Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 036: Green Guilt

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. This week, Friday Apiliski and I examine how to transform green guilt into emotional intelligence. We meet with Dr. Renee Lertzman, leading authority on Green Melancholia, and talk with Tamar Hurwitz about the guilt free education of the next generation. As a self-described environmentalist, I feel like every action I take has to be green. 

FRIDAY APILISKI: Oh my God. It's totally unrealistic.

JARED BLUMENFELD: It isn't easy to do everything right. It's impossible. 

FRIDAY APILISKI: It's impossible. Nobody can do it. And believe me because I've tried as hard as you can try, and you can't.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: But the environmental movement kind of feels like it's sending a message, which is, if you don't do 100 percent, you know what? There's some shame associated with that. 

FRIDAY APILISKI: Yeah, and it's awful actually because if everybody just did a little percent better, holy cow, think about how great we would be off. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I agree. 

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: I mean nobody has to be perfect, but if we all are better then, wow, we could make so much change.

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, that's what this week's show is about. Friday, this week’s show is about how to change a conversation around the environment so that it isn't a litmus test on whether you're a decent person or not. It's not a litmus test on how green you are on, but it's just you're trying your best.

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: I actually think what the movement is missing is the solution. So, we do a great job at saying ‘the world is coming to an end. Here's the most scary, awful things you can think of and your part of the problem’ with zero solution. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I don't know if you find it exhausting, Friday. 

FRIDAY APILISKI: Oh, it's absolutely exhausting. Yeah, and that's why people don't engage in it because there are a lot of other things in life to be exhausted about do you just have to pick carefully what those things are that you're going to put your energy towards, but the guilt thing is tough because it takes you to a dark place real fast and that's not a productive place.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I agree. One hundred percent. If you think about like the origins of guilt, like we used to have these things called sins, like they were sinners, right? And it was this whole religious pretext and moral code and people felt like if they violated it somehow, they were bad people. Guilt came from, as our society became less and less religious, like and there was a separation of church and state and all this other stuff, guilt kind of took the place of sin. 

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: That makes sense.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Yeah. I mean it's, it's weird. 

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: Why do we need it? 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: We definitely don't need it. 

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: Let’s not.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean, for me, guilt is about an expectation which is normally not vocalized. It's not a discussion between us. It's a set of assumptions and expectations that are kind of foisted upon you. Like this is what you should be doing. Whereas if it's not spoken or you just hear it through TV and society, then it just becomes kind of this ever present, hmm, I think I'm being told I'm not a decent person because they don't have a Prius.

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: It's unfortunate that there's guilt associated with that. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It's kind of an insidious and manipulative tool because it's not allowing people to say, I have a choice and I'd like to be able to do these things and I'm going to try my best and do them. It basically creates like an absolute bar, a limit and says, you shall do this, otherwise you should feel crappy about yourself and what's more, people are going to feel crappy about you. 

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: Everybody's motivated by something different. Some people are motivated by polar bears. Some people are motivated by trees. Some people are just motivated by wanting to breathe clean air and drink clean water. I have a goal of being totally plastic free, but I can't be totally plastic free yet. I'm trying. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I meet up with Dr. Renee Lertzman who's the author of Environmental Melancholia. Her integrated approach brings together the best of the behavioral sciences, social sciences and innovative design sciences to create a powerful approach to engagement and social change. Renee's work has been featured in the Guardian, The New York Times, Time magazine, and The Washington Post. I start by asking Renee how she got engaged in this fascinating intersection between psychology, neurology, and our behavior as it relates to the environment.

 

DR. RENEE LERTZMAN: It was impossible for me to see environmental issues, including climate, without being fundamentally psychological issues. I really committed to understanding at the deepest level possible what is the psychology of environmental awareness. What I found is within psychology, there's this abundance of insight and you know, perspectives and theories that actually can speak very well to the complexity of environmental awareness and how we respond.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It seems like we have so many complex and often contradictory feelings about the environment around us.

 

DR. RENEE LERTZMAN: It makes complete that we would be experiencing both as individuals and within our communities and socially all kinds of very complicated feelings that we may not fully understand or know what to do with. And these can include feeling guilt. This can include shame. It can include feeling really confused or conflicted, and I think that it's really powerful and important for us to frame all of those experiences in the context of, okay, this is actually a big deal, what we're all starting to come to terms with. Whether it's climate change or any number of issues and you know, I actually believe that each person has the capacity in some way or another to respond in a way that is potentially impactful. But I think that in order for that to happen, we need to have a shared language or understanding for these experiences. A lot of climate and environmental organizations and initiatives, you know, are mainly focused on raising levels of awareness and educating people about what's happening.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A lot of the campaigns that I get through the letter box or see get bombarded on email, they're trying to tell me what I should do, and it feels very shame and guilt driven rather than helping us feel that we'd want to do it. 

 

DR. RENEE LERTZMAN: I think that we're hopefully in a bit of a paradigm shift where there's a growing recognition that the way that we communicate about these issues really has to change and that the legacy of the past few decades has been, how do we push the right levers to get people to feel motivated? And that way of thinking itself is very counterproductive. Telling people why it's good for you to either stop smoking, eating less sugar, exercise more, any number of things was a complete nonstarter. When you invite people to reflect on their own relationship with whatever that is, and when you create a context of safety, compassion, acceptance, which sounds so foreign to most environmental folks, that it changes the whole dynamic. So, if I were to say to you, you know, I'm an environmental group. We really want to understand, what is your relationship with waste? With our plastics? That style of raising questions just changes things. So, one thing I've learned from motivational interviewing is the difference between what they call writing, why it's the right thing versus guiding. And what does it really mean to be a guide to basically say, hey, we're here for you. We want to support you. Instead of hammering at you to say if you were decent human being, you would be doing more to protect or restore or whatever. And so, give us money now. Which is the limited repertoire that organizations offer for people to get involved. It's either donate money, sign a petition, or show up to an event or a protest or a march. And what I found in my research where I was doing interviews with people in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is that it was leaving out like all these other options that many, many people may have who don't identify as being an environmentalist, but yet they care very deeply about whether it's the local river or the Great Lakes or the forest down the street. But they would never in a million years say, I'm an environmentalist. I'm going to donate, sign a petition or sign up, but they may go do a cleanup. How do we create the context where we're shifting the dynamic from the moralizing and the shaming and blaming and the “shoulding” to look, you know, here's where we are, here's our situation, and to relate to one another as if we actually all care.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: The election of Donald trump to me was a failure of the environmental movement. Communicating to people. I mean, the places that we lost, the biggest and the most surprising like Michigan or Pennsylvania were places where we were telling people, you know, you should be driving a Prius instead of F150. You shouldn't like working at the coal mine even though it's the only job that you have. And so, I thought his election would lead to this sea change where people would be questioning the way we communicate these important messages, but it seems like folks are just doubled down.

 

DR. RENEE LERTZMAN: That's right. And I've been somewhat shocked myself because to me it was such, as you say, profound evidence of a failure of really empathizing, you know, really coming from a politics of empathy. I did expect that after the election in 2016 that there would be a deep soul searching, taking stock. And I think that has happened in some. We've seen Van Jones work, which is a really powerful example of really looking at a politics of empathy, right? I mean that's what he's all about. I have seen less evidence of that around climate and environment. And I think one of the reasons why is precisely because the stakes are so high and there's such a sense of urgency that we feel we don't have time for that. But the paradox of that is that I don't think we have time not to design new ways of communicating and engaging with communities that's based on a fundamental principle of listening and respect and inclusion and exploring opportunities to co-create and co-design solutions and basic community organizing.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: By and large, that doesn't seem to be happening. 

 

DR. RENEE LERTZMAN: I see the tendency to unintentionally talk down to people or basically say, you know, we got this. Just contribute your signature or the funds. We're on the front lines, so you can trust us to do what we need to do. And not necessarily even saying what it is we do. Like, I don't even know what half of the organizations do. Literally there's a mystique. I

don't really know where my money's going. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How can we use our emotional intelligence to evolve this conversation? 

DR. RENEE LERTZMAN: To me, what I find is very powerful to think about what I call the three A's. So the three A's are anxiety, when anxieties might be coming up for people, ambivalence, where people are feeling in conflict, and this relates to the topic of guilt and shame, which is a common reaction if we haven't been. It's about something like I'm ambivalent about like drinking Kombucha because it's corporate made from a corporate brand, but I don't want to support that, but I really love the taste and love how it makes me feel. That's ambivalence. And aspiration, you know, aspiration is what gets all of us feeling really inspired and excited. And if we use that lens of really listening and paying attention to what those three A's are: the anxiety, the ambivalence, and aspiration, then it allows us to actually enter into a different kind of what I would call an empathy centered or empathy led engagement and political strategy. It's all about how do we support ourselves and one another to feel less defensive? When we feel understood and listened to and paid attention to and valued and invited and included, that that all has a remarkable effect on our ability to participate, more creative, imaginative, inspired ways of responding and dealing with these issues.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, there's this discordant kind of conversation. The environmental groups are constantly telling us just we could do more. It'll be fine. The reality around us is that it doesn't seem so fine. How do we reconcile all this conflicting information that we get and, and, and how do we approach it emotionally?

 

DR. RENEE LERTZMAN: What I would like to see is more of a nuanced way of thinking about and talking about these issues. What you're describing is a classic kind of phobia around what happens if we actually acknowledge what's hard, and if we acknowledge the bad news. That we're going to lose momentum, we're going to all become so depressed that we can't function and we're going to fall into a hole of despair. So that's the fear and the phobia that's very commonly held amongst people working very hard on these issues that we care very deeply about. In actuality, that's not accurate. What people generally find most inspiring and what supports our resilience is precisely honesty and authenticity. And so, what that can look like is to say, we get it. We understand if you're feeling overwhelmed, if you're feeling powerless, if you feel helpless, if you feel insignificant, that all makes complete sense, and we sometimes feel that way too. And at the same time, there's amazing things that humans are doing right now that are very inspiring, that give us cause to feel some hope, and just know that they're going to be times when maybe you feel sad. And that's okay, you know, that's fine, and it's not going to necessarily always be that way. It's the responsibility of people who are in positions of leadership and educators and anyone who has a platform. I think it's their responsibility to learn and develop capacities and skills to be as emotionally intelligent as possible. Because that's what's really needed right now. Think about good leadership. So, the example I think of, which is a very complicated one for obvious reasons, is Churchill. He had a style of leadership and communication that is very interesting in that he touches on the moment we're in. He gives context. He is storytelling and he's honest, right? So, he says it might feel hard, right? But we're all in this together.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: If we can't grapple with our own mortality on the planet, how are we ever going to be able to deal with the mortality of the planet?

 

DR. RENEE LERTZMAN: So, what we're talking about is how we relate with change, with death, with loss. And what we're talking about is a culture that's very phobic around death. I'm always thinking about the power of communicating what happens when we talk about things like mortality and we talk about things like illness and death and loss. It's quite transformative. How can we find ways to create spaces for conversations precisely about these topics that are largely considered taboo? And so, mortality and climate change or in that category, right? There's something about the power of naming and talking about our fears and about how we really feel and our ability to actually kind of get to a place where we can come to terms with what's happening more easily or more capably, and then move into what we all want and need, which is a problem-solving mode. So, what I see is a paralysis around action because it's so overwhelming and I'm just trying to function. And I see the paralysis as it relates to this lack of being able to name and talk about what's happening. So, once we start doing that, it, can really free up a lot of potential. That's something that, for example, projects like Carbon Conversations, which was started in Cambridge in the UK by psychologist Rosemary Randall, are doing. Randall, as a practicing psychologist, created an experiment where you get people together in small groups and talk about our carbon footprint. And what she found when people are together in a small group and just hanging out having tea, people start to realize and reflect and process feelings. There would be very dramatic shifts in trajectories and people's relationship with the issues and their ability to translate this into action. It's profound to me to think about what happens when we actually can talk about these things.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It's kind of the complexities of dealing with uncertainty. We believe life should be certain, but it isn't. And this sense of expectation about a set of results in the future, basically, that's how we get to entitlement, right? I think this should happen for these reasons. I deserve this future. And you then get a lot of angry people when they don't get what they want.

 

DR. RENEE LERTZMAN: What I heard in what you were saying has to do with normalizing uncertainty, right? When we take the energy away from that continual shock, it's liberating. So, there's acknowledging and normalizing the uncertainty, and then there's the frame of the opportunity, what does this mean for you? This is an opportunity for you to chart a course that makes most sense for you, that has the most impact, that only you can figure out yourself. I feel that all of these questions and all of these themes are pointing us towards a way of being that is almost Buddhist, right? So, I don't speak about this much explicitly in my work around the various sort of philosophical underpinnings of a nondual way of being, which you know, Buddhist is a good example of. Where we refute either, or we refute the binary and we embrace the ambiguity, the paradox, the complexity, the contradiction. That that's a state of being and I think that relates to the people I look to who are mentors and role models are precisely those who have this unbelievable ability to be in the moment and really relish life. It’s very hard to do that. But I think that that's the mode of being the in a way our time is calling on us and inviting us to move into. How do we hold these contradictions? How do we stay in the present and at the same time be cognizant of the very real trauma and threat and issues that are going on at a scale that I think we can just barely fathom. I believe that that's a practice. I think that it's something that you never fully arrive at, but that we can again support each other and ourselves around being in that mode. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It also seems like a much healthier place to be compared to constantly beating ourselves up for not being green enough. 

 

DR. RENEE LERTZMAN: When you're in that place of self reproachment, shame and guilt, you actually can't access really anything that's positive or constructive or imaginative. You know, neurologically, you actually can't in that moment. So, if we're experiencing shame, guilt, anxiety, fear, we literally lose our access to the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to think. You are in that inactive place. So, it's a very powerful draw to go into. I think that it's, you know, afflicting millions and millions of people. Everyone I've ever interviewed as confessed to feeling that way, including myself, right? But again, I think it's about developing practices that bring us back to acceptance of imperfection, you know? And that doesn't mean like a pass or letting ourselves or each other off the hook. That's a common misinterpretation of compassion and accepting imperfection, which is to say that at this moment in time, it's actually close to impossible and obviously requires a lot of resources in some way or another to be totally in alignment ecologically right now. And so, all we can do is show up and do our best. What can I do within my particular sphere of influence and given who I am as a person, with what my proclivities are, my skills, my gifts, my interest, where I am, what I have access to? How can I work with that in a way that does something rather than nothing?

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Friday, I mean, I found it really kind of inspiring to talk with Renee, especially the fact that she comes from a psychologist perspective. We're often paralyzed into doing nothing. And I think, you know, you bring a lot of energy and action, and you help people, you just give them the tools to do something. Do people come to you with that sense of paralysis? 

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: Absolutely, and it's totally understandable, but doing something is so much better than doing nothing, and so much easier than doing everything.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Yeah, it’s true.

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: And I also find that when you do one thing, when you start with one thing, it's so much easier then to do the next thing and the next thing and no one's ever going to get to all the things. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How do you bring empathy when you're dealing with clients or family or anyone on this journey of environmental discovery?

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: Well, I always start with what do you want to do? What, where do you think you can make improvement or where do you feel like there's room for improvement? And then we talk about what are the barriers for that. And really, it's about listening to people and hearing them. And if it doesn't work, that's okay, but let's try together. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:So, one of the people that you and I both know that we're going to hear from next, is Tamar Hurwitz. Tamar runs the school environmental education program for the city and county of San Francisco. Early in her life, she was an activist at Rainforest Action Network and all kinds of cool things. I was really glad that we got to catch up with her because she's teaching the next generation and we're going to hear from her about how she incorporates kind of a guilt free emotional intelligence into the way she thinks about the next generation and learning.

 

TAMAR HURWITZ: I've been an environmental educator for the past 25 years, and what became really clear to me early on, was that what we're teaching children about what they can do to protect the environment is very important. Not to scare them and not to inject fear into the conversation, but to really inspire them with the possibilities of what their choices can achieve. Whether it's the individual choice on a day to day basis to use less paper or to recycle their bottles when they're done using it. Or better yet to bring a bottle to reuse so they don't have to use a single use bottle to the bigger collective actions like participating in their cafeteria compost program and making sure that as a school community, they're sorting their refuse properly into the green bin or the blue bin or the trash. Whatever it is that we tell students to do, it’s very important that they feel empowered to do it. Fear and guilt don't have a place in environmental education, and I don't know how guilty kids feel now. I know that grownups feel guilty. I think we have a lot of information and a lot of, as you say, the “should,” that a guide us for better and for worse, but children are really exploring what their options are. They are understanding that their choices have power. And I think the most important thing we can do is to help a child understand that their choice does matter even when it's a small choice. So, when I was talking to the children about one thing they could do to help conserve water would be to choose to eat less beef when they have the choice. When they were at a restaurant ready to order one, a student raised her hand and asked, well, what happens if I really like beef. What if I don't want to stop eating beef or eat any less of it? And I said, well, you can do that. It's just a choice you can make, but you don't have to do it. You don't have to do anything. It's just knowing that by choosing to eat less beef, you can help save some water. That might be a choice you choose to make one day or not. It's really up to you and I think it's very important to hand it back to students and understand that they always have a choice and that there are consequences to our choices. We don't have to be perfect. Our choices can change from day to day, but that if our goal at the end of the day is to try and protect nature through our actions, to try and be more sustainable with what we choose to do, that small actions matter, and we don't have to be perfect. That's not even possible.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:When you go to a state or a place that doesn't have recycling or you have to get a plastic water bottle or how do you internalize that? 

 

TAMAR HURWITZ: I've gotten past the guilt. I realized, you know, if I'm traveling in a country where it's not safe to drink, tap water like it is here in San Francisco, we've got great tap water right here. That's a privilege and when I'm in other countries and it's not that way, I am so happy to have a plastic bottle of water. I am thrilled. I'm look for it, I buy it, and I'm happy to have it. That's an exception. That's not my normal and actually today in the classroom I asked them, I said, students, do you think I ever drink out of a plastic bottle of water? And they said no. I said, of course I do because there's times I need to and if I'm traveling in another country, I will happily buy a bottle of plastic water. I wanted them to understand that I'm not perfect and perfection isn't required, and I don't even think it is imperfect drinking bottled water. I just don't make it a daily habit. So, it's really about changing our behaviors to be more sustainable, not getting down on ourselves when we engage in a behavior that isn't sustainable as we would like it to be. It's not sustainable for us to convey a message of 100 percent absolutism because it's not real. And if I'm trying to invite people to my party, I want them to feel welcomed that they can participate as they are, that they don't need to show up perfect and maintain perfection is not real. It's not possible and it's not necessary.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:So, when you're thinking about adults, whether it's your husband or relatives, how do you use some of those skills in educating kids to help other people realize that they too are environmentalists, even if they're not, you know, dyed in the wool Sierra Club members?

 

TAMAR HURWITZ: Well, I've come a long way early on in my career and certainly in my twenties, when I became an

environmentalist, I was pretty righteous. I was preachy. I was dogmatic. I was all those things that weren't really that helpful. And that was part of my journey. It's much more effective actually by not being so dogmatic. And so, my husband, for instance, he doesn't consider himself an environmentalist. He cares, he pays attention, but I will admit sometimes that coffee cup ends up in the wrong bin. With him particularly, I’ll just point it out, but I say thank you for trying. I know he wants to do his best and the fact that he can't remember which goes what goes where at any given point, that's not anything to get mad at him about. That's just something to support him to do better next time, but really having an attitude, an assumed attitude that people want to do the best they can, that they are caring people. Don't make people feel bad for choices they make or make them feel guilty. That doesn't help. I think an attitude of encouragement and positive affirmation for what they are willing to do is the best step to take. And for those corporate forces and entities and political forces and entities that are making decisions that are destructive to the collective, they need a good talking to. They need defiance and they need to be challenged. That's really different than having a one to one conversation with a peer or a colleague or a family member about how to be more sustainable.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:And why do you think the environmental movement as a whole hasn't got the message?

 

TAMAR HURWITZ: I think with any cause that we care about, especially when we get turned onto it and we're passionate and idealistic, it becomes front and center in our minds. So, it becomes an all or nothing situation. You're either with me or you're against me. You're either recycling or you're a tree killer, and I think that that passion is essential in helping movements propel themselves forward, but I think that when we can take a step back and look at the strategic way to communicate. And to invite people to join us and to praise them where they are and encourage them to go a step further, I think we can gain some traction that can get us there. I don't know if it'll get us there faster or better, but there might be less tension in the process. When we work with students and we're trying to get them to become environmentalists, the first thing we frame it around is this idea that their actions can help protect nature. Children naturally love animals and when we help them understand that everything we use comes from something originally found in nature, it helps them understand that by reducing and reusing and recycling and composting, that their actions can actually help protect nature. The data is interesting if that interests you, but I never present data to students. I'm really talking about protecting living trees and protecting animal homes and protecting communities that that all of us actually that depend on a healthy natural system, and inspiring people through more of an emotional place to understand that their choices and their actions have the power to make a difference.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Tamar was awesome. It's about really finding the place where the kids have something to motivate them, which isn't data. It isn't guilt. It's is just in her case, what she said, nature. You go into nature and you talk about nature, the little, the animals. That's what kids connect to. 

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: I think it's what everybody connects to. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I agree with you.

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: We need people who are great at telling stories. People like Tamar, who can really connect people with nature in a way that feels emotional and natural and we need both. We need the data, but the data should not be the thing that leads us. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Or the guilt and the shame. 

 

FRIDAY APILISKI: It should be the love, right? The emotional tie that we feel to the earth and nature. The hopeful thing is that she taught a lot of kids. Yeah, and she's been doing it for long enough that those kids are grown-ups now and they're literally part of this movement. They're the younger part of this movement and I don't think that they have those same guilt issues and this need to be perfect that we saw historically in this movement. I think they are the ray of sunshine and they're coming to this saying, I'm doing the very best I can. I want to do better. Let's change the system so we can do better and let's bring everybody with us.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A big thank you to Dr. Renee Lertzman and Tamar Hurwitz for helping us understand how psychology and emotional intelligence can play a huge beneficial role in getting us to a place where saving the planet is a choice that we willingly take on and that we do it to the best of our abilities. This shift away from dogmatic purism will allow environmentalism to move from being a cult to a movement that includes us all. Next week's episode is on swimming. I take a leap of faith and jump into the freezing waters of San Francisco Bay, and I talk with one of the world's foremost long-distance swimmers, Kim Chambers. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, guest co-host Friday Apilski, sound engineer Rob Speight, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a perfect week filled with imperfections.