The planet is facing a ‘meta-crisis’ – from climate to economy to health. How can we prepare ourselves for such unprecedented times? It begins with a ‘health check’ on your own values and relationship with the world
By Linda Aspey
The collective profession and practice of coaching is at a pivotal moment. We can face into and respond to the perpetual climate, ecological, security, energy, health, social, justice and economic crises (also being named ‘meta-crisis’ and ‘omni-crisis’), or we can continue to hope that ‘normal’ – or at least some version of it – will soon return.
Normality very likely won’t return, and neither I, nor many others think it should, since the status quo is clearly not sustainable by the planet.
There is growing awareness in our profession of some of these issues, triggered by various upheavals to our own and our clients’ lives, which many of us, particularly in the global north, have encountered or personally experienced for the first time (a brutal war, crumbling healthcare, massively escalating cost of living), unlike in other parts of the world where perpetual crisis has been the norm for a long time, as I’ve spoken about in previous columns.
Yet there is so much deeper and further we need to go in our awareness, now and in the immediate future, of these and of one crisis in particular – the climate and ecological crises. The society we’re in is still in denial at many levels of its enormity, and that includes denial by government, business, the media, the public and I believe, our own profession.
Even when we see the wildfires around the world on the news, the significant lack of insects in many of our gardens this summer or are told to prepare for droughts and water restrictions, how many of us stop and think, “What do we fundamentally need to change and what part can I as a coach play in that?”
A new world
We’re entrusted to be facilitators of change and this meta-crisis bids us to rise to a completely new set of challenges in how we go about helping others to develop and make a positive impact in the world.
Yet how can we help to build a ‘new world’ if we still comply – and even collude – with all that is wrong with the current one?
I’ve previously argued that as a western society built largely on exploitation, privilege and an insatiable desire for growth, we need to move away from a focus on the self to a focus on the system. (By ‘system’ here, I mean an interconnected, complex, transpersonal, ecological network.)
So to focus on our client as an individual self, unaffected by the systems that they are a part of is ignoring reality. Yet I’m regularly bombarded with messages from coaches offering to help me find more coaching clients who will deliver me a six-figure income, or toolkits for personal transformation, or promoting spiritual retreats that require me to have wealth and a desire to fly to exotic places – while the rest of the world burns, drowns, starves or otherwise suffers under the path of the flight.
I don’t question the sincere motives of the providers to do good work and make a fair living; like the rest of the Western world (including me) they’re locked into a system that promotes the individual over the collective. Yet as Gwyneth Jones, climate coach, said to me, “I think many ‘self-help’ programmes genuinely see a shift in consciousness as one of their outcomes, and believe that the transformation of each client, one by one, will lead to a wider global transformation. This approach to healing is important but there is usually little or no focus on the complex and dysfunctional systems that their clients will go back to, and the ‘healing’ can all too easily be undone.”
James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Hypothesis, died on 27 July of this year. He suggested that Earth is a self-regulating community of biological organisms interacting with each other and their surroundings, behaving as a huge single entity, keeping conditions on the planet within boundaries that are favourable to life. If that’s true, and I think it is, then why are we still focusing largely our work on only a tiny part of the system?
How many of the trainings and coaching events that arrive in your inbox refer to a planet and a society in deep distress? How many boldly say, “All life is in crisis, and we coaches must develop the will and skills to support a massive transition in how humans live on the earth!” Some, but not enough, considering the scale and immediacy of the challenges facing us.
Addressing root causes
In many ways, coaching was borne out of a combination of the pursuit of self-actualisation with the pursuit of performance. This was and can still be a good thing, in moderation. Yet set in the context of wider social systems that have been responsible for exponential inequality and the large-scale destruction of our natural world, it doesn’t feel so good at all.
History has shown us that neutrality is not actually neutral if it colludes with harm, and if we’ve been coaching people to function and perform in an ailing system instead of supporting them to address the root causes of the problems, we’ve missed some golden opportunities to really make that difference that called many of us to do this work. So what does this work now need to be? And how do we need to be?
Matthew Painton, writing in Deep Adaptation Quarterly puts it like this:
“What if the very fabric and structure of reality itself, the eco-social, civilisational systems in which we are immersed and are obliged to enact, start to appear incoherent, irrational, unstable and delusional, and a legitimate cause of existential anxiety, perpetual outrage and threat arousal? And what if it becomes increasingly apparent that the privileges, entitlement and expectations of homo-colossus, the very norms by which we come to know and sustain ourselves, are causal to the meta-crisis? Then as practitioners, we find ourselves in the unprecedented position of therapeutically and developmentally managing a contraction of life expectations, autonomy, freedom, and unrestrained self-actualisation against the likelihood of perpetually disrupted and terrifying futures that none of us actually want to arrive in. What do coaching and therapy look like in these circumstances? What do ‘progress’ and ‘self-realisation’ and ‘growth’ look like, and what are the tangible benefits and the optimal outcomes – that people might pay for – when anticipating and living into a future that will be far worse than the present?”
Of course the current system has given some of us many wonderful things, such as better health, longer lives, education, decent housing, technology, the arts, travel, leisure time and more. But there’s a darker side. It externalises its costs on the environment and future beings, and it often traps and entangles us, cutting off our imagination and connection with the rest of the world and with nature. It keeps us blind, numbed and almost medicated with ‘stuff’. It allows us to buy, have or eat whatever we want when we want it, from wherever in the world, regardless of the price paid by the source. It allows us, zombie-like, to walk into the abyss while thinking we’re making ‘progress’.
One example of a ‘development’ keeping us blind is the recent trend in the UK of ‘plastic grass’, with one in ten homeowners now having it in their gardens. These create barren garden landscapes, devoid of insects, offering no refuge for birds and mammals, and increasing flood impacts. They even come with chemical cleaning fluids (packaged in more plastic) that create the smell of fresh cut grass. Yes, really. Plastic hedges and plastic trees, too. These ‘save me’ from the inconvenience of caring for or caring about anything more than appearances or saving time. But they’re not addressing the real problems of a general lack of access to open, green spaces, or a people juggling and struggling with so many demands they don’t have the time, money, or energy for alternatives.
Business as usual
I can understand the lure of business as usual, and the psychological processes that keep us from seeing and questioning reality. I understand that bringing only messages of doom with no room for any vestige of hope can cause more people to disengage than to engage. However, there are many credible voices saying that we should be putting our efforts into preparing for a vastly different world. One in which ‘collapse’ of some of our taken for granted life support structures and systems is possible. This naturally provokes unpleasant thoughts and feelings which we’d much rather not confront.
In 2020, more than 500 scholars and scientists from around the world signed a public letter stating, “We call on policymakers to engage openly with the risk of disruption and even collapse of our societies… while bold and fair efforts to cut emissions and naturally drawdown carbon are essential, researchers in many areas now consider societal collapse to be a credible scenario this century.”
This is alternatively known in some circles as “transformative adaptation” or “deep adaptation” – described by Professor Jem Bendell, in a recent and compelling webinar for the Climate Coaching Alliance as “simply a phrase for people who, like me, think that the collapse of industrial consumer societies is either now likely inevitable or already beginning, and who wish to respond to that in kinder and wiser ways than if we didn’t pay attention to it”. Another way he describes it is “positive pessimism”.
I believe that Bendell’s work offers us a chance to look squarely at reality while equally shining some light and encouraging agency in this darkness. In fact, exploring “deep adaptation” seems like plain common sense to me.
Margaret Heffernan said in a webinar in 2021, “We don’t know what [that] change will look like, so we can’t really plan for it. Yet we can prepare and build resilience for a range of possible outcomes.”
This all takes courage, but strengthening our own and others’ courage is unlikely to be new to most people reading this. As ever, it starts with us. I encourage you to do a health check on your values and relationship with what’s really happening in the world. To have conversations in your supervision, or study or peer coaching groups about how prepared you are for a very different world, personally and professionally. To explore how ready you are to shift your coaching from individualism to community to society to world, and to help your clients to adapt to this new reality of permanent threats.
Coaching still offers immense potential to lead ourselves and others through uncharted waters even when the outcomes are not certain – so are you ready for the voyage?
- Jem Bendell: https://jembendell.com/
- Deep Adaptation Quarterly: https://deepadaptation.ning.com/
- Gwyneth Jones: https://gwynethjones.coach/
- Plastic grass: https://bit.ly/3Jq1BdM
- CCA webinar: https://bit.ly/3oOS4n4
- Scientists’ warning: https://bit.ly/3vBdloc
- Margaret Heffernan: Uncharted
Support and connection
- Climate Cafes and therapeutic support: www.climatepsychologyalliance.org/
- Events, trainings, conversation cafes, readings and more from the root teachings of Joanna Macy: www.workthatreconnects.org
- Climate Coaching Alliance: www.climatecoachingalliance.org
- Many activist groups also offer emotional and social support groups and events