Affirm Reality and Start Shaping It: Musings from a UMass Alum

This guest blog post was composed by Aaron Karp, UMass graduate (2012). Find Aaron’s current work HERE.

The UMass campus is home to many groups that invite people to discuss and take action on major issues facing human society. A deeper appreciation for these very useful resources is gained after one graduates, as I did in 2012. Since then, I’ve been researching and writing about how we can transform society to maintain a livable climate, and found Talking Truth while looking to reconnect with campus. The group is a great example of these many useful campus resources—one students should check out.

I was able to attend two meetings this past academic year, one in which participants talked about how we’re working towards a more sustainable lifestyle and the other a brief discussion of the “hinge decade” we’re living through, in which major social changes must take place to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Something that stood out to me about the first event was how many people view sustainability in an apolitical light. When asked to describe our efforts to advance sustainability, the responses almost entirely described personal lifestyle changes rather than efforts towards systemic social change. I believe this view is representative of the public’s understanding of sustainability, and it’s something I think we must reverse. Large-scale, systemic problems like climate change require large-scale, systemic solutions. I believe that we must change the economic institutions that force society to consume beyond sustainable limits and the cultural institutions that encourage us to see ourselves primarily as passive consumers rather than democratic citizens. While individuals can make more sustainable consumption choices in their personal life without becoming an activist, societal changes like those demanded by our big sustainability problems inevitably entail political struggle. Ordinary people must join together and build enough power to deeply reshape society against the opposition of elites whose financial interests are linked to its present structure. In wealthy countries like ours, overconsumption is the rule. We’re taught to think that our role in society is narrow, that personally consuming less is our only option. We can strive individually to be the exception, but we must not seek to change the rule. In that sense, the most important lifestyle change is transforming from someone not looking to actively shape society into a person working with others to do exactly that. A society marked by such an active public would be a true democracy, and only a thoroughly democratic society has a chance of becoming a sustainable society.

The “hinge decade” event presented participants with a few short clips from Kathleen Dean Moore, a philosophy professor who describes social change through the metaphor of a river she was observing. Imagining the immense issues and injustices we face as the river’s current, she said that as individuals contribute their energy to a movement they are casting stones to obstruct the flow. The metaphor illustrates the fact that each of us has something to contribute, and that when combining everyone’s effort major goals can be accomplished. She also noticed that obstructions seemed to reverse the current in certain spots, and suggested that enough obstruction could turn the river against itself. However, it seems to me that this is only part of the story. The stones represent activist resistance, which today is growing, but what is largely absent is a concrete vision of a democratic, sustainable society. Moore recognizes that our economy, which promotes infinite extraction, undermines our capacity to survive and must be fundamentally changed. But transformation does not follow automatically from obstruction. We build an alternative vision by reflecting on the principles that should undergird a just society, working to understand how our present society fails to live up to these principles, and doing the research to understand how we could transform our social institutions to embody these principles. As we block the current, a concrete vision of a sustainable economy and culture allows us to reverse it.

Talking Truth brings people together to share their thoughts and fears about climate change. By doing so, it reminds us that the problem is real. It’s very easy in our society to be blinded to the issues of survival that we face, because they are sparsely covered in school and the media. When these issues are mentioned, the coverage tends to promote fatalism (i.e. nothing can be done) or techno-utopianism (i.e. technology alone will save us), and conveys no sense that ordinary people, organized and empowered with a vision for change, are the only force capable of solving them. Year after year, surveys by Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication show that more than half of Americans rarely or never discuss climate change. Our perception of reality is socially constructed to a significant extent—if we don’t hear about climate change in the media, if we don’t think about it every day, if we don’t take responsibility for discussing it with others, it is easy to act as if it’s not real. And while many other groups on campus enable students to get involved in various sustainability projects and causes, Talking Truth is oriented towards thinking more deeply about climate change. This can lead to a fuller understanding of the issue and generate new pathways for action, which is essential to effective activism. Let’s affirm reality and start shaping it—check out Talking Truth before you graduate.

 

Telling Stories for the Climate

When you think of environmental activism, what roles do stories play? Activism can look like signs, protests, board meetings, and policy shifts addressing tangible institutional problems – but the harder issues to touch upon are the insidious cultural norms which are subconscious parts of our everyday life. Our world is formed by stories. Our relationships, our beliefs, and our daily experiences are defined by the stories we hear and the stories we tell. So it follows that changing the way we tell our stories can consequently change the world: but how to do so? One way is through communication, a method of change-making that we engage in every day. How we speak about climate change and our reasons for caring about the planet can have far-reaching impacts. Practicing empathetic speaking and listening can build bridges over the seemingly-impassable divide between political and ideological groups. We all have a story, regardless of what political and scientific beliefs are. We all have sorrow, joy, and reasons for who we are. Connecting to each others’ stories and practicing personal and broad-scale storytelling can be tools for individual and global shifts.

On Thursday, March 22nd, Lauren de la Parra’s Climate Reality storytelling workshop was an essential step to bring awareness to how we’re creating the world. She introduced the “elevator pitch” as a proven way to quickly synthesize and communicate information about ourselves and our beliefs. This can be as simple as the “and, but, therefore” formula, in which an entire story arch can be encapsulated in just one sentence. Lauren asked participants to formulate their own journeys to environmental action through this method.

Mine was:

“When I allow myself, I connect to nature on a transcendental level

And experience an almost maternal desire to care for and protect it.

But even I am terrified of climate change and close myself off emotionally

Therefore, I want to help people (and myself) reconnect to nature, for the sake of the present and the future.”

Another student, Karen Marquis, shared her creative version:

My Dad can’t wait for warmer winters with less shoveling,

And the thought of this keeps me up at night puzzling.

But I plan to help stop species from fading away,

Therefore I’m grateful that he got me to where I am today.

Although this activity proved to be challenging, I believe in its power. Expressing why we care about something is infectious. Talking about what’s important to us can inspire a ripple effect that spreads throughout social networks. Next time you’re having a conversation with someone, try asking them: What’s your story? Listening to someone tell their story open-heartedly can be an opening to connect in new ways to people, nature, and yourself.


Lauren de la Parra, Climate Reality Corps Leadership facilitator
and UMass graduate student in Sustainability Science.

 

What’s a person to do?

A UMass student recently interviewed a member of the Talking Truth planning team for an article she is writing about the project. Her final interview question was, “What can a person do to help stop climate change?” Instead of just one team member’s response, here are responses from a few of the TT planning team members.

Ludmilla Pavlova, Senior Campus Planner
I think of it as applying my human labor to preserving life and natural resources.  As often as possible I walk or bike when I am able instead of driving, tend a garden, hang the laundry to dry in the sun, buy local produce, clear invasive weeds, buy used or donate clothing, manage my stuff so there is less waste, spend time with people and animals, attend a concert or a museum.

Emily Tareila, MFA student
Making choices that sincerely take into account the ways decisions impact systems both inside and outside of the self. Consider systems in all forms: (and then list all different kinds of systems of which we are and aren’t directly apart). Not sure if that helps but I think it’s one that people can take on their own terms without promising that we can ‘fix’ anything!

Kris Nelson, Civic Engagment and Service Learning
Perhaps sustainable practices, in order to be “sustainable,” need to bring together the various kinds of work that happens on the inside (What is my role in this? What larger systems am I a part of? Am I listening to my feelings as well as my intellect?) and then how we live that out – our individual actions, and our collective actions, both in creating alternative practices for sustainable living and our work advocating for politically and economically just systems.

Will Snyder, Extension
Also asking “Is this trip (or whatever else) necessary?”   I would also remind the questioner that political action, including collective economic action, is the only “practice” that will really affect climate change in a meaningful way.

Our Spring 2018 series

Talking Truth: Finding Your Voice Around the Climate Crisis

Spring 2018 Series

Sustainability Slammer
Tues. 1/30 10am-3pm
Stop by the Talking Truth booth at this info. fair for campus sustainability groups
Location: Cape Cod Lounge

Interactive, Creative Responses to Climate Change
Wednesdays. 1/31, 2/7, 2/14, 2/21, 2/28, 3/7
3:00-4:00 pm (arrive 2:30 for quiet contemplation, check in)
Reflective writing, art making and sharing. A collaboration with Paperbark Literary Magazine
Location: Goodell 406A

DEEPER DIVE WORKSHOPS

Thurs. 3/22, 7-9pm  – Climate Leadership: Starting with Your Story
Why do you care about climate change? Learn how to discover and communicate your unique story in a compelling way for different audiences. Facilitated by Lauren de la Parra, Climate Reality Leadership Corps trainee (Pittsburgh, 2017) and UMass graduate student in Sustainability Science.

Thurs. 4 /5, 7-9pm  – Finding Your Life Purpose: Career Workshop
Reflective writing, group discussion and practical steps to support career exploration. Led by contemplative career coach and mindfulness teacher Jennifer Earls, M.Ed., Dance with Life Consulting.

Thurs. 4/19, 7-9pm – The Work That Reconnects
Engage your love for the Earth with a variety of practices. WTR builds community and connectivity, reminding us of our core mission. Starting in the 1970s, these practices have spread around the world, shifting how people perceive and address climate change – helping us move from our intellect to our hearts. Facilitated by trained facilitator Bela Schultz who is also a UMass student in BDIC with a concentration in Environmental Psychology.
Location: Du Bois 2601

 

Music and the New England Trail: Concert with Ben Cosgrove

Thurs 3/22, 7-9pm

Come spend an evening with the Appalachian Mountain Club and Kestrel Land Trust to learn more about the New England National Scenic Trail (NET) and hear music inspired by the trail and other landscapes, performed Ben Cosgrove, a young composer, essayist, and multi-instrumentalist whose work is guided by landscape, place, and ecology.

Green Building Tour
Thurs. April 5th 4:00-5:30
Get the inside stories of Crotty Hall, the new Design Building, renovated Old Chapel, South College addition, Integrative Learning Center and others. Led by Ludmilla Pavlova, Senior Campus Planner.
Location: Meet at Crotty Hall

Two Truths and a Lie

This guest blog post was composed by Evan Kuras, MS student in Environmental Conservation at UMass Amherst.

I attended my first Talking Truth/Hearts in Action session in Fall 2017. We played a game based on Two Truths and Lie as a way to reflect on our sustainable lifestyles. We stated two behaviors we actually do (the “truths”) and one that we aspired to (the “lie”) and the rest of the participants had to deduce which were which! I appreciated the opportunity to assess my current actions and name a goal out loud.

During any normal day, I rarely take time to reflect on the value of my decisions in a grand “lifestyle” sense. Usually my reflections are on a smaller scale. Classic examples might be, “I wish I didn’t have that second cup of coffee” or “I’m glad I saved 25 cents on that second cup of coffee by bringing a re-usable mug.” A grander version of this reflection would be, “is my coffee ethically sourced?” or maybe, “instead of drinking a beverage from halfway across the world, what local alternatives exist to start my day?” Sustainable decisions start small, like using a re-usable mug or limited your consumption to what you actually need or want. But with reflection, your decisions can have a greater and greater impact as you scale up! *sips coffee*

Climate Change in the American Mind

Here is the latest report (October 2017) from Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.  The nationally representative survey finds that:

  • The number of Americans “very worried” about global warming has reached a record high (22%) since first measured in 2008. A majority of Americans (63%) say they are “very” or “somewhat” worried about the issue.
  • Nearly four in ten Americans (38%) say they discuss global warming with family and friends “often” or “occasionally,” an increase of 12 percentage points since March 2015. However, more say they “rarely” or “never” discuss it (62%). Additionally, half of Americans (51%) say they hear about global warming in the media at least once a month, and one in four (25%) say they hear people they know talk about global warming at least once a month.

The Hinge Decade: What Will Be the Story of This Time?

We had an exhilarating final fall session of “Hearts in Action: Creative Responses to Climate Change.” To those who wanted to come but couldn’t, we missed you. Stay tuned for spring 2018 happenings.

1 – The last group meeting was larger than usual (maybe 20) but we fit snugly into the conference room at the Science and Engineering Library. We were students, faculty, librarians, staff and community members.
2 – Lena offered a beautiful introduction to a 3-minute meditation; we sat again for a minute at the end, to integrate the experience.
3 – We watched excerpts of this passionate presentation by philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage. Moore refers to this time we are in as a “hinge decade,” and asks us what kind of story we are all co-creating for our collective future.
4 – We talked in pairs about which “stones” we will “chuck into the river.” Go to minute 37:30 for the analogy.
5 – We shared in the bigger group about what our “stones” are. Some added how heavy or large their stone felt, and what kind of help they needed to chuck it.

 

What an honor it is to be doing this inner and outer work together, as a community, at UMass.

Did you know? We are a node of Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere

Did you know? Talking Truth is a Node of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere (MAHB). That means MAHB recognizes Talking Truth’s commitment to deeply shifting human behavior to foster environmental sustainability and the health of the ecosystem services upon which all life depends.  You can learn about the other 136 (and counting) Nodes here.

MAHB is a Stanford-based project that envisions a future that embodies two basic principles

  1. All forms of life are essential and interdependent.
  2.  Economic underpinnings, social norms, and individual behavior are all part of a single system operating within the bounded biosphere.

MAHB brings us together to develop a new type of intelligence called foresight intelligence.

Foresight intelligence is the ability to implement behavioral, institutional and cultural changes necessary for future generations to live peaceful productive lives.

Foresight intelligence, when met with the best of global civil society, can reduce interconnected complex problems*

So, what does this mean to us who gather at Talking Truth events?

Forging ourselves to be change leaders so we can protect the World we love. Even when it’s deeply troubling. But we do it together, breathing, creating, listening — to ourselves and one another.

Our final session of “Hearts in Action: Creative Responses to Climate Change” will be Mon. 11/27, 4-5pm in the Science and Engineering Library (3rd fl. conference room).

Then stay tuned to see opportunities to join us in spring 2018.

*These problems include: climate disruption, loss of biodiversity (and thus ecosystem services), land-use change and resulting degradation, global toxification, ocean acidification, decay of the epidemiological environment, an economic system based on growth, pressure from increasing population, and resource wars (which could go nuclear). The manifestation of these interactions is often referred to as “the human predicament.” With foresight intelligence, we can reduce the threats inherent in the human predicament.

Text adapted from https://mahb.stanford.edu/welcome/

Hearts in Action, Four Weeks In

Above: Our mind map of a new definition of sustainability.

Talking Truth has hosted four of our weekly workshops, Hearts in Action: Creative Responses to Climate Change! We have practiced art and creative writing; learned about the efforts of environmentalists across the globe to build a dialogue about the climate crisis; and added our own voices to it. We have shared our thoughts, fears, and ideas, and seen them reflected in others sitting beside us.

Hearts in Action is co-hosted with Paperbark Magazine, an environmental humanities publications starting up at UMass.

I have felt my creativity sparked and my boundaries pushed. These weekly meetings have kept me in touch with nature amidst the challenges of a busy college schedule, and having a designated time to pause, reflect, and express myself is one of the most important additions to my college career.

I know that our weekly events will only continue to grow richer, more thoughtful, and more intentional as our experience grows and as we welcome in new people. In only four meetings, we explored:

  • The Golden Record: what would you put on an artifact that will outlast humanity and be our legacy?
  • Definitions of sustainability: what is our personalized and comprehensive definition of the much-used and increasingly vague term, “sustainability”?
  • Performing a water ritual: how can we honor the water in our lives, even while Hurricane Harvey devastates?
  • Creating personal flags: if we were to make a flag touting our beliefs, what would it look like? What would it mean?

My favorite workshop was when we learned about the Golden Record, a fascinating project that launched a “record” of some of Earth’s sounds (and images) into space, with the intention that it would outlast our species and be our legacy. When Emily, an MFA student and one of the facilitators, asked us what we would put on the Golden Record, I was stumped. When humans are gone, what is the essence of humanity that I believe needs to be preserved? The very first instinct I had was to somehow say, “We’re sorry.” But moving beyond that, I was able to enter a space of love for the Earth. I envisioned adding the sound of trickling water, or time lapses of seed and infant growth. By the end of the exercise, I was in tears. So much of our planet Earth is unique and precious. So much of it needs to be preserved – how can you distill it in one artifact?

Hearts in Action will continue to be held every Monday afternoon (through 11/27/17) from 4 – 5 pm in the Science and Engineering Library in the 3rd floor conference room. We would love to see more new faces in the coming weeks!

 

Announcing the Fall 2017 series

Fall 2017 Series

Talking Truth: Finding Your Voice Around the Climate Crisis

TalkingTruth Fall 2017 (flyer)

“Hearts in Action: Creative Responses to Climate Change”
Art making, creative writing and contemplative practices
Mondays 4-5pm, Sci and Engineering Library
9/11-11/27

Reading of Kinship of Clover with author Ellen Meeropol
Thurs. 9/28 7pm, Sci and Engineering Library

Nature Experience with the Outing Club
Fri. 9/29 12-1, Majestic beeches next to Durfee Conservatory

Green Building Tours with Ludmilla Pavlova, Senior Campus Planner
Thurs. 9/14 and 10/5 4-5:30, meet in the lobby of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library