Learning to ORIENT Ourselves to Address Global Challenges

Zoe Weil offers six ways to deal with personal and global catastrophes.

Posted Feb 14, 2019

This is a guest essay by Zoe Weil, President and Co-Founder of the Institute for Humane Education and author of many books including The World Becomes What We Teach.

In early February, I fell through the ice into the frigid Maine ocean.  My fall was not an accident. While I didn’t purposely seek to submerge half my body in 30+ degree water, I was so preoccupied with photographing the sparkling ice formations that I ignored the obvious signs that the tide was coming in quickly, and I was in danger.

Zoe Weil
The frigid Maine Ocean
Source: Zoe Weil

Sign 1: Dips in the ice around me were becoming slushy.

Sign 2: Shortly before I fell in, between where I was standing and the shore was a hole in the ice with a couple of feet of water and bubbles rising to the surface. 

I became so captivated by the rising bubbles that I actually videotaped them. It crossed my mind that there shouldn’t be water between the shore and me if the tide hadn’t come in, but I allowed myself to believe that the water in the hole in front of me didn’t mean that there was water under the ice on which I was standing. This is an example of magical thinking. Ignoring the danger signs, I continued to walk on the ice until it broke beneath me, and I fell into the ocean. I was probably not in grave danger. Although I don’t recall my feet hitting the bottom, they probably did, since I only submerged to my waist. And although it wasn’t simple to get out over crumbly ice, I didn’t panic. I relied upon what I’ve learned about escaping from the water if one falls through the ice (which I’ll share in case this ever happens to you: kick your feet to the surface to become horizontal, inch your torso over the ice, and stand up only after moving away from the thin edge).

Since then, I’ve wondered how my thinking and reasoning capacities could vanish so quickly and easily. I think the answer is three-fold:

1.    I was focused on fulfilling my desire to take photographs of the beautiful ice.

2.    I rejected information that interfered with the fulfillment of my desire.

3.    I pretended that my fantasy was reality.

We all do this. We routinely and dangerously fail to address threats to ourselves, our loved ones, and our planet. We are metaphorically falling through the ice, albeit in slow motion, failing to think rationally about many of the grave realities around us. We then fail to take action to protect whom and what we love.

Here’s one example:

We all know people who deny that climate change is influenced by humanity’s actions, or who think we’ll adjust just fine to a warming Earth. But most of us who accept the evidence that current climate change is human-caused, and may reach a catastrophic tipping point if we don’t change our ways, still choose to:

1.    Fulfill desires that come with big doses of carbon and/or methane entering the atmosphere.

2.    Reject learning about ways to reduce our carbon footprint that will interfere with the fulfillment of those desires.

3.    Pretend that our choices don’t matter, or our efforts at changing systems will be for naught, or things will all work out through some last-minute technological fix.

How do we resist these very human responses to both short-term and long-term dangers?

The next time I’m preoccupied or distracted in a dangerous situation, I hope I will have a voice of reason that interrupts my fantasy world. But hope is not enough. I need to cultivate certain ways of thinking and acting to ensure a safe outcome. 

I’ve come up with the acronym ORIENT to help me remember the steps to take. I need to:

Observe how my desires and habits are narrowing my ability to see reality clearly.

Reflect upon what distracts me so that I can be cognizant of when distractions might lead to danger.

Inquire about the situation by asking: What is really occurring? What should I pay attention to? What evidence should I be viewing?

Envision what might happen if I don’t make wise choices.

Navigate a new path based on evidence, reason, and my deepest values.

Take steps to learn more in order to prevent other dangers from occurring in the future.

This ORIENTing approach can be useful not only for avoiding personal dangers like falling through the ice, but also for avoiding planetary catastrophes. 

When we are in danger of allowing our desires to eclipse our values; of burying our heads in the sand through daily distractions; and of pretending our fantasies are reality, we can ORIENT in similar ways.

What might ORIENTing look like in relation to the climate change example? 

We can choose to:

Observe our personal choices and societal systems that contribute to climate change.

Reflect upon what distracts us from working to change both our own habits and the systems that cause harm.

Inquire into our collective impact by doing research to obtain accurate information.

Envision what might happen if we fail to shift societal systems that are destructive and if we don’t personally engage with creating positive change.

Navigate our new awareness toward what we can most effectively, wisely, and enthusiastically commit to doing.

Take steps to become involved in making a difference to avert the worst of climate change.

I invite you to try out this process and ORIENT yourself to a global danger. What changes are you inspired to make when you do so?

If you are a parent or teacher, help your children and students ORIENT themselves as well. What unfolds?