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Overcoming Climate Anxiety Through Collaboration With Laird Christensen

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As the climate crisis continues to worsen, it seems our personal efforts to mitigate its adverse effects are all for naught. This causes everyone to feel climate anxiety, with so many pushed to not even care at all. Laird Christensen, PhD is here to emphasize the utmost need for collective action to create massive waves of change at a national and global scale. He explains how to focus more on collaborative work among local communities and environmental activists and less on antagonistic conversations that only sow anger and dissent. Laird also stresses the importance of patience and the genuine desire to listen when it comes to amplifying personal impact dedicated to sustainability and regeneration.

 

About Laird Christensen

Care More Be Better | Laird Christensen | Climate AnxietyLaird Christensen is a visionary leader dedicated to addressing the global climate crisis through local sustainability efforts and intentional community building, driven by a profound commitment to ecological citizenship. As the founding Director of online Graduate Programs in Environmental Studies (2006) and Resilient and Sustainable Communities (2015), he revolutionized distance education by emphasizing practical application within students’ communities.

Laird’s expertise spans public speaking, facilitating groups, hosting impactful online events, and many forms of writing, from creative nonfiction to scholarly works and poetry. His interdisciplinary background spotlights humanity’s relationship with the environment, emphasizing narratives’ role in shaping resilient and just communities. Laird Christensen’s diverse skill set and commitment to sustainability mark him as an inspirational figure driving change in education and advocacy.

 

Guest LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/laird-christensen-693a3637

Guest Social:

https://prescott.edu/area-of-study/resilient-sustainable-communities-ms

https://www.facebook.com/MRSCatPrescott

 

Show Notes:

Non-Fiction Works And Poetry – 04:54

Before we really kick off into that, I wanted to first get a view of how you bring your creativity into your nonfiction works and even poetry, what you write about when you’re not speaking or working in this kind of more academic field.

 

Oregon And Bridging The Gaps – 13:43

We have this vision, especially those people who live outside of the Pacific Northwest, that Oregon is a very progressive, very liberal space.

 

Climate Crisis And Corporate Interests – 27:33

your example begins to suggest something about the nature of confronting the climate crisis, and that is we don’t find ourselves with easy choices of this solution is going to take care of things.

 

Personal And systems changes – 33:19

Let’s talk about that for a minute because I’ve covered this on a prior episode.

 

Teaching Students – 52:04

I wonder what your perspective is as somebody who’s sitting in this professorial capacity, teaching students largely online and hopefully educating them about what it takes to network with one another.

 

Empowering Communities – 01:02:11

Just to kind of land this conversation with a bit of inspiration. I was hoping that you could share just a couple of closing thoughts.

 

Episode Wrap-up – 01:07:37

To find out more about Laird Christensen and all of the programs offered at Prescott College, please visit the links that we provide and show notes.

 

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Overcoming Climate Anxiety Through Collaboration With Laird Christensen

Welcome to another interview. Now, while climate change can feel overwhelming for all of us, especially in the case of watching climate news in particular. There are always ways to address the challenges that we face at the local level, as well as at the national scale and even global level to make meaningful and powerful change. This is because as a network of climate activists. Our power can be amplified. We can do so through collaboration, through the use of means online, a podcast, and through social media.

As we develop these networks on a local and a global scale, our impact can truly be something special. You guessed it, we’re knuckling down to empower you and release you from any feelings of climate anxiety that may have been keeping you from realizing how you can make part of this world and change, too.

I’m joined by Laird Christensen, a visionary leader dedicated to addressing the global climate crisis through local sustainability efforts and intentional community building. As the founding director of Online Graduate Programs in Environmental Studies and Resilient and Sustainable Communities, he revolutionized distance education by emphasizing practical application within students’ communities.

Laird’s expertise spans public speaking, facilitating groups, hosting impactful online events, and many forms of writing from creative nonfiction to scholarly works and poetry. His interdisciplinary background spotlights humanity’s relationship with the environment, emphasizing narratives’ role in shaping resilient and just communities. Laird Christensen’s diverse skill set and commitment to sustainability mark him as an inspirational figure driving change in education and advocacy.

Now, he’s also on the faculty of Prescott College. You’ve heard from now two of their faculty members. We’re going to deepen this conversation as we get to know more about Laird and how we can go ahead and amplify our personal impact. With that, I want to welcome Laird to the stage. Laird, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.

I’m happy to have you here. This is my third interview with somebody from Prescott. Sounds like I’m a cheerleader for you at this point.

I’m glad that you found us. It is a fairly small college in the Central Highlands of Arizona, but we’ve been drawing people to Prescott for several years now who are interested in an education that follows experience, lived experience as a way to find the knowledge and skills that allow them to make differences in their communities. I’m honored to work there and happy to talk with you about that experience.

We’ve spoken about this topic of climate anxiety a few times before, but I frankly find it keeps welling up, even in my own personal space. I’ll be looking at how the ocean looks. I went to Hawaii on vacation for the first time in a while and spent a bit of time in the water and observing the reefs. You notice changes because even small impacts of temperature shifts that may seem very minute to you and me are quite something else for the aquatic life.

It’s tough as somebody who’s a scuba diver and an ocean advocate to witness that on vacation when you maybe haven’t been to that spot for a couple of years. I’m in the Monterey Bay. I get desensitized to the changes that we see here because I see them incrementally so frequent. While we’re making some headways, then something comes back and smacks you in the face.

Non-Fiction Works And Poetry

You hear about microplastics being found in sealed parts of the Earth that you thought had no exposure to humanity then there’s microplastics there. It gets in even through stone. How is this happening? At any rate, before we kick off into that, I wanted to first get a view of how you bring your creativity into your nonfiction works and even poetry, what you write about when you’re not speaking or working in this more academic field.

Back in the day, and I’m thinking 30 or 40 years ago, when I saw myself primarily as a poet. My work was to celebrate the connections of humans with the more than human world, the other species. I grew up in Oregon. I spent a lot of time in old growth forests out there.

What part of Oregon? I have to ask.

I grew up East of Portland in Troutdale, the gateway to the Columbia Gorge. Although, I went back later and did my PhD in Eugene at the University of Oregon.

I grew up in Ashland, so I had to ask.

Although, an increasingly fire vulnerable area and we’ll probably get into that in a little bit now. We live at a time when things are changing in some pretty fundamental ways. Way back, thinking back to early in my career, both in activism and as a writer. It was enough to say, “Let’s preserve these areas of sensitive old growth for us. Let’s stop the logging from coming in.” That was a simple challenge as difficult as it was to accomplish that sometime compared to the complexity of dealing with global climate change.

It was very relatively simple. I was writing poetry about my experience in those places, publishing it primarily in environmental journals as a way to help hopefully deepen the relationship that other people could have with those non-human or more than human communities there. Over time, and especially through my involvement in activism to protect ancient forests, I realized that the role that I was performing as a cheerleader for other environmental activists was perhaps not as good a use of whatever talents I might have as a writer as trying to reach out to people who didn’t already agree with me.

I began to make a move from writing poetry to writing nonfiction articles where I could help people specifically in communities like Oak Ridge, and other resource extractive communities, timber communities. I began to understand that rather than just an antagonism between people who wanted to get the cut out and people who wanted to protect the forest. Instead, we could begin to imagine together what would it look like to have a sustainable timber economy. In doing so, it could create a more fulfilling and perhaps even more profitable life for people involved in the timber communities.

I was seeing my role as a writer as defined by what it was I wanted to accomplish. It felt more important for me to begin to tell stories using the techniques of fiction to try to bring to life my time in the woods with biologists, timber industry folks and tell those stories in ways that people could begin to see how they fit into those stories. It was a major shift but it’s one that continues to feed me and help me feel useful in a way that goes beyond what I was able to do, expressing myself through poetry.

As I think about this in particular because we’ve started talking about forests and Lumbertown, USA. I essentially grew up in Southern Oregon which was at the time in the ‘70s and ‘80s a lumber community that had started to see some of the challenges of a declining forest. There simply wasn’t as much wood to go and grab. You had to start to harvest more sustainably. There was a lot of friction between forestry departments and environmentalists.

Forestry even allowing more thinning to be done than was probably mindful, especially if you’re considering the watersheds in the Iranians and things along those lines. How in the midst of that culture did your communication style through this academic writing and through bringing creativity in work to sway people into a more ecological frame of mind where there could be a meeting of the minds as opposed to this friction and battle?

To some extent, I feel that being involved in that conflict during the 1980s and 1990s prepared me for the political polarization that we face. You may have some memories yourself of the kinds of slogans or bumper stickers or signs that you would see in timber country when you were a kid, save a log or eat a spot at owl. That polarization was real. Two groups of people with very different values coming together in an antagonistic relationship.

In fact, recognizing that there wasn’t the possibility to facilitate real communication through that antagonism led me to make some changes in the way that I expressed myself. Not only through my writing, but through the bumper stickers on my truck or through the clothes that I would wear when going to public meetings. That’s important because we find ourselves at a place where the polarization seems so amped up that we don’t know how to begin to communicate with other people until we can begin to empathize radically with them.

 

We find ourselves right now at a place where the polarization seems amped up that we do not know how to begin to communicate with other people until we can empathize radically with others.

 

For me, it was recognizing, back in the timber days, some of these employees that I would see as destructive. Frankly, I would vilify them in my mind, where people who were trying to keep their paycheck coming in. Maybe get a new bike for their kids or some new clothes for winter. The more I could humanize them, the less I was likely to characterize them in my mind as people that I couldn’t connect to and we’ve got to do that work now.

Jonathan Haidt wrote a book a number of years ago now called The Righteous Mind which talks about how people interpret the world differently through moral frameworks. We’ve got all these sets of moral frameworks. If we’re expecting somebody else to see a contentious situation the same way that we do, we’re probably being a little bit naive.

Care More Be Better | Laird Christensen | Climate Anxiety
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

What we have to do is start by saying, what are the active moral frameworks in this person’s mind? If for example, a obedience to authority or an honoring of authority is primary in their moral frameworks, how do I begin to talk about what we want to accomplish using that framework or even something as simple as fairness. What does it mean to be fair?

There are a couple of different ways to define that. For me, fairness may mean that everybody has an opportunity to achieve the same sorts of benefits or opportunities. For somebody else, being fair may focus on, am I getting enough of mine while other people are getting theirs? Understanding the moral frameworks then beginning to shape our communication strategies around those so that we know who we’re trying to communicate with.

Oregon And Bridging The Gaps

We recognize strategies that allow them to hear us and allow us to voice ourselves in ways that allow us to be heard by those folks. That’s what I was doing before I understood the process of it. I recognized that tension, that horrible antagonism between environmental activists and the logging community was simply not a way of moving forward. I had to figure out a way around that. I don’t think it is yet either. It’s still very contentious. We have this vision, especially those people who live outside of the Pacific Northwest, that Oregon is a very progressive and very liberal space.

Outside of the center that is Portland, Oregon. That is not true. I wanted to share with people this perspective because it plays in to how we get into a frame of mind where we can work to understand the people that are on the other side of the aisle so that we can have a meaningful conversation instead of one that is ripe with anger, dissent, and seeing the other as less.

I grew up in Southern Oregon. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, I went to school in Ashland then in Medford then back in Ashland. The communities were pretty identical even though Ashland was known as being more of a hippie progressive space. More like the Sta. Cruz of Oregon, in a way. That said, the State song was something we sang every day in class, “Onward and upward ever, forward and on and on. Hail to thee Land of Heroes, my Oregon.”

People commonly had the bumper sticker Native Oregonian with pride and would do things like pullover. The police officers would pull over people who came in with California plates persistently just because they wanted to communicate this lack of welcoming, especially in Southern Oregon where we had more people coming through.

Now, as it stands, when you’re a child who may be in a progressive family that has liberal ideals growing up in this community. You’re confronted with this upswell of a very, I would say religious right perspective. Very much freedom and focused on some of the libertarian ideals and much more conservative leaning that is perhaps a little bit more blue-collar, especially as you’re talking about Lumbertown, USA type of perspective.

That community gets a little insular in some ways because they are protecting themselves from the outside influence. The outside influence could be anything like Californians coming in. It doesn’t matter what your skin color is. It’s just Californians are bringing their culture up here and we want them out or also, outsiders are from another perspective. That could be the color of your skin, the language you speak, or the culture you bring in with you.

There’s this need almost from that community perspective to keep things the same as they have been and to try and push out anything new. I have been back to these parts of Southern Oregon and spent time there now many years later and still noticed a lot of those same feelings and feel like this is at the root of some of the challenges that we face, where we have a liberal elite perspective coming in and trying to change something that in their mind, “It isn’t broke. Don’t fix it. Stay out of my town,” type thing.

If we’re confronted with these two very opposing ideals and something as big as climate change that affects everyone that burns the forests that you would seek to log. At the same time, that puts so much smoke in the air that you have to wear an N95 mask to go outside or you are left coughing up phlegm for the rest of your day.

That is what happened when the forest fires were bad in Southern Oregon over the course of the last couple of fire seasons. What is it going to take in your mind to be able to bridge these gaps? I don’t see enough patience from either side to want to listen to each other for the most part. that’s probably the most concerning point, like we don’t have enough patience to listen.

That’s such a great point. Sociologists would describe what you’re talking about as the way that communities of people identify as in groups and out groups. That’s a part of their fundamental definition of who they are, “This is my community. This is what we believe. This is how we see ourselves. We’re different than those people.” The differences are a part of defining how we behave. To some extent, when we ask ourselves, how do we begin to bridge those different groups? We have to start by recognizing we’ll hold on the identification.

The group identification is fundamental to being human. Whatever that in-group is that we identify ourselves apart of. Wishing that distinction would go away is counterproductive. If we start by acknowledging the fact that we are, to some extent, defined by our distinctions, then the next step becomes not so much how do I abolish those distinctions, but how do I begin to communicate across those distinctions?

I want to reference a Climate Scientist from Texas, Katharine Hayhoe, who in addition to being a climate science and the climate advisor for some national organizations. Also, identifies herself as a fundamentalist Christian. She’s got a book called Saving Us that came out, in 2023, which is about how to have conversations with people who disagree at a very fundamental level with the point that you are trying to make.

She points out that simply trying to provide the information and the facts that would help them see that climate change is an urgent problem that we need to address. People are not necessarily going to open themselves up to that. We have to rely on other kinds of communication, even to begin to create these channels for having conversations. Rather than telling them what we think they are to know, to ask them questions that allow us to find some common ground across those differences.

Once we and find common ground, “You have a kid in fourth grade? Well, so do I. What’s that experience been like for them?” We then create these opportunities to have other conversations. From her point of view, it comes from asking questions rather than telling them what we think. I’ll give you one other example quickly.

I lived in Vermont for almost twenty years and we had a local pub in the town that I lived in. I play mandolin and I like to sing. I’m not going to claim that I’m great at it but we had a bluegrass jam there every Tuesday night for many years. It’s still going on now even though I don’t live there any longer. I would go down and play music with folks. It drew together people. Not only from the college where I taught but also people living in the hills around this small village.

I would end up singing harmonizing with people who over time I began to realize might have very different political positions than I do. We were still sharing something that enriched both of our experiences. Even if that would lead later on to conversations where we would recognize, “We see the world very differently. We still were a part of a community together,” because we’re all parts of multiple communities.

Being able to have a relationship with somebody who disagrees with you politically helps you avoid vilifying them to say, “This person votes that way. They must be like this.” Instead, opens up the possibility of seeing them as, “This guy, he’s a great guitar player and I like when he sings a third above me in this part. He votes differently than I do but he seems to be a kind guy and loves his family. I enjoy spending time with him.”

That is a radical act as far as I’m concerned in terms of beginning to address the polarization that entrenched us in those political differences. It may not seem as radical as some of the other types of actions that we talk about responding to environmental threats or to climate change but it is, in some ways, more deeply radical. How do we begin to relate one human to another with people who we are politically or ideologically opposed to?

It’s probably not a news flash to my audience, but I don’t support Donald Trump just as a for example. One of my favorite people is proudly going to vote for Donald Trump a third time this election season. We get through it by teasing one another. It’s okay to like rib someone a little bit and say, “That’s because you’re a uberal and liberal lefty from Ashland, Oregon, that’s basically in the Southern version of that in Sta. Cruz. You go eat your granola and do your yoga.” Neither of which I do but teases me.

I will rib him right back. We can have intelligent conversations about the political systems and the reasons that he makes the choices he makes or supports the ideals he supports. This leads me to another perspective that has helped me to get through these periods where we have such intense debate and division. That is that I see the political spectrum as more of a circle than a flat line.

I have seen that on the extremes, there are specific issues that both sides tend to agree on. As a for instance, let’s say the natural products industry executive, that’s the industry I call home, who loves to practice yoga and doesn’t want to vaccinate their children, has gone through some pretty intense libertarian style ideals but may still vote with the left.

They have some of those same feelings and perspectives that you might find with the activist Trump follower who sees him almost like he is a deity. They agree on some issues but they won’t be in the same room to talk about it at any point. I feel like that’s a disservice to humanity because it’s through debate and it’s through binding together as a community and saying what we care most about that we’re able to exercise change. The political system that we have aligned ourselves in gets so stuck that the positive changes that could affect all people don’t happen as rapidly as they need to.

This is in particular of issue when we talk about climate policy and what the Environmental Protection Agency will set as their goals and guideposts and how we can have clean air and clean drinking water. The things that everybody cares about. We want to have clean air. We want to have clean drinking water. We want to have our kids be well-educated and have access to sports and arts. Yet, what happens?

We end up with diminishing funds in our educational system. We end up with rules that are a little bit too relaxed that end up putting too many greenhouse gases in the environment. As a for instance, I learned that termite tenting produces one of the worst impacts in our emissions from the State of California and would be equivalent to a million cars driving for a year in the state being removed if we were able to get a handle on the elimination of the climate impact gases created through termite tenting. Which is pretty astonishing.

This particular issue doesn’t get pressed because it’s unpopular to talk about. Our governor wants to make everything seem like progress is being made 100% of the time and yet, there’s this one thing that could be neutralizers. There are even methods to neutralize the gases before they would escape. There are methods to eliminate termites without using the gases in the first place. Including raising the temperature in the entire structure to a 120 degrees for a period of one hour and it would kill all termites.

How hard would it be to raise the temperature in the entire walls of a home to a 120 degrees? I’m sure that that could be achieved if we put energy towards that. The greenhouse gas impact of heating the home to that temperature versus releasing so many of these persistent greenhouse gases. It can’t be drawn down. We’re not going to look at that issue.

We’re going to skirt right by it. We should all care about it and it doesn’t get talked about. This is one small example but there are so many of them that we trip over as we walk out the front door that I feel like we need to get to a space where we can have these conversations and have willingness to talk. As opposed to this pointing of fingers, “You’re bad.” It gets us nowhere.

Climate Crisis And Corporate Interests

Your example begins to suggest something about the nature of confronting the climate crisis. That is, we don’t find ourselves with easy choices of this solution is going to take care of things. We constantly find ourselves making difficult choices about, “I don’t like doing this, but it’s better than this.” Probably the example that comes most readily to my mind is seeing people from the environmental community, which I’ve been in for a long time begin to open up to the possibility of small-scale nuclear power production because it does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions the same way that other forms of energy production does.

Now, opposition to nuclear power is deep in my background and for most folks that I’ve grown up with and worked with over the years. That adjustment to a problem, the scale of which is so vast that we have to find ourselves making solutions that aren’t perfect solutions. Perhaps. better than we’re currently doing, prepares us to begin to deal with not only climate change but other wicked problems, which are defined by problems that resist easy solutions.

Care More Be Better | Laird Christensen | Climate Anxiety
Climate Anxiety: Even we find ourselves making solutions that are not perfect, we must make sure that they are better than we are currently doing.

 

We have to make accommodations. Another way that this plays out, especially in the climate activist community, is that I saw a report from Bill McKibben, who I’ve known from years, showing that in terms of solar production and electric vehicle production. We’re doing well in terms of maximizing the production more quickly than was expected. That’s great, but it suggests that, “If this is our solution to too much emissions of greenhouse gases to put more money into these technologies and to buy more electric cars.”

That suggests that climate activists might need to buy into an economic model that at some deeper level they’re resistant to. This idea of sustained economic growth more or better all the time as part of what got us into the problem to begin with. We end up having to say, “In terms of mitigating climate emissions, it’s good that there’s a lot of money and a lot of technological innovation going into this. I may not feel completely comfortable with that myself as I’m trying to scale back as I have been throughout my life on my needs and to live as simply as possible.

We have this schism between people in different parts of the climate action movement that is exacerbated and aggravated intentionally by forces working for different corporate interests that want to create these divisions. The want people on one side of that division to be pointing at others. Those people who might be flying around the world doing climate work and saying, “What a hypocrite. How can you be flying here and there where you want to accomplish that?”

Michael Mann has a whole book on this called The New Climate War which is about how corporate interests are fueling fragmentation and dissent within the climate action community. That’s easy to do when there are these fundamental discomfort that we have between, “This is what I’d like to be doing. This is what seems to be working most effectively. How do I accommodate myself to that?” We don’t need to get into this, but that plays into the climate anxiety that you referenced at the beginning of this talk.

Where it’s not so easy to say, “I’m not going to use my car. I’m going to follow a plant-based diet. I’m going to wash out my plastic bags and dry them so I don’t have to buy new ones.” This is an old-fashioned and simple way of how do we live more meaningful and fulfilling lives that runs in to look at the contradictions with the apparent solutions to the urgent problem that we face.

The one thing that I hear again and again from climate scientists is that mitigating carbon emissions, limiting the amount of carbon emissions that we’re putting into the environment is job one. It is the most urgent thing we could be doing. Some of the other adaptations, the cultural adaptations are going to take more time. Some of them will take generations or even dozens of generations.

In the meantime, we have to stop emitting carbon whatever we can do. That leaves many of us in a position where what we’d like to do and what we are forced to do. They don’t sit well together and that’s a part of the anxiety but only a part of it. The bigger part is the vastness of the problem and the disempowerment we may feel as individuals or as families or as communities.

Personal And Systems Changes

Let’s talk about that for a minute because I’ve covered this on a prior episode, I learned that if you had led the greenest footprint possible, like you have stopped driving. You’re composting all your organic produce. You’re buying things without excessive packaging. You’ve gone zero waste. The difference you will have made is akin to a 0.0000000003% impact on our global climate.

The changes that you can personally make, if you’re going to be stalwart about it and do all those things, is small. However, it’s also something that can be compounded, grow and scale and become much more impactful. This is one of the reasons I like this charity that I featured on this show called Eat for the Earth because they’re focused not on making sure everybody goes plant-based 100%. Veganism is the only way. Animal eating is the villain.

They just say, “Eat more plants. Crowd out the other stuff. If you reduce your consumption of these animal products and if we all ate that way. The impact we would collectively make is much greater.” That’s where we can amplify the effect without having everyone become the 0.0000000003% group because it’s going to be near impossible for most people to achieve that unless they live in a very walkable city and they live close to work. Their kids don’t require you to pack a bunch of stuff for them for school every day.

There societal pressures that move against us being able to live in that way and make it harder. Granted, we can make progress. We can do things like get to a space where we have more reusable packaging, where we can have a model that’s more similar to what you see in Germany, where you go to get your soda bottles and they’re all in glass. When you go to grocery shop the next time, you drop them off and they get refilled like life was here in the 1950s.

There’s a possibility to reinvigorate some of these reuse systems. To that point, it’s the systems changes that we need to see. You and I could say, “No war for oil. Let’s stop drilling. Let’s stop fracking. Let’s stop doing all these things.” We don’t individually have a say in whether or not that happens but then there are strong pushes by, for example, Stand.earth, who we’ve also featured on this show, who are saying, “We need fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. Say no new oil projects.”

There are several countries now that are signing on to this, but the smaller countries that don’t do that very much. What has Joe Biden done? He’s signed off on more fossil fuel projects than any of us anticipated. We will produce more oil in this coming year than we ever have. What do you say in the face of that? How do we, as a community, help shift away from that and push for systems changes so that we can make these things a success?

What you’re getting at suggests different scales at which our actions can have an impact. You’re right, if we measure our impact in terms of personal changes, it’s going to seem relatively minuscule in terms of the overall carbon emissions of the country. At the same time, if we measure it differently in terms of personal efficacy. It is part of the solution to climate anxiety. I want to jump into that for a minute before coming back to how we engage with systems.

 

If we measure impact in terms of personal changes, it will seem relatively minuscule. But if we measure it in terms of personal efficacy, it helps a lot in solving climate anxiety.

 

In doing so, I’m going to refer largely to the work of Joanna Macy, who’s been a guide of mine for years, and Chris Johnstone and their program, Active Hope. There’s a book on Active Hope but it suggests a four step process. I had to start paying attention to climate anxiety when my own students at Prescott College began to reach out to me and say, “I’m going to need to take a leave of absence, or I’m going to need to stop graduate school because having to face the reality that I do in class after class about climate change, and social injustice. It’s bringing me down so much that I don’t feel like I have the power to keep moving.”

I reached out. I began looking for resources, and now I’ll conduct workshops for students from time to time. We’ve also built into all of our courses a sense of climate solutions rather than focusing too much on the problems. The four steps that Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone suggest are first that we start from a place of gratitude of giving thanks for what we’ve got in our lives. That enables us to begin from a place of resilience, “Look at what I’ve got going on.” That’s a good place to start.

The second one, which surprises people, is to honor the despair that we feel for the world around us. That honoring feels counterintuitive but in a sense, the despair that we feel, the grief, the fear, and the anger are performing functions, vital functions in helping us prepare ourselves to respond to it. It’s like the warning bell clanging as the Titanic heads for the iceberg or something didn’t do any good.

That’s probably a horrible metaphor because it didn’t do them much good but it’s a warning system. It’s a feedback loop suggesting, “What’s happening right now is not sustainable. You’d better make some adjustments.” We honor that. We express our fears and anger. The next step is to become aware and share with each other the different networks around us in which people are doing work that inspires us, the communities that we feel a part of so that we’re not feeling alone.

The fourth step is to identify action. A single step that we can take because even a small step such as, “I’m not going to drive my car. I’m going to ride my bike instead,” works against what people refer to as perceived inefficacy. If we understand ourselves to be unable to make a difference in the choices that we make. We perceive that inefficacy in ourselves, we multiply the disempowerment that we feel.

However, every step, no matter how small that we take and maybe it’s having a conversation with a friend about climate change or maybe it’s volunteering for an organization doing tree planting or working for carbon taxes or a small step that doesn’t require much of us empowers us. That’s the thing. The challenge that we’re facing is disempowerment in the face of global processes, processes, and international interests that have an investment in continuing business as usual.

This is when we think about engaging with systems. It’s hard not to feel disempowered. This is why frequently with my students, especially if they live in big cities. One of our approaches to education is asking students to engage with their own communities in every class that they take. If you live in New York City, it’s pretty hard to take action that the city is going to respond to. We scale it down. Let’s look at a neighborhood. What action can you take in your neighborhood that makes a difference?

We need people who are engaging at the international diplomatic negotiation level. We need that, but for most of us, the way in which we’re going to be able to have an impact and feel empowered is at face-to-face level or the level of a community and neighborhood organization. Empowerment needs to be happening if we’re going to continue to do the other work that needs to be happening. If we find ourselves engaging with larger political or corporate systems and continuing to feel disempowered without finding a way to connect on a smaller scale, we’re going to get burned out.

Any of us who have worked in activist communities have seen that and probably experienced that ourselves. How do you avoid burnout? By doing something small that feels useful. I meandered a bit there, but if there’s anything you want me to follow up on, I’m happy to do that. I’m glad to hear what you say too.

I would love to introduce an idea and get your thoughts on that. There is a ground swell in the activist community of individuals who are willing to be a little bit like the rebel. It’s okay to be rebellious in your activism, so to speak. There’s a couple of movements within that arena that I find incredibly interesting. I’m not necessarily suggesting that people go out there and do this but one of them is guerrilla gardening. Another is replacing plants that are even in the median of a roadway with fruiting trees or flowering trees that can support the migratory path of butterflies and the community gardening projects and things along these lines.

While these may not seem on the outside to be rebellious. There’s even small ways to participate. For instance, taking your peach pits and littering them when you go on trails because groundwater might sprout them then there could be an edible forest in the property that you hike on. It’s not like it’s an illegal effort. You just happen to throw your peach pit out. Perhaps this can be something that inspires you a little bit or gets you your juices flowing, so to speak. There’s something to that perspective that can make people feel like they’re making a difference even if they don’t physically see it in the immediate future. What are your thoughts?

I’m so glad that you bring that up. There’s a whole field where people are engaged in what’s called tactical urbanism or guerrilla urbanism, which is what you’re providing examples of here, ways in which we manifest the possibilities. Even without going through the entire process that we would need to do something officially.

I think of the example from Portland, Oregon, Mark Lakeman and the City Repair, which supports neighborhoods who are trying to revitalize their communities with these amazing intersection, traffic intersection, and street intersection. Mandalas that people are painting there, coming out and freshening up the paint regularly. Gathering together as a community to celebrate this. When you suddenly are driving down the street, you come across one of these brightly colored painted mandalas at the at the intersection.

Your first inclination is to slow down. That’s a good thing for the neighborhood if you’re not bombing through the intersection. Perhaps, even to get out and look at it. When you’re getting out and other people are out looking at it. It creates these authentic opportunities for people to engage. When you’re bringing together people throughout the neighborhood to freshen up the paint on those on regular basis. Maybe combine that with a potluck and maybe have some people playing live music.

It becomes a community building effort which is at the heart of sustainability. There are examples like that as well where I thought you were going to go with this. It was some of the more I’ll say inspiring because it inspires me actions taken by folks like extinction rebellion. Especially in Europe, but also in the US to some extent, where there is an in-your-face activism.

Sometimes it may seem to be counterproductive when people, for example, will block a roadway to try to make a point about the unsustainability of going on with using internal combustion as we have been. This is a important role for people to play. I trust that my students, but other folks as well, will be able to figure out is that the role for me to play. In making a public response, demonstrating public resistance to an unsustainable set of practices, forces people to think about that.

Even if the initial conversations are, “I can’t leave those people blocked the road. I needed to get to work.” You’re angry at those people. It still forces you to engage at some level with their motivations. I remember a lesson that I learned years ago while writing an essay about sustainable forestry. I was talking with the national forest timber sales administrator. He was telling me that, “In order for changes to be made at the policy level, it requires, as a first step, the civil resistance that makes it a big enough deal that it gets on politicians’ agendas.”

 

In order for changes to be made at the policy level, it initially requires civil resistance. Therefore, politicians make them a big enough deal that it gets on their political agendas.

 

This is an upwelling of discontent. What can we do about this? When the politicians again to shift their priorities around that, it eventually can manifest itself in a change in policy. It’s only when the change in policy occurs that the people working for the agencies can move. For example, clear-cutting national forest land to managed timber units. It has to be ensconced in policy before they can do that.

Now, in the case of city repair, which I mentioned a moment ago. That process of people gathering together to paint their intersections was so successful that the City of Portland has created and posted online basically an application form for any neighborhood to be able to do that. They saw the effects and they created a policy that allows people to engage with that. City Repair has gone on to do lots of other things now including creating housing opportunities for unhoused veterans and other folks who are in some ways you’re not able to take advantage of the opportunities that many of us take for granted.

I’m inspired by any form of activism like that because it helps bring the topics that we need to be talking about to the top of our minds. Sometimes, it can be counterproductive but think back to every major act of civil disobedience. Whether it was protesting the war in Vietnam or demanding access to reproductive rights or anti-nuclear movements or the civil rights movement.

In each case, there was a growth of antagonism that emerged around those events, but that was a part of working through the issue. There’s a writer, Cathlyn Wilkerson, who made a point that said, “It is a magnificent thing to be alive at a time that matters so much.” When we think about the climate justice movement more broadly, think about the people working all over the world who are involved with that.

Paul Hawken, who has been on your show before, has said, “That makes this the largest movement in the history of our species. People around the world are raising up. It’s a magnificent time to be alive when things matter so much.

What’s interesting about my conversation with Paul Hawken and going back to this many times just I’m thinking about it. I have suggested through our conversation that it seemed like he was advocating for us to push from the bottom, which means that each individual would have a say in the progress of this activism movement.

He said, “No, we’re pushing from the middle.” I still don’t exactly know what that means because I feel very much like we’re still pushing from the bottom. Perhaps, the ideal gets us to a place where when we have more than a billion activists that are working at this problem. That becomes the middle. I would argue that we’re not there yet and we’re starting to infiltrate policy making positions, but then there’s still that vying for control within each of those administrations around a globe that essentially means that progress is slower to take root.

Teaching Students

To me, it’s still very much feels like we’re part of that. We’re in the sea that’s rising, so to speak. You could look at that from a climate perspective and say, “Oh crap. That’s what it feels like to me. I wonder what your perspective is as somebody who’s sitting in this professorial capacity, teaching students largely online. Hopefully, educating them about what it takes to network with one another, even through online means because so many people don’t necessarily know where to start otherwise.

They don’t know necessarily what it takes to go to their Chamber of Commerce or the local City Hall meetings or even going and lobbying Congress at their state assembly. They don’t understand the steps to get there. They’re starting from ground zero, let’s say. How do they learn to take part in this or what do you think will help them on this way? Whether it means that they end up in an online course platform like that offered by Prescott College.

When I designed my first online program back many years ago now, environmental studies. I was not a fan of the idea of online learning. My own background is more an experiential field-based education. I like nothing better than to get out into the field with students and learn together to have questions arise from what we’re observing and what we’re experiencing. That’s at the heart of the Prescott College approach.

When the college I was teaching at, at that time, decided they needed some online programs. I was appointed to direct the first one because of my fondness for experiential teaching. The provost who appointed me felt like, “If you can create a program that you would want to teach in that will go a long way towards bringing other people on board.” What I’ve been trying to do in various permutations ever since is to create online courses which make them available to people all over the world when they’re able to access the course.

Care More Be Better | Laird Christensen | Climate Anxiety
Climate Anxiety: If you can create a program that you would want to teach in, that goes a long way towards bringing other people on board.

 

In terms of accessibility, it serves a lot of people. In which each course is built on the experiential techniques that I’d been exploring earlier in the field. Sending students out, for example. In a first course to trace the path of water from their rooftop down to the closest culvert down to a stream or down to a river to get them out in their communities or in a course like social equity and community engagement, to have them go to city planning meetings. Figure out who’s represented and who’s not represented to meet people.

We’ve created a whole curriculum, multiple curriculums that allow students to be online students but the assignments lead them to engage in their own communities. A very typical assignment is identify the ways in which your community is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. As I suggested earlier, when talking about climate anxiety, we’ve begun to build on to that. Now let’s think about climate solutions.

What have you heard from different people or organizations who is there in your community who’s doing this work? Can you interview somebody who has these ideas so that you’re using those online courses to create these networks? That students can step into in the beginning as an interested student who wants to hear more about that but eventually hopefully as colleagues. We continue to add more courses as we recognize the needs facing us.

For example, we added a water resources and management course that serves different needs for students who are living in the Southwest along the Colorado River drainage. As for students who are living on the Chesapeake Bay and over in Switzerland or down in Peru. In each case, as students go and learn about the water resources and the threats to water resources in their own areas. They’re sharing that with students.

While they’re getting to know their own circumstances much better, are also achieving this much greater context by hearing from other students answering the same questions but from places around the world. We’re creating these multiple networks. We’re encouraging local networks, regional networks for students to become a part of, but we’re also creating a global network of people who have been studying together.

I’ll just provide one quick example. In a course on land use, planning, and policy, you are exploring. What are the local zoning ordinances? If I want to have chickens in my yard or if I want to turn my front yard into a garden. Students are looking in finding where those ordinances are. They’re also hearing from other students in other places and realizing not only is this not the only way to do things here but they may be realizing, “this is not the best way to do things at all.”

That encourages them to begin asking, “How do we go about changing learning ordinances in this community? What are the processes available? What do I need to do? What information data do I need to bring together to begin this process? It’s all about empowerment. We’re empowering people to try to make differences in their own communities and understanding that that is more accessible. At the same time, we are helping them understand how do you engage in these larger global, national, and international processes. That’s what it’s about for us. I hope that answered your question.

It does. It also begs another question, which is connected to our earlier discussion about moving from these more locally focused projects into something that could be networked on a larger scale. You mentioned from Peru as a for example. Other students who might be in Arizona or New Jersey, or Denver.

They could be anywhere in the United States. They could literally be anywhere in the world. Are you seeing examples where these students are collaborating together in an effective way to push for similar change and learning from one another? I’m curious to see what you’ve seen and if you’re seeing hope in that arena as well.

Let me start with the last thing that you said. I take so much hope from the work that I see our students doing. I’ve been teaching for a long time in different disciplines as different as English and ecology. I love teaching, but I never felt as that my work was as meaningful as it has felt since. I’ve been training students to go out and make a difference in their communities because now I see the projects that they’re taking on.

I’m recognizing, “I’m not helping the student understand something better or preparing them for a job.” Although, we’re doing that as well but they’re having actual impacts on their communities. I would say, primarily the way they are benefiting from each other’s experiences there is through examples, through seeing what other students are doing. Whether that’s creating community gardens or one student put together a proposal for citing solar panels on an abandoned landfill in New Jersey.

We’ve had students working for the Forest Service or for the Environmental Protection Agency who were able to use their courses to create new plans or new projects that other people then see “I could potentially do that through my job as well.” There are so many examples that I have bouncing around in my mind. One of our students up on the Hudson River in New York has been researching and experimenting with wind-powered commercial delivery up and down the Hudson, revitalizing some of the old schooners that would move up and down the Hudson, delivering goods from one place to another.

Folks putting into action what they’re learning. Starting with the theory, moving to the practice, and imagining what abilities are there for creating climate solutions through the avenues available to me, then doing that and sharing it with each other. It is so hopeful. I credit much of my ability to stay optimistic with what I see my students doing. I know there are a lot of people who aren’t doing that work, but I’m surrounded by people.

I almost said young people, but in fact, plenty of our graduate students are in their 40s and 50s and even beyond. There’s another example. A retired military gentleman from Southern Arizona went up to work with the Navajo Nation in terms of providing some solar arrays up there and being able to get power to an area that the power lines weren’t getting to. My day is filled with inspiration from students who are making a difference. I’m feeling grateful for that.

Empowering Communities

That’s great to hear. I hope that we can have another deeper conversation at a later date or perhaps hunker down on the topic of the great migration that is happening from the global South. I’d love to dig into that a little bit further with you at a later date. Also, to land this conversation with a bit of inspiration. I was hoping that you could share a couple of closing thoughts or if you had a question that you felt like I should have asked and didn’t. You could ask and answer that.

You asked a number of questions that caught me by surprise but I welcomed all of them. I appreciated just the chance to have this conversation. I’d like to circle back around to the work that we need to do at this time in terms of encouraging one another. When we see ourselves in the company of friends who are losing hope or who are feeling despondent or disempowered to figuring out what are the opportunities that we might have to address those feelings.

As I mentioned from Joanna Macy’s work earlier that begins from a place of gratitude, but then honoring those feelings of despair. I feel like this is the direction that I feel called to work in. Maybe I’m going back to the cheerleader role that I mentioned at the beginning when I was writing poems in the forests to inspire other forest activists. It’s because I’ve felt what it’s like to have a student feel so disempowered by the reality that they need to pull back and care for themselves.

That’s important. Rest is revolutionary, as some of my colleagues like to say. We need to be getting that as well. We also need to be providing a community at whatever level even if it’s 2 or 3 friends sitting down over tea or going for a walk together and asking how we can support them and maybe this answers your question more about what else could we have talked about. There are too many different challenges facing. There’s no way that you could respond to all of them.

To listen deeply enough to know that, “I feel drawn to do this but as I’m addressing this one thing, I can also be an ally to my people who are drawn towards addressing other challenges. How do we be effective allies without undermining our own efforts by spreading ourselves too then? That’s interesting because building resilient sustainable communities overlaps with many other issues, including social justice and community organization. We can’t have a sustainable community or a sizable proportion of that community feels unheard, disempowered, or left out of the process.

We need to find ways to support our friends who are doing other essential work as we continue to do our own. That’s community building at the small scale level, a few friends, or a neighborhood meeting. Whatever it may be. I do believe in the power of local communities to affect change more broadly, but also to keep us inspired and empowered as we move on. That’s where I would choose to end it. Although, we can go other directions if you’d like.

Laird, I would end that conversation with one comment. That is simply that I feel what you’ve been talking about this whole time is collaboration. Collaboration is empowering because when we’re connected with people and we’re actively working towards a particular item or change, then we get the benefit of community. We get the benefit of friendship, and we also get the benefit of seeing our change take effect.

Whether that be something that you’re taking on from a semi-solo perspective online or in collaboration with somebody across the country or in another country altogether. You’re part of it, even if you are making those efforts from behind your computer. That’s how I would leave it. I want to thank you so much for your time. I’d love to invite you back for a future conversation and dive in a little bit more to some of the social problems that we’re facing as a result of climate change.

I appreciate everything that you’re doing at Prescott College. I’m personally inspired and even considering your PhD program in sustainability education, perhaps just because I want to. It would be a privileged position for me to be able to pursue that but it’s not completely out of this realm of possibility. It’s something I’m looking at. Thank you so much for joining me.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s good to talk with you.

Episode Wrap-Up

To find out more about Laird Christensen and all of the programs offered at Prescott College, please visit the links that we provided. You’ll find a link to our expanded blog page on CareMoreBeBetter.com, which includes the video version of this episode, complete transcripts, and links to the additional resources and episodes we discussed. Including the two others with Prescott College faculty.

As a reminder, we are launching our new Cause Before Commerce site this summer, CircleB.co. This site will host the same content that you find on CareMoreBeBetter.com while also providing helpful tools for you to live a little bit greener and a little more socially engaged. You’ll find how-to guides and DIY tools that can help you renew what you have, replace things that you buy, and reduce your personal waste.

This can be yet another way that you make an impact in your daily life. CircleB.co will also offer plastic-free products from housewares to clothing to supplements and personal care items. All of which are circular in design that minimize waste and seek to limit or eliminate our reliance on plastics. You can explore our landing page by visiting CircleB.co. The eCommerce site will launch a little bit later this summer.

Thank you, readers and watchers now and always for being a part of this pod and this community because together, we can do so much more. We can care more. We can be better. We can even build a more compassionate society that prizes collaboration and reduce our own eco-anxiety along the way. Thank you.

 

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  • Corinna Bellizzi

    Corinna is a natural products industry executive who has earned a reputation for leading the development and growth of responsible brands (e.g. Nordic Naturals, iwi, NutriGold). In her professional life, she champions social benefit programs to enhance company impact while preserving and protecting our home planet. She’s presently working tirelessly on the development of a new pre-market that seeks to achieve a carbon-negative impact. In January 2021 she launched her show, Care More, Be Better: A Social Impact + Sustainability Podcast to amplify the efforts of inspired individuals and conscious companies. Through Care More Be Better, she shares their stories in an effort to show us all that one person with one idea can have a big impact. As part of her lifelong education journey, she earned her MBA from Santa Clara University, graduating at the top of her class with a triple focus in Entrepreneurship, Leadership and Marketing in June 2021.

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