Dr Lynne Reeder, Founder, Mindful Futures Network
5 November 2021
If our mindful futures are to inform our climate futures, then embedding the science of mindfulness, empathy, and compassion into climate policy is essential. Below are three examples from that science that could be considered as part of the current COP26 discussions; and they include that:
1) Emotional wellbeing and social infrastructure are just as crucial in climate change policy, as is physical infrastructure.
2) A focus on future generations should be a prerequisite for all climate change policies.
3) Understanding the limited ways humans have evolved to respond to long term threats can assist us in better ‘seeing’ and responding to the climate emergency unfolding before us.
We call on the delegates of COP26 to make sure their decisions will effectively tackle climate change and puts people’s mental health at the centre.
Mark Rowland, CEO, Mental Health Foundation, UK
The recent devastating fires in Australia and in California have exposed the changing nature and impact of climate disasters into urban areas. To date policy development in disaster management has mostly focused on building and sustaining physical and community infrastructure. Although resilience policy covers a range of socio-economic, environmental, and physical aspects, there are very few examples that focus on emotional wellbeing as a crucial aspect of climate change related disasters.
Recent advances in neuroscience research and other fields suggest that certain inner capacities, like mindfulness can open new pathways towards societal resilience. But in the fields of disaster risk reduction and resilience, their potential role has been largely ignored.
Climate events are increasing in intensity and frequency and their aftereffects are more complex. In the 2020 Routledge Handbook of Urban Disasters, Prof Christine Wamsler, Dr Lynne Reeder, and Mark Crosweller state that we need to build personal and societal resilience to prevent individual and social harm and to increase personal and collective wellbeing. They recommend that if decision makers are to produce more evidence-based disaster response policies, then they, and first responders, should be trained in socio-cognitive and socio-affective mindfulness modules - to assist in putting the experiences, capacities, and emotions of those affected at the centre of social resilience planning.
To better understand the potential of mindfulness in building resilience, a deeper understanding of recent advances in social neuroscience, and how the mind influences our capacity to deal with the suffering inherent in the occurrence of hazards and disasters, is required. Neuroscience research shows that capacities of self-awareness, reflexivity, flexibility, adaptability, compassion, and empathy can be proactively increased through cognitive training, such as mindfulness.
You don’t need to see my pain or my tears to know that we’re in a crisis.
Brianna Fruean - Samoan Climate Activist at COP26
Governments have a duty to protect future citizens, not just present ones and in this context Roman Krznaric considers one of the most important question of our time to be, ‘How can we be good ancestors’? He says that responding to this question will require our generation to imagine its future with deep-time humility – something indigenous groups have been doing for tens of thousands of years.
Empathy is an essential competency in social relations and in recent times there has been considerable research on empathy within a range of disciplines including neuroscience, biology, economics, evolutionary biology, psychology and civic engagement. Krznaric notes that humanity is now faced with one of the most urgent social questions of the twenty-first century – what obligations and responsibilities do we have to the generations who will succeed us?
In term of that intergenerational equity, in the lead up to COP26 the Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on Climate Action, Selwin Hart, noted that ‘…. we need to find ways to involve young people in discussions and decisions on climate change. I hear their frustration. I’m hoping that we hear the voices of young people at Glasgow and post-Glasgow’.
The unpredictable nature of climate change effects has been shown to have a significant impact on the fear and stress levels of those who experience it, and in response the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently called for a shift beyond short-term cycles and for policies to be developed through a lens of ‘… empathy and wellbeing’. So it’s reassuring that embedding empathy into policy development is already on the radar of some world leaders.
Enough of Brutalising our Biodiversity
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations at COP26
The powerful statements of António Guterres at COP26 clearly remind us that to date we have not risen to the challenge of being compassionate to our planet – the only home we have, and we need to better understand what in the human make-up stops us doing that.
Prof Paul Gilbert, the creator of Compassion Focused Therapy notes that the research base of compassion and empathy is vital because, ‘...the motivation of compassion pushes us to understand how we have structured the world, and to ask how we can structure it better, not because we may suffer, but because others are suffering’. In his thought-provoking book, Living Like Crazy - he concludes that compassion in particular, ‘is one of the most healing motivations that nature ever came up with’. Not to draw on these research and policy outcomes to cultivate and use these skills and motivations ‘for the benefit of us all would be to live like crazy.’
One of our crucial challenges is how do we as a species, intentionally shift our focus from threat-based reactions, to more reflective responses in dealing with long-term policy challenges that can produce sustainable climate mitigation and adaption policies?
Innovative responses to climate change will need to consider that humans have survived as a species because they have evolved to notice and react to imminent threats. Harvard psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert states that humans have adapted to respond to immediate problems such as global pandemics, but not so good at more probable, but distant dangers, like global warming, noting that when faced with these types of hazards, the brain produces indifferent or aversion responses.
It's interesting to note therefore, that as the world leaders are meeting in Glasgow – there is a concurrent conference at the University of Edinburgh entitled ‘Realising A Compassionate Planet’ which will bring compassion science into dialogue with climate science.
And in a recent presentation to the Women’s Climate Congress online conversations, Dr Lynne Reeder commented that ‘It will only be when we acknowledge the deep level of our global interdependence, that we will be able to participate in our common humanity, by intentionally shifting our focus from threat-based reactions to reflective responses. These more conscious choices will allow us to create long-term policy responses capable of supporting sustainable climate mitigation and adaption.
In Australia we are very close to ‘living like crazy’, with what has been broadly recognised as an inadequate commitment and contribution to the current climate discussions. Perhaps Glasgow just might provide the platform for us to shift evolutionary gears, but that will only happen if we can also seriously integrate the science of mindfulness, empathy, and compassion.
Inaugural member of the Women's Climate Congress, vet and pilot (retired), writer, artist
World societies today little question the norms of their own structures and cultures, accepting them as variations on a basic human state of being: living under this or that towering governing regime, whether autocratic, elected, or dynastic. We all inherit unceasing varieties of competitive hegemony, engineered man-made environments, militarism and armaments, many punitive laws, a hierarchical political structure under assorted kings, chiefs, emperors, theocracies, autocrats, generals, dictators, party leaders, prime ministers, military alliances, cabals, revolutionaries, oligarchies, warlords etc.
The ground was laid perhaps 10,000 years BP, by Neolithic peoples gradually settling to farm, eventually pushing a hunger for land ownership and expansion; quite a short time ago in our 100,000-year history of homo s. sapiens.
However it is only for about the last 5,000 years, with the advent of cities and metals and writing in the near east, that these masculine cultural forces have risen up and dominated. Prior to these, archaeology shows that paleolithic hunter-gatherers and neolithic agrarian peoples thanked and revered the Earth-feminine as a sacred procreating provider – Earth mother goddess, as it were. (They surely would not have named their famous contemplative figure of maternal regeneration and bounty – 25,000 years old – a ‘venus fetish’). Subsequently, knowledge of the feminine spirit was sidelined, and eventually silenced and excised altogether from the ascendant world crusading religions of the past 2500 years: all creation now presided over by a single all-powerful male god. Even amongst pantheon creeds, this hierarchy of gods and male potency pervades most of the human populations on every continent.
It is only amongst some quiet-living indigenous peoples that the knowledge of female spirit lives on, in equal and natural balance with male spirit. Her spirit, too, is embedded in the place whose sacred consciousness was debarred long ago – the Earth Mother.
In the most recent few hundred years, proliferating human populations and techno-engineering skills have driven a mass culture of military colonialism, land clearance, deep mining and extraction, smelting, high-rise construction, high-energy travel. The Earth and her waters and atmosphere are exploited as a dead lump of rock and elements.
Not all men are control freaks!
We all know and love the men around us. Hegemonic institutions, as forged by the early land-grabbers, have a potency of their own: the path to success is to rear above and dominate those below. Once embedded, these hierarchies have attracted and safeguarded bullies and demagogues, and become institutionalised as ‘norms’ of government for millennia. Even in more recent times of modern democratic government, we have still inherited masculine hierarchical models whose rules and behaviour do not reflect the aspirations and manners of women, who must ‘act the part’ or sink within these tough arenas.
But the vast majority of men are not magnetically drawn into power and its inherent corruptions, and indeed share our longing for safety for their families. This is a great good!
World crises of today
Australia’s ecology and economy are out of balance
Most of us appreciate living in a democracy, albeit a clumsy and pugilistic one.
Democracy is a large word: there are a great many variations on the democratic structure, governing many peoples throughout the world. In Australia we have inherited a simple, rather primitive version of democracy: with a combative bicameral parliament of two heavyweight opposing parties and a few side players - a sort of perpetual rugby scrum, largely avoided by women and hostile to those who enter the combat arena.
This ponderous institution in Australia is clearly unwilling (unable?) to comprehend, let alone act upon, the extremity and imminence of climate catastrophe: both because of its doggedly combative culture, and the narrow-minded character of many who are drawn to such a pugnacious arena. The significant majority of members are men, to the present day. And even with increasing numbers of women gaining access, the generations-old systems and policy agendas are relentlessly male in character. Women are therefore condemned to ‘fit in’ as best they can.
What is apparent is that the primary human and humane task of caring for the world for the next generations, is well down the list of government priorities.
Women are rising
There are rising movements of women all across the world today. Women are realising that after all, contemporary political and religious cultures do not reflect the human condition overall, but the male human condition; as they have been overwhelmingly co-opted, structured and operated by men for several past millennia. And we are realising that our women’s minds and modes are very different: that we long for a public ethos centrally dedicated to life and family safety and future; a lateral and collaborative mode of guiding societal policy and action, recovery and direction; arenas of governance conducting far-reaching conversations rather than confrontations.
We are realising, with mounting distress, that the overwhelmingly male presidents and autocrats of the world are not putting family and future life on Earth as their urgent priority — not in time, anyway. Their dragging and uncooperative debate effectively bequeaths to our descendants a life of inescapable struggle, heat, fire, flood, hurricane, water deprivation, warfare, exhaustion.
It is reckoned by psychologists that many men driven by ascendancy and power, are sociopaths! Certainly many world leaders today are not consciously fathers and grandfathers, but hoarders and warriors: as they face each other down with bullying, sanctions and weapons.
We women must work out ways to ascend ourselves, right now, to reclaim our necessary, equal and rightful places at the table; as the people of the Earth debate and move to determine the fate of our children and the Earth’s life.