A person at a climate crisis protest holds a sign. (Stock photo: Markus Spiske on Unsplash)
How do we tell people we have to act, without making them defensive? (Stock photo: Markus Spiske on Unsplash)

Topics: Ethical Living | Environment

5 ways to open minds to the reality of climate crisis

In her new book, former Broadview senior writer Donna Sinclair has some strategies for activist groups that won't make listeners defensive


The following is a chapter from Donna Sinclair’s new book, “Activist Alphabet,” now available from Wood Lake Books. The chapter, titled “J is for Judgment,” has been condensed.

A few years ago at a conference about forests and their fate, I listened as a very knowledgeable couple rose to the microphone over and over to explain why things were going wrong and what we should do about it. As far as I could tell they were absolutely right. But I also found I was becoming increasingly irritated. Judging from the rustling that was beginning to erupt, so was everyone else.

This tendency towards anger is not confined to large meetings. The surest way to make sure I will never read a given book is to hand it to me and say, “You should read this. You will just love it!” Something in me immediately shouts, “No, I won’t and you can’t make me.”

I don’t think this is because I arrested emotionally at the age of two. In fact, most two-year-olds are more tractable than that. It’s just that humans are difficult creatures. We don’t like being told what to do or how to think.  We dislike people who – although they may be entirely correct – try to persuade us to believe as they do. We actually value the social ties of our own group more than we value reason, and once we have an idea firmly in our heads, we find it extraordinarily painful to remove it. Especially since, as New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert points out, we are subject to “confirmation bias,” which is “the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.”

That’s because it may actually feel better. In fact, Kolbert cites research that indicates “people experience genuine pleasure, a rush of dopamine, when processing information that supports their beliefs.”

All this makes it very difficult to change the world. Since protest, by definition, is an act of judgment against our collective behaviour – an attempt to alter the comfortable status quo – this is a very large problem for activist groups. How do we tell people that we really really have to do something about climate change, for instance, without making them defensive?

Here are some ideas:

Don’t spend too much time trying to persuade people. Simply lead in a specific style that author, rabbi, and therapist Edwin Friedman calls “self-differentiated leadership.” Good leaders respond to challenges by “focusing on self-functioning rather than by trying to change the functioning of others,” at the same time as they stay connected to their constituency. It is, Friedman admits, a tricky but crucial balance. The leader takes responsibility for “his or her own goals and self” while at the same time staying in touch with the rest of the organism (Friedman’s italics).

Since it is much easier to figure out and follow your own goals if you don’t have to worry about others, this is hard to do. And if the ones looking to you for leadership are over-dependent, says Friedman, they will try to hold you back. Even though evolution progresses this way – by developing strengths and insights that help the species survive – it takes courage to set out bravely and to allow others to follow or not.

More on Broadview: In this climate crisis, listen to Indigenous wisdom

Doing this allows people to grow. When my children were little, I tried to encourage them to figure things out for themselves as much as possible, and, in small things, to make their own decisions and suffer the consequences. This did not extend to playing in the traffic.

This is a long way of arriving at a description of the highly effective, non-judgmental leadership that appeared in Stop Energy East–North Bay. We had many leaders, and they all took turns being followers. They did not judge one another; they simply figured out where they could best serve. When decisions needed to be made, they debated, offered ideas, and, if anyone felt the proposed action was a good thing to do, took charge while others supported them. People just caught the vision, or perhaps simply decided that they liked this person and would happily spend a day or so handing out leaflets or making speeches. “The people who gathered around this crisis,” says Stop Energy East–North Bay member Kay Heuer, “had amazing expertise and astuteness and knowledge and political sense and imagination. I found it inspiring.”

Donna Sinclair. (Photo: Liz Lott)

Try not to be predictable.  I am aware that it might not be wise for me to hold forth at every dinner party about bitumen spills and the horrors of benzene-laced water. People nod and their eyes glaze over. But it is hard not to do it. Similarly, it was tempting for our group to use tried-and-true methods. But our most effective actions were marked by their lack of predictability: the day people dressed up as water droplets and attended a pipeline company’s open house. The day a cheerful canoe flotilla paddled over water that was at risk. The supremely self-starting effort of Yan Roberts, one of our group, who attended a local event where the pro-pipeline prime minister was speaking, strode calmly to his side, and opened his jacket to reveal a shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Water, not Harper.”

In none of those cases was persuasion the main thrust. Information was offered. Judgment was not made (except on the political leader who seemed irredeemably on the side of Big Oil).

Be rabbinical. Tell stories. Somehow narrative bypasses the defensiveness evoked by finger-pointing. A story judges no one, makes no one feel guilty. It’s just a story. In a synagogue I occasionally attend with relatives, the rabbi always tells a story at the family service. We always emerge a little wiser, a little more bent on world-mending in our own fashion.

Our minister Jane Howe tells stories too. We are embraced by her narrative, amused and touched by self-revelation. She does not ask us to replicate her thinking. She simply explores scripture for wisdom and truth and offers it to us, laced with the events of her days. We do not resist, because we do not feel judged.  Sometimes we even change our ways.

The arts. As we struggled to convey to our community the dangers we saw, we used story in every form. We showed films, for instance, about other places, other pipelines, other struggles, and we let people draw their own conclusions.

Find purpose. Most of all, many of us found — like Kay Heuer — that our faith gave our resistance actions “meaning and energy. We never gave up, because we were working on our purpose for being.” There’s not much room to be judgmental if your grassroots group is full of purpose and meaning and joy. May yours be so.


Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Donna Sinclair is a writer in North Bay, Ont.


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  • says:

    I was struck by the authors 2nd point: In this climate crisis, listen to Indigenous wisdom. I agree with that statement. On the one hand the fact that the pipeline still faces numerous court challenges to its building is an attestation to those indigenous voices who remain vigilante that the process not become a big oil ‘rubber stamp’ of approval that runs rough shod over legitimate First Nations concerns. Especially the concerns of the indigenous communities like Coldwater BC where the pipeline will run through or adjacent. But I wonder if readers are willing to listen to the wisdom of the First Nation communities who want the pipeline built. There are at least three coalitions of First Nations who desire ownership and partnership in operating the pipeline. These include the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group, the Iron Coalition, and Project Reconciliation. This last group believe that ownership of the pipeline would even lead to further reconciliation with Canada. Their motto is: "There's a pipeline to Reconciliation. We should take it." Mike Lebourdais, the chief of the Whispering Pines/Clinton band in B.C. and leader in the first group has been said the pipeline is a way forward for his community to be included in the Canadian fabric.