Co-liberation for white guys like me facing climate chaos

I had lunch with a Swedish friend last week. Over coffees and his cigarettes, we talked about my upcoming conversation with an anti-racism trainer. He told me of a time when he was in a restaurant waiting to meet his psychologist. Prior to that, he had only talked to her on the phone. After waiting about half an hour he thought that she wasn’t coming. Then a black woman he had not given much attention to, came up to him and asked if he was her client. Telling me this story, it became clear that my friend views his unconscious biases with a mix of embarrassment and comedic self-deprecation, contained by an enthusiasm for learning and changing. During lunch he was in a non-judgemental space, where it felt fine to admit he would probably always have unconscious biases, and therefore it is useful to be open to discovering more about them. After all, this is a man who was married to a black woman, while ignoring his psychologist in a restaurant because of the colour of her skin. We agreed that, like most people, we might always be exhibiting unconscious racial bias. 

So why was I meeting with an anti-racism trainer, he asked? Unfortunately my conversations with friends now involve a bit of doom, so they can appreciate what I am thinking and doing. So over another coffee, I explained that as I witness the destruction of the environment and the rise of eco-distress, I have been reflecting on many issues. I have been asking myself questions about the nature of humanity and my own humanity. Because my old stories of self and society, that I was not even conscious of, have been shaken. They are shaken by a recognition of how destructive our modern societies are, and a heightened sense of my own mortality and that of all I know and love. I am left with a desire to rediscover what is most important in life and live more aligned to that. Another reason I have been questioning life in new ways is that I want to learn why we got into this mess. Not only might that help me make some sense of it all, but it means I could avoid contributing to the same patterns of thought and behaviour in future. So that is my new reason for engaging more with anti-racism than before, as well as becoming more questioning of other forms of separation, othering, exploitation and oppression, such as unconscious sexism. 

“So you are rethinking everything because you anticipate collapse. But why do you want to not be racist?” he probed, lighting another cigarette with what I thought was a playful smile. I don’t usually order dessert, but soon a banana pancake was on its way. After stumbling around on what my reasons might be, it became clearer that I want to reduce any unconscious racism in me for four key reasons. Given that my memory is even worse after a big meal, I wrote my reasons down, which means I can now share them with you here, in case it is helpful for your own reflection and discussions. 

First, I want to avoid causing hurt. I don’t want to be unconsciously racist because I don’t want to hurt people. I now realise that racism can be subtle and pervasive, as my friend not recognising his psychologist demonstrates. I have learned that even subtle and unconscious racism can be experienced as traumatic by Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), who have been hurt by racism throughout their lives while being painfully aware of the histories of oppression.

Second, I want to benefit from connection with all people. That means I do not want to be interacting with people like a puppet of the dominant culture. If my patterns of thought and behaviour mean I am prejudiced in any way (whether on race, gender, class, age, disability, nationality or even height), then I’m not open to connection with everyone. That ‘closedness’ would mean I miss out on the opportunity to experience a huge diversity – in worldviews, culture, opinions, and knowledge. Learning about how unconscious racial bias exists in me may be a way to learn about how any form of bias exists in me, and so help my wider opening to connection. Yet there is one reason why racial bias is particularly relevant to restricting important connection and inquiry at this time of growing disruption. It is how racial bias means people can regard the experiences and cultures of others as inferior and thus irrelevant to understanding their own culture and situation. Many communities of people of colour have been experiencing societal disruption and collapse for decades. They have been resisting and surviving. Through more openness, we could begin to learn more from them and become their allies in figuring out what to do next. Their histories may also be very educational for us, given the destruction brought by colonialism and then imperial globalisation.

Third, I want to respond to vulnerability with solidarity. I am noticing how anxieties are rising amongst many people in many parts of the world as difficulties increase and old stories of security, progress and purpose are disrupted. Some of that anxiety relates to the direct and indirect impacts of climate change, while other factors have an impact as well, such as the pandemic response, with spiralling inequality and precarity. Increasing vulnerability can also lead to more frustration and anger. Therefore, people are susceptible to misleading stories of either safety or blame, which is what we are seeing from many politicians and commentators. Recognising these processes, and how they compound the difficulties, I want to be part of an alternative response. Through greater affinity with people of colour, I want to be part of communities that resist the messages that will encourage belligerent forms of nationalism and fascism. Simply, I want to participate in a kinder and fairer society, and so disengage with unhelpful norms of behaviour. It is important to recognise that people of colour and women are more likely to be economically disadvantaged and suffer the current impacts of climate chaos. Hundreds of millions of people are hungry today and hundreds of millions of people have been displaced, through direct and indirect impacts of climate change. Nearly all of them are people of colour. Their current suffering is far greater than the eco-distress and disruptions I experience. They will not be helped directly by me or my friend working on our unconscious biases, but to pay attention to those seems like an authentic part of a wider response to systematic oppression, which can also involve supporting economic justice and accountable humanitarian action.

Fourth, along with other people, I want to be free from an ideology that is causing disaster. The gendered and racial dimensions of suffering from climate change arise because of both historical and current forms of oppression and exploitation. If racism and sexism did not exist, we would not have had colonialism. If colonialism did not exist, we would not have had global capitalism. If global capitalism did not exist, it is likely we would not have had industrial consumer societies operating at such a scale to be crashing through environmental limits. Or, to put it simply, would people like me have access to cheap food from around the world, while the producers of my food do not have such options, if not for racism helping motivate and justify the establishing of power relations which contemporary supply chains and finance sit on top of? My reflection on these processes, and the culture of modernity that embedded exploitative and oppressive assumptions and attitudes, has been a journey into critical sociology. That’s a field with big frameworks to describe patterns of thought that oppress others: imperialism, coloniality, white supremacy, and patriarchy. My journey led me to attempt a summary of the ideology that has enabled such destruction. This ideology consists of normal patterns of thought and feeling. For instance, the assumption that it is good to be certain, or that we are autonomous in our thoughts and actions. I attempted that synthesis as I wanted to disengage from psychological patterns that cumulatively, at scale, have driven climate change and environmental degradation. 

Because of these four motivations for not being racist, I support efforts for any community of people to be less prejudiced. If such communities seek to be open to all comers and to influence societies, then it is even more important that they address their unconscious biases. Therefore, I was pleased to see that the volunteer-led strategy dialogue of the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) identified diversity and inclusion as a key area for future action. That recommendation led to the formation of a circle to engage on the topic, and the launch of anti-racism training. Which is how I came to have the opportunity to discuss racism with Nonty Sabic, who is leading the anti-racism training for volunteers within the DAF. 

As I engaged in the topic of anti-racism, I felt some resistance. I wondered whether some people seek to be regarded as more progressive than others and engage in unproductive criticism. I wondered whether some people seek to weaponise matters of discrimination regarding race and gender to cause division and exert power, rather than be allies towards meaningful change. I wondered whether anti-racism efforts might be undermining the identity of people who are themselves feeling more vulnerable and frustrated, including many people of European descent. I wondered whether some of this work could involve unhelpful feelings of guilt or a desire to punish. I now believe that all those concerns are substantive, but that it does not follow that anti-racism work is counterproductive for social change. Rather, it means we can experiment and learn about how to get it right. There is a key role for ‘white allies’ to do some of this work to help fellow people of European descent to understand that this agenda is essential and does not need to be pursued in poor ways. As ‘white allies’ we can also remind each other that if we feel annoyed because conversations are not perfectly avoiding the pitfalls I just described, then our commitment to real solidarity means we will not act from our upset and continue with the process. By reflecting as we go, we may find new ways to make this agenda more invitational, so people recognise it as a process of ‘co-liberation’ from patterns of thought and behaviour that are unhelpful to ourselves as well. 

That is a term and concept I am beginning to find useful. For me, co-liberation describes an aspiration towards our freedom from systems that differentially oppress all people within both dominant and marginalised groups in societies. Therefore it includes co-creating our freedom with people in communities that seek to avoid systematic oppression. As I question my own culture that has caused such destruction, the concept makes sense to me. As a white middle-class Western man, I am coming to sense the heart-palpitating truth that my own liberation from oppression, where I burst the cultural fetters on my authentic humanity, will require the disrupting and dismantling of systems of prejudice that pervade both myself and everything I experience – from language to property and from emotions to knowledge. For many reasons, including the four I described in this article, I am choosing that path of co-liberation in response to my increasing eco-distress and sense of vulnerability.

As I have looked deeper into the matter of unconscious bias and how it relates to systematic forms of exploitation and oppression, I have reached a new conclusion about its primacy in social change. I no longer see work on reducing unconscious bias, enhancing inclusion and practical solidarity against oppression, as simply nice ‘add ons’ to environmental movements and professions. Instead, they are a starting point. If people like me experience the benefits of privilege, which have arisen in part from past and current oppression, and choose not to engage in the disruption and dismantling of oppression, then we are complicit for its continuance. So if someone is feeling these issues are a dull or awkward complication, rather than an opportunity for co-liberation, that may be due to a lack of awareness about – and from – their privileged identity. Either we are for co-liberation from prejudice and oppression, or we are not coherently addressing climate change and its effects. I realise that many people working on climate issues might see these matters as important but separate. However, if they see climate mitigation and adaptation as primarily technical problems, rather than having sociological roots in oppression, then they will be ill-prepared for the troubles and struggles ahead. They may be more susceptible to narratives and initiatives in response to societal disruptions and risks, that rely on racism and oppression. I hope more of them will learn otherwise and therefore become natural allies against future eco-fascism. At the same time, I recognise that I will have a lot to learn and unlearn, including many stumbles along the way, as I walk a path of co-liberation.

I hope my reflections on why people with privileged identities like me should engage in anti-racism efforts as a central part of our response to climate chaos will be helpful for you, as you engage with others on this matter. For more information on the work of the Diversity and Decolonising Circle, see here

In an article for Open Democracy, I discussed this topic as one of the main areas of dialogue and debate in the field of Deep Adaptation to climate chaos. I paste the relevant section of that article beneath the following video. 

You can watch Nonty Sabic and I discuss these issues below. 

Additional recorded conversations that I hosted, where we explored anti-racism, decolonising, and why anti-oppression can be at the heart of action on climate change, whether reducing it or responding to it, included Vanessa Andreotti, Skeena Rathor, Amisha Ghadiali and Elsie Luna.

The following is an Excerpt from “To Criticise Deep Adaptation, Start Here” published August 31st, 2020 in openDemocracy. 

Some people have asked whether the people engaged in collapse-anticipation in general are focused more on their own vulnerability and survival in the future than on the experience of others’ suffering at present. It does appear that many of the stories that reach the media about previous collapse-anticipating households and communities suggest they are focused on hyper-local resilience, whether that is off-grid living or concerns about personal security. This is the image of the ‘prepper’ who learns to grow food and shoot. Whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of the diversity of people who anticipate collapse is unclear to me. For decades, the Transition Towns movement has involved people who are preparing for a breakdown in society and their vegetable allotments and knitting clubs are probably less ‘media friendly’ than the gun-toting prepper. So what of the concept and people involved in ‘Deep Adaptation’? The concept and growing movement is explicitly about enabling and embodying loving responses to our predicament. It is therefore a peace movement alternative to the image of preppers readying themselves for crime and civil conflict.

If ‘collapse’ is not merely in the realm of concept, but a label for some difficult experiences in the real world, then arguing whether it is good for people to communicate about it could be a form of  solipsism. Instead, our task can be how we make sense of our situation in ways that discourage defensive or violent approaches and encourage more kind, wise and accountable responses.

With this intention in mind, one can question whether the present discussions and initiatives in the field of Deep Adaptation are too focused on the anticipation of future collapse rather than people’s current experience of collapse and the ongoing harm caused by our current systems. When looking at our current system’s production of inequality, poverty, poor mental health, animal suffering, toxic pollution and habitat destruction, there is enough to criticise and challenge without focusing on future trends and probabilities.

For many people and other forms of life, collapse is a current experience directly resulting from the continuance of the societies that most of you reading this article benefit from. They are experiencing high-intensity disruptions and struggles for justice and healing. It is important to note that some people in Deep Adaptation networks have been badly affected by forest fires, storm damage, rising costs of living and the impacts of a pandemic made more likely by environmental degradation. However, most people are not yet experiencing the extreme impacts of climate disruption. That brings us to the matter of whether their engagement in Deep Adaptation is enabling people to change in ways that reduce intense suffering, either by reducing their complicity, challenging systems, or supporting humanitarian action. Some people who have roles within the Deep Adaptation field are promoting such responses. But it is not the main focus for people who engage in this discussion, who tend to be middle-class people in modern consumer societies. Nevertheless, it is possible to reduce daily suffering and injustice from our current lifestyles, while also preparing for societal collapse. The issue is one of emphasis, rather than an insurmountable barrier.

A related issue is the limited diversity of people engaged in Deep Adaptation at present. The concept was published in the English language from the UK and the main networks are in English, so a preponderance of white people might be expected. However, that means the communities emerging around Deep Adaptation may operate in ways that feel unwelcoming to people of colour. For instance, some of the emphasis on grief, love and wisdom may seem somewhat self-soothing, and downplay matters of complicity, accountability, justice, reparations and healing. They may see this as a means of depoliticising a topic to make it attractive for people who are less oppressed or less concerned with oppression.

Another aspect of diversity is economic class, both in and between countries. Many people find it difficult to earn their living and have little spare time for engaging in discussions on public matters or to volunteer. That situation is becoming worse with declining pay and working conditions in many countries. Should engaging in the anticipation of collapse become helpful to them and if so how?

Whether Deep Adaptation initiatives and people should seek to actively engage people who are not well represented at present, or seek to complement other frameworks and initiatives, is open to discussion. Different countries and cultures will have their own concepts, phrases and places for discussion. For instance, in France, ‘collapsologie’ has developed as an academic field. Within the DAF there is a working group on this issue, and diversity training is being offered to the 100+ volunteers. In addition, as the concept and community has been associated with me, a white male professor from the UK, I am stepping down from a role in daily activities to become one member of a diverse group of fourteen people that provides guidance when asked.

A related issue to both solidarity and diversity is our avoidance of the patterns of thought and emotional reactions that have created our predicament in the first place. The concepts of anti-patriarchy and decolonisation are about this deeper consideration of people’s habits of privilege and supremacy. In the case of Deep Adaptation, this gives rise to the question of how people can avoid making this agenda one primarily about commodified solutions for the emotional pain of the privileged, through various kinds of therapeutic support. One response to this criticism is to keep everything as free as possible, but that can also create dependence on rich donor patronage, and hence priorities being set by the wealthy. Another response would be to give much more attention to matters of complicity and accountability, so that we are all encouraged to recognise how we each rehearse colonialist and supremacist patterns of thought and behaviour because of our culture.

These issues all relate to a broader question of the extent to which Deep Adaptation could or should become a new social movement that seeks to secure changes to power relations in societies. Some criticise participants in Deep Adaptation for not being explicit about such an agenda, and the DAF for not helping to enable collaboration towards a political agenda and strategy. Part of the reason for not doing that is because of the previous reticence about mass public outreach, described above. Another reason is much of the early focus has been on inner changes and developing support systems for people who anticipate collapse. A third reason is much of the impetus for political action on climate has been channelled towards and through Extinction Rebellion, which launched at a similar time. However, given that collective action through local, national and international government will be essential to reduce harm from climate disruption, the lack of a clear political agenda from Deep Adaptation is likely to be a cause of future criticism, discussion and perhaps new initiatives.

If collapse anticipation does give rise to political movements, then serious attention will need to be given to where influential and legitimate allies might be found. Surprisingly, perhaps, those allies are unlikely to be members of the environmental profession. The aforementioned essay critiquing Deep Adaptation received enthusiastic support online from many British environmental professionals. Their comments on Twitter indicated their pleasure at reading that environmental destruction does not mean that their own society is at risk of collapse. That reaction contrasts with the lack of enthusiasm from the same people when some of the world’s leading climate scientists predict societal collapse. For instance, when climatology Professor Will Steffen concludes that “collapse is the most likely outcome of the present trajectory of the current system.”

That so many British environmentalists endorsed the arguments of three non-climatologists in dismissing one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Professor Peter Wadhams, could raise questions about their attentiveness to the situation. If some of the leading climatologists are right about the likelihood of collapse, then reformist eco-centrism is now redundant and counterproductive. I explained that in my original Deep Adaptation paper, when I detailed how the personal and institutional denial within the environmental profession is an impediment to honest exploration of humanity’s predicament. In recently demonstrating resistance to exploring the possibility of societal collapse, eco-centrists exhibit their allegiance to current institutions of economy, culture, and politics. As such, they are a form of ‘dead wood’ that is suffocating the potential for this time to be a revolutionary moment in the history of environmentalism. This ‘dead wood’ effect is not just theoretical. For instance, the influence of mainstream environmental NGOs on the possibility of adult support for youth climate strikers has downplayed the potential for a global general strike of adults. Therefore, the mainstream environmental sector continues its resistance to analyses that invite revolutionary praxis, with the personal sacrifices and risks that would involve.

Where does this conservatism of the environmental sector leave people seeking a political strategy for their collapse anticipation? Peaceful revolutionary libertarian-socialism or radical communitarianism, pursued through engagement in local politics may be options. How does one begin that quest? I wonder how many regular readers and tweeters of openDemocracy would actually risk losing everything, going to jail, to help other people gain influence in changing society? The point of solidarity is that one’s unity in struggling against a common enemy is more important than oneself being heard for how ethically correct one is. Unfortunately, the rise of reactionary populism is demonstrating how the chattering progressive classes are proving themselves to be politically inert and a drag on serious efforts at change.