Helena Clayton | Love + climate crisis



Love + climate crisis

03 Feb 2020, Posted by Helena Clayton in Newsletters

My research and writing on love mostly relates to organisations and leadership. But when I was invited to speak at #OneGreenGov on love and the role it plays at a time of climate crisis, I couldn’t pass it up.

So what’s the link between love and climate change? For me, there are three immediate connections.

• First, climate change is the defining issue of this decade, arguably the ONLY issue, and certainly the driver of or the backdrop to all other changes. As such, it calls for a revolutionary shift in how we think and how we act. Valarie Kaur believes that all revolutionary change has love at its heart and, if we can take love to be either a deep passion for something or a fierce protection of something, the link with what’s needed at a time of climate crisis is clear.

• It’s also been said that ‘our capacity to change something is directly related to our capacity to love’ (a Greenpeace blog) because we only protect what we love. Our climate crisis surely invites us to see whether we can connect with enough love for our planet that we will do what(ever) it takes to protect it.

• Finally, everything we love we will lose. This isn’t gloom-and-doom, or nihilistic thinking but a reality of our lives, a painful truth but one we need to accept if we are to live on life’s terms. Francis Weller calls this the ‘first gate of grief’. For him the links between grief and love are clear because ‘it’s the broken heart, the part that knows sorrow, that is capable of genuine love’. And climate change is nothing if not about loss. It brings us directly in contact with what we love because it shows us all that we and the next generations have to lose. Perhaps it’s only through getting in much closer contact with our feelings of loss and grief that we will find what it take to change.

What do you love about our planet that you are willing to protect? What will you allow yourself to imagine losing – and will you allow yourself to feel the depth of that loss?


Then, taking my research as a jumping off point, there are four ways of defining love that seem to matter at a time of dramatic climate change.


1. Love as Radical Acceptance

My original research respondents saw love as ‘acceptance’: for them, love meant accepting all of someone, not only the parts we liked but also the aspects that we may not understand, may dislike, might find abhorrent even. This aspect of love also asks us to apply the same approach to ourselves and bring acceptance to the ‘outcast parts’ of ourselves, the things that we don’t like about ourselves or feel shame about.

I wrote in an earlier blog, that I now put ‘radical’ in front of acceptance because of what I see as the enormously challenging work it takes for most of us to do what’s described above. ‘Radical acceptance’ has its origins in Buddhist teachings and encourages us to welcome absolutely everything, to accept what is, and not hold out for what should be both in ourselves and also in others and in what life brings us. This level of acceptance is what feels like love to me. And it certainly feels radical.

Our climate emergency requires love-as-radical-acceptance in three ways:

• First it’s necessary and essential that we’re able to face the truth and look the facts of climate change in the eyes. Polar ice melting, rising sea levels, mass extinction of species as well as the possible prospects of mass migration, water and food shortages, civil unrest and war. It takes courage to look at this information let alone consider the implications. In fact, ‘it takes outrageous courage to face outrageous loss’ and accept what the science is showing us. It takes love-as-radical-acceptance.

• Secondly, radical acceptance asks us to bring people who are strangers and also enemies into our moral circle, our circle of acceptance. This is also very difficult. Can we do that with the climate change denier? Can we do that with the person who buys plastic bottles by the dozen each week? With the XR activists who climbed onto the train at Canning Town or who prevent your journey to work? Or with Bolsonaro?

• And thirdly it’s likely that climate change, at some point in the future, will bring us in close contact with people who are very different from us (mass migration) or with whom we may have to compete for scarce resources (food and medicine, water). And although there is evidence to show that humans are hard wired for collaboration, at times of scarcity or fear my gut tells me there’ll be a strong tendency to fight and compete and enormous potential for us to separate, put up barriers and pull up the drawbridge, to exclude people from our moral circle, to see people as strangers and as enemies and dehumanize them.

So climate change presents us with the opportunity to practice radical acceptance and take a loving approach, to pull together and not pull apart, to build relationships with our neighbours or strangers, to collaborate with people where we might have previously competed, to see the person before we see the label, to develop our ‘will to embrace’ rather than to push away. To find it in us to love strangers and enemies.

What more could you to do learn more about the full facts of climate change and the implications for people across the world? Are you currently choosing to look away from the hard facts?

Who are you choosing to hold outside of your circle of affection and concern? Who do you find it easy to ‘other’. In relation to climate change what are your own ‘radical acceptance’ challenges?


2. Love as the most expansive version of a story

Love means we take the most generous and expansive version of events as possible.

At an individual level what does this mean? Maybe meeting hurtful or aggressive behaviour with a compassionate ‘I wonder what might have happened to this person?’. Maybe knowing that 40% or more people in the UK have experienced some form of Adverse Childhood Experience – often called ‘slow trauma’ and defined as, for example, poverty, an abusive parent or violent caregiver, even divorce – in their lives and that they may still be wounded by it. Perhaps helping someone see the bigger picture for themselves when they have become myopic, or holding for them the vision of what they might become – or a story of when they were at their best that they might have forgotten. Love is seeing a more expansive version of a story.

Charles Eisenstein calls this ‘seeing with generous eyes’ and it has strong links with the notion of radical acceptance. And I’ve been hugely inspired by the work of Deeyah Khan, whose documentary film making with right wing extremists lead her to be resoundingly clear that ‘there is ALWAYS a human being behind the behaviour’ and that even the most appalling act of violence is only a (distorted) way to deal with our feelings of powerlessness, loss or shame. She sees people in their wider story.

We need to bring a similar expansive perspective to climate change. I think it’s form of love for us to learn to see the ‘extended consequences’ of our actions on other people. It’s loving, for example, to see the connections between our collective actions in the west and the impact those actions will have on the people of coastal flood plains in Bangladesh whose lives will be ruined by rising sea levels. It’s loving to take what Joanna Macy calls a ‘deep time’ approach and consider the question the Iroquois are said to regularly ask: ‘what impact will this decision have on 7 generations from now’ – an important counterpoint to our current tendency of looking at only what’s right in front of us. It’s a form of love to recognise that we are all interconnected in some way and that we – that’s all of us whether animals or plant life – are all needed to keep our delicate ecosystem, in balance and that what happens to trees in Brazil, say, has an impact on our daily lives.

In what ways are you myopic? How are you keeping yourself there? How can you start to see the more extended consequences of your actions and mindset?


3. Anger as a form of love

My research showed that love was also about boundaries: setting clear standards and holding people to account, being able to tell someone no; giving difficult feedback, saying that something is unacceptable and pushing back.

In organisations this might go under the banner of speaking truth to power, having difficult conversations and ‘radical candour’, and also whistleblowing, maybe, as well as campaigns like #metoo.

The Jungian archetype of the Warrior is often helpful here, the part of us that understands how important it is to protect ourselves from harm, to set clear boundaries for ourselves and others and to enact a clear and strong No when that boundary is crossed as well as to fight on behalf of others. This is love as fierce protection of self and others. Taking a stand.

The core emotion that undperins the Warrior archetype is anger and this is a tricky one for many people as we are an anger-averse society. We tend to associate anger with violence or rage, aggression or conflict. We are taught as children that anger isn’t acceptable which creates problems for us as adults when so many of us find it difficult to express anger or boundaries healthily. I see this so often in my organisational work – both men and women struggling to ask for what they need, or to tell someone that they behaviour isn’t ok or to raise a difficult issue for fear that it will cause conflict.

It’s not hard for me to make the link here to climate activism and action.

• First, anger is a way that we know that an injustice has been done, that something has been taken away from us or that someone has deprived us of something that matters. It’s entirely fitting and appropriate that we would feel angry when we contemplate the loss of biodiversity, or consider that governments have known the facts of climate change for decades and done nothing. And so we may need to connect with our righteous anger – intentionally – because it’s a powerful fuel for getting us to act and our planet needs us to act.

• Then, I go to one of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) reasons for why we should take action on climate change. They say that as well as our moral obligation to protect those who are being directly impacted now by the impact of climate change – as well as future generations who almost certainly will be – we have a moral obligation to protect ourselves, to raise our voices and to take action and to protest in self protection. If our governments aren’t protecting us from the damage that the climate crisis is likely to bring then we need to take a stand for that ourselves. This is a form of self love.

Also, let’s remember that anger is considered to be a ‘secondary emotion’ because we tend to resort to anger in order to protect ourselves from other vulnerable feelings, usually loss and grief. These feelings are often too painful for us to let ourselves feel and so we find another less painful emotion instead. So anger may simply be telling us that we love something and we don’t want to lose it. We can welcome our anger. It can put us in contact with our grief and sadness, if we give it the chance and know how to sit with it. So we can use our anger to help connect us with our true feelings about what’s happening to our world. And so we link back to climate = love + loss.

What boundaries have been crossed for you in relation to climate issues? What’s being taken away from you that you’re willing to fight for? When did you last allow yourself to express a healthy anger? Where would it be loving to express anger in your life?


4. Love as hope and optimism

How do hope and optimism relate to climate change, when it can feel quite the opposite – a time of gloom and despair for many people? Some people are paying a high price for looking at the hard facts of climate change: the phenomenon of eco-grief is well reported and there’s a growing body of academic literature on the damaging psychological effects on people who are fully facing the consequences of climate change.

But let’s look at what we mean by hope and optimism.

First, hope and optimism are not about denial. It isn’t about believing that we’ll all be ok. The opposite in fact. It’s about looking the stark facts in the eyes while also holding on to what inspires us and the possibility of something being different.

My 92 yr old dad defines hope as the belief that tomorrow could be better than today. Charles Eisenstein sees it as the ability to hold the best version of the story for someone when they can’t see it for themselves. Joanna Macy describes it as ‘knowing what we hope for and what we would love or like to take place’, an ‘active hope’ where we are active participants in bringing about what we hope for.

Now, oddly, hope and optimism are also difficult emotions for us. I’m reminded of what Bob Marshak says about what goes underground in organisations, what rarely gets spoken about. He names several things that are taboo… emotions, our fears, hidden agendas. And also aspirations – it’s somehow not acceptable to talk about our hopes and dreams, and what we long for.

Similarly, Brene Brown talks about how we have a habit of ‘foreboding joy’ where we immediately diminish, discount and deny the possibility of joy in case something happens to take that joy away. It seems we prefer to protect ourselves from disappointment or risk the pain of our dreams not materialising. I think we also diminish hope in order to protect ourselves from the disappointment of something longed-for not happening.

Love-as-hope-and-optimism means that we are able to see that there COULD be a different future. The climate collapse that may seem inevitable could be averted, as films like 2040 point to. And if it can’t be, then active hope and optimism can direct the ways we respond to the collapse. For example the writer Margaret Wheatley believes we are at the end of western civilisation but we can still decide ‘who we choose to be’ and make sure we create ‘islands of sanity’ for each other as our societies collapse. So this is about allowing ourselves to dream and imagine a different future. It’s also about doing something towards that dream. So here love is a verb. It’s about taking action. It requires that we do something in service of what we want to protect.

Gary Younge, the Guardian journalist in his powerful final column for the paper wasn’t talking about optimism per se but I think he’s describing Macy’s active hope when he says: … ‘things look bleak. The propensity for despair is strong but should not be indulged. Sing yourself up. Imagine a world in which you might thrive for which you have no evidence. And then fight for it’.

What world do you want to imagine? What do you hope for? What steps can you take towards making it a reality?


Finally 🙂

If you’ve read this far, thank you! It’s been a long and sometimes rambling post and my thoughts are really only just forming on this topic. I’ll be writing about this a lot more so thank you for your patience in reading with me as I work out what I want to say on this subject.

What I am clear about is that love is vital at a time of climate crisis and climate recovery. And I hope I’ve started to make some links for you to see the connections too.

So let me end with the wonderful Erich Fromm again:

‘Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not towards one object of love’.

I think that probably says it all 😊

Helena x


Please do share this with anyone who might  find it interesting. And you know I have a monthly Newsletter about my research and writing on love?  You can subscribe here, if you like the sound of it. 



Not an exhaustive list but all highly recommended and relevant:

Extinction Rebellion’s This Is Not a Drill – the first half, for a balanced picture of the climate crisis.

David Wallace-Wells’s Uninhabitable Earth – the book that woke me up.

Joanna Macy’s Active Hope – exploring personal and social change around climate issues.

John O Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us – extraordinary poems for hope and optimism.

Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow – a deeply important book on grief.



  • Morag

    Wise words, Helena. Thank you.
    I love the final quotation- it sums it up beautifully.

    • Helena Clayton

      Thank you Morag, and I know how this is so close to your heart.


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