The Leadership Superpower For Positive Change In The Climate Crisis
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The Leadership Superpower For Positive Change In The Climate Crisis

The Leadership Superpower For Positive Change In The Climate Crisis

by Ginny Whitelaw – Originally published on

Gail Hochachka knows climate science well. Her professional research has been around ways to communicate climate change and she’s one of the experts speaking at the One Earth, One Health, One With online summit being held this month. The purpose of the summit is to help leaders who care about the healing of people, planet and the future to better sense their own place in the work and develop further relationships and practices to do it well. Dr. Hochachka speaks on how climate communication needs to change to move people to positive action. As she observes, “We face an extraordinarily complex problem that we do have technology to bring to bear on, and we do have policymakers willing to create climate action targets and to use various push and pull mechanisms to get people to change their behaviors, and yet we’re still somehow missing the mark.” Hochachka shares an encounter with a colleague, for example, who had recently chaired a session evaluating regional climate action plans and progress. When she asked him how the session had gone, his answer landed in her stomach like a stone: not a single region was on track to meet any of the climate action targets.

Which puts them in company with the rest of the world. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the starkest yet: no nation is on track to curb emissions sufficiently to hold warming to 1.5°C and, if emissions remain flat, we will exceed that threshold within 9 years. Moreover, carbon emissions in 2022 actually went up largely due to increased air travel and use of natural gas. The world has already warmed 1.1°C, and, as the New York Times reports, with every additional fraction of a degree, tens of millions more people worldwide will be exposed to life-threatening climatic extremes, from heat waves to floods, to scarcity of food and fresh water.

As climate communicators like Hochachka know well, facts and data such as these do not persuade those who don’t see the problem and can be mighty discouraging to those who do. Both extremes of denial and discouragement are equally dangerous, points out Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate leader who negotiated the Paris Climate Treaty, because both lead to inaction. “It has become too prevalent, too popular to take on doomeristic views and I think that’s incredibly dangerous,” she says. “Exactly as dangerous as being a climate denier…We do have a Door #2, which is to curb our emissions in time such that by the end of this decade we can not just avoid the worst of climate change, but actually open a portal to a much better world: more just, more healthy, more aware of our surroundings.” To open up this portal calls for something beyond linear thinking or analysis. “As climate change is not a linear problem, nor should we be in our response to it;” adds Hochachka, “rather, we can trust that our individual actions do matter and they can scale—in a non-linear way—to create the broad transformation to sustainability that we need.” Fortunately, there is a non-linear superpower we can access that supports us leading toward positive change: Life itself.

Naturally, we participate in life already, but how might we work with life, or better yet, become One With life, in such a way that our actions become healing and life-giving, rather than extractive or self-serving? Such is the motivating question of the One Earth, One Health, One With summit in which these speakers and dozens of others from climate scientists to activists to physicians, permaculture experts, creativity and leadership experts, policy makers, Indigenous Elders and Zen masters offer up their wisdom and practices. What might we absorb from our One Earth, One Health or One-Withness that can supercharge the life that comes through us as a healing force in the world?

One Earth

One Earth is a good place to begin. It’s a fact. Just as it’s a fact that we’re not living within the regenerative resource of that one earth. Rather we’re using around 1.7 earths annually, fueled not just by the abundant sun, but by extracting everything that burns from our finite earth. Moreover, in the most developed countries, we’re even more over-extended; if everyone matched the United States, we’d need more than 5 earths. During the contractive period of Covid, those numbers dropped by about 10%, giving some indication of how much further we’d have to go to reach regenerative alignment with our One Earth.

One Health

This lack of alignment leads to interwoven chain reactions impacting our One Health, that is, our individual and collective physical and mental health, which is intimately intertwined with the health of all beings and ecosystems. “Where the land is sick, the people are sick,” as ecosystem restorer and filmmaker, John Liu, observes. Notably, there are deep equity issues around where the land is most degraded, connecting these viciously reinforcing cycles whereby the health effects of climate extremes land most unevenly on those most vulnerable. Dr. Robert Byron, who’d worked on the Crow Indian Reservation for two decades, became a strong advocate for addressing the public health and justice issues surrounding climate change when, as he put it, “Ten-to-twelve years ago, we looked analytically at the evidence and had an epiphany: if we don’t do something about climate change, it won’t matter what we do in the exam room.”

While the impacts of climate events land most unevenly, no one is truly exempt. From pre-mature death to forced migration, to vector-borne diseases, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, anxiety, depression, increased violence and other mental health issues, and all the forms of suffering that arise from ignoring what’s under our nose (as ignorance always leads to suffering) our health is one interwoven net. Dr. Jonathan Patz, lead-author for the IPCC for 15 years, put it, “Given the multiple exposure pathways through which climate affects our health, this is the greatest environmental public health crisis of our time.”

One with

Which brings us to One-Withness: the non-linear portal to a better world. To be One With is to resolve a false sense of separation. We may not be fully conscious of feeling separate, but when we’re triggered, anxious, depressed, going through the motions, “looking out for #1,” or acting out of “What’s in it for me,” a separated self is running the show. When we separate mind from body or head from heart, we dissociate our intellect from the piece of earth, the pulse of nature, with which we get to play this game of life. Running on its own, our intellect can get mighty confused, not only from its own history and trauma, but from all it picks up living amidst One not-very-Healthy society.

As Indigenous Elder, Ilarion Merculieff describes this necessary reconnection: “We have to drop from the head to the heart. The heart used to tell the mind what to do. Now the mind tells the heart what to do…Traditionally the mind’s job was to implement what the heart was telling you. But we now have separated…[which has] created all the imbalances in the world.”

To right these imbalances and lead One With calls for reintegration of mind and body: head with heart, and also with hara. By integrating these three centers,intellect becomes in service of all that we love and care for (i.e., heart) and is powered by connected intuition (i.e. hara). Hara, which is the power center of the lower abdomen, brings strength, rhythm, and a gut-level knowingness into how we move in the world. Central to Zen practice, hara also supports the deepest, slowest breathing a human body is capable of, which is conducive to samadhi, that is, the vivid experience of one-withness. As the mind-body experiences itself as the whole picture, the boundaries, limitations and fears of the separate (ego) self become increasingly transparent.

Leading One With does not put oneself above others but finds optimal solutions for the whole picture. It does not extract from nature but works One With it. It reimagines how a business model could be regenerative or how nature might solve a problem—not using intellectual cleverness, but by becoming One With nature and asking permission to simply listen. By opening our senses and viscerally listening, our body becomes a resonant antenna for picking up what’s ready to happen, which is the starting point for what’s called the Perma Leadership cycle. From one-withness or connection, we enter this cycle as we reimagine a desired future ready to emerge, energize ourselves and others to become it, and progressively realize it attuned with principles of nature. It is no wonder that actions inspired from One-Withness feel supported by larger forces and nature’s regenerative, healing power. While words can point to this possibility in leadership, it is through nature immersions, meditation and other embodied practices that it becomes a lived experience. These practices, too, are on offer in the Summit.

If you are able to read this article you are of a generation that can make a positive change at a pivotal time in the climate crisis. At present, we have indisputably One Earth. While we each have our own health experiences, those experiences are intertwined with the One Health of all people, animals and ecosystems, whether we can see the connections or not. When we develop ourselves to lead One With, we can draw on the inspiration and wisdom that comes through our own healed relationship with life to heal the world we create around us.

Ginny Whitelaw is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership.

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