Three ideas for the radical changes needed to achieve climate justice for all:

  1. Identify and transcend false dichotomies
  2. Get specific about meso level (between micro + macro) that may help us have generative conversations
  3. Make space for open, generative, and possibly uncomfortable conversations about what lies outside false dichotomies

The Juicy Details

In the past 2 weeks, I’ve traveled to Bogotá, Colombia for the International Civil Society Week and Chicago, Illinois for a grantee convening on climate resilience. Looking back on the time I spent listening to and talking with people I met, I’ve noticed an emerging pattern of false dichotomies being presented as tensions to resolve to move our collective, progressive work forward. Specifically, this work looks like ensuring world-scale climate resilience and broad health of mother earth as well as building a justice that supports individual lives to survive and thrive.

First, if you’re like me and like to be reminded of definitions, here’s one to get us started from Wikipedia:
A false dilemma (also called false dichotomy, false binary, black-and-white thinking, bifurcation, denying a conjunct, the either–or fallacy, fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses, the fallacy of false choice, or the fallacy of the false alternative) is a type of informal fallacy that involves a situation in which only limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option.

1) Global visions vs. local struggles. Something I noticed while at the ICSW in Bogotá: a “tension” between working at the abstracted, global level versus working at the community-driven level. I’m referring to the tension between UN Sustainable Development Goals – a large undertaking that, although it attempts to be inclusive, is largely comprised of high-level analysts in fancy, closed rooms thinking at a very theoretical level and trying to be as global and generalizable as possible. It tries to take on a systems-approach at a large scale across many issues from “life under water” to “no poverty” to “sustainable cities and communities” across the globe. This is contrasted with highly context-specific groups at the local, community level experiencing complex issues in real time. These don’t fit into just one box (e.g. gender equality is connected to poverty is connected to strong institutions), and they’re often constrained by resources – from enough staff time to do the work, to funding to pay for general operating expenses, to access to expertise or technical knowledge. Often, they know there are others working on similar issues, but may not have the capacity to connect deeply or create bridges between their projects.  Quick plug: this is the twofold motivation for my work with networks: 1) to build these bridges, and 2) to create a network-level perspective that showcases the scale of the work as greater than the sum of its parts.

2) Climate science vs. racial justice. After Bogota, I traveled to Chicago to co-facilitate and network a group of grantees from a big foundation working on climate resilience. A major, known tension in the group is that between a climate- or environmental-centered frame or that which holds racial justice (or equity) at its core. Both can see climate resilience as an end goal, but the paths are different. Both attempt to speak the languages of the other group, with varying levels of success. However, it still seems to me that there is difficulty integrating these perspectives: they seem awkwardly pieced together. I sense without a resolution, a way to combine these two perspectives, there won’t be the deep transformation that’s needed to create true resilience in communities or climate.

3) Conservative vs. progressive. The backdrop of both of these trips were heated discussions – often accompanied by disillusion and depression – about this absurd political race that’s taking place in the United States. Unfortunately it looks like it will be Trump vs. Clinton. I’ve heard the sentiment of many Democrats trying to be practical, believing in Sanders’ sentiments but not in his ability to move any of his radical ideas forward – that the existing system would prevent much movement away from its set-point.

In all three of these tensions, I feel and notice others feeling a sense of hopelessness – that neither is really complete enough for what we need. We need something else, something new.

Moving Forward

We need to get better at seeing and communicating the spaces between micro and macro. This was particularly obvious and still continues to be alluring to me in the field of linguistics. I wrote a paper on how words like “us” and “them” in a discussion invoke all kinds of power dynamics – by creating in-groups and outsiders, by centering and marginalizing – all with 2 words. Micro-interactions like how we take turns speaking in a group and whether or not we yield to certain people, are daily ways that power and oppression of various sorts are invoked and reified. We need this level of understanding, and the metaphors to carry through how the large-scale abstract is connecting to the local, grounded, lived experiences.

A few questions to hold

How are the two choices similar?
Will one of these choices bring about the transformation we need?
How can we create space outside false dichotomies that is generative and supports transformation?

A panelist in Chicago ended her talk with this quote from Howard Thurman, an African American philosopher, theologian and civil rights leader:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”


Image borrowed from:

If false dichotomies are the places where we feel stuck, disillusioned, and hopeless, then were are those places we feel alive?  Where do we see generation and germination – the plants growing out of the cracks in cement – in our lives and work?  Those are what we need!

Urban nature -- how does it do that? Vines growing on solid cement in Oakland

Urban nature — how does it do that? Vines growing on solid cement in Oakland