Inspired for change

This week, Ron Dembo's daughter, Justine, is writing in his place. Justine is a medical student at the University of Toronto.

On May 3, 2007 I attended an inspirational forum lead by Australian activist and "Deep Ecologist" John Seed. It was hosted by the Sustainability Network, which is a Toronto company that works to enrich nonprofit environmental agencies by providing management assistance and training. The focus of this forum, which was part of Mr. Seed's five-month international tour, was on "despair and empowerment" in the current climate change movement; the intent was to inspire individual and political action toward supporting the movement.

I came out of the forum feeling more inspired than I have in months, and so I wanted to share some of this inspiration with members of Zerofootprint. In the beginning, Mr. Seed discussed some interesting facts: Australia is the world's most prominent exporter of coal, and this coal then contributes to over 1% of today's greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, Australia is a major producer of methane gas, through its farming of ruminant animals. And yet, according to Mr. Seed, Australians are working to reduce their impact on the environment through legislating power usage, air pollution, and everything else except for these above two issues. This is ironic, given the dire situation in which Australians are finding themselves — including severe droughts and impending fresh water shortages — as a result of global warming. One fascinating discussion, introduced by an attendee, was that of despair: she admitted to losing hope in our ability to save ourselves and other animals on this planet, and asked how she, and the many other individuals suffering from such despair, could revive that sense of hope. Amazingly, Mr. Seed turned despair into a positive entity: he reasoned that despair is a hopeful emotion when it comes to climate change, because it indicates to us that we are no longer in denial. He suggested that we can then use despair as a motivator, and that the best way to do this is to meet with like-minded individuals with whom we can freely share our negative feelings; this form of expression, in turn, leads us to empowerment. Correctly, he said that, "our intelligence is suppressed when we suppress those [negative] feelings."

Another attendee brought to light the importance of art and story-telling in motivating people to respect the Earth. In the past, after all, the arts have acted as some of the main forums through which we explain the world to ourselves and our children, and through which we can awaken a drive to action. This discussion, for me, brought to light the fact that those of us who are not environmentalists by profession can still achieve a great impact on the environment through our influence on other people. As a new doctor, I find this quite uplifting because given everything I've learned recently about the environment, I have come to wonder whether I am in the "wrong" profession. I have come to ask myself, of late, what the point is in my saving individual lives and treating individuals' diseases if the future of the planet and its species — a much greater force than individuals — is at stake. Through a discussion with the members of this forum, however, I realized that perhaps I can still have an impact — whether that be through addressing the health effects of environmental toxins and global warming, or through hosting forums such as the one I attended today. One attendee said something that had a great impact on my thinking: I'll be "working with people who are ill in an environment that's damaged," and this is an extremely significant relationship.

As for those who believe that this sixth global extinction towards which we are headed is simply part of the natural order, Mr. Seed pointed out that the Cenozoic Era, which began after the dinosaurs' extinction 65 million years ago, has been much shorter than the preceding geological eras (for example, that of the dinosaurs lasted for approximately 150 million years); therefore, he concluded, the current period of extinction is occurring before its time. He stated that he likes to believe human beings, and the animals with which we currently share the planet, deserve the rest of their "share" of geological time.

The forum concluded with several important points and suggestions. Firstly, that the most significant changes can occur from the grassroots level; individuals can act as "climate messengers" to inspire each other. Mr. Seed believes this approach has the potential to turn the environmentalist movement into a "J-curve," in which it can grow exponentially as individuals influence each other. One way to increase one's power as a climate messenger is to encourage what he calls "deep discussions." These consist of experiential processes; for example, beginning a meeting with visualization or sensory experiences, or encouraging people to freely express their feelings — both negative and positive — on the subject. As today's forum clearly demonstrated, this approach is more powerful than I could have imagined. Having been inspired by Mr. Seed's realism and artistic talent, and by the forum members' passion for saving our planet, I now feel myself beginning to move from "despair to empowerment" in my own quest to have an impact on climate change.

For those interested in finding out more about John Seed and the Sustainability Network, here are some relevant websites:
Sustainability Network
Nexus (monthly e-digest of Sustainability Network)
John Seed's Website