by Colin Steven Chval

Introducing the Summit

On November 18th, 2021, we hosted our annual Sustain Dane Summit, bringing together a diverse and talented group of individuals to help them connect, share, and learn about ways to accelerate sustainability for equity and community well-being.

Professor Kimberly Nicholas’s Environmental Journey

This year’s Keynote was Prof. Kimberly Nicholas, author of Under the Sky We Make and Associate Professor of Sustainability Science at Lund University in Sweden. Kimberly received her Master’s Degree in Land Resources from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her PhD in the Environment and Resources from Stanford University. She was interviewed by Raj Shukla, Midwest Director of Freshwater Policy at The Nature Conservancy.

Raj opened by discussing her journey as an environmental advocate. “Growing up in a beautiful place and spending a lot of time in nature was really inspirational for me. […] My work has focused more and more on human systems because it became clear to me that it didn’t make sense to study nature in isolation from people […]. We have to study people and nature together to find solutions that work for both.”  Her upbringing and studies combined with personal interactions lead her to begin writing Under the Sky We Make to help others navigate being a climate advocate.

But while she had significant expertise on climate-related issues, she faced a considerable challenge that informed the structure of the entire book. “My scientific training prepared me really well [but] it really didn’t prepare me to deal with the more personal and emotional side of what we now live in in the climate emergency. […] Addressing where the climate crisis intersects with people’s daily lived experiences is where I am trying to bring the conversation.”

Addressing an ‘Exploitation Mindset’ and Environmental Injustice

Raj continued this conversation by asking about Kimberly’s framing of this conversation around the exploitative and regenerative mindset. “To me, the exploitative mindset is the root cause of a lot of our problems.” It’s founded on two false assumptions: the idea that some people are superior to others, and that people are superior to nature.  To counter that, Kimberly advocates for adapting a regenerative mindset, emphasizing the equal treatment of people and a mutual respect for humans and nature. This framework was meant to give a universal foundation for individual action. “In the book I wanted to give a set of principles. Kind of teach a person to fish rather than just give you a fish.” Part of this also means recognizing that the exploitation mindset has led to injustices around the world, especially through environmental injustices but also outside of a climate context.

Environmental injustice and climate change are deeply intersectional, with research showing that the most impacted by climate change often have the least influence in causing or combating it. Furthermore Kimberly points out that some companies utilize calls for personal accountability as a “smokescreen” for their exponentially more destructive business practices. She emphasized that we should not use that as an excuse to do nothing, but as a call to collective action towards corporate and global accountability, sustainability, and environmental justice.

COP26 and Overcoming Climate Grief

Expanding on our collective responsibility, Raj asked Kimberly to reflect on the United Nations 26th Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP26) and how people can overcome ‘climate grief’. She stated that COP26 did not do nearly enough, and that it would have broad, significant distributional consequences. She said that this inaction might lead to ‘climate grief’, which can be overcome through what she calls the ‘5 stages of radical climate acceptance’. These stages are: ignorance, avoidance, doom, ‘all the feels’, and action.  Central to this process is connecting and relating with other people, sharing that grief and anger so that you can navigate it together. Raj also acknowledged how technical knowledge can be a barrier to connecting and relating, and asked her how to overcome that. “People care more about how much you care than how much you know.”  To overcome this barrier, she recommends starting on a particular issue area or shared interest and steering the discussion from there. The 5 stages help overcome paralysis by using our fear and anger as change drivers to inspire passion, and ignite action.

Starting the Journey and Embracing Change

Raj then asked Kimberly to share how she limits her less sustainable practices. She always wanted to live more sustainably, but was stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’ in some areas of her life such as reducing air travel. The final push came when, while enjoying drinks at a conference, she recognized the hypocrisy that she and others were living. She used a metaphor of being a climate scientist at a climate change conference to being “a doctor at a conference of doctors; talking about how dangerous it is to smoke and telling our patients not to smoke, but are puffing on cigarettes.” She found success in viewing her path to improvement and climate action as an adventure, and suggests that activists take this approach to overcome the fear change can cause. Ask “how can you make this fun?” For her that fun included planning train trips and road trips, seeing friends along the way, and appreciating the journey. Kimberly also recommends “reading climate fiction and playing games […]. The playful spirit is really helpful and I love reading fiction where you can just imagine the world being different. […] Of course the only constant is change […] and it’s really worth working to keep what’s good about being good neighbors, but change happens.”

Shifting topics, Raj asks “how do we engage and empower that next generation – the folks who are going to be living with the consequences of our inaction?” Kimberly’s first tip is to listen. “We see so much leadership from twelve, ten-year old girls who are really leading the climate movement.” Engaging in direct conversations and creating space for young people is really important. “There are some innovations happening […]. I think it was Wales and some other countries that now have a Minister for Future Generations. […] There is a lot of discontent from the youth that their voices aren’t being heard. […] Having that intergenerational solidarity is really important.”

Climate Commitment Pledge

Building off the conversation with Kimberly, Raj encouraged the Summit attendees to reflect on their own possible personal changes to be part of the climate solution and make their own Climate Commitment pledge. Sustain Dane and the Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change identified six categories to help focus impact. Categories were transportation, food, energy, investments, ripple effect, and other. Raj shared that he selected the category of food and is reducing his monthly meat consumption. The audience members selected a category to commit to by filling out a card on their table or a virtual survey. The intent was that people can find an area to focus their climate solution in a way that fits with their life and journey, from now until April 2022 to complete it.

Concluding Remarks

To conclude, Kimberly wanted to emphasize the importance of activism and knowing you’re making an impact. “There is so much global privilege in just living in the US. […] Average Americans have so much power to make big changes and those ripple effects do really spread. […] Focus two hours a week on climate action, focusing systematically on ‘where can I have an impact and where do I want to focus?’” To those coming in feeling they lack the expertise, Kimberly would say “welcome, […] and we need everyone’s skills and talents. You don’t need to study up on the minutia, but what we need from you is your skills and talents.”

In final remarks, Raj asked what gives her hope. “I like the idea that it’s courage, and not hope, that we need. Everything is really up for grabs right now and this decade is really critical.” Raj concluded with “none of us chose to be here, but we can all choose where we’re going.”

It was an honor to be joined by Professor Kimberly Nicholas, author of Under the Sky We Make, for this wonderful Keynote. To learn more about sharing power and making positive impacts, check out the Local Leader’s Panel blog post, sign up for a Climate Commitment pledge, and be sure to join us next year at the 2022 Summit!