You can't force focus, but you can nurture it

What would it take to realistically face the climate crisis?

I’ll tell you. Not that much and yet it would take a huge, unaccustomed effort.

It would take people who have a yard digging it up and planting vegetables. It would take going to massive protests demanding science-based energy policy after work instead of going home and kicking back in front of a screen. It would take riding a bike to work even in the cold autumn rain and sleet. It would take remembering to bring a cloth bag when you go shopping. It would take going back up the stairs to turn off the light you forgot… every time. It would take fixing that old heating system, not next week but right now. It would take researching new recipes that have more legumes than meat.

In short, it would take constant focus, a million small actions and talking about it with everyone all the time as our highest priority in all the small moments of the day.

This is our unavoidable reality. Only about a quarter of our personal carbon footprint (that’s basically your personal contribution to climate change from being alive in an industrialized society) can be influenced by our small daily actions. BUT constant focus on this crisis, talking about it and demanding systemic change does matter and does help.

Creative Commons image by Jumbero of

Creative Commons image by Jumbero of

In five short years, Germany went from being a major coal country to having a full 40 percent of its energy come from wind, solar and water, pushing coal into second place. That was only achieved by the incessant and fierce demands of regular people who never became famous like Greta Thunberg.

It can be done and we know what it will take. The tough part, of course, is that pretty much everyone has to focus on this for it to work. And that looks like a very tall order when a quarter of the people in a lot of countries still choose to believe ads by oil companies over scientists, and even those who “get it,” don’t get it because they don’t think about it unless a pollster specifically asks and they certainly don’t act on it.

When have people ever focused on something like this?

They did during WWII. In fact, a lot of the things we need to do now would be similar to those civilian wartime efforts—conserve resources, redirect industry, create jobs through planful programs and grow food in every yard. People talked about it every day and thought about it most hours of the day. It was stressful. Focus does that.

The Civil Rights movement was similar for those who were involved or directly impacted. Humanity pretty much hasn’t achieved anything massive or worth having without that kind of focus by at least some people. But it has occasionally happened. And it could happen now.

Except… except that the focus isn’t there. Focus is a kind of energy inside human beings. When it’s there we do amazing things. That whole thing about a mother being able to lift a car off of her trapped child—superhuman strength and all that? All that is is extreme focus. Every fiber, all the energy in a body, focused with laser-like intensity in one moment on one thing.

And this is a matter of focus too, though a bit broader and definitely longer lasting.

So how do we get people to focus on the climate crisis? Obviously, one of the problems with it is that because most of the threat is a decade or two in the future and realistic threats of apocalyptic scenarios are a generation away. What we have now is mostly theory with a few examples of major weather disasters, which are mostly someplace distant (and if they aren’t distant then you probably have a lot of very necessary survival tasks distracting you). It’s hard to sustain focus on something that is distant in time or place and it’s difficult to focus on something that it takes a chart to explain.

But there is also the despair factor.

One of the reasons I became particularly focused on the climate crisis this year was that I discovered a reason for hope—a very specific and concrete reason, a local Extinction Rebellion group. When I found that group and saw that the members were serious and dedicated to both responsible action to bring societal focus to the climate crisis and to the kind of social inclusion that will actually make it worthwhile, I essentially stopped needing to sleep.

I wasn’t forcing myself to focus. It was easy. i had to force my body and mind to relax in order to make the effort sustainable. But the actual focus, the effort involved, felt effortless for months.

Then a strange thing happened. Whereas this group had begun as an oasis of positive focus, a thread of infighting, egoism and social exclusion entered into it. It happens in groups all the time.

Extinction Rebellion has safeguards against this sort of thing—conflict resolution mechanisms and decentralization to avoid power trips, but there were those who argued our group was too small and too fragile for these things to be implemented. In trying to protect what we had built, the safeguards were sacrificed, first for just awhile and then for months. Authoritarian methods were allowed, as a “necessary evil” and conflict resolution was put off indefinitely with vulnerable people being sidelined.

Most of the group is still going strong and still an excellent group. But the abandonment of these safeguards in those places where problems arose took the wind right out of my sails. I can already see the cost and I know what the eventual price will be, if this is not turned around.

I’m still involved, still keeping up the responsibilities I took on. But it isn’t effortless anymore. I have to force myself to do it. My focus is broken. I’m not entirely burnt out physically, just unmotivated.

I still have my personal focus on the climate and ecological crisis. I still do my garden and all the other little daily things that need to be done. I still talk about it and think about it most of every day. But I can understand why others don’t have that focus. A lot of people see no hope in the climate crisis or at least nothing truly useful they can do personally.

And I don’t entirely blame them. This is a massive problem and there is a lot of discouraging propaganda out there, either confusing people about the very clear scientific conclusions giving us existential warnings or pushing crippling despair.

I look at the historical accounts of times when large groups of people truly did focus on something important. There were exceptions, of course. There were people who didn’t pitch in or who took advantage, but vast numbers of people did focus. And I know we can’t force that kind of focus.

Sure, we need to eventually legislate conservation rules and we definitely need public figures, institutions and the media to start intensively telling the truth about the crisis. But we also can and must nurture the kind of focus we need.

That means acting with integrity. It means practicing the good things we talk about and following through with commitments. It means supporting one another and putting aside self-serving motives most of the time. It means, in short, being the people we always wanted to be.