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The Understory: Issue Twenty-Two
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I have a story to tell you. It has not been written by my hand, but feels like one that was imprinted on my imagination from birth. Perhaps it was imprinted on yours too.
“Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism—all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant, and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”
What do you hear in this story, and how are you feeling after hearing it? Did you find kinship and comfort? Or did it trigger anger and resentment? What you feel based on this narrative has little to do with the actual words, and more to do with their encoded values.
This story of “Liberal Progress” is one of two parts of the “grand narrative” described by Christian Smith in Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (2009). It is the narrative of industrialized capitalism that emerged out of the Enlightenment and also the HOPE narrative of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign that captured the global imagination in 2008. While this might not be your personal “grand narrative,” it is one of the prevailing narratives circulating in our world with inscribed values that determine how we understand our relationships to each other, to our governments, to our organizations, and to all the life that surrounds us. These narratives determine what becomes enshrined in policy and law, and the moral boundaries of what is permissible in a society. These narratives are often the invisible forces underneath whether a conversation feels connective or strained with someone else. Identifying and understanding personal narratives is key to building deep and authentic relationships with others.
In The Understory I try to balance the importance of building relationality with the human and more than human world. Through verbal, reflective, and somatic conversations, we grow our tendrils of connection much the way roots extend in nutrient-rich soil. I am convinced that expanding and deepening interconnection provides the roots from which our climate journey blossoms. What we need more of right now—even more than further scientific findings about climate change—is more connective conversations. While climate conversations can often feel challenging and intimidating, we have decades of research into how to most productively engage in them. We are no longer flying blind or relying on generic conversational research. Rather, we have evidence-based findings that can guide us and provide comfort and confidence.
Issue Twenty-Two focuses on the importance of climate conversations, and how we can engage in them with greater frequency and precision to transcend competing cultural narratives and partisanship. Climate conversations must first and foremost be emotional ones—spaces of empathic listening and genuine curiosity that centre on values rather than facts. In my own journey to lead more effective personal and group climate conversations, I am grateful to a deep body of research and an ongoing relationship with leaders in this field such as Renée Lertzman, Leslie Davenport, Gabriel Grant, Andrew Hoffman, and Sally Weintrobe, whose work on this topic has greatly influenced me and is infused throughout this essay. They have taught me that to be effective climate communicators we don’t need to become students of all the “grand narratives” of the world’s cultures; we need to become active listeners in trying to understand and communicate within them. In the essay, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned in hopes of inspiring you to ignite more frequent and deeper climate conversations within your own circles.
Climate Conversations Begin Within
When considering how we can affect the change we hope to see in the world, our thinking and efforts often turn to how we can influence others. This theory of change assumes personal readiness. In actuality that is seldom the case as discussed in past Understory issues on attention, awe, ways of knowing, us vs. them, sacrifice, equality, reciprocity, grief, hope, and distortions. What can often get dismissed as a selfish luxury of focusing on one’s self is now understood as the vital first step in being an effective change agent. How we show up to a conversation and relationship is just as important or perhaps even more important than what might get said. And so it is upon each of us wanting to make broader change to first begin that change process in ourselves.
In Breaking Through Gridlock (2017), Jason Jay & Gabriel Grant challenge us to reconsider our values around authenticity and consistency. Being authentic is often defined as being consistent with what we’ve said and done before. By narrowing authenticity to consistency, we hold ourselves back from creating a new future by literally entrenching ourselves in the past. Jay & Grant describe this type of authenticity as static—frozen so as to create an impermeable layer that prevents new experiences, information, and people from penetrating our points of view. Their recommendation is to embrace a “dynamic authenticity” which means “striving to be consistent with the world we want to create and being honest about our inconsistencies.
Many of us have adopted practices that shield our inner conflicts in personal and professional situations for fear that they will be perceived as signals of weakness or inconsistency. However, by acknowledging and sharing our internal conflicts, we open the space within ourselves to grow and simultaneously create spaces of vulnerability that create the conditions for much richer conversations with others. Here is how the authors illustrate static versus dynamic authenticity:
Seeing this contrast between static and dynamic versions of authenticity, it becomes clear how what we thought was expansive for its continuity becomes limiting in its consistency. Jay & Grant suggest that the paradox of dynamic authenticity—we become more authentic by acknowledging our own inconsistencies—better aligns us towards the future we want and creates the invitation for others to do the same.
Creating this expansive space not only frees us to explore new growth possibilities, but also enables us to recognize some of the narratives, beliefs, and worldviews that no longer serve our future vision. In the paper “Moral Injury, the culture of uncare and the climate bubble (2020),” Sally Weintrobe describes the awakening process when one realizes that the neoliberal economic lifestyle has normalized harm to other people, species, and the living planet. She describes this as moral injury—a violation of our own values and moral decency through a damaging way of living. More broadly this creates what Weintrobe sees:
“As a culture that actively ‘uncares’ people, by encouraging them to damp down their awareness that even ordinary shopping now faces people with moral dilemmas...People are neither entirely selfish or entirely selfless and most live conflicted between these two different positions.”
The state of “uncare” is not a natural one for humans or one necessarily shared by all cultures. Rather it is a systemic and cultivated one in neoliberal economies that enrolls participation in an immoral project of exploitation, extraction, and consumption. We become disassociated from the parts of ourselves that care by being encouraged to behave in ways that inflict harm.
This awakening hurts. When I first came across Weintrobe’s article about moral injury and the inflated climate bubble, I internally wept. To some degree, I blamed myself for being so blind to the harms of my behaviour. To live morally is to live fully in a way that is commensurate with all one’s values. How could I have let this bubble be inflated around me that insulated me from the harm of my behaviour to others and the planet? And then I came to realize that these are exactly the hypocrisies that Jay & Grant refer to in their book. Even those of us trying to be authentic and virtuous are inconsistent, as “we are bundles of conflicting attitudes and desires.” Renée Lertzman describes this as our “ambivalence” resulting from the competition of desires within us. This ambivalence needs to be shared rather than masked. Weintrobe’s writing reassured me that “experiencing moral injury is a sign of mental health, not disorder. It means one’s conscience is alive.”
Creating a culture of care within climate change conversation requires that we provide a narrative of forgiveness for ourselves and others. In climate conversations, there is typically no absolution, nor new beginnings. We are expected to shoulder our guilt often without adequate support to process it, which causes most people to reject the entire moralistic package outright. Fred Luskin, the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, defines forgiveness as “a process of transforming the continuing and destructive feelings of guilt, blame, and anger into positive emotions such as empathy and reconstruction.” Luskin found that forgiveness is a vital component of a comprehensive wellbeing. This means that not only should we be gentle on ourselves with our climate guilt as we face our moral injury, but we can approach climate conversations with others as spaces of forgiveness to offer resolution.
Opening Climate Conversations
“Conversation” seems like an inadequate and benign term to describe the intentionality, gravity, and preparation for the task of speaking with others. Language is always tricky, and so I particularly appreciate terms that emerge from different cultural contexts and languages. Tyson Yunkaporta prefers to use the term “yarn” to describe the intimacy of an us-two conversation. I love the visual imagery connoted by “yarning” whereby it is easy to imagine the threads that connect. However, it’s not my language to speak of yarning, but I do want to carry forward its spirit of connectedness as we go deeper into conversation.
Despite our personal conviction that climate change is one of the most important issues of our time (or even THE issue of human flourishing), the majority of us do not have regular conversations with others about climate change (“Is There a Climate ‘Spiral of Silence’ in America?”). This could be due to a fear of oppositional retaliation. Or perhaps anxiety that we don't understand enough of the science to defend our position. Or because it is deemed a "downer" topic. I hope that you are beginning to put all those doubts aside in realizing that none of them are the basis for productive climate conversations.
In Don’t Even Think About It (2014), George Marshall describes climate change as exceptionally multivalent. It is prone to a myriad of interpretations, which is perhaps what makes it most intimidating to approach. It is easy to find ourselves quickly stuck within a climate change conversation, not sure how we got to that point nor having a clear path of the way out. Jay & Grant write that the key to getting a climate conversation unstuck is not about knowing the right thing to say, but rather changing our approach to these conversations altogether. By relating to a conversation as inquiry rather than a list of facts to impart, we open the space to invite others in.
Renée Lertzman has become one of the foremost experts on climate conversations and created an online hub called Project InsideOut to house many of these learnings. In “A Playbook for Difficult Conversations,” Lertzman shares that our goal for climate conversations should be about the spaces or containers we create for our climate conversations rather than what knowledge we feel is important to impart within them. Lertzman advises:
“Asking open-ended questions, before launching into telling, educating, and awareness raising, is integral to an engaged conversation. In other words, the more open, honest, and vulnerable you can be, while remaining vibrant and aspirational, the more productive your conversations will be.”
If efficacy is the goal over feeling right or justified, the attitudes that we cultivate and show up with in being genuinely curious and compassionate will create deeper relationships and shared motivations. Being willing to sit with and acknowledge the anxieties of others we are in conversation with helps to surface shared vulnerabilities in our behaviour, health, happiness, and connection with the living planet. Marshall expands on this approach by recognizing that connection comes from “the things we all share: our common psychology, our perception of risk, and our deepest instincts to defend our family and tribe.”
Marshall’s thinking is inspired by the moral foundations research of Jonathan Haidt, and the cultural cognition research of Dan Kahan. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt discusses how morality both binds and blinds us.
“It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It binds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
It is this inherent tension between binding and blinding that Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman sought to answer in their research about why people distrust scientific consensus on climate change. The researchers found that our cognitive filters reinforce our connections to those in our social groups and thus sometimes are in direct opposition to expert consensus (“Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus”, 2010). Individuals' willingness to accept or dismiss scientific consensus on climate change is predicated on social cues that fit or are in conflict with the values they share with others. Based on the research, the easiest way to short circuit our cognitive filters is by changing the messenger. If the person delivering the message is from someone trusted, the filters can fall away. Here we find evidence of the same kind of openness as the inquiry-based approach that Lertzman suggests.
Decoding Our Conversations
As Haidt and others suggest, the human mind is adept at processing and recalling stories far more than logical information. While nearly every culture reveres stories, even within the same culture a story that resonates for one person may negatively trigger someone else. This is because stories are not just vessels of wisdom and entertainment but also of values. While sometimes that values misalignment in a conversation is obvious, there are just as many instances where it is difficult to pinpoint why a conversation with someone feels strained and how to get it unstuck. To become more effective at climate conversations we need to become better at understanding and identifying the encoded values within those conversations. Even more succinctly phrased by Jay & Grant, “we are asking you to internalize someone else’s values (as you are asking the other person to do).”
Haidt and a group of cultural and social psychologists sought to understand why, despite many similarities, morality varies across cultures. This is an excellent and entertaining primer that explains how we inhabit different moral communities.
The work of these researchers is encompassed in Moral Foundations Theory which found six “intuitive ethics” that spanned cultures and whose mix and balance determine the virtues, narratives, and institutions of those cultures. Those foundations are: 1) Care/Harm 2) Fairness/Cheating 3) Loyalty/Betrayal 4) Authority/Subversion 5) Sanctity/Degradation 6) Liberty/Oppression. In trying to decode these foundational values in your conversations, Jay & Grant invite us to consider several important questions:
“What do they find sacred? And what do we find sacred? Whose liberty do they want to protect? And whose liberty do we want to protect? Whom do we each want to care for or treat fairly? To whom do we want to express loyalty, and what authority structures do we each consider to be important?”
By answering these questions, we not only decode the underlying moral foundations of our conversations, but also determine the values that are most important to the person we are speaking with which increases our efficacy. If you’d like to find your own moral foundations profile, you can do so at www.YourMorals.org.
In the Climate Conviction chapter of his book, Marshall looks in-depth at how religion creates sacred values and a sense of community and belonging centred around adhering to those values. Marshall visits Lakewood Church in Nashville, which happens to be the largest church in the United States. As he says, "The question on my mind—a reasonable one really—is to ask what Lakewood might have that the world’s greatest crisis does not." Marshall reveres the conversational scale of Lakewood, remarking that six times more people watch one of their services on TV and the web than watched An Inconvenient Truth in U.S. cinemas. "They are, as it were, real-time experiments in what moves, excites, and persuades people."
Marshall’s churchgoing inspiration emerged from the work of Ara Norenzayan & Scott Atran who researched how religion ignites processes to set the cognitive, emotional, and material conditions for communities (“Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion,” 2004). What Noreenzayan & Atran found was that religion supersedes rational calculation by creating a set of non-negotiable sacred values. This begs the question, is it possible to turn action on climate change into a non-negotiable sacred value? Marshall asked Norenzayan whether it would be possible without religion:
“Absolutely he says—and in any case, a religion ‘is not like a thing; it’s an assembly of features that become a group called religion. You could co-opt these successful qualities and use them in other contexts.’ His view echoes the work of the American sociologist Robert Bellah who argued that religion ‘is transmitted more by narrative, image, and enactment than through definitions and logical demonstration.’”
If religion can instill sacred values through narrative and conversational communities there is hope that the magnitude of our climate conversations can be combined into something much more than isolated dialogues. They can become tiny, cumulative movements.
Scaling Our Conversations
Climate change is a collective action problem. Weintrobe encourages us to recognize this as a moment to build collective courage where the young and old help support each other to emerge from our retreat from reality. Or in the words of a pastor that Marshall spoke with from Northland Church in Longwood, Florida, in search of parallels between religious devotion and climate acceptance:
“You have the fellowship of fellow believers. That is the encouragement that we need, to be around people who have the same interests, the same goals, the same values as ourselves…We have to make an environment—excuse the pun—where we fully acknowledge that everybody is going to have doubts and struggles, and everybody is going to need encouragement. We see if we can help with that and we walk through that together.”
Marshall inspires us to imagine groups of support that can bear witness to the grief and concerns of others within an environment of acceptance and forgiveness. Spaces where people no longer face their climate hopes and fears in isolation or are shuffled off to change lightbulbs and buy electric vehicles. Marshall writes, “If Christianity were promoted like climate change, it would amount to no more than reading a Gideon’s Bible in a motel chalet and trying to be nice to people.”
I realize at this point in the essay you might be longing for greater specificity on what you can talk about, not just how you might approach climate conversations. While none of these suggestions are intended to counter the inquiry-based recommendations earlier in the essay, I would like to offer checklists from two respected sources on exactly what you might do differently today as you approach scaling climate conversations in your own life.
From Cara Pike, Meredith Herr, & Bob Doppelt, in “Climate Communications and Behavior Change” (2010), on the evidence-based language and framing for more productive climate conversations:
Illustrate what it means for the climate to change
Leverage the idea of “too much carbon”
Clarify the relationship between energy production and consumption and global warming
Emphasize that we are facing a moment of choice
Second, I’d like to share Andrew Hoffman’s “Techniques for a Consensus-Based Discussion” from “Climate Science as Culture War” (2012)
Know your audience: any message on climate change must be framed in a way that fits with the cultural norms of the target audience.
Ask the right scientific questions that can build consensus
Move beyond data and models: climate skepticism is not a knowledge deficit issue and more knowledge has even been shown to correlate with lower concern
Focus on broker frames: to be effective, climate communicators must use the language of the cultural community they are engaging
Recognize the power of language and terminology
Employ climate brokers: people are more likely to feel open to consider evidence when a recognized member of their cultural community presents it
Recognize multiple referent groups: understand that individuals are members of multiple referent groups
As you venture forth to create more climate conversations in your own circles, I encourage you to create a list of learnings. If you feel so compelled, I invite you to share those learnings as a comment on this essay so the whole Understory community can benefit from your experiences.
Despite our personal conviction that climate change is one of the most important issues of our time, the majority of us do not have regular conversations with others about climate change due to anxiety, fear, and dread. In many cases, climate conversations surface and analyze previously buried beliefs and worldviews and become a kind of “flashpoint” for deeper ideological conflicts that lie under the surface (Hoffman). Fortunately, we have a deep body of evidence-based research that helps us better understand how to guide and scale climate conversations in our own lives. In short, “smashing heads does not open minds,” says the linguist Deborah Tannen.
The first step in creating broader change is to first begin the process in ourselves. Rather than working through all our inconsistencies or hiding them, we should embrace dynamic authenticity. Our striving for the world we hope to create is a journey of growth that exposes vulnerabilities within ourselves and others. By approaching climate conversations with genuine curiosity and openness, we create the space for others to share their experiences and values. We can attune ourselves to the cognitive filters and moral foundations that are most important to others, and share stories and perspectives in support of those commonalities.
While individual climate conversations are vital, so are the frequency and scale of these conversations within our circles. Through the analogy to religion, we can imagine how a set of sacred values might emerge from our climate conversations while building broader cultures of care that envelop our communities. We need not fear approaching climate conversations with others, even with strangers. In the words of Jay & Grant: “polarization is not a matter of how far left or right your ideologies are. Polarization is the breakdown in healthy communication.” By showing up with our authentic selves and with a genuine and deep curiosity to engage with others, we’ll find that those previously polarized spaces become ones of sharing and common ground. What could be a more fitting context for our shared planet?
Go forth and make a difference in the week ahead.
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In between issues I share my own reflections and those I have heard from readers. While the term community is often overused and thus abused, The Understory is a community of readers who value the comments of others. Please reply to this email or leave a comment on the website with any reflections you feel comfortable sharing 🙏.
A Workshop Invitation
If you are interested in learning more about how to have more effective climate conversations in the workplace and even practicing with others, Solvable is leading a workshop on April 27th & 29th called Scaling Sustainability: from Green Teams to the C-Suite. Click here to learn more about the workshop or please email me with questions.
Why I Write The Understory
We have crossed the climate-change threshold from emerging to urgent, which demands a transformative response. The scale of the issue demands not only continuous focus but also the courage to take bold action. I've found that a persistence of climate consciousness improves resilience to the noise and distractions of daily life in service of a bigger (and most of the time invisible) long-term cause.
The Understory is my way of organizing the natural and human-made curiosities that capture my attention. Within the words, research, and actions of others lies the inspiration for personal and organizational journeys. I hope that my work here will help to inform not just my persistent consciousness, but yours as well.