Numb and Tuned Out on Climate Change?

Mary Pipher offers insight into how to wake up, take action -- and stay sane

Posted Aug 28, 2013

Each week, news bulletins from the environmental front pour in, overwhelming our overloaded psyches with images of burning forests and swollen rivers. Yet as author and psychologist Mary Pipher points out, if more of us recognized the cumulative effect of our individual actions on caring for the environment, America might break through its defenses -- and help trigger a global transformation. The following is an edited version and third installment of my interview with Pipher on her new book, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture.

Pythia: In your book you describe certain American characteristics that prevent us from recognizing the urgency of environmental devastation. One is our geography -- I’d never heard that mentioned before.

Mary: America has certainly begun to experience the effects of climate change. But geographically we’re a huge country that’s far removed from typhoons and melting ice caps. So it’s easier for Americans to feel lulled by their geography into thinking they’re safe.

Another belief that hampers us is the distortion of American Exceptionalism* into the notion that the country can do anything it wants, whenever it feels like it. This in turn feeds an underlying attitude that climate change isn’t that big a problem -- but if it ever is, somebody smart will fix it for us, whether by sending everyone to outer space, or coming up with some technological fix. Or, at the other extreme, we can also think climate change is a terrible problem, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

But, as a country, the place we aren’t ever in, is that climate change is an urgent problem, and that everyone of us needs to do something about it: And that we can do something about it.

Pythia: So what steps can citizens as individuals take to break through America’s current state of denial on these life-and-death environmental issues?

Mary: In our coalition, we’re fans of “actionable intelligence,” or giving people assignments. If a person really wants to move from Point A to Point B, we assign them one step they can immediately take to advance toward that goal. For instance, with the apple pie brigade, I often say, “One pie, one person, one plan -- and you’ve got an event.”

Starting an environmental group isn’t a complicated thing. A group could be you and one friend sitting at a coffee shop planning an action. Groups also alleviate that feeling of being alone and powerless; you have people to share your burdens and to make plans with.

Pythia: In fact, you organized the “Grandmothers Apple Pie Brigade” -- rewarding policymakers working for the environment with virtual or real apple pies -- about as American an endeavor as I could imagine!

Mary: This is a country that values individualism and it is not a country that recognizes its own tradition of community activism. Starting with the early Revolutionaries, America was built by community organizers! All of the great movements -- the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement -- began with community organizing.

Most of us probably don’t see ourselves as the next Martin Luther King or Gandhi. But almost all of us could see ourselves as part of a potluck group that’s making a significant impact in our hometown. Even though community organizing has been the engine for change in this country since the beginning, it’s not a model that we teach or talk about.

Pythia: What would be another example of how citizens can mobilize against climate change?

Mary: One thing I’d try to do is to catch America, the client, being good. To use a clinical example, a common intervention I have as a therapist is to ask people to go outside and take a walk. If they’re depressed, it generates endorphins. It also connects them to something larger than their depressed brain.

So, perhaps I’ve had a client for a year that I’ve tried to encourage to go outside and take a walk. She has a running mental tape about how unpleasant her life is, how she doesn’t like her job, or how her family is difficult, etc. But one day in a session she remarks, “I noticed that when I walked to the mailbox my neighbors’ roses were out.”

Now I would jump on that and say, “Do you have any idea how significant this is? For over a year I’ve been wishing you could smell those roses. And this week you saw them.” So when you witness a positive change, it’s like sparking a fire -- you grab the bellows and start stoking that fire to make a flame bigger and bigger.

Pythia: I love the idea of telling America to go outside and take a walk!

Mary: Often people are afraid to talk about the environment because they’re worried they’re going to be made to feel guilty. So just as I built on my client’s positive behavior, what I also try to do in my environmental work is emphasize the ways people are already helping the earth. I might ask individuals to start writing down everything they’re already doing -- whether planting trees; riding their bike instead of driving; composting; or encouraging neighbors to pick up litter. When people begin making those lists, they start to feel proud of the ways they’re already acknowledging this problem.

Pythia: It seems to me that you’re describing how, in therapy, a cumulative effect over time can build in someone’s psyche, bringing about transformation. If this same kind of dynamic occurred on a collective level, in America and around the world, couldn’t it lead to a breakthrough on the environment at some point?

Mary: As a therapist, I know that you can work with someone for a year and not get very far. Then you can have one session where the language and the moment come together to create a “snap of insight” that causes change. In the same way, if certain conditions appear, we could have a worldwide “snap of insight” around our imperiled planet. In a way, that’s already happening.

Pythia: Certainly Nebraska’s fight against TransCanada and its proposed Keystone XL Pipeline has triggered a quantum leap in the rare alliance that’s formed between liberal progressives and conservative Republican farmers.

Mary: All around the world more people are waking up and realizing they want to take responsibility for the environment. In 2008, the environmentalist Paul Hawken documented two million groups working to avert global climate change.** If these groups all knew about each other, and if what they were doing was front page news all over the world, people would begin to believe that we could avert these crises. The problem is we’re not connected to each other.

But imagine if we had an alternate internet called something like “Motherearthnet” to link all the people working to change the world to each other -- then we’d see this enormous force that’s gathering! I’m hopeful we’ll make that happen. And when it does, consciousness could change in a matter of weeks. And were global consciousness to change we could have a new world.

Pythia: So by each person being aware of what others are doing, as well as how each person’s individual action, no matter how small, really does matter -- we could “flip the switch of consciousness” where climate change is concerned?

Mary: One of the lines I often include on my email correspondence, is “We’re all doing the same work now.” Whether we’re sixty-five or two, we’re all in the generation that has a very short window of time to act if we want life on the planet to continue in a more sustainable, vibrant way.

Here are links to the first two interviews in this three-part series on the environment with Mary Pipher:

Part One: Could a “Cowboy Attitude” Help America Fight Climate Change?

Part Two: Psychologist Mary Pipher on America’s Biggest Social Taboo:

*Dating back to Alexis de Toqueville’s description of America as “exceptional,” the term “American Exceptionalism” has come to signify the nation’s unique values, as well as its difference from other nations.

**Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, by Paul Hawken

About the Author

Pythia Peay is a journalist, who writes about psychology, spirituality and the American psyche. She is the author of American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country.

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