I have been an activist for over a decade, and have been working on climate change for just under a year now. And I have to say, climate change work is much more emotionally difficult that any other activism I’ve engaged in.
For a while now – perhaps back in May of last year – I’ve wanted to have a kind of emotional support group. Finally, after much thinking and some planning, I organized the first meeting of what I’m calling a “climate change support circle” this past Monday.
The most basic tenet of the support circle is confidentiality. In discussion before we started, we agreed that we would not even anonymize anything we heard – our circle is so small that even if I just wrote here about what someone said without giving too much detail, several someones outside the circle could probably make an educated guess about the speaker’s identity. So I will write only about the overall process, and not much about what we said.
Why is this support circle necessary? Because when you work on climate change, you think about climate change. And you will know, and be constantly reminded, that we are fucked. In some ways it’s harder than dealing with the death of someone you love, or even your own mortality – we are looking at the possibility of horrible death for billions of people. And even the possibility of the extinction of the human species within a century or two. People tell me stories of going to the park and then breaking down in tears when they see small children playing, because they know that those children will suffer terribly, and that their lives will be much worse than their parents’ or grandparents’.
People are dedicated, often too dedicated. After all, the fate of the world rests on our shoulders! And more than any other work for social justice, we are racing against time – but against a hazy, amorphous deadline. And at this point, as the first tendrils of climate change creep up on us, we realize that the best we can do is fight like hell to make sure that things will be merely horrible, as opposed to being well and truly fucked.
Some activists have insomnia, others have anxiety, others have constant stress and emotional turmoil. For many, they don’t feel that they can share their burdens with the people in their lives who are not climate change activists. Family, friends, and lovers who might otherwise form a support network shy away from the terrible capital-D Death that is climate change. So, many of us have been facing it alone.
I had two, possibly three models in mind when thinking about the support circle. First is the model of 12-step programs like AA, Al-Anon, etc. that form an almost subterranean, anarchistic web of self-help groups all over the world. From this comes the emphasis on confidentiality. Al-Anon tells its attendees not to give advice, in fact not to respond directly to anyone else’s utterances. For now, we agreed that we would ask the recipient first before giving specific advice – and that it would be better to phrase such advice in the first person – “here’s what has worked for me”.
The other model for me is Bohmian Dialogue, in which participants sit in a circle and talk, with no clear goal, and often the discussion becomes about the discussion itself. I want to inflect the climate change support circles with some flavor of this kind of introspection. I’m not sure how successful that will be. I did say in my opening remarks that we should not be afraid of pauses – this is something one learns in Dialogue. And indeed, a couple of times the circle was silent for a short while.
The third model, of course, is the kind of horizontal organizing that most attendees have done for decades – we have sat in circles large and small in many, many meetings, and hopefully picked up a good sense of listening to the patterns of speaking, “stepping back” if one talks more than one’s share, “stepping up” if less, and having graceful flow to the conversation without interrupting each other. I deliberately chose not to have a facilitator and instead to rely on people’s mindfulness.
One participant sent me some guidelines from Earthways. They are, briefly: speaking from the heart, listening from the heart, “lean expression”, and spontaneity. The last means: don’t hold a thought in your head to say it when it’s your turn or try to “rehearse” it. Keep your mind free and open, focus on the speaker, and when you speak, just say what comes out.
This was tricky. In order to have basic bonds of trust, for the initial meeting I tried to pick specific people I knew or that another participant knew. Participants might know each other (most people knew most if not all other people), but no two participants worked closely together. Luckily, the San Francisco Bay Area climate change movement has so much going on that this was possible. Just one grassroots group, 350 Bay Area, has six campaigns plus four spin-off groups in local sub-regions.
For the initial meeting, I also avoided certain personalities who I thought might dominate the meeting. I figure that once we have run a few meetings and established a culture and a practice, that such personalities might be included with less chance of damaging the fabric of trust and collaboration.
Each person was invited to the support circle by direct, one-on-one outreach, preferably by phone, to explain the structure of the meeting and its rationale. (A previous attempt to organize something via a Facebook “event” and a description therein had failed rather miserably.)
Once we had nine interested people, I organized a time, date, and place that was agreeable to most. Two had things come up on short notice, so we started with a circle of seven. It felt right to some people, a little too big for others. My sense is that, as time goes on, it will not feel too big any more, especially as we should have more time. We meet for two hours, but this first meeting started a bit late and then we had some housekeeping to do in terms of discussing and agreeing to ground rules.
How it went
It went somewhat cautiously, I would say. We are just starting to see how the group operates. The conversation had some fits and starts. A couple of times, someone tried to steer the group to do something specific (like go around the circle and talk about X), but the group resisted. Perhaps the initial speaker just spoke about X themselves, and one or two other people did, and then the conversation meandered away, as conversations do.
I made sure tissues were available, but we never had any real waterworks. I think people are still developing trust and getting used to being vulnerable in this way, in front of people they barely know.
It was quite valuable to hear a range of views. For example, people talked about their attitudes to having or not having children or grandchildren and how that affected or was affected by their perspective on climate change, and I learned quite a bit. But most of all, for me, it was great to hear other people talk about their struggles in maintaining sanity and emotional stability in the face of climate change.
We decided to meet again in three or four weeks. We’ll probably keep it to the original set of nine interested people, at least for now. It’s still an experiment.
In the meantime, I encourage other people to form their own CCSC (Climate Change Support Circle) and share how you did it and what works for you!
We never did meet again.