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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Where is the love? Why fear is the wrong approach for climate activism

When writing fiction, I’ve frequently heard the advice, “Let your location be a character in itself.” For example, when writing a great chase scene through a forest, maybe your hero’s foot gets caught in a malevolent fist of brambles. Perhaps he takes a moment to catch his breath and re-evaluate his strategy at the flank of a gentle stream. Nature plays a role in the story’s action. It’s good advice. Many of our most cherished personal memories are inseparably linked with locations and elements of nature. Camping trips with our parents and siblings, the thrill of swimming in the open sea and the gentle breeze on grandma’s porch swing: Nature is not a passive backdrop upon which we write a story, it’s just as much an active “author” of our memories as we are.

We’ve gotten stuck in a loop, however. Much like the authors who killed off Dobby, Prim, Rue and Leslie from “A Bridge to Terabithia,” we continue to kill off the individual lives that make up “the environment.” An “environment” has no feelings, no senses, no intrinsic or unique beauty. But a koala made homeless by wildfires, tigers that will soon go extinct due to “hunting and habitat destruction,” the 500,000 people in Oregon forced to evacuate their homes due to wildfires, and the millions of children in war-torn regions who also face climate-change-accelerated food insecurity, have all of these and more. The sanctity of life does not stop at human life; the beautiful and mysterious force of creation is just as much at work, carving the individual veins of the leaves on a tree as it is forming every cell of our fingernails.

Words are important. I can’t say that the barrenness of cleared tropical forests and all the life they once contained is appropriately captured by the word “murder,” in the sense of the term most people know. But I frame the climate crisis this way, like fiction authors killing off beloved characters, because many of us don’t view the environment as really, imminently worthy of the level of care we deem appropriate for other human beings. Our relationship with nature is not just unhealthy, it’s disrespectful to life. We take, we demand and we force — rarely do we nurture, sacrifice or evaluate the needs of our relationship partner. A human relationship like the one we have with the natural world would be abusive and life-threatening. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I will ask (in full-stage makeup and with the advantage of blinding overhead stage lights): Where is the love when it comes to protecting nature? We won’t solve the climate crisis without consciously evaluating whether we love the planet even more than we fear losing it.

Emotionally expressive rhetoric can move huge swaths of people to collective action. But I want to make it clear that appealing to fear as a persuasive technique will not work as a motivator to pro-climate behavior. Climate scientists in the U.K. found that while fear might be effective in drawing people’s attention to the crisis initially, it’s not very helpful in getting people to consistently engage in the climate-preservation effort in the long-term. This makes sense. When we conceptualize the fight against climate change as small groups of individuals throwing puny rocks at “unsinkable” tar-spewing, carbon-emitting multibillion dollar corporations, the problem seems impossible. And who would put in years of work on an impossible problem? This is how well-meaning groups can lose focus and motivation. Instead, the aforementioned researchers found that a rhetorical approach involving “individual’s everyday emotions and concerns” is more effective. Our thinking, our feeling and our actions for the environment must be motivated by a love for what the aforementioned article denotes as our “objects of care.” These objects of care are our family, our friends and, if we can cultivate the right kind of love, plants and non-human animals as well.

Speaking of cultivating a love for plants and animals: To love is to be known. According to The Solutions Journal, "young children can recognize over 1,000 corporate logos, but few can identify more than a handful of local plant or animal species." How can we raise a generation to love the blessing that is our planet when children are spending less time freely playing outside than ever before (on average, just 4-7 minutes daily)? Maybe my upbringing in the bluffs of Wisconsin and my parent’s fondness for hiking and gardening has biased my thinking, but I think we can and must do better at exposing children (and ourselves) to the beauty of nature.

Love in the context of climate change is not a flimsy serenade from a moral balcony at sunset — our level of emotiveness toward the climate can predict our policy positions. Climate love has been expressed in legal proceedings against governments that fail to protect citizens' liberty and life from climate change. The field of social entrepreneurship is now filled with people who love the excitement of innovation and the planet. Love motivates us to be better versions of ourselves, as it often does. To act on our best behavior. This column should neither shock you nor scare you. I only encourage you to expand the circle of those whom you experience love for. Find time to get to know the natural world around you. It’s what love asks of us.

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

Renee Yaseen is a junior who majors in International Economics and Arabic. She’s currently on a gap semester doing lots of creative stuff and lots of un-creative stuff. She can be reached via the chat on a shared Google Doc at 3 a.m., on Twitter @ReneeYaseen or by email at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.