Leah Thomas Says There's A Better Way To Think About Climate Change
When global warming feels overwhelming, the environmentalist finds wisdom in the earth's biodiversity, what it means to self sustain, and the belief that an abundance of solutions exist.
Sustainable living is often marketed as a life rooted in sacrifice: super seriousness, intentionality at all times, moral superiority and a total and rigid rejection of any plastic. While doing what we can to ensure the earth is healthy for years to come is one of the most important tasks we face, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what balance looks like.
As an environmental educator, I feel an immense responsibility not to preach, shame or show up in this space with fear when I can avoid it. I want to approach this work with gentleness moving forward because kindness is also powerful in creating change. I think the sustainability movement needs a makeover, one rooted in radical love for ourselves, our communities and the planet as well as a joyful sense of imagination and curiosity.
Even in a world that feels like it’s on fire, I find a lot of solace when I remind myself of our shared experience as humans. We’re all just here on this planet floating in space with our quirks, our cultures, our backstories, our failed relationships, our silly stories, our grief, our pain – and all the things that make us human. None of us are immune to that experience on this planet and being human is the one thing we all share — one with each of us trying to navigate a world built on overconsumption and inequity, with systems that weren’t designed to work for all of us.
When I take a deep breath and think about all the complexities of the human experience and the complexity of the answers and solutions necessary to tackle those complexities, I find it all humbly grounding.
I know it might sound strange to say that something overwhelming can ground me, but it reminds me that none of us are our superheroes. Systemic change at a massive scale requires progress over perfection. It also requires a whole lot of empathy and community connection in a world that often encourages the exact opposite.
Sometimes I’d get so frustrated when it feels like no one cares about social issues or the environment enough. When you’re passionate about something, you want to shout it from the rooftops. It can be hard to understand why some people don’t care in the same way that you do. But that thought alone is rooted in ego, self-righteousness, and a lack of empathy for other people’s experiences. It can lead to shaming others and also holding ourselves to extremely high standards. It’s not always that people don’t care. Sometimes they’re carrying other grief with them or have the same passion about a different subject.
I think there’s a way we can see this as an opportunity for exploration rather than isolation and siloing by wondering how people outside of the environmental movement might contribute to the conversation, and how I can also expand beyond my bubble. That's what gets me excited.
The earth's biodiversity teaches us a lot about this. Look at any ecosystem. Each plant, each animal, each organism is playing their own role. Imagine if algae could talk and started fighting with trees in the rainforest over who captures more carbon. Or if a rock had feelings and felt depressed that it couldn’t be like rain, when in reality that very rock plays an important role in rain not causing landslides. It’s all important in its own way. Yes, I like to imagine trees talking. You should try it.
The literal definition of sustainability is ‘the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level’ and the goal is co-existence with something — whether that’s with the earth, with ourselves or with our communities. Living sustainably isn’t just about what car we drive or what mason jars we use. It’s also about how we simply ‘maintain’ and get by. Our own wellbeing and ability to cultivate empathetic connections is also deeply embedded in sustainability. To maintain the earth we have to follow its example and how it heals and nurtures itself day in and day out.
Another thing we can learn from nature: Taking care of ourselves isn’t optional if we want to be okay. If the fruit trees don’t have the right conditions, they won’t bear fruit. If flowers don’t receive the right sunshine, they’ll wilt. The entire planet will literally heat up and icecaps will melt if we pump too much carbon in the atmosphere. The earth is sensitive, so it’s okay for us to be too.
Now’s the time to talk about self sustainability in addition to earth sustainability. People are not okay — the weight of solving the climate crisis and impending doom is seemingly lurking at every corner on the planet. We absolutely need to ask ourselves and each other how we are sustaining. How are we genuinely caring for ourselves and how honest are we being with each other? How honest are we being with ourselves about how we’re showing up in the world?
I’m not a therapist, so I don’t have a perfect solution. As someone with anxiety and OCD, my mind constantly runs on a loop. What I do know is when I really deeply take the time to be honest with myself, to heal myself, to cultivate my intuition and make my body and mind my friend instead of an enemy, I can actually show up better for other people and for the planet.
Shifting from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset also helps. I’ve been meditating on the idea that ‘sustainability’ and ‘abundance’ aren’t actually contradictory ideas and can coexist. We have an abundance of ways to navigate life with intention. We have an abundance of solutions to the climate crisis waiting to be enacted at a large scale — from regenerative agriculture to renewable energy. We have an abundance of ways to participate and show up for ourselves and the planet. We have an abundance of wisdom from our ancestors, from indigenous communities globally, from our friends and communities that’ll help us.
We have an abundance of different experiences as humans that actually unite us more than separate us. How lovely is that?