January 2020 | Part II – Everyone has a role in helping reverse our accelerating climate chaos.
Leslie Davenport has been a professional dancer, an innovative therapist using guided imagery in a hospital setting, a founder of The Institute for Health and Healing, and currently, a pioneer in the field of climate change psychology. You can read Part I at this link.
Could we talk about your work with climate psychology? Your book, Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change, looks very ripe for these times.
I’ve always been drawn to ecology/environmental studies, and it’s been over ten years since my eyes opened to the devastation of climate change. Once that happened, I could not turn away, and it became my number one priority to do whatever I could to address it. I began as many others do: I would go on marches, sign petitions, lobby locally for clean energy policies and more. I’m active with Bill McKibben’s organization 350.org: I did a training with the Pachamama Alliance and work on greening my own life-style.
Much like the major life transition I made from dance to psychology, I felt poised once again at a new crossroads. In my experience, there is something remarkable that happens when we hold an internal inquiry at these junctures. This time I asked, “What is my role in this most significant time in human history? How can I make the greatest impact?” In many ways, it was a variation of my question from almost 40 years earlier: “Where and how could I be of greatest service?”
What is notable about this kind of internal inquiry is that answers arise from a source of wisdom that so clearly rings of truth. It feels like an ancient, perennial wellspring. For me, it’s a kind of inner listening, and insights may come as a “still small voice” or a searing flash. It’s a much different place than weighing the pros and cons of a decision. I’ve really come to trust this natural way of knowing.
I began to realize that my years working at the hospital were the perfect boot-camp for this environmental work. I saw that what is needed is an interdisciplinary team to work collaboratively toward healing solutions (just what we created at the hospital). But this time the earth was ailing – or more accurately, our relationship with the natural world is diseased.
I could see that there were scientists at the table working toward solutions, engineers, even some climate artists, but where were the behavioralists? We acknowledge climate change as being caused by human behavior, but I wasn’t seeing anyone addressing issues such as:
How do we address climate denial?
How do we talk about something so painful and frightening? And can we facilitate conversations that deepen understanding and empathy rather than polarize?
How can we cope with our eco-grief and anxiety?
Can we envision the healthier, safer world we want and need?
How do our beliefs and identities trigger our behaviors?
We know from studies in health psychology that lifestyle changes don’t happen just by putting out the facts—we need to address the deeper ways we are wired as human beings. I realized that my role was in bridging this missing piece for climate change. I introduced the idea of “Climate Psychology” to my publishers in 2014 and they agreed that that a book would make a needed contribution.
The tools I present in the book are to build emotional resiliency in individuals and communities. While technically the book is written for mental health professionals, it is completely accessible to anyone interested in this subject. It summarizes climate science and the behavioral health basis for our collective struggle with engaging with climate change solutions. The psychological struggles are vast: Some people in their twenties and thirties feel unsure about having children in these times; more and more people are recovering from severe losses caused by fires and floods; there’s tremendous generalized grief and anxiety; some are paralyzed by overwhelm or believe they are too small to make a difference.
My perspective is that internal strategies, like mindfulness, along with external strategies, like systemic policy changes, need to go hand in hand. Unless we have the psychological strength to meet those larger challenges, we’ll feel either that we can’t do it and disengage, or we’ll burn out.
A key internal strategy is understanding and cultivating the “window of tolerance” or “zone of resilience,” concepts borrowed from trauma studies. There’s a zone in which we function well and are psychologically flexible and can adapt. This zone expands and contracts. For example, after several nights of poor sleep or high stress times, our window shrinks, and it would be a bad time to take on a sensitive conversation. When we’re outside our “window” we either get very reactive and lash out or withdraw and numb out.
But we can also expand our window of tolerance, first by becoming more aware of our edges, and by also learning effective self-care—building our emotional resiliency. The best combinations are unique to each person and may include:
Spending time in nature
Connecting with friends
Healthy eating and sleeping
For some it might be kick-boxing or running to find healthy release rather than something meditative like yoga
Equipping ourselves to turn the tide and build a sustainable future will require a tough psychological reckoning. We need to build the internal strength to remain present with open hearts and minds and increase our capacity to bear witness to pain in ourselves and others. We all need to consciously go outside our comfort zone and into our “stretch zone,” as another way to expand our zone of resiliency.
An important external strategy is advocacy, which I see as a therapeutic intervention. It’s important to feel empowered, not victimized, in the face of such large challenges. I define advocacy in very broad terms – anything that contributes to sustainability. For example, a parent may bring eco-aware conversations and activities into their household; a teacher may introduce curriculum or an after-school program related to nature and climate; or artists can include climate-related themes in their work. The essence is how to help people become empowered so they can feel part of a larger transformation. What if we’re on the brink of learning to live our greater humanity as a whole? I help people find their way to their place of contribution.
On Leslie’s site is the link to an Emotional Resiliency Toolkit for Climate Work for non-profits and government agencies. She suggests that people take 5 to 15 minutes at every meeting to build emotional resiliency. Her goal, over time, is to have 100 practices.
Is this the same as ecotherapy?
No, although there is overlap. Ecotherapy has primarily focused on the health benefits of spending time in nature, such as promoting green spaces in cities, or “forest bathing.” Environmental psychology is also different: It is more about things like the health advantages of windows in hospital rooms, or the subtle impacts of paint color and open designs in buildings.
Who has influenced your work?
Because my journeys begin so internally, I often lift my head and look around a little late to see who else is called to the work. I learned of Joanna Macy and went to two of her talks and read one of her books. I found Spiritual Ecology, edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, very inspiring. I was introduced to Renee Lertzman who wrote Environmental Melancholia, and we have begun collaborating.
When I read Bill McKibben’s autobiography Oil and Honey, I could really relate to the notion of being a reluctant activist. He comes from the world of science and academia and early in his journey, he believed that if he clearly put the information out there, people would respond. He talked about how his books sold well but nothing changed. He never thought he’d become one of those folks that chain themselves to a gas pump. His spirit of getting out of his comfort zone inspires me.
What are you working on now?
My work is expanding in a variety of directions. I am getting more and more clients in my clinical practice specifically wanting to address eco-anxiety and grief. I train other therapists to build competence with climate themes and have an on-line continuing education course as well as scheduled workshops. I have a goal of trying to get required training into therapy trainings. The field needs to redefine itself. For instance, there’s more on addiction and trauma than ten years ago. I know it will become accepted. I just keep seeing where the doorways are. The National Association for Marriage and Family Therapists did publish an article of mine this year titled “The Role of Systemic Therapists in an Era of Environmental Crisis,” so interest is growing in the profession. I’ve participated in a couple of interdisciplinary climate think tanks, and do consulting with organizations and agencies. I’ve been invited to speak at an education conference in Germany about bringing this curriculum into elementary through high schools. And I’ve been approached by a publisher to write two books on helping kids cope with climate change; one for nine- to thirteen-year-olds and one for teens. If there’s a way for me to do it, I will say yes to the needs that arise where I have a contribution to make.
titrating the edge
Renee Owen, author of Alone on a Wild Coast.