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Climate change is heartbreaking. We can turn that pain towards action

Speaking with Katharine Wilkinson about Project Drawdown, intention, and different kinds of environmental heartbreak

Maddie Bender

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Yale University

This week is Climate Week, coinciding with the UN Climate Change Summit. On September 25th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its newest report. Every day this week Massive will be publishing articles and interviews with scientists, policy experts, and activists about climate change, all aspects of the new report, and the future of the planet. 

How can you find your place in our changing climate today? This is where Katharine K. Wilkinson comes in. She is an author, strategist and teacher who is working towards transforming how we see and relate to our planet Earth. Wilkinson is best known for being a senior writer behind the 2017 bestseller Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, and her second book titled Between God & Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change. She spoke with Maddie Bender about her journey to finding a role in climate change, and of drawdown, intention and the difference between a broken heart and an open broken heart.      

Maddie Bender: When did you first realize that climate — and climate change — were issues that you were interested in and wanted to be involved in? 

Katharine Wilkinson: Well, I'm a hopeless inter-disciplinarian, so I've had a winding path. But truly, I first became very passionate about and committed to environmental issues when I was 16. I lived in the woods in Western North Carolina for four months with 25 other high school students at an amazing place called the Outdoor Academy. And that was really a sort of politicizing experience for me — a kind of purpose clarifying experience  — and I started doing various kinds of student activism, and that carried forward into college. 

It was sometime probably early in college where I realized like, "Oh, this probably means working on climate above all else if I'm sort of committed to planetary healing." So if you go back to age 16, I've been involved in this in one way or another for 20 years. 

MB: Wow. Your own Walden pond then.

KW: Maybe a little more drama because of 25 high schoolers! What could possibly go wrong? 

For me, having this very holistic experience of learning about science, starting to read the poetry of Mary Oliver, reading Annie Dillard's work and Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, engaging with these topics in art class and the whole way that the community operated [...] that was powerful. 

MB:  And so you've studied and worked in a wide range of fields before coming to the position that you now hold. I'm wondering if you feel that there are any common threads throughout your career?

KW: During my time at the Outdoor Academy, I started to get really interested in what are the stories that we tell about ourselves, about humanity, the human species, our relationship to this planet that we call home, our sense of responsibility to it, and to one another or lack thereof? And so I've always been really interested in the human lenses that we bring to all of these challenges — and the questions of stories, ethics, beliefs and worldviews. That has taken different shapes, including studying religion, but in many ways, I think that's been kind of a connective thread. 

I'm thinking about the ways in which our beliefs, values and stories either support us in this work or form barriers to it, and how important those are actually to the transformation that's required. I think we can't get there through carbon taxes and climate science alone. The moment that we're seeing right now, with the real surge of youth climate activism, is reflective of a different kind of story. Stories are really coming to the fore.

A woman at a climate change protest holds a sign that reads "Our future's on the line."

Youth climate activists are raising their voices to call for immediate action on climate change.

Photo by Josh Barwick on Unsplash

MB: What stories are these new youth climate activists are bringing? 

KW: I think that there is really powerful clarity around the deeper myths of separation and domination that have gotten us into this mess. The world views that that tell you everything can be extracted, everything is for sale, and that at the end of the day, some people — and some species — are better than others, and more valuable than others. I see all these incredible voices challenging a lot of that, and recognizing that if we really want to address greenhouse gas emissions, we also have to understand and address some of these deeper drivers.

MB: I'd love to circle back for a second and talk a little bit more about when you said that carbon taxes and policy proposals aren't, in your opinion, enough on their own. It makes me think, at least as someone who's Jewish, of this concept that we have called kavanah, which literally translates to intention — that you're not supposed to do any prayer or action without this sort of intention. So is that kind of a similar concept to what you were getting at by that statement?

KW: I love that. I think oftentimes what is really visible are the mechanisms of change, the manifestations of change, but often, the roots of change lie somewhere deeper. Intention is a great word for that — and really being clear on not just what is broken about the world that we're currently living in, but what is it that we want to manifest? Not just because it's going to be the right thing to do, but because it's going to be the effective thing to do — to actually address this crisis. 

MB: Do you feel like your background as someone who has studied religion, and also wrote a book about evangelicals and their relationship with climate change, is something that helped direct your view on this? 

KW: There's been such an important role in so many social movements of religious voices, writers, and artists — the voices that really speak to the human heart and the human spirit. I don't think that we will arrive at the kind of metamorphosis that is necessary without having some of that of internal transformation as well. 

MB: Speaking of your background, how, if at all, do you feel you've applied the skills that you learned working in the private sector —for a management consulting company like the Boston Consulting Group — to your current role in a non-profit? 

KW: Clearly you can see right through my zigagging in my career! I really was trying to find the right role for me in this whole ecosystem. I thought maybe that might be academia. Then, I thought maybe business could be an interesting place to be a bit closer to the site of impact, particularly when policy has been so hard to move, especially at a federal level. But I think what's been the most helpful about spending time in these different sectors and spaces, and particularly with consulting experience, seeing the inside of so many organizations, and meeting so many leaders in business, but also in different non-profits and foundations. It helps me to be a translator across some of these different spaces, and to understand some of the ways of thinking and the language. It has ended up being probably the most helpful thing from [my career] zigzags. 

MB: That's so interesting, because when people talk about translation in this kind of sector, they're usually talking about translating jargon-y science to something that the public can understand. But for you, it's almost translating policy and business jargon into something that change-makers and non-profits need to understand. 

KW: Messengers are as important as the message. And so I think being able to be a messenger who can connect across different audiences — and by no means all of them. There are lots of rooms that I could walk into and they'd be like, "What the heck are you doing here?" But I think that that [being a translator] ends up being a source of ability to influence. 

A sign that reads "Wake Up" above a picture of planet Earth on fire, being held up at a protest.

Finding your place in climate change - a role in this ecosystem - can be a long winding journey.

MB: You said that for a while you were trying to find the right role for yourself. Do you feel like you've found it now? 

KW: I met a young woman last night who had recently finished her undergraduate degree. She was saying that "I studied anthropology and psychology, and I don't really know how to be helpful in the climate movement. I don't know." [...] We got into a conversation and I was saying: "I'm still asking the question of what can I do, and what should I do, and what is the best use of my skills."

I think the mission is really clear for all of humanity — but how we each contribute to that is the question. So I would say I feel much more like [I'm] in the right role and [doing] the right work: writing, speaking, teaching, doing strategy around collaborations, convening and facilitating. They are all things that I've actually loved to do.[...] but it just wasn't quite clear how to bring them together.

I feel like a part of a wonderful thing about getting older is feeling like, every week to week, month to month, I feel like I'm deepening into the work that is my greatest contribution. 

MB: I'm wondering where for your two books fall for you — in terms of what work were you synthesizing in order to produce it, and how are their messages important?

KW: Between God & Green was based on my PhD research. As is the work of an academic, it was sitting on the sidelines of a burgeoning evangelical climate movement and trying to understand it. Where did it come from? How are they approaching this topic? Was it resonating with people — and what was the backlash against it all about? 

But it was from the outside rather than from the inside. It left me with insights about stories, values, and effective communication. What was really cool about coming to join the team at Project Drawdown, and lead the work of writing that book, was getting to actually do some of those things from the inside. 

I moved from the role of an observer and sense maker into creating, and trying to bring Project Drawdown to life in a way that would inform people, inspire people, create curiosity, create a sense of what's possible. I see [the two books] in some ways as the two sides of the same coin. 

MB: I know that the Project Drawdown gets its name from the term drawdowns. This is a climate milestone where greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere start to decline. 

Do you have any personal associations with what it means, and how you try to integrate that in your day-to-day life of working at Project Drawdown?

KW: So you'll see the word drawdown used periodically in academic literature. [...] It's really helpful to have a sense of this physical turning point. For me, it really does keep me focused on the notion of transformation, and the notion of ultimately moving from just doing less harm to actually doing net good. To being a regenerative course.

How does that come to life in my daily life? People ask this question a lot. What can I do? What should I do? Too often, people are given a lame checklist of things they can do in their individual lives. I feel like sometimes we sell ourselves, and we sell each other short on what we're actually able to contribute. And so, I think a lot about the things that I do in my life to try to move towards drawdown, as ways to stay grounded in my values.

[My time at The Outdoor Academy] is also when I became a vegetarian. For two decades, [it has been] a way to reflect on interconnectedness and the ways in which we are entangled with one another and with other forms of life.

MB: Do you feel like the positive association with drawdown, with it being this very positive milestone, is in a lot of ways better than if it were called something negative like "Project: The World Is Going To End?"

KW: The thing that's so hard about climate change is that we have to hold so much uncertainty about this huge spectrum of potential outcomes: a trajectory that we're currently on that that looks really dark, and trajectories that we could be creating with the solutions we already have.

Part of the work is to be able to hold all of that. But for me, even if it's a really high bar, with odds that feel long some days, I find it really helpful to have a sense of where we want to go, and not just what we want to avoid.

But I think it is very much about all of the change that could come about in the process of scaling solutions.

MB: Along those lines, do you find it easy to get disheartened working in this field? As you've said, there's so many trajectories, but a lot of them are bad ones.

KW: If you've got your eyes wide open about what's happening this planet, the entrenched interests that are working against actions, and the apathy that isn't helping... that is all really hard to look at every day. To see the ways in which a climate changing world is already hurting people, hurting species, and hurting ecosystems. There's a lot of heartbreak in this.

I think a lot about how to stay awake to that, to hold that, and sometimes, surrender to what is really so sad about all of that. To keep trying to rise into a place of courage, imagination and determination. Sometimes it's just a weird slog between those two. But I've found that it's really, really important for me to be in community with folks who are also seeing this, and actively engaged in it. And it's really important for me to be in nature.

One of the really weird and sort of shitty things about this work is that it involves a lot more being at a desk or in a meeting space than it does having my feet in moss. 

MB: I wanted to talk to you about the TED Talk that you gave in 2018 — specifically the connection between gender equity and efforts to stop climate change which was really, really interesting and striking. There was one paragraph in particular that was really striking and moving for me.  

In my experience, to have eyes wide open is to hold a broken heart every day. It's a grief that I rarely speak, though my work calls on the power of voice. I remind myself that the heart can simply break, or it can break open. A broken-open heart is awake and alive and calls for action. —Katharine Wilkinson, TEDWomen (2018)

That was just so powerful for me personally, but I'm wondering what you feel comes behind that sentiment. 

KW: It's the idea of the subtle but huge difference between a broken heart and a broken open heart. It's something that I first learned and thought about with Parker Palmer, who is a long-time Quaker, writer and teacher. There was something about that concept that felt so visceral to me. We can all think about our experiences of heartbreaks — of a really hard breakup, a loss of a friend, the death of a family member or something that we've worked really hard towards that crumbles. 

To me, a lot of that heartbreak can be debilitating heartbreak. It's a heartbreak that makes you want to curl up on your couch and cuddle a dog. But a heart that breaks open turns outward again. So heartbreak, I think, a lot of times can be this very internal experience, but a broken open heart becomes this invitation back into connection and tenderness towards the world around us — a source of empathy and a source of love.

a white rose with yellow stamens

Wilkinson likes healing from an open broken heart to the way that a flower opens in the morning - where the reopening and softening is being used as a fuel to move forward.

No one's ever really asked me to try to describe this, so I'm trying to put words to it. What I imagine in my head is going from this crumbled little ball of a broken spirit [...] to the way that a flower opens in the morning when you look at it in time lapse. The reopening, softening and using that as a fuel to move forward.  

MB: That's beautiful. 

Relating this back to climate change for a second: the IPCC special report on oceans in the cryosphere is out this week. People will be seeing a lot of headlines about how bad things are and how much scientists are worried. This will be along the spectrum more of broken hearts versus broken open hearts. How do you think people can transition from this general shock and sadness from seeing this most recent news to a place where they're ready for action?

KW: That's such a good question. I think the first thing is to connect. I often have in mind the visual of a circle of people — and a circle can just be two if need — and being comfortable sharing what is hard, what you're seeing, what a report like this brings up for you and making space to be in that. I personally find that if I try to brush my grief or despair to the side, sometimes that gives it more power than if I just pay it a good visit.

Then — it doesn't have to be immediate — but [to begin] thinking together about where do we go from here. One of the very best antidotes to feeling overwhelmed with what is hard in this moment is to move — is to act. I take comfort sometimes in the thought that we're intervening in a complex system. That is incredibly frustrating because it's hard sometimes to have a sense of your efficacy or what's going to open up and when.This comes back to finding and clarifying your role in the ecosystem.

Giving voice to what is true for you is also really powerful. I'm continuing to grapple with a lot of this. I don't really think that grappling is going to stop. 

The other thing is to reconnect with nature in some way, and maybe that is literally finding a tree in a city to reconnect with and remember that we are actually meant to be part of the life force of this planet, and that we have all of these comrades that are not human, including trees, lichen, and squid.