Getting Real Without Shutting Down

By Laura Schmidt, Office of Sustainability

How do we as human beings sit with the knowledge of climate change without shutting down? For some, the solution has been to ignore the issues, emotionally distance yourself, and hope someone else solves the problem. But as someone who has been involved with and studying environmental issues for nearly a decade, I have to constantly remind myself to be present with the world; I cannot help solve any problems by shutting down.

Petting this beautiful dog helps me from shutting down

Petting this beautiful dog helps me from shutting down

The world needs people who are informed, engaged, and passionate about change. Additionally, I cannot take myself too seriously and think it’s on me as an individual to solve all of the world’s problems. Internalizing the world’s problems causes people to shut down. I’m learning how to balance my personal responsibilities as an aware and engaged citizen of the world and preventing being overwhelmed by the vastness of the problems. The information provided by Susanne Moser at a recent talk at the U helps me resolve this conflict. So, I’ll share some of her insights with you.

Moser, a woman with many credentials and roles, spoke at the University of Utah as part of the “Communicating Climate Change.” Her talk, “Shut-Down?! Climate Change, Emotional Responses, and How to Stay Sane as the World Goes Mad,” is a helpful reminder that we can deal with our emotional responses with regard to climate change and be proactive instead of retroactive.

Moser asserts that the first step to getting real is admitting that there is a problem: Anthropocentric global warming is real and occurring. What can we do with this realization?

Step two entails doing some serious interior work: Feel your feelings, mourn, and heal.

Become involved in your local community with the understanding that the world is undergoing a transition is step three. Climate change is real and is affecting us now and into the future; this opens new doors to envision a future that is more sustainable and functional.

Susanne Moser speaks as part of the "Communicating Climate Change" series.

Susanne Moser speaks as part of the “Communicating Climate Change” series.

Moser’s talk is a great example of how people can overcome the despair and hopelessness they may be feeling. Using a variety of communication means (e.g. statistics, poetry, letters she’s received), Moser walks her audience through the truth of climate change, into what needs to be done to avert catastrophic impacts, how we can find peace of mind in all of this, and the importance of coming together as a community.

The truth: Admitting that there is a problem

According to Bill McKibben and his team at, most scientists agree that a safe upper limit for carbon dioxide is an atmospheric concentration of 350 parts per million (ppm). Recently, our planet exceeded 400 ppm, and the concentration will increase as we continue to burn fossil fuels and destroy carbon sinks through deforestation, melting permafrost, and bleaching coral reefs. More CO2 in the atmosphere leads to more global heating because of the greenhouse effect. According to Moser, we have exceeded the worst case scenario previously established.

"The Greenhouse Effect" by ZooFari

“The Greenhouse Effect” by ZooFari

Averting catastrophic impacts

Moser argues there are two pathways to follow once we’ve awakened to the reality of climate change. Scenario one follows that the world, particularly the western world, continues with “business as usual.” We make no significant effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and continue to burn fossil fuels. “We will collapse a lot of systems,” Moser says. Scenario two involves radical actions to reduce our emissions. Moser says, “Let’s just assume for a minute that we reduce our emissions by 80 percent by 2015. …We will still get to a global concentration of carbon dioxide of 550 ppm in the atmosphere, which is double what we’ve had in the atmosphere pre-industrially.”

Our energy systems, our modes of travel, and how and where we get our food will have to drastically change if we are going to cut emissions radically, she says.

Finding peace: Do some serious interior work

When the realization of what humankind is doing to the planet really hits the individual psyche, the awareness can be difficult to process. Acknowledging our emotions is made harder because it is socially unacceptable to talk about our feelings in a public atmosphere. So, let’s change that. Let’s openly talk about our hopes, dreams, and grief about the future. Let us help each other wake up, deal with our feelings, and engage with the world around us.

We must accept that change is inevitable and learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. People can find comfort in uncertainty through their own grieving process. Grieve alone or grieve with family and community, but do indeed grieve.

Hiking in Natural Bridges National Monument

Hiking in Natural Bridges National Monument

There are countless ways to process these emotions: meditating, doing yoga, playing outside, watching wildlife in its natural habitat, and being supported by a community of people who love you are just a few.

Invest in your community

As previously mentioned, it is time to come together as a community and plan for the future. There are innumerable possibilities to help build your community. Loan your skills to your neighbors (Are you really good at fixing things? Are you a superb cook? Can you help build something?). Create a community garden; there’s nothing that brings people closer than growing your own food! Perhaps you can have community dinners. Then, as a group, you all can figure out want you want your future community to look like. It is up to all of us to help mold the world in which we want to live. How do we want our communities built? How will we come together as a community to ensure the best livable future for all?

Acknowledging and sitting with the truth, averting catastrophic climate change, sustaining a peaceful mind, and coming together as communities are all essential for humankind to face a problem as gargantuan as global warming. As we collectively rise to the challenge, we can create a more sustainable, healthy, and creative future for us and for future generations.

Moser poignantly sums up all of these points by saying, “I do my own (internal) work, if I cannot be with my own anger, my own sadness, my own grief, I don’t know how to be with yours. I think this is where the internal work that we all have to do, meets the external need of the world.”

To read more about this topic, consider reading Susanne C. Moser’s, “Getting Real About it.”

Book Covers for Active Hope, Hope Beneath Our Feet, and Eaarth

Book Covers for Active Hope, Hope Beneath Our Feet, and Eaarth

The literature on the subject of dealing with feelings associated with climate change reality is growing. Some examples include Active Hope written by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone, Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World edited by Martin Keogh, and Eaarth by Bill McKibben.

Laura Schmidt is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Office of Sustainability.

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