In climate activism circles, it is common to hear that focusing on uncertainty and complexity in climate change education leads to inaction and immobilization and this assumption justifies the claim that we need education to focus on solutions to create a hopeful image of the future and to empower people to take action (as an antidote to immobilization). However, uncertainty and complexity are integral to reality itself, but in order to cope with an increasingly more complex and uncertain reality we tend to create idealizations that make things more manageable, more positive, more hopeful, more comfortable and more actionable. These idealizations may address specific aspects of the challenge at hand, but since they are created for an affective purpose (i.e. to make us feel better), they disavow their own limitations, the harm they inflict on others or the externalized costs they generate (see also “Beyond doominsm and solutionism in response to climate change“).
For most of us over-socialized within modernity/coloniality, what really immobilizes us is having our learned desires for and perceived entitlements to certainty, teleology (a guaranteed predetermined destination), linear coherence, self-satisfaction and quick fixes not being met. These desires represent an impairment in our capacity to sit with reality itself and to approach problems responsibly. Unless we can expand our capacity to hold space (cognitively, affectively and relationally) for all relevant aspects of reality, both known, unknown and unknowable, including paradoxes, tensions and contradictions, and in particular, what makes us uncomfortable and frustrated, we have very little chance of approaching complex challenges or coordinating efforts in socially and ecologically accountable ways.
The 7 steps back and 7 steps forward exercise invites us to increase our capacity to hold the weight of multiple moving layers of complexity as we approach a contextual challenge. It also intends to support us to achieve deeper levels of insight, analysis and discernment, to learn to build relationships differently and to develop stamina in order not to be immobilized and/or overwhelmed by discomfort, uncertainty, complexity, and/or complicity.
As you read the lists of steps, please keep watch over your own resistances and turn their manifestation into (un)learning opportunities.
7 steps back…
- Step back from your self-image: What are your real investments, fears, hopes and intentions and where do they come from? What emotions, insecurities, unexamined desires or unprocessed traumas could be driving your decision making? What emotional states are you actively avoiding and at what cost? What does your ego feel entitled and justified to do? To what extent do these entitlements and justifications limit your capacity to face and address the challenges at hand?
- Step back from your immediate context and time: How do the challenges in your immediate context reflect wider patterns of change in society across different timescales? What historical, systemic and/or structural forces are at work? What is your perspective of the larger picture? What are the boundaries of this perspective (how is it limited)?
- Step back from your generational cohort: How are the associated challenges perceived and experienced by other generations? How are different generations interpreting reality differently, experiencing it differently and expecting different things from it and how come? How fast are these changes happening? What is your generation being called out on? To what extent are the interests of incoming generations represented in your usual problem posing, problem solving, and coordination and accountability approaches?
- Step back from the universalisation of your social/cultural/economic parameters of normality: What does the privilege you carry prevent you from seeing and experiencing? How is your privilege also a loss? What are you projecting as true, real, normal and desirable for everyone and how does that reflect your own background? How can these projections become harmful to others and/or limit possibilities for relationship building and/or coordination? Who could refuse to work with you on legitimate grounds?
- Step back from familiar patterns of relationship building and problem solving that you have been socialised into: To what extent has your approach to the problem been conditioned and limited by the culture it emerged from? What alternative ways of seeing, doing, relating and being are already viable, but are currently unimaginable to you and those around you? What are you missing out on? Who/what are you accountable to and how come? What accountabilities are you neglecting?
- Step back from the normalised pattern of elevating humanity above the rest of nature: How is what is unfolding grounded in or a consequence of the perceived separation between “man and nature” and/or the rendering of “nature” as property? What is the impact of what is unfolding on other species and entities like rivers, mountains, lands past, present and future and on the planet at large? How would you approach the problem differently if other species and entities had legal personhood (if you could be liable for damages, negligence, injury and ecocide) and if they were accorded independent and inalienable rights to exist and to flourish (rights of nature)? To what extent are the interests of other species represented in your problem posing, problem solving, accountability and coordination approaches?
- Step back from the impulse to find quick fixes and expand your capacity not to be immobilized by uncertainty, complicity and complexity: In what ways is your approach to the problem part of the problem? To what extent are you being driven by desires for innocence and hopefulness and how can these desires be detrimental to the task at hand? How can you leverage the recognition of complicity in harm towards deeper and more enduring forms of responsibility and accountability? To what extent are you equipped to repair and weave relationships grounded on trust, respect, consent, reciprocity and accountability?
… and 7 steps forward
- Step forward with honesty and courage to see what you don’t want to see: commit to expanding your capacity to sit with what is real, difficult and painful: the good, the bad, the ugly and the brokenness of humanity within and around you. In what ways are your projections, idealizations, expectations, hopes, fears and fragilities preventing you from approaching the aspects of the problem that are unpleasant for you and/or that challenge your sense of reality or self-image? What aspects of the challenge at hand are you not willing or ready to see and how does this impair your ability to address the challenge itself?
- Step forward with humility to find strength in openness and vulnerablity : commit to shedding your conditioned arrogance and sense of merit, status and self-importance in order to decenter yourself and centre the challenge you are trying to address. In what ways are you reproducing patterns that centre your desire for recognition, validation, prestige or protagonism (e.g. the saviour complex)? How can these desires limit your capacity to build relationships and to mobilise the coordination that is necessary for the challenge at hand?
- Step forward with self-reflexivity so that you can read yourself and learn to read the room: commit to tracing where your cognitive, affective and relational patterns of engaging with reality are coming from, where they are at, where they are going, their limitations and the ways they impact others and are part of the problem; learn to step back from yourself in order to read (the room) and to read how you are being read – learn to see yourself from other peoples’ perspectives, especially the unflattering parts, and learn to be ok with that. To what extent are you aware of the complexity of your own thoughts, emotions, investments and patterns of relationship building? What stories that you are telling yourself need to be examined?
- Step forward with self-discipline to do the work on yourself so that you don’t become work for other people: commit to identifying and interrupting compulsions and impulses grounded on socially sanctioned and conditioned harmful patterns such as greed, vanity, arrogance, indifference, indulgence, extraction and consumption (of time, labour or energy of others). To what extent are you aware of your own compulsions and unhealthy reality-coping mechanisms? How do you justify the continuity of these patterns to yourself?
- Step forward with maturity to do what is needed rather than what you want to do: commit to the long term project of becoming a good elder and ancestor for all relations. Taking into account that mainstream culture encourages and rewards self-infantilization and the denial of responsibility, how can you reorient yourself towards eldership and generational accountability?
- Step forward with expanding discernment and attention : commit to expanding your capacity for discernment in proportion to the increase in complexity, this includes your capacity to read across time and across different layers of reality, and to hold paradoxes, tensions and uncertainties in view. What do you need to learn or unlearn cognitively, effectively and relationally in order not to be immobilized and/or overwhelmed by complexity, ambiguity, plurality and unknowability?
- Step forward with adaptability, flexibility, stamina and resilience for the long haul: move for the sake of learning to coordinate and be transformed by the process rather than arrive somewhere: be prepared to fall, to fail, to have your plans shattered, to be stretched, to change course and to find joy in the struggle itself rather than in the imagined prize at the end. To what extent are your desires and calculations to arrive at a predetermined destination preventing you from engaging in the experiments and experimentations whose failures will provide the “data” for new directions and better places we may aspire to go (that we cannot imagine from the outset)?
Please let us know (below) how you have used this exercise and what you have learned from the experiment.