DeChristopher delivers sobering climate talk, says the false assumptions that people hold about their relationship to nature are central to apathy about climate change.

November 6, 2017

By Josh OCT 26, 2017

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher came to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science on Tuesday to speak about the current state of the environmental movement.

DeChristopher, the co-founder of the Climate Disobedience Center, spoke about popular perceptions of environmentalism, focusing on the ways in which people make sense of the environmental crisis that will result if nothing is done to slow climate change.

There’s an element of the unthinkable about the climate crisis,” he said. “The difficult question is how do we deal with this? How do we hold onto our humanity?”

DeChristopher began with a five-minute discussion on the current environmental effects of deleterious actions taken 30 years ago. Soon, the talk morphed into a musical performance by Brian Cahall, music director of Peaceful Uprising, whom DeChristopher described as a “troubadour for the environmental movement.” The lyrics in Cahall’s acoustic performance alluded directly to the struggle to protect the planet, and DeChristopher said the emotional appeal of song helps build a sense of solidarity.

DeChristopher graduated from Harvard Divinity School earlier this year. In his speech, he said that his studies have influenced how he views the environmental movement. The false assumptions that people hold about their relationship to nature, DeChristopher said, are central to apathy about climate change.

“The reason we have common folks denying climate change is because we have a mindset that we believe we’re in control,” he said.

DeChristopher said this belief in control over nature — called the technocratic paradigm — has led to a corollary belief that circumstances will never be out of our control. The problem with this perspective, he said, is that people’s scientific understandings are limited, making them unable to accurately predict future consequences. It’s this outlook that has led us down a path of ignorance and false optimism, he said.

“There are three responses to climate change — mitigation, adaption and suffering,” Dechristopher said. “We are capable of facing disaster that involves suffering, and facing them in a way that brings out the best in us gives us solidarity and ultimately gives our temporary lives meaning.”

DeChristopher said the public’s relationship to climate disaster is similar to its relationship with death. Just as we tend to ignore the reality of death until it is too late, DeChristopher said, we naturally seek to separate ourselves from the reality of impending climate disaster. Facing the reality, he said, is critical to escaping the sense of despair commonly experienced by activists.

The problem is structural, as the funding structure is based on showing measurable achievements to investors, which encourages a short-term outlook, DeChristopher said in an interview with the News. This ultimately leads to a high burnout rate in the activist community, he added.

“This is what FES needs more of: a different, more radical view of how to bring about change,” attendee Josh Constanti FES ’18 said. “FES is focused on business solutions, but sometimes other means can be just as effective.”

The psychological view is valuable, Constanti emphasized, noting that Yale research has shown that hearing the term “global warming” leads to more individual commitment to change than hearing a term like “climate change.” DeChristopher’s sober, realistic tone is necessary in dire circumstances, he added.

“His ethical insights are very valuable because we need to bring to bear the sense of where we are deriving hope from,” said event organizer Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founder and co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale.

All future generations will be impacted by irresponsible human actions, Tucker said, adding that while people should look the issue straight in the eye, “we also need to empower people to take part in the change.”

Josh Purtell | [email protected]