Caught between two worlds

My life seems very strange at the moment. I find myself frequently swinging from intense awareness of the near-time implications of the climate and ecological breakdown to being absorbed in the normal routines of daily life, living as if we still have forever and life will carry on as it is until we all die peacefully of old age. It is surreal to be participating in small acts of civil disobedience at work by surreptitiously sticking XR ‘climate emergency’ stickers around the place, whilst at the same time spending hours at a time engrossed in work that, I suspect, will be completely irrelevant within the next decade. It is strange to be moved to tears by speeches from outside Parliament following UK MPs declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ as I cook a baked potato for dinner and plan what I will wear to the conference I am travelling to tomorrow. It is surreal to be discussing my daughter’s career aspirations with her at the same time as knowing in my heart that huge changes are ahead and it is unlikely she will have the career, or future, that she dreams of.

Since travelling to London to join the rebellion at Waterloo Bridge my internal landscape has shifted. Or rather it has begun to shift less dramatically from oblivion and distraction into despair and panic because, as I expand my social circles to include people who are aware of the catastrophe we are facing, my knowledge and expectations of what will happen to society because of climate change and biodiversity loss becomes more integrated into my ‘normal’ life. Even though climate catastrophe is still the first thing I think of when I wake in the morning, and even though I am still often plunged into intense emotional flashbacks when my attachment wound is triggered by the fear of what is to come and how alone I will be with it, the ecological crisis feels more real and less like something that I have made up or exaggerated in my own mind. I feel less isolated with the knowledge and awareness I have now that I am meeting other people who are also awake to the magnitude of what is happening.

And it helps that there is growing awareness among the public that things are ‘not okay’ and the government needs to act, even though I know many people, including activists, haven’t explored the science as much as I have and haven’t quite fully grasped the urgency or the fact that is almost certainly too late to avert ecological breakdown now so we need to start working on harm reduction and damage limitation. It does help, though, that it is becoming more acceptable to express concerns and fears and it is becoming more normal to be met with discomfort when I mention climate change rather than ridicule or surprise that I would be experiencing anxiety and sadness over something so distant and unrelated to my (although someone at work played a ‘practical joke’ on another colleague and turned his office into a ball pool while he was on annual leave – 100o plastic balls filling the small office amused most people but totally enraged me, so how much real awareness there is of the crisis we are in is unclear).

Of course it is hugely encouraging that the UK Parliament this evening is the first in the world to admit that we are in a climate and ecological emergency. Of course it is inspiring to look back and see what has been achieved over the past few months and to think of what could be achieved in future if we all pull together to help the transition. And of course it is reassuring that so many people are waking up to the reality of our predicament. But it is also easy to get swept along and forget that all we’ve seen so far are words, not actions – at the same time as a climate emergency is being declared new coal mines are being approved, fracking continues, the High Court today rejected an appeal against the legality of the new runway at Heathrow, and the economy remains focused on growth, with well-being still being measured by GDP. And it is easy to forget that even if the UK miraculously does what is needed, we are just one country – even if it reduces its emissions to net zero (it’s actual emissions, not the ones calculated according to Michael Gove’s lies) by 2025 there is still so much more that needs to be done and hundreds of other countries that need to act also, if we are to avert utter catastrophe and devastation. And it concerns me that if declarations of climate emergency don’t lead to immediate and drastic action they will end up doing more harm than good, because they imply we can be in an ’emergency’ and yet carry on with business as usual. Ideas of a ‘green industrial revolution’ and calls for a Green New Deal and the creation of ‘green capitalism’ concern me because they are not enough and they don’t challenge the toxic heart of the system that is killing the planet and causing so much suffering. It is capitalism itself, and our obsession with consumption, that must be toppled, and I’m not sure there is time for that transition to happen before capitalism self-implodes and takes us all down with it.

It is also unclear how much people are really willing to change and sacrifice. What are people prepared to lose and leave behind to give us a chance of surviving as a species? We don’t just have ten years to start making some changes – within ten years the way we live must be completely different if we are to have even a chance of avoiding catastrophe. I’m not sure people understand what is meant by catastrophe either, that when climate scientists talk of environmental catastrophe they mean disaster on a global scale; floods, droughts, wild fires, crop failure, water shortages, wars over resources, mass starvation and possible human extinction – in the near-term, and in the global north as well as the global south, where the tragic impacts of climate change are already being seen and felt.

So we need to prepare and adapt and limit the damage as far as we can, but also things need to change. It scares me almost as much as irreversible climate change and mass starvation that things will carry on as they are indefinitely, that in acting a little but not enough we will just be kicking the can of over-consumption and exploitation of the natural world further down the road. Instead of transitioning to a fairer and kinder world where we nurture ourselves and each other and understand we are the environment, not something separate from it and able to control it, we will just be tinkering around the ages and putting off the inevitable for a few more years, decades at most. This worries me because our current way of life is unsustainable. Not just physically, from a resources point of view, but emotionally, mentally and psychologically also. We are so cut off from the natural world. We are living in a system which puts us in constant competition with everyone else, a system which makes us sick and tired and stressed, a system which leaves us isolated and lonely and unable to meaningfully connect with others or ourselves. The obesity crisis, alarming levels of mental health disorders in the young, the epidemic of loneliness in the aging population, childhood cancers, knife crime, mass shootings, poverty, terrorism, rape and domestic violence, animal abuse – all these things and more point to a human race that has gone so very wrong, a species that is poisoning itself in an attempt to control nature and protect itself. I find being part of this world deeply painful, my heart hurts for all the humans and non-human animals who are suffering so greatly, and sometimes it feels as though human extinction is for the best – our time is up. And, as I’ve written before, I’m not concerned about extinction itself, but I am concerned about what happens between now and us going extinct, how much suffering and loss there will be, what we will do to each other in the process.

An awareness of all this is intense and hard work. There is deep grief to work through, fear I must learn to soothe, and joy I must struggle to still connect to as this horror story humanity is writing continues to unfold day-by-day. Sometimes it is easier to lose myself in activism and blind hope, rather than a more active hope that is based on the reality that comes after despair has set in. Sometimes it is easier to make plans with my daughter than consider the truth that our dreams may not come true. I often find myself jolting back into an awareness that this is really happening and I lose all focus at work and find it hard to motivate myself to do anything. I’d hoped I’d be able to start living differently as a result of this new level of awareness I’ve had the past few months, but it seems in some ways it has merely amplified my existing struggles. It is like complex trauma on a grander scale, where present day life can be so very okay one minute and then suddenly I am plunged into an emotional flashback and the threat of annihilation experienced decades ago feels like it is happening right now. It is a strange place to be, swinging between such different world perspectives, and these are strange and difficult times to be living in for sure.

Where I am

There is so much I want to write about on this blog already, so it is hard to know where to start. For the past two days I’ve been glued to my Twitter feed and instagram, watching the rebellion unfold in London and across the globe, wishing I was there and knowing I will be next time, when I’m not in the middle of a house move. I met with local members of XR on Monday to sing in my city in solidarity with those in the capital, but whilst I am feeling inspired and moved to tears by all the activists joining in love and peace for us to have some kind of future, I am also feeling deeply sad and fearful. As Jem Bendell’s opening speech made clear, our future climate is no longer under our control and we need to open up to the reality that change is coming whether we like it or not – governments now need to get planning for how to feed us and keep us safe for as long as possible.

I think for this first post I will provide an edited version of the post I wrote on the blog I write about my journey to heal from complex trauma and dissociation, as it gives some background to where I am currently with the climate crisis and where my efforts will be in the future. I’ve been in a dark place for the past two months but I can already see that joining with others and using my voice and my words will be the way I will help to make a difference during these difficult times for our planet. On Sunday I wrote the following, as an attempt to begin to work out what I will do with my life and how I will continue my healing journey as I integrate this new awareness about what is ahead for us. And I wanted to do this in a way that engaged with the scientific consensus and the research by human geographers, engineers, political theorists, sociologists and so on who have taken the science and started to work out what it means for us, as humans, in our lifetimes and that of our children. I am struggling greatly with how I continue to work on my own healing, how I will be able to feel better, whilst around me the world as we know it is being destroyed. Part of the purpose of this blog will be to help me find a way to do this whilst bringing light and joy to the lives of others and taking positive actions now that may help humanity in the future.

I don’t think the fact that we are experiencing dramatic climate change and alarming loss of biodiversity, or that we are killing ourselves and non-human life with pollutants and toxins, is open to dispute anymore (by anyone credible at least). It is clear that we are in the midst of catastrophe – the recent devastation caused by Cyclone Idai, unprecedented wildfires, floods in the US, loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rises, loss of habitats (including human ones), insect populations decreasing by 60%, intense heat waves, children dying of air pollution, plastics found inside people and non-human animals, news reports that a tonne of plastic waste is being dumped in the ocean every minute, the list goes on. The past 22 years have seen the hottest 21 years on record, globally, with the past four being the hottest yet. What scares me most is that all the ‘worst case scenarios’ predicted for 2020 in the 1990s are now coming true – things are at the very worst of the worst they were expected to be, worse even, and still the burning of fossil fuels and industrial agriculture continues. And climate change is non-linear, with tipping points and feedback loops and a huge number of unknowns that could accelerate the warming to the point that the earth is uninhabitable by the end of the century. Whilst some of this is common knowledge, what is less commonly acknowledged is that climate breakdown and ecological collapse threaten our existence; we are in the sixth mass extinction and this isn’t just ‘a pity’ for the species involved – the ecosystems we are dependent upon for food and survival are dying, and with them – so will we. Our current way of life, unbridled neo-liberalism and free market competition, the constant quest for “growth” and “development,” are threatening our existence and yet the powerful elite do not care as long as their riches are protected. As David Attenborough said recently, ‘we are in terrible, terrible trouble’ and ‘time is running out’ – the patriarchal, capitalist separation of humans from nature, of our existence from that of ‘the environment,’ has masked this threat. We talk about ‘saving the environment’ without realising we are the environment and it is ourselves we need to save.

We are nature

Climate change has been on my radar since I was a little girl. From the age of 9 or 10 I would lie awake at night worrying about “the state of the world” and I was really passionate and outspoken about environmental issues, telling my family and anyone who would listen that there was nothing more important to worry about, no point fighting for justice for humans if we had no planet to live on. And lately it’s really hit home to me that climate change and ecological breakdown is not just an environmental issue, it’s a human rights issue, it’s an issue of justice – those who have contributed least to the catastrophe are already paying the highest price, and the most vulnerable in our societies also, those with the least resources and support, will be hit hardest when the crisis accelerates (at the beginning at least). Having been vegetarian since I was 6 or 7, I went vegan in 2013 because I realised that we had no hope of reducing climate change without eliminating the meat and dairy industry. (Of course I care about animal welfare hugely too, in fact I see us as no more important than any other species which is why, probably, I find the likelihood of human extinction easier to contemplate than others do – we are not special and if other species can go extinct, so can we). The winter of 2013/14 was especially stormy and wet and unpredictable – it was frightening and I spent much time with my two best friends at the time talking about climate change, and about the skills we would need to help us in the turbulent times ahead. It’s come up in psychotherapy quite a lot, along with fears and anger and frustration over our consumerist culture and over-consumption and how it is destroying our quality of life and the planet, but for the past few years I’ve been taking time to heal myself and my concerns for Mother Earth have been sidelined (though my work is still on related issues of justice so it’s not that I ever stopped caring).

The UK heatwave in February and the first round of youth strikes for climate on February 15th triggered me hugely and led to a lot of worry about what climate change and ecological breakdown would mean for us and the creatures dependent on the earth for their survival. It was at this time I really came to understand just how serious the crisis is, and that it’s not a future problem or a problem for people far away, it is a threat to our way of life and our existence right here, right now. My daughter, Nina, and I went on the youth strike for climate on March 15th and after this, rather than feeling hopeful and inspired, I felt utterly defeated and isolated – it all felt so real, seeing thousands of young people fighting to have a future, and yet the strikes just felt as though they were much too little and much too late. For a long time I’d written off my anxiety over climate change as part of my PTSD, pathological in nature, and something that I needed to deal with by staying present and focusing on my own life and security. That evening I googled ‘anxiety over climate change’ and found absolutely loads of resources to help people dealing with their fears and grief over the breakdown of the environment and the implications it will have for human life. Whilst it was a relief to know I wasn’t alone in my fears, it suddenly made the whole issue even more real. It turns out people are going into therapy to deal with fears and grief over the ecological breakdown, and it is known that climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’ (this is how the military refer to it, stating that it increases stress on water, food, and energy systems, that can then increase the likelihood of conflict  – domestically and internationally)  so whilst the effects of climate change are causing depression and anxiety, and PTSD for people already directly affected by climate disasters, the stress of climate change awareness also intensifies existing mental and emotional health problems.

I’ve been confused and lost for many weeks now, reading reports and journal articles and absorbing myself in the science, the academic research that has grown out of this science, what the activist movements say and, whilst there are different interpretations of what we should do based on the scientific knowledge we have, there is consensus that we are in a dire predicament. And I think, basically, I am starting to come to the acceptance that it is probably too late to avert climate catastrophe, and that with food scarcity in the Northern Hemisphere (another two summers like the last one we had here where grain production dropped by around 30-40%, and we are in extreme trouble from a food production perspective) and drought and famine in the Southern  Hemisphere, will come mass migration, wars over resources, and probably societal collapse. The World Bank reported in 2018 that countries needed to prepare for over 100 million internally displaced people, here in the UK due to rising sea levels as well as further afield, due to the effects of climate change, and this is not including millions of international refugees. 

And so the question for me now is how do I move forward with this knowledge in a way that is meaningful but does not involve getting lost in denial (which includes most types of activism and a lot of lifestyle politics – apparently going vegan and not flying are the only two things that really make a difference, the rest of the changes needed are all things that can only be implemented by world leaders, and I’m already committed to these two things). I don’t have the answer to this question but it is something I have begun to talk about with my therapist. I don’t want to fall into depression over this because, as my very wise daughter said, if we worry about it all the time now then it may as well be really bad already. It is more important than ever to stay present and enjoy the safety and security and peace we have now, because things are likely to change drastically sooner than we ever expected. I also don’t want to lose sight of the healing I need. In fact it becomes more important than ever that I become as strong and resilient as possible, and am able to build relationships and community, in light of what is ahead. This is something I struggle with – I want to reach out and find new people who are also awake to this, but relational trauma makes this so very hard. I am scared I won’t be accepted in new communities, even though logically I can see that the types of people aware and fighting for climate justice are likely to be kind and open-hearted.

Despite all the unknowns, what is clear is that change is coming – either this will be an end to global capitalism and neo-liberalism and humans will once again seek out deep and meaningful relationships with each other and the natural world of which we are a part, or it will be societal collapse, catastrophe, mass starvation, and possible extinction. At times it feels like I am lost in a horror story, a nightmare of humanity’s own making. It doesn’t feel possible that we have a fight for survival on our hands in our lifetime. The youth climate strike last week felt so surreal – how could I be there protesting to get government to take action to save humanity, to enable my daughter to have a future? How is that necessary? The science is clear now so how are we needing to protest this stuff? It is infuriating and absolutely heart-breaking that corporations are allowed to destroy the planet and the ecosystems we depend upon and we are powerless to do anything. How is this happening? How is it being allowed to happen? How has the wealth of the elite few been allowed to threaten the future of the whole planet and all who live upon it? And what was even more scary were the looks of confusion and bewilderment from passers by, who have no idea of the ecological crisis or what it will mean for them. I’m not completely sure where I will go with my activism now, but I know I want it to be in line with the deep adaptation agenda and that I want to get active and sing a lot whilst raising awareness of the crisis with XR, whose members mostly believe it is too late to avert climate catastrophe but that, if we take drastic action and change the system, we will be able to mitigate some of the worst impacts and possibly prevent near-time mass starvation and possible human extinction. I definitely know that part of my work now will be to raise awareness and focus on getting governments and the media to tell the truth about this crisis. It feels utterly abhorrent to me that as a species we are facing a catastrophe of this magnitude, that humanity is under existential threat, and yet the vast majority of people know nothing about it because it is not on the news or talked about in Parliament. People have a right to know, they need to know, so they can choose how best to spend the time we have left and start to give up the things we cannot carry with us as civilization changes, either by choice and action or by us destroying our home to the point where it can no longer sustain life as we know it.

The only thing that really seems clear and certain is that we don’t know what will happen, there are too many variables, too many unknowns – it is bad and it will get far, far worse, but we don’t know exactly when or how. Sitting with uncertainty is hard. It is something humans are bad at generally and for those of us who grew up in abusive and unpredictable environments it can be especially hard. No one knows what is going to happen or what the best thing to do now is. Should we continue to fight or just enjoy the time we have left, making sure we express gratitude for our comfortable existence whilst thousands are already dying and starving due to climate change? Ultimately, the past few weeks have led me to confront my own mortality, which is something we must all do at some point of course, but beyond that it has forced me to confront my own vulnerability, and the fact that I may not live till old age or be able to protect my daughter from what is ahead. We all live with the vague and uncomfortable awareness that we could get injured or ill or have our life cut short in some way, or suffer a loss we find it hard to recover from, but we have no experience as a species of living through a period when our time on this planet may be coming to an end. It is hard to know what to do. If some of the predictions are correct and there will be a societal collapse within a decade then fuck it, fuck debt, I’m going to rinse loads of credit cards and have a lot of fun with Nina (without flying of course). But if things just get progressively worse and the cost of food rises astronomically due to shortages then having debts will add to my stress, and ultimately could stop me being able to afford to feed us both. So it seems wise to be cautious, whilst at the same time knowing it is impossible to prepare for what may come and that there will be no point being angry with myself in the future for making the wrong choices now.

I do know that however hard things get financially my therapy will be a priority for as long as possible, even though it does prevent me getting out of debt and saving for the future. I know sometimes I get frustrated that it takes so much of my salary, that it means less money for fun stuff,  but ultimately it is what will help me cope with what is ahead and will help me build the relationships I need to support me in the dark times ahead. And I also know I want to continue to heal and let go of some of the guilt that I could find joy and peace and contentment in my heart whilst our beautiful earth is dying. I know I want to make the most of every precious minute with those I love. I know that spending as much time as I can with my friends who don’t live nearby whilst train travel is still possible is hugely important. I know I want to avoid town and supermarkets because I get triggered by consumer culture. And I know I want to spend as much time as I can in places that are still wild and relatively undisturbed, remembering how beautiful the earth is and how deeply connected to it we all are. And I know it is important to me to live in a way that aligns with my values even if they will not, by themselves, enable humanity to avoid what seems to be coming – avoiding plastic, eating locally-sourced food, reducing waste, reusing as much as I can, buying second hand clothes and other things, not allowing Nina to become absorbed in fast fashion, not flying or driving unnecessarily. And it is important to keep in mind that even if these things don’t help the bigger picture, they are part of me living the best life I can, whilst at the same time accepting I have to be part of this capitalist, patriarchal society – I have to ‘make a living,’ I have to let Nina have new things so she is not bullied at school, the pressures of our society that I resent still constrain me and do not allow me the time I wish I had to live in a way that further minimises my impact upon the Earth. I cannot escape the things that are destroying our planet, however much I wish I could.

When I think about what I want to prioritise in the months ahead, it is clear that they are things I would want to be doing to heal anyway – yoga, meditation, wild places, cycling, time with people I am close to, saying no to things I don’t really want to do, living gently and recognising what is important to me. I want to lead by example, like I do with veganism, and show a different way of life not based on mass consumption and exploitation of the earth’s resources and creatures is possible. Maybe we will not move away from global capitalism as a society until it is too late,, but at least I will have shown it is possible to live and not be consumed by material possessions and the constant quest to buy “the next big thing”. I want to live a gentle life – in many ways the type of life that is necessary for someone healing from developmental trauma is the type of life needed to heal Mother Earth also. In some ways this new level of awareness has helped me shift my reactions and occasional resentment around ‘my busy life’ – I want to gift Nina her joy of swimming for as long as possible, I want to see her glowing face when I collect her after training and she talks excitedly about swimming techniques I know nothing about, I want her to feel strong and secure as we face the unknown together. And I want to find a better balance with my work, work which is important but not enough to save us from what is ahead. I want to keep work in perspective, something which is important to do anyway of course, but the need for this feels even more pressing now. I want to get out of debt as soon as I can at the same time as still enjoying life now. I want to take action but not let it consume me or stop me absorbing and grieving the reality, which is that planet earth is dying, and we are running out of time.