First, I have to say thank you to everyone for all of your insightful and thought-provoking comments on the topic of attention. They have been grist for the mill, or like that extra cup of coffee I allow myself sometimes that sends me into overdrive and sets my mind whirling.

I ended my last post about attention with a quote from a Ploughshares article by Jessica Hines:

Even if we want to pay attention, can we? Can we stand to live a life of attention when that means having to recognize the painful world we live in? 

and suggested that her questions are important especially in relation to climate change. 

Because I have been paying attention to the topic of attention lately, all sorts of things about attention are popping up. Like the Brain Pickings email I got this morning that had an article about José Ortega y Gasset on the topic of love, attention, and the invisible architecture of our being. Ortega defines attention as “the function charged with giving the mind its structure and cohesion.” Maria Popova asserts in the article:

our attention shapes our entire experience of the world — this, after all, is the foundation of all Eastern traditions of mindfulness, which train the attention in order to anneal our quality of presence — the objects of our attention end up, in a subtle but profound way, shaping who we are.

Aren’t these all delicious thoughts? A person could write a whole book on them. Ha! 

So to gather things together, we have attention that gives the mind structure and cohesion; attention as shaper of experience of the world and self; and attention making us recognize the painful world we live in.

What happens then when our attention is fragmented as it so often is in our fast-paced, global capitalist, 5G, never sleeps world? More than not being able to read long books, more than losing time getting sucked into watching YouTube cat videos, more than being stressed and overwhelmed, we are losing depth and context. The news cycle becomes shorter as the next attention grabbing sensational story gets pushed into our feeds. The length of news articles is shorter—tldr (too long didn’t read)—because who has time to read much past the headline anyway? Our disagreements and divisions grow wider and deeper because we silo ourselves off from each other and who has the time to actually stop and have a real conversation? We feed our brains all the chemicals and hormones our bodies release as we get ourselves emotionally worked up bouncing from headline to headline screaming about the outrageous behavior of this politician and the hypocrisy of that one instead of getting the full story and thinking about what is actually going on. Before we know it, we are doomscrolling ourselves into a panic attack.

It so happens that one of my favorite podcasts, Crazy Town, had an episode on attention back in May. The theme of the season is invisible drivers and they proposed that our scattered attention keeps people from focusing on climate change. In the episode they shared some interesting statistics that I am going to share with you:

  • The average person spends 153 minutes a day on social media (that’s a few minutes short of 3 hours)
  • 4.7 million YouTube videos are watched every minute
  • Almost 4 million Google searches are made every minute
  • 20% of all the things get 80% of our attention

Researchers are finding that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. Our technology has evolved faster than our brains and our technology, especially social media, takes advantage of it. As a result, our inability to truly pay attention has led to a consolidation of power. Think of all the things you do online that belong to Google and Facebook. Think of how few media companies there are now compared to 20 years ago or even 10. Think of the independent and small neighborhood newspapers that no longer exist.

We are afraid of being bored, our creativity is waning (why is there an entire industry built on helping us be more creative?), and our critical thinking abilities are missing in action. What does this have to do with climate change?

If we slowed down enough to actually pay attention to what is going on, we’d see just how forked we are right now. Who wants to sit in the realization of that? Who wants to admit to the part they have played in it when it’s Amazon Prime Day? Who wants to face up to the very likely reality of the horrible world their children and grandchildren are going to live in? And heck, even you and me if we live long enough. Who wants to notice the absence of birds and insects and think about what that means? Who wants to see the signs of ecological, economic, and societal collapse? Better to distract ourselves with another cat video or look at the vacation photos on Facebook of the friend we went to high school with but haven’t actually seen in person or had a conversation with since we graduated.

Because if we begin to truly pay attention, we’d have to stop lying to ourselves that everything is fine. And it’s going to feel bad. Very bad. Instead of feeling the feelings, instead of learning to live with them, we start rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But if we feel the feelings and learn to live with them, maybe instead of rearranging deck chairs we will find ourselves doing something to make a difference.

Just think what might happen if we took back our attention, took back our time and started giving it to the things that really matter. The collective power would be amazing; change would happen! Google and Facebook and pretty much all the people in power right now, don’t want that to happen, they want to maintain the status quo, they want to keep us distracted and divided because that makes us easier to manipulate. If anyone actually believes the pledges several oil companies have made to become carbon neutral, I have a beach house in Florida I can sell you for a bargain! (Please note, I don’t actually have a beach house in Florida, but if you do, I’d recommend that you sell it now before sea levels get any higher).

So what do we do to get our attention back? In the podcast I mentioned earlier they have a short interview with our friend and expert of doing nothing, Jenny Odell. Here are some of the suggestions that came out that conversation:

  • Use tools to help better manage your time
  • Spend more time in nature
  • Don’t be afraid of boredom; from boredom comes creativity
  • Create a safe space to feel the feelings

Also, I will add, reclaiming our attention is a process. There will be setbacks so be kind to yourself. And find people who are trying to do the same thing (like me! You can always send me an email! A letter through the post even!). The internet and social media is not all bad. Better, of course if you can find people in your community who you can see in person to meet with and talk and offer mutual support.

I am far from perfect and nowhere near having any of this sorted out. I don’t have the answers and I am pretty sure there is not just one or two answers anyway; no quick fix, nothing easy or that will take no effort, no time or little attention. But I do believe, like those quotes I started off with, that we are shaped by what we give our attention to, that attention is a form of love or at the very least caring.

I would much rather be shaped by the plants in my garden, the bee on the flower, the smile and friendly greeting from the pedestrian in the crosswalk as I sit on my bike waiting for the light to change, the laughter of the child down the street who walks by every day with his mom to say hi to the Dashwoods through the fence, the blue sky, the billowing clouds, the sound of rain, the dirt under my nails, the feel of yarn and knitting needles in my hands, the sweet-tart burst of flavor from the mulberries James and I foraged by the creek, the thoughts and ideas and connections that come from books and conversations and your comments, the grief I feel over the melting ice and the sixth extinction, and my struggle to embrace impermanence and change and uncertainty. 

How do you want to be shaped? Who do you want to be? How do you want to shape the world? To who and what will you give your attention?

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13 thoughts on “Attention and Climate Change

  1. Ahhh, I feel all of this. Having read a few dozen books on the climate crisis in the past few months, I’ve had to pay a lot more attention than usual to the idea of balance. Mostly, I have managed just fine, but at some points the research was too much to bear, just for a time, and I had to make choices to get reoriented so that I could keep learning. And I guess that’s something we’ll all need to practice for a time?

    By now I am just autosubscribing to any podcast you mention LOL but I am not necessarily listening to them yet. I have started SO many new ones on this topic! I wonder if there’s a way to share playlists through Google podcasts?

    Do you know Christiana Figueres’ Global Optimism? Her book is an excellent primer on their philosophy, which I “discovered” just when I really, really needed it.

    Also…All that We Can Save by Wilkinson and Johnson is out in paperback this week and they are polishing up their community circles page with that in mind…

    Both are realistic and, still, invigorating. 🙂

    1. BIP, yes, the reading and research is hard and definitely requires a change of focus now and then otherwise we risk sinking into despair. I find working in my garden is a good antidote as is a nice long bike ride 🙂

      Ha! If it is any consolation, for every podcast I’ve mentioned and then you have mentioned one in return, I’m adding to my list too! Just added Global Optimism 🙂

      I have been waiting a long time at the library for my turn at All We Can Save! I’m currently #24 on 14 copies so hopefully it won’t be too much longer!

  2. Thank you for writing this! I feel every word. The joy as well as the trepidation. The biggest problem is reaching those who are not in the choir. That’s what I struggle with daily. I can’t even convince my sons that things are changing for the worse and that their inability to concentrate on things is directly implicated in many of those changes. And the inadvertent divorce is more than half caused by our differing views on the question of what is happening in the world and how we might respond to that in order to mitigate it — both for the world and for ourselves. But he can’t even see how much he can’t see anymore. I think most people are like that. They physically can’t comprehend what they are missing. So how do we reach them?

    1. Addendum… as I was forwarding your essay to Twitter I noticed some notifications and was drawn to see what that was all about… because I’d posted some interesting things this morning — a new type of supernova, a new type of human, lots of the casually alarming stuff on drought/weather/heat, a bit on extreme social disfunction — in addition to today’s blog post which I sort of am proud of… and what caused the response? My “caption” on a fox photo. Even those who listen aren’t listening, methinks.

    2. Thank you Elizabeth! How do we reach those who refuse/can’t/won’t see what’s happening is a really good question I struggle with. I don’t know. For a while I fell into the “we need better stories” trap. But I realized recently that while good stories are important, most people aren’t going to pay attention to them and so then we end up feeling like it’s our fault and the story wasn’t good enough and we have to come up with an even better one. Which is BS.

      Yes, that was a good blog post! And I am very sad you can’t turn on comments because of all the trolls. But it is also sad regarding the fox photo getting most of the attention. I agree that many of those who are listening aren’t really listening. Earth Day was a personally angry time for me this year because I got so very many emails from environmental groups soliciting donations and offering to send me stickers/mugs/t-shirt/other random crap made in China out of plastic. WTF? The disconnect sometimes is astounding.

  3. “How do you want to be shaped? Who do you want to be? How do you want to shape the world? To who and what will you give your attention?” I think I need to print this out and tape it to my laptop! If I really thought consciously about those questions every time I went online, I could save myself a whole lot of mindless clicking. But it’s the distraction, isn’t it? The avoidance, both of small tasks (I need to reply to those emails but I don’t feel like it) and the big issues (oh wait, we’re destroying the planet. And I’m going to die some day).

    As Freud said, “Mankind cannot bear too much reality” (although Google now tells me it was TS Eliot, so what do I know?). We’ve got to the point, though, where humankind really needs to face reality if we want to survive another century, but the menu of distractions has become almost infinitely large. I like the solutions you present here, and I’m going to try to remember to follow some of them. I don’t want to be shaped by some article that some algorithm determined would rile me up enough to click on an ad.

    1. Thank you Andrew! If you land on any other solutions that are useful, please let me know!

      You are right that it is all distraction. We all need distractions sometimes, little ways to escape, but we need to come back too. I hate that corporations and pop culture have appropriated mindfulness practice. It has skewed the whole point of it and turned it into a money making business and a means of employee manipulation. But yeah, overall we are distracting ourselves to death and sadly it seems quite a lot of people are just fine having an algorithm determine who they are. I think along with attention I need to work on compassion too because writing that previous sentence made me really angry 🙂

      1. Ah, I need to work on my compassion too, Stefanie! The people I struggle to relate to are the parents who micromanage every aspect of their kids’ lives, but don’t seem to care that those kids with their perfect exam results and musical accomplishments may not have a planet to live on when they get older. The way I see it, parents should be breaking shit down right now to create a viable future for their kids. But who am I to judge, and what does that achieve anyway? Nobody ever convinced anyone to change by getting angry at them and sneering at their choices. Compassion is the key. I need to go meditate or something!

        1. Heh Andrew, you and me both on those parents! I also have a hard time with people who tell me they are really worried about climate change right before they tell me all the deals they got on Amazon Prime Day. The total disconnect is sometimes astonishing. The energy they spend on managing the cognitive dissonance must be huge. Compassion is so hard!

          Thanks for the mention in your newsletter! What a delightful surprise when I saw that! 🙂 I am super excited to see where including climate change in your stories takes you.

  4. Beautiful post, Stefanie. I am with you – and will keep trying imperfectly to reclaim and redirect my attention, and my son’s too… I’m reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders and I think it fits in with paying attention and identifying the natural world to better appreciate and protect it.

    1. Thank you Laila! Oh world of Wonders is a marvelous book to encourage paying attention! I hope you are enjoying it 🙂 And thank you for being such a good mom 🙂

  5. When you stop and come to that fork in the road and it feels bad….read Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow. Fantastic. Also, Joanna Macy’s The Great Turning workshops and techniques recognize we first have to mourn all the losses…..

    1. Thank you for the recommendations Valorie! I have not read Weller, I will look her up! Macy on the other hand, she is amazing. Her book Active Hope is also really good.

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