This past Halloween, I had a terrific concept for a ghoulish costume. However, before I took it a step further, I decided to pass the idea by my wife.
“Do you think that will really help?” she asked.
That’s after I revealed that I wanted to dress up as the latest Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change (IPCC) report about the terrifying state of our planet. I had concocted a plan to spook the heck out of parents with it. Perhaps it was an interesting idea, but do we really need more fear?
I totally understand that many parents have real concerns about climate change and that some are even taking action. However, what really got me going on my Halloween theme was a recent gathering, where I heard multiple — politically and socially active people in the Brattleboro community — talking about their family trips, jetting off to parts of the U.S., Europe, South America, for all kind of activities — skiing, vacations, family visits and more.
In light of the IPCC report, I had lots of questions.
Don’t get me wrong — staying connected with family, exploring the world, and having fun are all really important things. But a part of me was more focused on all the information that was left unspoken.
Under what energy source did you get there and at what cost to our world? Can we really continue to live like this? What will that look like for your kids and our world if we do?
Why do we suppress so much important information about what we do and what it really means? Can we at least talk about these things?
I kept these questions to myself, but I ask them now, in lieu of an appearance with my proposed scary IPCC Halloween costume.
As each year passes and as climate change hastily presses down on our world, it’s becoming evident that the relationship between our everyday behaviors and the devastating ecological realities that we and our children face are mounting heavy upon us. There’s just far too much evidence, and it’s prodding, tugging and gnawing more and more on the edges of our psyches.
And I can’t think of any group that’s more impacted by climate change, and with more to lose, than parents. I can only imagine the fear that lurks behind all the “lifestyles as usual” talk.
As a dad and a mental-health professional actively engaged in work around climate change and community transformation, I often look to the field of psychology to gain a foothold into what’s going on here. Unfortunately, mainstream psychology has largely been mute about climate change.
In the not-too-distant past, I even had a clinical supervisor who believed client concerns about ecological loss were not within the purview of psychotherapy. Talk about those tricky psychological defense mechanisms at work.
Thankfully, some in the profession are thinking, writing and acting on the issue. One of them, Lise Van Sustern, a forensic psychiatrist in Washington, D.C., describes something she calls “pre-traumatic stress condition” (PTSC) regarding our relationship to climate change.
Each year, we are being exposed to more climate disasters in the news and on social media — the devastating hurricanes, floods, and horrific fires, like the recent ones devastating California as I am writing this article.
However, for those of us experiencing PTSC, it differs from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in that we haven’t personally experienced a disaster yet, although we are conscious that climate-caused calamities are in part created and amplified by us and our actions. It’s also knowing somewhere in our minds that climate chaos is heading our way.
Sustern’s pre-traumatic stress condition around climate change can cut in diametrical ways. At one end of the spectrum, it can motivate us to be agents of change, to imagine the impossible, to be honest and real, and to connect us so we can begin transforming our communities.
As author Rebecca Solnit writes, “Taking action is the best way to live in conditions of crisis and violation, for your spirit and your conscience as well as for society.” This can be a powerful response, one aligned with the best notions of what it means to be a warrior, one that can join others to heal and remake the world no matter the odds.
On the other side of the spectrum, this climate change stress condition can shrink our imagination to fit only how we are living right now and to cling fearfully to a way of life perhaps modeled for us by our parents and the mainstream culture. What looks like inaction may actually be an intense activation of our industrial-strength psychological defense mechanisms at play.
And even though it sometimes appears as if many parents have gone post-emotional about the state of our world, I know what’s at work here is mostly fear masquerading as avoidance, powerlessness and hopelessness. So, if you’re tending toward this, what’s a parent to do?
It turns out that there is a great movement — a spark of hope — for parents right in Vermont: Mother Up!: Families Rise Up for Climate Action. Mother Up! is a program of 350 Vermont, and its name is a call to action for our planet.
Think of “man up” flipped around and turned inside out to mean something we totally need. Think Earth-warrior parents. With groups meeting monthly in Brattleboro, Burlington, Montpelier and Middlebury, Mother Up! has a vision to build across Vermont locally based parent networks that not only participate in climate justice work but also to turn out leaders.
The program is a great place to learn, bring your ideas, come together and for your family to get engaged in a way that makes sense. Best of all, it’s working!
As a parent, I experience the fear and trepidation, and that’s why joining Mother Up! has been so important to me. There’s just too much to deal with here. The personal choices we make are one thing, but then there’s also holding corporations and our political leaders accountable.
In addition, we have to contend with the toxic grip of the fossil-fuel industry and a particular walking climate disaster in Washington, D.C. And then, in October, scientists were basically telling us that time’s up with the frightening IPCC report, and now we’re seeing the signs almost daily.
But gloomy soothsaying, pessimism, fear and even scary climate reports don’t really inspire me to action. Really, in hindsight, neither would have my crazy Halloween costume idea.
What hits the spot for me is working with others. It’s seeing parents bringing their best selves to envision and manifest something restorative and beautiful for life on our planet and for our children. That’s why Mother Up! is so inspiring.
In fact, parents just might be the sleeping giants that this moment has been waiting for. Think about it again: Who has more at stake?
Czech statesman, writer and former dissident Václav Havel once said, “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart.” That quote perfectly sums up the type of “active hope” work of Mother Up!.
So does Dr. Martin Luther King’s idea about resistance and “creative maladjustment” from his stunning “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution” speech.
We all have this one chance to be part of the repair, redirection and transformation of our culture. And most of us know, at least at some level, that this moment is calling us. That’s why it is so powerful to witness parents engaged and charting a course of collective action and resistance against all odds, while shining a light on hope.
So, perhaps taking sincere and authentic action on climate change should even be considered a fundamental parental responsibility. Imagine what that would do.
And don’t be fooled into thinking this is about just changing light bulbs or driving electric cars. This is about monumental, radical change and positioning ourselves as warriors for deep transformation.
At this crucial point in time, tell me: What’s the orientation of your spirit?
Dave Cohen is an integrative psychotherapist in Brattleboro (davecohencounseling.com) specializing in approaches in mind/body modalities and ecopsychology. He is also the founder and director of VBike (vbikesolutions.org), an advocacy group dedicated to promoting new bike design and technologies for everyday bicycle mobility in Vermont.