The Climate Movement Must Lead with Hope over Fear
We can feel the climate crisis beginning to unfold around us. We feel it in the extreme storm systems that are pummeling countries and communities around the world with a frequency and intensity never before seen. We feel it in the heat from the wildfires that have torn across Australia, the Amazon, and the American West. We feel it in the warmth that is turning large parts of the world to desert as others are flooded by record rainfall and rising seas.
The climate crisis is all around us.
The world is quickly being turned on its head as we hurtle towards and past a series of climate tipping points, each triggering an onslaught of unnatural disasters which are far beyond our ability to control or even predict.
All of this is enough to elicit fear and anxiety in almost anyone on the planet. Yet, the message I am here to send is not one of fear and despair. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Given the severity of the crisis before us, I want to thoroughly caution climate activists and public leaders from using fear as the primary driver of their climate narrative. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be honest about the terrifying realities of this crisis, but the truly terrifying nature is the exact reason we must intentionally craft narratives of hope instead of focusing on our fear.
Of course, fear has certainly proved a potent motivator throughout the history of humanity. It is probably one of the most effective tactics for exerting control at any scale, whether at the level of the individual or the nation. In general, that control is based on a leader or group’s ability to inspire and control the fear. In many cases, leaders and nations wielded whole armies for the sake of inspiring fear. However, in our current “democratic” age, leaders have gotten creative with fear; they’ve intentionally created internal and external dynamics that they can leverage to exert control.
In the case of U.S. presidents, they have historically leveraged and magnified the racialized fears and prejudices of the nation to gain influence. Donald Trump was far from the first president to do this. For instance, in running against Michael Dukakis during the 1988 Presidential Election, George Bush Sr. ran an attack ad about a Black prisoner by the name of “Willie” Horton. “Willie” Horton, according to the New York Times, “while released on a furlough program, raped a white Maryland woman and bound and stabbed her boyfriend.” Bush Sr. leveraged the white public’s fears of Black people and criminals by tapping into a “tough on crime” political narrative all to sway an election. Even though Bush Sr. was a one-term president, the fear-based “tough on crime” narrative has endured for decades.
This narrative has been used by presidents from Nixon to Clinton and beyond, and it has resulted in the “Leaders of the Free World” turning the United States into the Incarceration Capital of the World. All this just for the sake of social control.
Beyond crime, race, and “Willie” Horton, there are other narratives of fear that have been used to influence and control American politics. The most common that I have seen center around the economy, islamic terrorism, immigration, and healthcare. We see each of these issues pop up time and time again during election seasons, and, in each case, the majority politicians focused on using the fears of this society to their advantage without proposing how they will truly solve the underlying problems.
Now, taking a step back, my biggest concern in fear-based leadership is that nearly anyone can leverage a narrative of fear, but fear alone cannot guide us to greener pastures. The sole goal of fear-based leadership is to help people stop being afraid — whatever that may mean. For instance, in the case of crime, this has meant high levels of police spending, the police occupation of Black communities, and the disproportionate incarceration of Black men, women, and children. This supposedly has helped to stem the racialized fears of white people and provide them with a sense of security. That their “security” is at the expense of Black lives matters not to them. As long as the fear goes away, it does not matter how it is accomplished and whose rights are taken away.
The actions that are justified and motivated by fear have rarely proved rational or just. The construction of a border wall helps ease the socially constructed fears of latinx immigrants. The bombing and occupation of muslim-majority nations alleviates the western fears of islamic terrorism. In these cases, the fears are, in theory, addressed and resolved, but the solutions are typically myopic and ignorant.
Not only do the true problems lie unresolved, but the solutions often result in violence, exploitation, and marginalization. This means that fear-based strategies simply cannot be the way we organize our approach to addressing and solving the climate crisis.
Climate justice activists cannot allow this crisis to be used as a tool in the belt of demagogues; therefore, our movement must fundamentally be based on Hope and Love even as we stand in the face of Fear and Hatred. We can, and we must, follow the examples of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and all those who have inspired, led, and participated in movements of hope, courage, and love while being driven by an unshakeable belief in the justness of their cause — even in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.
While we must be inspired by our Ancestors in the Struggle, it’s important for our movement to adapt to the new tools, strategies, and realities of our time and cause. Part of that means, we must begin building our new world today because we already have the tools at our disposal.
Even if governments around the world won’t listen, we must act. We, The People, must be preparing and mobilizing, and that’s not to say we shouldn’t continue to pressure our governments for change, but we must also learn to act with or without the support of nation-state governments.
Our governments have all proven unable to truly address the climate crisis. To a large extent this is because it requires creating new food, energy, transportation, and communications systems which, while solving the climate crisis, would also represent a fundamental shift in political and socioeconomic power.
If our movement is truly successful, then our new social and economic systems will have shifted from centralized to decentralized administration. In practice, this means that everything from food to electricity will be produced, controlled, and consumed at a local or regional level. This will make it exceedingly difficult for multinational corporations, capitalists, and their political puppets to control the public. This is why our governments, which are not truly our governments, won’t act in the way they need to.
As a result, it is up to us to begin to organize and act at local and regional levels to architect and create these new systems from the ground up.
This is where our hope comes from.
This is what we can use to serve as our North Star.
It’s crucial that we work to paint a collective picture of this near-future, distributed, sustainable, and equitable society while we work to build it together. Having a clear image and objective will help drive us forward in the face of the opposition and catastrophes we are bound to face.
We also need to create this new society because, no matter what, our current society will fundamentally change over the course of the 21st century, and we need to make sure this change is in our favor. Whether we are successful or not, our world and our societies will have been shaken to their core by 2050, let alone by 2100.
Of course, this is all rightfully terrifying. To think that my children and grandchildren, if I am fortunate enough to have any, will be born into a world that is wholly inhospitable and hostile to humans is horrifying. It’s that fear, along with the fears of what will happen to me in the years to come, that many leaders are beginning to tap into but not fully moving beyond.
Again, what worries me is the focus, by many climate leaders, on what we are trying to avoid but the lack of clarity on the world we are trying to build. Let me be clear, I am certainly inspired by the leadership and courage of Greta Thunberg and others from the climate movement, but it worries me when the narrative centers around fear and pessimism with seemingly little mention of the work that can be done today to lay a solid foundation for the future we are going to build.
Yes, “the house is on fire.” There is nothing more true than that analogy. However, if we react to the fire with nothing but fear and panic, then we may lose all hope of saving the house. We might never realize that there are fire extinguishers at our disposal.
We just have to break the glass.
The realities of the climate crisis are terrifying on their even own without every leader and activist continuing to fuel the fires of fear. Of course, the fuel has been necessary to draw attention to the issue, but we have to move beyond that. Instead, more leaders need to focus on describing the Third Industrial Revolution that our communities can tap into to help orchestrate our transition off fossil fuels. We also need more discussions around a Just Transition and how we can use the movement off fossil fuels as an opportunity to address historic inequities and marginalizations across class, race, and gender. The Third Industrial Revolution and the Just Transition combined will help us to create a new economic system that prioritizes cooperation over competition.
These are the narratives that we should be using to inspire our communities in the face of the fear the climate crisis induces. These should help give us hope that we can weather the storms ahead and construct a new society that puts people and the planet before profits.