ollie cultrara

Feeling Our Feelings About Climate Change

I don’t know about you, but I hate talking about climate change. When I hear a story on the radio about the latest record-breaking severe weather event, I want to plug my ears. Or when I read a news article summarizing the most recent dire scientific report, my eyes glaze over. I think to myself, “Yes, we already know. Everything is very bad and getting worse.” 

Can we take a moment to acknowledge that climate change just sucks

It’s a wrenching, intractable situation that feels crappy to even think about. Most of the time, I just don’t. But it’s not going away—and neither are my feelings about it.

I’m twenty-six. I’ve known about climate change for as long as I can remember, back when we called it global warming, and worried mostly about distant polar bears and coral reefs. I don’t recall when it changed from feeling like an alarming possibility to an unfortunate inevitability, but it has never felt acceptable to me. 

Growing up, I felt frustrated, indignant, and confounded as to how we could have gotten into this mess. Then in college, as I learned about the economic, industrial, and political systems that have driven the climate crisis, I got angry. I channeled my anger into a burst of climate activism—meetings, marches, protests—that never seemed to lead anywhere. 

And now? Honestly, I feel stuck. I don’t like feeling angry. The emotion and the activism didn’t sustain me. I’ve been told and I believe there’s a role for everyone in this struggle, but I haven’t found mine quite yet. 

I suspect that’s true for a lot of us.

Most of us aren’t activists or scientists who spend our days thinking about what the world is facing. Nor are we national leaders or corporate CEOs who have the responsibility and power to make major policy changes to address it. So where does that leave us?

You may notice I’m asking more questions than offering answers, but I’ll start here: I think we need to get real about our feelings. 

It’s the responsibility of our age to tackle the climate crisis head-on; to do everything we can to slow, reverse, mitigate, and adapt to it. But we can’t do any of that if we’re stuck feeling total despair or numbly ignoring it all. 

How I feel on a given day doesn’t really affect how changeable the situation is or is not. Except that it does. Our emotional state affects what we feel capable of doing—and therefore what we are capable of doing. 

While we continue taking everyday steps, as we’re able—voting for reps that take the problem seriously, voicing our support for needed policies, switching to renewables and energy-efficient everything—climate change keeps raging on. As we are bombarded with crisis after crisis, losses large and small, how are we going to keep our heads above water, emotionally? 

Acknowledging and accepting, for one. Not knowing about a problem doesn’t make it go away, just as knowing about it doesn’t make it any worse than before we were aware. I’m practicing bearing witness more and looking away less. 

Grief, despair, and anger are all appropriate responses to what’s happening to our world and our fellow human and non-human beings. Rather than stuffing those emotions down, I’m working on noticing, accepting, and really feeling each of these emotions as they come so that I can move through them. Recently, this has looked like taking time to process between listening to episodes of a podcast series about the origins of the climate crisis. I’m letting myself curse when the host points out something infuriating and allowing tears to bubble up at the heart-wrenching narratives of loss. Rather than forcing myself to listen to the next episode, then getting overwhelmed and giving up, I’m returning when I have the bandwidth to be present with the feelings it brings up.

And next? Let’s create and embrace the cultural transformations this moment demands. Taking climate action includes changing the way we live our lives. Many of the fundamental changes we need—resisting consumerism and rejecting the right of corporations to extract profit at any cost—aren’t fun or convenient. But I believe we have a lot to gain by having the courage to face the emotions and embrace the change!

Can we embrace real connections with each other by carpooling or taking public transit and accept the inconvenience?  Delight at the beauty we see when we take life at the pace of a walk or bike ride? Take satisfaction in buying used clothes, and making them last as long as possible? Accept the joys of giving and receiving by sharing tools, vehicles, homes, land? The nourishment of growing food and sharing it with others? 

It’s easy to feel that if I’m not participating in political activism or putting up solar panels, I’m not being part of the solution. That couldn’t be further from the truth. This thing is too big and far-reaching for anyone to be left out. I love the model put forward by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson to help everyone find their personal path to climate action. She says to ponder three questions: What brings me joy? What am I good at? What needs to be done? Each of our unique roles can be found at the intersection of the answer to those three questions.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information, see Climate Action Venn Diagrams.

I feel excitement and joy when I envision a world that has “solved” climate change, and my role in it. What I see is not just solar panels, heat pumps, and electric cars. It’s also thriving people who care for and are deeply connected to each other and the landscape. How about you?

I recently came across an interview with scholar, writer, and activist Mike Davis, who said: “I don’t think that people fight or stay the course because of hope, I think people do it out of love and anger.” Anger doesn’t sustain me. Hope comes and goes, depending on the day. But love? I think we all have experience acting out of love. And it sure does feel good.

This article first appeared in the Addison County Independent on September 15, 2022, as part of the Climate Matters: Perspectives on Change weekly column.

Ollie Cultrara works at two local farms and serves on the board of the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. They are beginning a Master’s in Leadership for Sustainability at the University of Vermont this fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practicing Pronouns: How the Co-op Can Foster an Environment of Inclusion

A couple of years ago, I had an experience in the Co-op checkout line that made my day. The cashier turned to another staff person and said something like, “Can you show them where the extra boxes are for their groceries?” referring to me. I was thrilled. You see, I identify as non-binary and go by they and them instead of he or she. People often incorrectly assume I identify as a woman and use words like she/her/girl/lady/ma’am when talking about me. When the cashier chose to refer to me with the gender-neutral pronoun they, I felt warm and bubbly inside. I swear I floated out of the store that day!

There is a growing understanding in our culture that some people do not fit the labels of woman or man. These folks have embraced words like non-binary or genderqueer to describe their gender identities. (A multitude of cultures around the world already have more expansive understandings of gender beyond the man/woman binary.) Personal pronouns are part of a blossoming of language used to reflect the nuances of gender diversity. The most common gender-neutral option being used in English today is they

There are plenty of resources that explain how to use they, them, and theirs to refer to an individual. (One of my favorites is mypronouns.org.) But today, I’d like to talk about why. The flip-side of my warm-and-fuzzy experience at the Co-op is that for me, being referred to with the wrong pronouns (also called “misgendering”) is distracting at best and distressing at worst. Misgendering is part of a pattern of exclusion, discrimination, and violence faced by trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people—even here in Vermont. This contributes to disproportionate rates of mental illness, poverty, and homelessness experienced by trans people. Using people’s chosen pronouns—or defaulting to gender-neutral language when you’re not sure—is an active and impactful way to create a more welcoming environment and help reverse these trends.

Maybe this is the first time you’re hearing about this whole pronouns thing. Maybe you don’t know how it works and you’ve been too afraid to ask. Or maybe you want to be respectful but are uncertain about using they to refer to a single person. Wherever you are, there’s no better time to polish your pronoun skills. Beyond the mechanics, it comes down to having a loving and learning attitude. Here are a few tips: 

  • Practice: Build a habit of referring to people you don’t know with gender-neutral language. “Who was that person on the phone? What did they want?” If there is someone in your life who uses they/them pronouns, take time to practice using their pronouns when they are not around. Try practicing with someone you trust so you can remind each other when you make a mistake.
  • Be Polite: You will slip up. We all do! Correct yourself as soon as you notice, apologize briefly if you feel you need to, and move on. Dwelling on how bad you feel or how hard it is for you to get it right is inappropriate. 
  • Be Patient and Persistent: It takes time, intention, and repetition to re-train our brains. Keep at it, and remember why you’re working on this—you just may make someone’s day!

Our Co-op is by us and for us, the member-owners. By participating in our Co-op, we can put our values into action and lead the way in transforming dominant worldviews. We do this not just with our food choices, but in how we choose to show up in community with each other. The staff and board are already prioritizing efforts to embed principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion into the daily operations and governance of the Co-op. Shifting our language to be more inclusive of the diversity of our community is one small part of this ongoing work. Will you join us?

Ollie Cultrara is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member