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The Common Thread: It’s a Relationship Crisis

The climate crisis. The coronavirus crisis. The refugee crisis. The economic crisis. The mental health crisis. The list of crises is both endless and overlapping these days — a sure sign that there is something bigger going on. Something systemic that affects the things we all value, including life itself. Now might be a good time to step back and take a different perspective, to see if we find a common thread running through all of these crises. If we do, it might become clear to us that we are dealing with one big crisis — a relationship crisis.

Dealing with a crisis
A crisis is defined as a time of intense difficulty or danger. It is a time when important decisions have to be made, and when we have to act. Sometimes a crisis can be an important turning point. However, the direction of the turn is never a given. If we want to turn in an equitable and sustainable direction, we have to identify and respond to the root causes and do so in a deep and meaningful way.

Let’s take the climate crisis as an example. For decades, we have been focusing on climate change as the problem, and for decades, we have remained stuck. Despite impressive scientific and technical advances, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been increasing. Even with widespread agreement on the most fundamental issues, such as the need to replace fossil fuels as a primary energy source, reverse deforestation, limit carbon-intensive transport, reduce consumption, and promote plant-based diets, we have not been able to align knowledge and action to generate results.

Instead, debates are increasingly polarized.  Strong interests and emotions make it difficult to engage in a real dialogue about climate change and its implications for society. In many places, we are moving backward rather than forward in terms of strategies, policies, and plans. Even with growing attention to the climate problem, we have failed to bend the curves on greenhouse gas emissions. We have also not significantly reduced vulnerability and the risks associated with climate change. Maybe it’s time to admit that this is not a climate crisis. It’s a relationship crisis.

How do we relate?
Climate change is a relationship crisis that is inherently about how we relate to ourselves; to each other, to the environment, and to the future. Changing the way that we engage with each of these relationships can change everything. This applies not just to individuals, but to all groups and organizations, including businesses, municipalities, and educational institutions.

Relationship to self: Let’s start with ourselves. Climate change is fundamentally about what we believe, what we value, and how we view the world.  Psychology research tells us that we tend to see what we believe, then find evidence to support those beliefs, regardless of whether facts and data tell us otherwise. What if we were to ask ourselves different questions? What is important to me, and why? What do I value most, not just for myself, but for others as well? How do I express these values in my daily life, from moment to moment? When we are deeply connected to ourselves and aware of our patterns, including what pushes us out of our comfort zone, we have a greater capacity to connect with others.

Relationship to others: Connecting to others is important, as climate change is a collective problem. Yet it is also about where we draw the line between ‘us’ and ‘others’ and who is included within our community or circle of care. As a global problem, climate change will affect people in other places and contexts. Yet focusing on the consequences of climate change for people living in low-lying coastal zones, or in fire-, flood-, or drought-prone areas will not be effective if people do not care about these ‘others’ in the first place. For example, if some people are considered unimportant — or even expendable — the climate crisis may not appear as a crisis at all. One mining executive quoted in a major newspaper admitted that he couldn’t care less if the entire Greenland ice sheet melted, because it would reveal interesting geology (gold!). Never mind the resulting seven meters of global sea-level rise and its implications for coastal communities and marine ecosystems.

Relationship to the environment: Climate change is about our relationship with nature and the environment. It is easy to think about nature as something ‘out there’ for us to use, enjoy, and exploit. Sure, we may be concerned that many plants, animals, insects, ecosystems, and landforms will disappear because of climate change, and we may recognize that it will have tremendous costs for society. Yet if we don’t relate to nature in the first place, and think of it only as ‘objects,’ ‘resources,’ or ‘recreational opportunities,’ why would we be concerned about the drivers of biodiversity loss, such as overexploitation, land-use change, pollution, and climate change? When we think of plants, animals, and ecosystems as distinct and separate from ourselves, we miss the connections that many cultures still treat as sacred. We forget that birds, bats, bees, and insects are vital to healthy ecosystems and that trees, flowers, rivers, dunes, and glaciers are an important part of our world. It is easy to forget that an adult human is mde up of up to 60% water. We inhale and exhale about 11,000 liters of air each day. Our bodies contain trillions of microbial cells. In short, our future depends on maintaining a healthy relationship with the environment, because we are nature.

Relationship to the future: Who cares about the future? This seems like a cynical question, but our relationship with the future is one of the most important to consider. When scientists say that the future is a choice, we have to decide how we want to relate to the future, here and now. Some point out that the future does not exist; ‘now’ is the only important moment. It may be true that now is the only moment, but how we show up in this moment will shape the next one, the next one, and the next one.  Others feel no relationship to the future in a changing climate because ‘we won’t be around.’ While it may be true that we will not be around in the future, we will be remembered. Fortunately, many people and cultures do consider future generations in their thoughts, decisions, and everyday actions. For example, Native Americans consider the impacts of their decisions by imagining the potential needs of seven future generations. This is the basis of global sustainability.

We are not trivial
Climate change is also about our relationship to risks, loss, time, uncertainty, and systems. Science shows us that humans now play a prominent role in shaping Earth system processes and that we have a window of opportunity to take action to avoid widespread and irreversible global impacts. This forces us to rethink our relationship with large-scale, global systems, and to recognize that we do have the capacity to change these. Both research and experience reveal to us that we are connected through physical processes as well as through emotions, stories, and meaning-making. Our relationships are not trivial, and we are not trivial.

Can we transform economic systems, energy systems, agricultural systems, and health care systems as a response to this relationship crisis? Can we do so in a way that supports an equitable and thriving world? If we think of relationship problems as a common thread in all crises, this may be a good time to approach them differently. What if we were to engage in relationships with conscious attention to values that apply to everyone, such as equity, fairness, dignity, and compassion? What if we consider current disruptions as opportunities to practice relating to a wider circle of care?  It is worth exploring, and it could be the change that changes everything.

Some follow-up threads:

  1. What do you care about most, for yourself and for others?
  2. Where do you draw the line between ‘us’ and ‘others,’ and how fixed or flexible is your ‘circle of care’?
  3. What are some actions that you as an individual can take in response to a relationship crisis?

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Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash



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