Emotions and the environment: its the consequences that matter.
by Stan Hirst
This past week the Suzuki Elders held a salon on environmental leadership and the emotional impact of a changing world . We mulled over no less than sixteen emotions and their internal dynamics of causation and possible benefits. We shared anecdotes of how emotions affected ourselves and our personal feelings.
I came away from the Salon with a vague feeling we had missed something important. It dawned on me only many hours later what it was. We had neglected to give due consideration to the importance of the consequences of our emotions over climate disruption.
Whether we intend it or not, all emotions engender some of form of consequence, either for the emoter or for those at whom the emotion may be directed. Evolution has seen to it that we are all attuned to some degree to the emotions of others. Reactions are often sympathetic as with grief, worry, anxiety and similar emotions, but they could be antagonistic. Images of people expressing worry, sadness or grief over personal loss almost always cause a reaction in me, even though I may have no idea who the distressed are and, in fact, I may be simply viewing their images on television. Some of us men have a finely honed skill of situation avoidance when social emotions are on the rise.
Why are consequences of emotions so important? Here is one example of why. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, has built a widespread reputation as someone who deplores the inequities and unfairness of the American capitalistic system. She has channelled her anger into political action and has become an iconic figure of considerable influence. She has been touted as a possible U.S. presidential contender. On the other hand, Ted Kaczynski was an accomplished mathematician from Illinois and was born in the same era as Warren. He expressed similar revulsion over American-led capitalism, but he chose to express his anger by becoming the Unabomber and killing three people and maiming another 23. Same emotion, different consequences.
Emotions are complicated, and so are their consequences. People experience many feelings, often contradictory, when reacting to something as important and complicated as climate change, and the consequences of their emotions are not always predictable or entirely rational. A lot of us feel guilty about climate change. We Elders participate in propagating the message about individual responsibility for climate change. We urge our fellow citizens to reduce their carbon footprint. We lecture the youth on reducing, reusing and recycling. All good stuff, but might it make our fellow citizens feel guilty that they aren’t doing their moral duty and are consuming more than their fair share? A few of us are given to intoning that all shall suffer the consequences of these moral lapses. We deserve droughts, ice storms and rising seas because of our wanton, consumptive ways. Perhaps we do.
Our emotions, although common and understandable, may not always be rational or productive. Few of us show any inclination to act alone and renounce the non-sustainable conveniences and consumption that modern life offers. We need to remind ourselves that we constructed the present system with modernity and convenience in mind. Our homes are often far away from our work sites because we expect to be able to drive to and fro. Many of our cities were built in regions with high summer temperatures. That reflects in part our conviction that we expect to be productive throughout hot, humid summers because we expect to have air conditioning.
Emotions such as fear and guilt (about climate change) are unavoidable and very human but are highly likely to have counter-productive consequences. To avoid the discomfort of experiencing the guilt emotion we may avoid thinking about climate change and what life will be like for our children and grandchildren. We blame ourselves, yet often overlook the failure of our leaders.
If I had to prioritize emotions around climate change on the basis of importance, I would choose anger. It seems much more rational than guilt and potentially more productive if one considers the consequences of getting angry. Nothing fuels determination for change as much as getting thoroughly ticked off by someone or some situation. There is a sense of diffuse anger at the unfairness of the global situation. We didn’t ask for it but it is the world we inherited.
But anger is easily misunderstood. It often leads to violence but need not and should not. That seems counterproductive. Lama Surya Das observes that learning to understand the causal chain of anger’s arising as well as its undesirable and destructive outflows of anger and its malicious cousin hatred can help strengthen the will to intelligently control it. Recognizing the positive sides of anger and perceiving what is wrong in situations, including injustice and unfairness, helps moderate our blind reactivity to it and allows us to generate constructive responses.
A lot easier said than done, but worth considering.