Posted by: scintillatingspeck | December 7, 2012


I want to reflect a bit on what it means to be disempowered.  I feel like I’m wading into tricky territory, since there have been endless books and essays and speeches on empowerment/disempowerment, and I’m not well-steeped in every discourse that’s occurred on the topic.  But in keeping with the rest of my blog, I will try to focus on the personal aspects.

The reason disempowerment is on my mind is because of feedback that Guy has received in the past few days.  Granted, he is often considered a provocative speaker and writer, and I think he is deliberately challenging in his choice of words.  He delivers information and analysis that routinely throws people off balance and causes them to engage in furious debate and introspection.  It’s not surprising that he receives some backlash.  But I’m a little taken aback by some of the comments he’s received lately.  I’m sure that a significant part of the reason my hackles are especially raised is because I invited him to come to western Mass. and managed the logistics of his speaking engagements, so I feel like I’m considered partially to “blame” for the charge of disempowerment.

Before commenting further, let me offer some of the comments to provide some context:

“I think his view is profoundly disempowering. Whether or not he’s right, I think telling people that is not helpful. It’s a recipe for ending up with people doing none of the things that are possible to make a difference.”

“[The] message of despair dismantles our power to change and engage in action. … It is psychologically counterproductive and causes many to simply give up rather than become active. …it can actually cause harm rather than empower others by crippling decisive and needed action. A strong focus on what we CAN do rather than simple and provocative dire warnings, would counterbalance the negative facts. …
We are as alarmed as you are but strongly disagree with your analysis that the only solution to climate chaos is to embrace economic collapse.  There are other empowering, creative, sustainable and hopeful courses of action.  …  A message entirely consisting of gloom and doom will not move us in a positive direction.  If we are to have a future, we must stay engaged, not disempowered and filled with despair.”

Reading these again, I hear the echo of a former self in my head, one who would have agreed at one time with this sort of assessment.  Despair is bad.  Avoid despair at all costs.  If you wallow in bad news, you will never get anything useful accomplished.  Make the negative voices shut up.  Don’t listen.  Cut negativity out of your life.  Focus on all that is uplifting.  Repeat some positive affirmations to create the world you want to live in.

That former self is good and dead.  And I don’t miss her.

Here’s the thing.  I don’t believe that people are disempowered by being told the truth, no matter how unpalatable they find it.  The truth, you say?  How do you know what the truth is?  Fair enough.  Let’s go ahead and suspend calling it “the truth” for a moment.  What’s disempowering, then, in my view, is that so many people aren’t given the tools of critical thinking and rational analysis to determine for themselves what they think the truth is.  What’s disempowering is that people are encouraged to only focus on relentlessly “positive” things rather than plumbing their own emotional intelligence for the complex and nuanced truths found there.  What’s disempowering is the assumption that people, especially young people, need to be protected and cut off from information rather than throwing open the doors of knowledge.  What’s disempowering is the idea that people can’t possibly be expected to remain standing and functional when confronted with stunningly bad news.

Furthermore, I consider it to be fundamentally disempowering to the community of life to not describe, as precisely and graphically as possible, what’s at stake.  If you believe, as I do, that the longer industrial civilization manages to stagger forward, the more surely the nails are being pounded into the collective coffin, then to defend the continuance of the industrial economy is tantamount to the ultimate death sentence.  To claim that working within the current paradigm is the only way to be “sustainable” is delusional.  If that’s where “hope” lies, I want none of it.

What can we do?  How do we express agency?  How do we do the work that needs to be done?

First, we grieve, friends.  There is no way around this.  If you want to skip grief, you are skipping a necessary trial by fire.  It won’t be comfortable.  It will hurt like hell.  I won’t lie.  But if you come out the other side of that grief, you won’t be sorry.  You will see that grieving is true work.  You will get clear about your priorities.  You will gnash your teeth and curse the sky but you will experience a tremendous flexing of emotional muscle.  You want to talk about resilience?  Okay, let’s talk about that.  You won’t be able to define “resilience” or “empowerment” until you have allowed your grief to swallow you whole.  Into the belly of the whale you go.

Grief, or despair, is not the final stop on this journey.  Compassion and solidarity take up residence in the raw heart torn asunder.

What can we do?  We can allow information to sink in.  We can evaluate it.  We can swallow that bitter pill of truth– and you’d be hard-pressed to tell me it isn’t bitter, unless you are willfully ignoring evidence.  We can feel the full impact of the truth, both alone and in the company of other thinking, feeling humans, and offer one another love and compassion.  We can let our conclusions guide us to the correct course of action.  I’m not going to be prescriptive here.  Once you know what to do, your sense of justice will propel you forward.  You can’t expect to know “what to do” instantly.  Maybe try sitting still for a while.

How ironic that our fear of despair, as a proxy for disempowerment, can lead us directly into the maw of disempowerment.  Rather than pathologize an appropriate response to bad news, we might want to consider transforming our relationship to our most intense emotions.  In the end, we must be grounded in conviction in order to take action on behalf of the world that we love.


  1. Fucking Bravo Fucking Bravo Fucking Bravo. And can I get an ‘amen.’

  2. Amen!

    What the critics miss, or do not know, is that they have been responsible all along, that they are not sudden victims, but by many, many choices are conformists indulging in acquired fantasies that leave them wanting more.

    A lifestyle is something on an industrial civilization’s menu, not a way of life. The latter does not leave one wanting more.

  3. Yay, and yay again! Those comments are examples of the Doctrine of Hope rearing its head yet again; I really hate it when that happens – thanks for being part of the good pie, Jen.

  4. “You won’t be able to define “resilience” or “empowerment” until you have allowed your grief to swallow you whole. Into the belly of the whale you go.” Thank you for this and for the entire post.

  5. great post!!!!! well as someone who heard guy talk, it wasn’t the truth he was getting at that left me cold. it was mostly that he was showing us things pertinent only to him, or other land-owners (his own homestead) and his comments saying that community will come naturally if you do all this… it didn’t seem to apply here and i was left with the same old “well i guess i’ll be dying alone pretty soon” feeling i have most of the time. which is a sometimes-necessary wake-up call. live while you still can is what i came away with. but i really wanted to learn more about community resilience, because in our community it seems like people refuse to talk about reality and only want “positive” talk and so on. which is, i believe, destructive and unhelpful and leads to alienation of people who do want to face the truth. i felt like he left out the part of the talk that was the title of the talk (creating community resilience.) but he was really tired so i don’t hold it against him. i was glad he came.

  6. […] yesterday’s post I wrote, “First, we grieve.  There is no way around this.”  I’m wasting no time […]

  7. I am very concerned that my comment, quoted above, has been taken out of context. It is not as if I do not deal in very challenging news myself, and I truly believe in telling people the truth and helping them to process it.

    What I was describing as disempowering is the view that human extinction is inevitable on climate grounds within a few decades, no matter what we do. How could it be other than disempowering to tell people that whatever they can do can make no difference?

    Mr McPherson, and apparently others, appear to equate my view with attempting to cling to industrial civilization. This could not be further from the truth. Industrial civilization is ending, and the bottleneck involved is going to be brutal. We have a great deal to do to move forward constructively. I spend my life encouraging people to do exactly this. I do not tell them it will be painless or simple, or that the odds of success in any given area are particularly favourable. I do not sugar coat anything.

    I disagree with Guy McPherson’s interpretation regarding the inevitability of short term extinction. For this he accuses me of running away from data, and treating people like children. He has also made a number of very insulting personal comments, impugning my integrity and professionalism, and has publicly misrepresented my work, despite being obviously unfamiliar with its substance.

    I find it very sad that scientific disagreements should be taken as a personal attack and responded to as unconstructively as Mr McPherson has done.

    • Nicole, I appreciate your response. Speaking for myself, what I would like to emphasize is that it is not my intent to distort your stance; if readers here want to know more about Nicole’s views and analysis, I invite you to visit . Further, Nicole, if there is more you would like to add here, I invite you to do so. (For full disclosure to readers, I was pleased to host Nicole at my home when she came to speak in my town a few years ago.)

      I am not interested in vilifying you or your work. I know you are mostly addressing Guy McPherson in your response above, but for my part, I still want to make it clear that my commitment is to free inquiry, critical reasoning, facing truths head-on (even when knowing “truth” is difficult at best), compassion, love, and kindness.

      Your words are truly helpful to me, because a question like “How could it be other than disempowering to tell people that whatever they can do can make no difference?” is precisely the sort of question that is ricocheting around my brain and heart and that I feel intense urgency in addressing.

  8. Your commitment and mine are the same. You have not villified, nor misrepresentted my work. My argument is not with you, although I did feel the need to clarify my position lest people misinterpret my message from a short quote out of context.

    One of main mental adjustments we are going to have to make is to functioning in an environment of far greater uncertainty. There is much we do not know and cannot know in advance. We know we are headed for a huge contraction and bottle-neck, but we do not know exactly what that will look like in different places.

    IMO there is greater uncertainty with regard to runaway climate change than Mr McPherson believes. To me that suggests navigating uncertainty as it unfolds, rather than dwelling on an inevitable outcome. After all, that is what life is always about. We all know we will die, but we mostly don’t spend our whole lives dwelling on that eventuality. If we did so, we would not have lived in the meantime. All we are able to do is to live the best lives we can while we are here.

    Collective paychology is one of my fascinations. It unfolds in great swings of optimism and pessimism that drive expansion and contraction (in concert with the physical reali provided by the existing resource base of course). We are coming off the top of a huge wave of optimism going back decades. At the peak of such a wave it has been my job to restrain irrational exuberance, fully expecting to be called a doomer. As we shift into growing pessimism, it become my job to try to rein in excesses in that direction, fully expecting to be called pollyanna in the process.

    Neither an optimism bias nor a pessimism bias is particularly helpful, although both are a natural part of the human condition. Both need couterweights. It will be all too easy to slide into black despair as collective pessimism takes hold. People will even encourage each other to do so, and the sentiment will be very catching, as strong sentiments always are. Our societies are going to self-flagellate on a large scale, none of which will be helpful in navigating the changing scope of our reality.

    Despair is really not a useful place to be stuck, but the tendency to be stuck there will be strong. Grief over loss is appropriate, but we need to move on and keep putting one foot in front of the other. We owe it to ourselves, our friends, families and communities.

  9. Anticipation is a necessary concomitant of action. Expectation of the anticipated results is not. “Empowerment” makes such expectation the impetus for action. With the destination so gastly or uncertain at best, veracity and empowerment are no longer fellow-travellers: useful action comes from a deeper conviction of right & wrong.

    • That’s “ghastly”, not “gastly”.

  10. Over the decades that we’ve been involved in radical ecology & enviro work we’ve run across similar sentiments about disempowerment. People disempower themselves when they entertain hopelessness. There is most always hope in some form or other. Things happen. Science gets it wrong. Things may be better in another dimension. Who knows! What’s important here & now is to fight even harder for life on the planet and hopefully for future generations. What’s important is living & loving now. Giving up is….well….giving up! Fuck that. It’s time here & now to punish the climate criminals and love those who love the planet. That’s The Work.

    Guy will be on The Enviro Show this coming Tuesday at 6pm eastern at and on 103.3fm in the 5 College Area of WMass. We’ll talk about these things & more.

    • Very glad you’ll be having Guy on the Enviro Show. I’ll be listening. And glad you’re doing a piece of The Work.

  11. This is a topic which is near to my heart… Many thanks!

    Where are your contact details though?

    • If you check my “About” page, you will find my email address.

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