Avoiding the Urgency Trap: Slowing Down for Climate Justice

By Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray

In climate activism, an “urgency trap” bleeds from the corporate sphere into our efforts to heal the world. Amplified by various “tipping points” and deadlines for extinction, urgency has become the climate movement’s main strategy based upon the assumption that urgency + fear = action. But I want to make the perhaps counterintuitive case that the planet needs us to resist the urgency trap and instead engage more slowly in our climate work.

Urgency hijacks our nervous systems, bypasses reason, and keeps us too exhausted to move upstream to fix problems at their source. Indeed, Buddhists would say that productivist culture is at the root of all suffering, including the climate crisis. It’s a form of distraction from the pain of our separation from the earth and the discomfort we feel when we look at the suffering and problems in the world. Rather than face our discomfort and try to address the root of it, we overstimulate our lives and senses and clutter our calendars and closets. This may stroke our dopamine centers and give us the illusion of being effective, but it’s like the activist version of swiping or shopping our way out of climate despair.

The perception that our time is limited keeps us from engaging in pro-social and pro-environmental behaviors. (As researchers of the famous “Good Samaritan” study concluded, “ethics become a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.”) Urgency can decrease regard for the more-than-human world and make us impatient with the slow processes of cultivating community and figuring out the best approach. Thus, the question for our climate action isn’t whether we have time or not; the question is how our perception of time scarcity diminishes our effectiveness and increases the harms we cause in the world.

How do we resolve this? First, we investigate these questions: Whose interests does it serve for us to feel time scarce? What are the effects of being brainwashed by the myths of productivism and powerlessness? Who benefits from us being stuck in the urgency trap? Second, we should think about action in much broader temporal terms. The hidden work of social change takes time. Third, we should rest, find stillness, and prioritize healing more. Slow down enough to gain clarity about strategy. Protect our energy and mental health so we can stay in this work for the long haul.

By: Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray, author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet, and professor and chair of the Environmental Studies Department at California Polytechnic University, Humboldt.

View the full version of this truncated article and learn more about a virtual presentation by the author at mogreenbuildings.org.