There Is No ‘I’ in the Climate Crisis

Connection and Interdependence Can’t Capture Carbon But Can Get to the Root of the Problem

Many of us feel powerless about climate change, in part because we feel small relative to the immense scale of the crisis. But connection and interdependence may be our greatest "technologies" for climate action, environmental studies scholar Sarah Jaquette Ray writes. Courtesy of School Strike 4 Climate/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The environmentalist Paul Hawken says, “The most complex, radical climate technology is the human heart and mind, not a solar panel.” What would it mean to imagine the heart and mind as the most important green technologies, and to invest in them? To broaden our idea of climate action beyond the tunnel vision of international agreements and infrastructural solutions?

These “technologies,” if you will, are not new; they apply ancient wisdom to our current moment and shift our attention toward connection, not (just) reducing emissions, as the medicine for what ails us and the planet. If a technology is merely an application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, then all kinds of approaches can be technologies.

Increasingly understood as science, too, many wisdom traditions offer a compass for such an endeavor—including traditional ecological knowledge, Theravada Buddhism, and Black spiritual traditions. These ways of understanding the world come from a variety of cultures and perspectives, but they all reframe the climate “polycrisis” (because it is not one crisis but a constellation of many) from a problem of individual suffering into one of collective strength.

Many of us feel powerless about climate change, in part because we feel small relative to the immense scale of the crisis. I often hear people ask, “Why should I deprive myself of X pleasure or Y entitlement, when it won’t really make any difference?” Such a narrow focus on individual impact reveals how much the myth of individualism constricts us. If we believe ourselves to be alone in everything we do, of course, we are too small to address a systemic, global problem. This explains why such a large number of people in America care about climate change, yet so few are doing anything about it in their lives.

We don’t just worry about the climate when disaster strikes; we worry because we feel alone in facing it. Contrary to appeals to “transform your anxiety into action,” studies have shown that it isn’t action itself that alleviates anxiety; it is the experience of participating in a collective toward a shared goal.

A “deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship,” or “species loneliness,” as Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer defines it, is arguably at the root of our polycrisis, but it may also be the reason we struggle to face it.

We don’t just worry about the climate when disaster strikes; we worry because we feel alone in facing it.

One solution is to first recognize, then take solace in, and then do the work of honoring that we are part of a larger system of human and non-human beings, across both space and time. We can start by cultivating an “ancestor perspective,” not unlike the Haudenosaunee notion of an ethic of “seven generations.” This means seeing ourselves as existing in a temporal frame that gathers entities together in a net of moral obligation much larger than a lone individual’s lifespan.

In his recent book, Reconsidering Reparations, the climate philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò writes that an ancestor perspective “helps ground a kind of revolutionary patience while, at the same time, rejecting complacency.”

How does this work? For someone like me, a descendent of white settlers and abolitionist Quakers, the invitation is to reckon with the legacy of harm I carry, and recognize that I can choose which of my ancestors’ calls I want to answer, which projects I want to move forward in my short time on this earth. It is also a reminder that my descendants will do the same, and that I need not finish it all in one lifetime.

Such a perspective dispels the illusion of the self-as-island. It soothes despair because we see how many good intentions and actions have come before us, are occurring alongside us, and will continue long after we are gone. This perspective is both a moral obligation and a cause for existential relief.

We can feel buoyed that we are not alone in our efforts, too, when we recognize that we are part of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a “network of mutuality,” Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh called “interbeing,” and Indigenous epistemology recognizes as “all our relations.

Consider, for example, Kimmerer’s question: “[W]hat would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see in it the trees it once had been?” If your community’s livelihood or health depended on the tree that was used to create a mountain of junk mail, you would grieve for it. You would act to protect it. This kind of recognition honors our entanglement with the material world; everything we touch and are made of came from somewhere, and will go somewhere after we experience it.

Individualism seduces us to imagine we’re free of these entanglements, but consider this science: investment in social ties, community trust, and strong relationships is more predictive of our ability to survive a natural disaster than strong physical infrastructure. Care is a more critical ingredient to climate resilience than concrete.

Further research has shown that the most important factor in a person’s survival in a disaster is how well they know their neighbors. And we are more likely to take actions to protect the natural environment if we know our more-than-human neighbors, too. Rather than seeing interdependence as a burden, we can come to see it as a practice of self-preservation.

In “The Parable of the Burning House,” from Buddhism’s Lotus Sutra, a wealthy man tries to get his children out of a burning house, but they are so distracted by all of their toys that they don’t want to leave. This parable has been used to describe people who are unwilling to let go of their attachments in order to see, much less save, the world around them. In this era of social media, simulacra, and selfies, a more apt description might be that we are playing with mirrors, not toys. Distracted by our own self-image at every turn, we cannot perceive, much less address, the problem.

What we need is a cultural container to process collective trauma. This technology won’t directly draw carbon out of the atmosphere. But it does get to the root of our polycrisis in a way that climate science does not.

All of these ideas are very humbling. But humility offers more riches than it costs. Those of us who have benefitted from individualism may struggle to let it go. Ultimately, not all climate actions are not about personal sacrifice. Ideally, they can be about what is both personally and collectively gained.


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