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  • Writer's pictureRanjani Prabhakar

Yes, the climate is changing. But are we?

A hand holds a copy of adrienne maree brown's book "Emergent Strategy" next to a plant.

"I think it is healing behavior, to look at something so broken and see the possibility and wholeness in it."

A common symptom of the modern environmentalist: if you chance upon one at a bar, in line to get coffee, or in an otherwise quiet elevator, they will try to talk to you about climate change. If it’s me, we’ll be waiting patiently at the same bus stop (the 79 express to be exact), and I’ll take that opportunity to share news of our ecological crisis, not with the energy of a doomsdayer, but definitely somewhere between the pride of head cheerleader and the joy of a small child.

Suffice to say, I don’t have many casual friends.

In my life as a climate policy advocate and an artist, I spend my days messaging climate-related issues, ideas, and stories, and finding ways to propel action and reduce harm. I’ve witnessed our reluctance to make haste on climate action, knowing full well that the scope of the climate challenge is compounding gargantuanly. With flashy, urgent headlines like “What Climate Scientists Don’t Want You To Know” to “The Time is NOW! What Are Our Leaders Doing?!” to “Don’t Lose Hope: 8 Ways to Power Through the Apocalypse,” one would not dare to suggest that happiness, joy, and satisfaction are at the crux of our current collective state.

And yet, my penchant for climate joy and optimism remains intact. For this, I credit one of my prophets, adrienne maree brown, a writer, activist and social justice facilitator, and author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Shaping Worlds, a manifesto on radical organizing that brings together self-help and planetary-help as necessary parallels towards liberation. Through their words, it has become apparent to me that learning how to adapt and evolve together, and in harmony with nature, is a golden path to climate action. And that climate optimism is a solution in itself.

It is important for me to uplift brown’s words for three reasons.

One, because change is a reliable constant. In our climate crisis, the term “change” denotes long-term shifts in hazard and disaster. In Emergent Strategy, “change” and the acceptance of it is an everyday practice of building patterns to help us be in transformative and adaptive relationships. Overtime, our individual behaviors create patterns, or fractals, that compound into a movement-wide ability to move with constant forces of change, see new ideas with clarity, and be open to shifting paradigms. Much like the fractals of honeycombs, succulents, and pine cones, the fractals we create through our interactions reflect our own place in nature, and how being of, and not just on, this planet means we can benefit from understanding the systems and practices in natural systems. When we begin to see the world in what brown calls “life-code,” we see the systems around us and within us as sacred, and we change in ways that increase our freedom and compatibility with Earth.

According to brown’s “life-code,” there is abundant possibility and abundant justice all around us—but only if we see each individual as a unique, valuable contributor and allow ourselves to be changed by their contribution. Environmental organizations are tasked with advocating for the liberation of humans and non-human nature, both vulnerable in the face of climate impacts. These organizations are also responsible for supporting staff who simultaneously undertake the work of justice leaders and advocate within systems of law and policy. However, as the 2020 Green 2.0 Transparency Report Card reflects, the lack of diversity in the leadership and non-managerial staff at “Big Green” organizations is a threat to this fight for liberation. If transformational change is to come from transforming ourselves and our interactions with each other, our organizations must reflect the abundant possibility of nature and be diverse, inclusive spaces. We must start with our interactions in advocacy spaces, and, in order to be agents of change, Big Greens must transform to fit a more inclusive and just world view.

Two, because attention is a powerful resource in our time. As brown states as a major principle of emergent strategy, “What you pay attention to grows.” We are consumers of rapid information, and often the news we receive is grim, disappointing, and apprehensive. In our ever compressing news cycles, there’s an urgency to every headline, tweet, hot take, and informative TikTok dance. What if we were intentional about where to put our attention?

Living at the nexus of compounding existential challenges can be exhausting, and between movies like “Don’t Look Up,” Twitter doomscrolls, and news alerts that are a constant drumbeat of disaster, the media uses climate as a synonym for apocalypse. Mainstream messaging suggests that ungovernable, dystopian chaos is an inevitable future, despite the growing bodies of community experts and problem solvers who have been nurturing the planet and working against vulnerable effects for decades.

When light is shed on harm, how do we react? To where, and most importantly, to whom do we turn our attention? The climate movement is global, and as conflicts, migration, and a scarcity of equitable resources are leaving people vulnerable, more communities across the world fall victim to decades of negligent fossil fuel burning and lack of acknowledgement of culpability from world powers and the Global North for losses and damages. While Pakistan remains underwater, and while Cancer Alley crumbles under the deadly environmental pollution of petrochemicals, who pays attention? Is apocalyptic disaster inevitable to some, and therefore unsuitable for compassion or action? Or is there meaning in the collective action towards all affected communities across the globe?

According to brown, we are not separate from the problem nor the solution. In that case, instead of reading the news simply to be distressed by it, we can put our attention to where the solutions are, who is behind them, and the barriers to their implementation. When I read about the devastation in Pakistan from record flooding, I feel distressed and helpless. When I pay attention to climate reparations for a country that emits only 5% of the United States’ carbon dioxide emissions per capita, to the numerous Pakistanis committed to planting trees to address deforestation issues, and to home grown mutual aid efforts towards disaster relief, I put myself into the problem and the solution. What we put attention to, and how we share our support flowing to that attention, significantly alters how we approach solution-building, and how we magnify the issues and the experts at a human level.

Three, because our ecological crisis is a current reality, not just a predictive future. In Emergent Strategy, the long-term is important, but not at the expense of ignoring what is in front of us today. One of brown’s principles is “Less Prep, More Presence”—in other words, be here, fully, even though you’re working toward the future. Preparation has diminishing returns after a point, but presence returns exponentially, for yourself and your community. This has been a personal mantra to grow in and contribute to my spaces authentically, as a way of spreading the abundant life-force of the present, and incrementally cultivating our collective vision for the future.

What does this all have to do with climate change? For starters, it is the way we discuss it. Much like our mainstream messaging tends towards apocalypse, our casual discussions around climate also imply a future existence, not a present actuality. For many across the globe, there isn’t a luxury of prognostication. Climate effects have been realized by communities for decades - whether that is extreme heat compounding vulnerabilities of redlined urban neighborhoods, oil pipelines subjugating tribal lands since the mid-1800s up until today, or farmworker communities who are at the brunt of heat, toxic fumes, and wildfires, while simultaneously muddling through the country’s notoriously complicated and inequitable migration system, and receiving little to no basic work-based safety protections. The more we pay attention to our current reality, and the intersecting issues of climate challenges far from the definition of “environmental” concern, the more we make decisions based on real life people and scenarios, not just infernal projections.

The case for climate optimism may seem foolish to the uninformed, but to brown and those who prophet their work, the notion of keeping hope in the face of compounding crises is a pole vault towards change. When we change how we interact with the planet and its inhabitants, we start to see our place in our ever evolving world towards solution and community building. Next time you see me at the bus stop, I hope I’ve evolved from the day before. It’s for the planet.

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