Observations for healing from our climate condition
I write this for my former self. Someone who upon learning about decarbonization innovations would have his brain screaming “Deploy! Deploy! Deploy! Scale! Scale! Scale!” It still sometimes does. But now I’m aware of this carbon exuberance. My shift into thinking more critically about the space pushes me to search for patterns from climate impact that include carbon, but extend far beyond it.
The other day I was reading a newsletter that quoted Dr. David Hawkins’ book The Hidden Power vs. Force: the Determinants of Human Behavior
The difference between treating and healing is that in the former, the context remains the same, whereas in the latter, the clinical response is elicited by a change of context so as to bring about an absolute removal of the cause of the condition rather than mere recovery from its symptoms. It’s one thing to prescribe an anti-hypertensive medication for high blood pressure; it’s quite another to expand the patient’s context of life so that he stops being angry and repressive.
As I read Hawkins’ words, I couldn’t help but think: climate change is the condition of our time. Most of the discourse today is around how to treat it. Yet I’ve become increasingly concerned that just treating the condition will put us on a collective jump out of the fire into the frying pan. If we look at the climate solutions world with a healing lens, not only can there be a paradigmatic shift in the way in which we deploy and scale activities to address this crisis, but we might even be able to begin to heal the parts that cause it. And perhaps, treating and healing can create a regenerative and co-evolving cycle.
What does it mean to treat?
To treat means to make the condition subside. Simplified by science, “treating” the ailment of our climate we’ve created is to stop and reverse the greenhouse effect while finding ways to be more comfortable in a warming planet.
One the one hand, treating means learning to adapt to our condition. We crank up our ACs during heat waves. We move to new places after our homes become unlivable. We raise budgets for responding to increasingly devastating disasters. We dump millions of cubic feet of sand to keep the ocean at bay.
On the other hand, treating climate change means to stop the condition from getting worse, aka mitigation. By now most agree that pollution caused by humans is what’s driving the problem, then we must find all ways possible to stop the pollution. This calls for mobilizing a warlike effort to decarbonize our planet. Treating includes setting targets to decarbonize at percentages that get higher and higher (a result of not treating enough in the first place). Treating means using Market Based Instruments to scale and deploy anything that can help us do that as fast as possible.
Treating gauges success of decarbonization by dollars. Can we damage less and still make money? For large corporates, it means hiring armies of consultants focused on optimization, marketing, developing net-zero targets. They discover the tradeoffs with how to treat and still make money under business as usual rules. Because climate change is so complex, there are many micro-treatments that we might make. Without understanding how they interrelate, treating can optimize addressing one condition at the expense of another. Last month, I co-hosted a podcast featuring Elizabeth Kolbert who talked about her new book, “Under A White Sky” where she pointed at a number of “treatments” gone awry.
For the record, I’m not against treating climate change. We should, and must. Especially when our treatment remedy happens with eyes wide open and is a thought out in a plan that is achievable and desired, not just some goal that’s never met or watered down when it gets to the signing desk of a CEO or legislative body. But even the best treatment is not going to shift the paradigm. And when focused on treating alone, we may be missing amazing opportunities to heal that are right in front of us.
So what about healing?
The clinical definition of healing is to make something whole. By default healing requires looking at an interconnected system. Healing creates convergence, restores balance, forces observation on what is most in need of restoring. Below are some examples to help shed light on where healing and treating can meet.
John Liu, television producer, ecologist, and co-founder of ecosystem restoration camps has stumbled on a healing approach that looks to the places that most need it. His work engages the most impoverished communities on the most degraded landscapes to restore the ecology of a system. He’s been at the helm of restoring landscapes to return barren landscapes to lush and productive agro-ecological systems.
The urban heat island disproportionately affects black and lower income neighborhoods on hot days. Below is a map of Cincinnati, showing the hottest day of the year. More money needed for energy bills from those who can least afford it paying it.
Trees could help create shade, reduce the heat, and capture the water. The below treemap helps the city plan and prioritize based on need.
This work was nested amongst 13 other cities. While on the topic of Cincinnati and energy bills and city action, it’s worth highlighting their energy efficiency program. With the least energy efficient homes are in the poorest areas, the program offers directed programs to reduce costs.
Work from within the community
The most effective healing is often driven from peer-driven change. It makes sense. Communities understand themselves best, what they need, and what they can do. A Stanford Social Innovation Review article “When Peers Work Together to Drive Social Change” emphasizes three factors from this phenomenon:
- Self-determination and initiative: Individuals and families define and lead for themselves the improvements they seek in their lives and communities since they are closest to their challenges and know best how to overcome them.
- Mutual support: Individuals and families, informed by the experiences of pioneering peers who have succeeded at getting around barriers, help each other by sharing knowledge and resources.
- Financial capital: Families and individuals share funding from internal sources (such as savings groups), as well as from external sources.
Ideas that emerge from these frameworks not only have a better chance of lasting, but they also strengthen the bond of the community to be more resilient (read: able to treat). This framework nests in Elinor Ostrom’s work on governing the commons by creating a pathway forward where localities can improve and use common pool resources.
Double down on Restorative Justice
While some celebrate the shutting down of coal plants, this is treatment. 30 years ago, people thanked coal-miners for risking their lives to keep the lights on. Healing starts with honoring their experience and asking those who are part of the community questions like: Do you feel like anything is owed to you? What would honor your experience? Do you want to stay in this community? What would be the best use of your skills? This would help healing through restorative justice.
Restorative justice is a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offense come together on a voluntary basis to collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the offense and its implications for the future. Imagine the day when companies and governments take full ownership for their part in the harm caused and are forgiven by the communities (and world) they’ve caused harm to. Imagine if the crimes of colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism were fully acknowledged for the ripples they have created in our society. Then the healing could begin. It would take listening. Forgiveness. Finding victims. It also would take empowering those who have been hurt, should they be willing, to be guides to the future. It would create an undoing of the tragedy of the commons toward the collective action. New bonds could be established where we took care of each other and our planet. For those who have benefited under such a system, it can be uncomfortable work. But when done in earnest, is truly transformative.
Look to the tools that can make sense of the system
Because healing is about eliciting a change of context so as to bring about an absolute removal of the cause of the condition, it’s useful to understand the degree to which treatments can move us closer to removing interrelated causes. Treatment can happen in a silo, but not healing. Healing must understand the pattern of the ecosystem that must be restored to thriving and contextualize our interventions.
In a world of growing emissions, greater polarization, and heightened uncertainty, it can be hard to heed a call to slow down and look to what’s already been healing us. From this we can treat and heal in a truly regenerative cycle. But before spending more money, creating more goals and key performance indicators, devising new market based incentives, it would behoove us to ask ourselves, specifically, what is it that we’re trying to heal from?