I asked Berman if she was still as optimistic as her grandmother while demonstrating against the Kinder Morgan pipeline and she replied, “more than ever!”


Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding. .

Rebecca Solnit