Right now, your body exists in a physical space: your feet, your back, your legs, press against some surface. Your lungs fill and empty with oxygen we don’t share. Your fingers rest against a screen or on keys; you can hear a furnace, or an air conditioner, or people talking or laughing, or a bus or cars going by, or the claws of a pet making its way around your home.
It may feel like you are a thousand miles away from all of that, with your mind and awareness hovering in some global ether-realm we call the Internet; but that mind and awareness are still in a body that exists in a physical place, so let’s start there, because that place is still the most important thing.
There is one thing you can do, starting today, to help fight climate change. It costs no money, requires no technology, needs no special education or data, and doesn’t ask you to march in the cold.
(Those are all good things too, and I may come back to them. But today, I want to start in a place where everyone is.)
Build community where you live.
Seriously. Start or join a book club. A hiking group. Toastmasters. The PTA. Your neighbourhood association. A wine drinking night. Paint Nite. A fraternity, for god’s sake. Anything.
Start forming community with real live human beings where you physically exist.
This is not the kind of climate pitch you’re used to. Let me explain:
1. Most of us never talk to anyone about climate change at all, let alone our feelings about it.
Most Canadians and Americans accept climate science and are either concerned or alarmed about climate impacts.
But it probably doesn’t feel like it in your day-to-day life, where it rarely comes up in the media, can be easily eclipsed by 20 disaffected climate deniers in yellow vests coming to town, and almost never comes up for us in our daily conversations. Over half of Americans have not talked about climate change at all in the last year.
(This isn’t my personal experience, because I talk about it all the time, for obvious reasons. To the point I expect people get sick of it and are too polite to say so. I can tell from the looks on their faces that this subject makes them very uncomfortable, and it is an absolute conversation killer on social media. If I post about Frances or Juniper, I’ll get dozens of likes and comments; if I post about feminism or social justice, I’ll get a handful; if I post about climate change, you could fly a solar-powered airplane through the middle of the resulting silence.)
There is a taboo about talking about climate change, which is weird, since we all talk about the weather all the time. Breaking that taboo in real life by bringing climate change up with your friends and acquaintances is itself a form of activism.
2. Our friendships and in-person social capital are declining precipitously.
But it’s not just climate change. It’s not just that this topic particularly makes us uncomfortable and shuts us up. Most of us have fewer friendships than we used to, and are having fewer serious conversations with those friends. The climate taboo is very real (says the woman who’s constantly running into it on purpose), but at the same time, how many of those people who haven’t had a conversation about climate change have actually not recently had a meaningful conversation with anyone about anything?
And if we’re not talking to people, how are we going to face this?
This loneliness and social isolation is bad for our physical and mental health. People need people, even though people are often unbearable shitheads. People don’t need all people, but, you know, we need enough non-shithead people in our regular daily in-person lives to not develop mental and physical health problems. Kind of like vitamin C and scurvy: you need a minimum amount to be healthy; this doesn’t mean you eat a load of rotten bananas because more is always better; but if you try to live without any fresh fruit or vegetables at all, you’re going to get sick.
It’s unbearably corny to call this Vitamin C as in Community, isn’t it? It is. We’ll pretend I didn’t write that.
3. Climate change is an everyone problem requiring collective, large-scale changes to our communities and economies.
Moving on: our social networks and friendships are declining. This affects us as individuals, and it also affects our ability to take on collective issues like climate change.
It affects even our ability to talk about it in a real and vulnerable way. Building those communities is the critical first step to having the conversations and eventually acting on them.
And we’re going to have to act on them as more than individuals.
North America has the most individualistic cultures in the world; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we are consistently losing ground to other, more collective cultures on the fight against climate change. European social democracies, China’s totalitarian state, even small Pacific island nations are doing better at coming up with plans and transitioning their societies away from fossil fuels.
Whereas here, we seem to have a hard time even imagining what a non-individualistic, collective climate action might look like.
Climate change requires large-scale changes, collective changes, but in North America we seem unable to conceive of what those changes might be, beyond what we buy or don’t buy, or what government is in charge.
Lifestyle and purchasing decisions aren’t completely irrelevant, but they’re pretty close.
Think about it this way: if you went back a few hundred years and talked to people about abolishing slavery, and all they could talk about was buying fabric that wasn’t slave-produced, you’d think they were lunatics. Obviously the laws needed to be changed; it should be impossible to buy something made by slaves because slavery should not exist. Period (it still does, but that’s another post for another day). Same thing with carbon: it should be impossible for us to buy products and services with the potential to destroy the planet, and that requires legislative and regulatory change. You can buy low-carbon stuff and that’s fine, but it’s not going to get us where we need to go.
Similarly, yes, abolition and emancipation came from the government of the day, but they were pushed into it by collective action. Not by individual purchasing decisions. By letters, editorials, protest marches, lectures, and collective efforts like the Underground Railroad. By people doing things with their time in their actual biological lives and geographic location. Not on the internet. Not with their wallet.
Today there are examples of meaningful collective low-carbon actions all over the world. Renewable energy co-operatives that build, own, and retain the profits of solar and wind projects in communities. The Transition Town movement, reducing or eliminating the reliance of communities on fossil fuel energy. Divestment, pressuring institutions such as universities and local governments and pension plan investors to take their investments out of fossil fuel companies. Shareholder activism, where company shareholders force companies to reveal how exposed they are to climate risks and the carbon bubble. Lawsuits. Now the school strikes.
It is these actions and others like them that are going to eventually force the hand of government.
We need to work together. That means we need to know each other.
But frankly even just building the community without turning it into some kind of climate group has a vital climate impact. Here’s why:
4. Adaptation impacts are most keenly felt amongst the socially isolated; social connections are key to a healthy and adaptive response
During the European heatwave of 2003, 35000 people died. Many of them were elderly people with loving and caring families, but those families had gone out of town for their traditional August vacations. When the seniors found themselves in dangerously hot living conditions, they had no one to call.
During the Chicago heat wave of 1995, 750 people died. They were, again, mostly socially isolated seniors. They lived alone and had few if any friends or relatives nearby to see how they were doing.
It stands to reason, doesn’t it?
You can have a thousand FB friends and 10,000 twitter or Instagram followers, and when the power goes out, or the floods rise, or the wildfires are burning, or the heat is building in your apartment, none of them will be close enough to help you—nor will you be close enough to help them.
When climate impacts hit close to home, you are going to want to know your neighbours.
We are not just consumers. We are not just voters. We are not just Friends or Followers. We are human beings—mammals, animals who live in a geographic place with other animals and human beings who share that space. For hundreds of thousands of years, that was how we survived fires and floods and famine. We are going to need that again.