Are we, as individuals, powerless when it comes to preventing the breakdown of our earth’s natural life-support systems? When I talk to people about the climate and ecological crisis, many people confess feeling powerless beyond their personal consumer and lifestyle choices, which they are aware is not enough to save us. In this episode I explore what we often mean by “powerless” and how we might change the way we think about personal efficacy.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Our Cause for Alarm
A Feeling of Powerlessness in the Face of the Climate Crisis
Embracing Ordinary Power


Our Cause for Alarm

First, I want to acknowledge that, as I write this, parts of China are experiencing record-breaking heatwaves in the context of drought and low water levels, causing serious concerns about food production.[i] In the US, one of the main sources of water in the southwest, the Colorado River, is drying up after a 20-year drought. About 40 million people rely on water from the river but face new use restrictions, and next year there may not be enough water to produce hydropower from the river’s Glen Canyon dam, which forms Lake Powell.[ii] Five 1,000-year rain events have hit the US in the past five weeks, causing destruction and death.[iii] (Links to articles about these events can be found on this episode’s page at

When I started paying close attention to the climate and ecological crisis about 7 years ago, I took special note of news articles that I could categorize as describing “dire circumstances.” I might encounter one a week. Now I can find at least one a day, describing a new storm, flood, drought, or heat wave, or a new situation where people are significantly impacted by global heating or ecosystem degradation. It could be, of course, that the news is simply reporting on such things more often, but I doubt it. News agencies love stories about weather and natural disasters.

Any one of these articles, taken in isolation, could be seen as a story of difficulty or tragedy no different from what our ancestors regularly experienced. Terrible things happen sometimes, and people recover. However, taken together, these articles add up to a serious cause for alarm. You know things have changed when the terms “unprecedented” and “record-breaking” and “1000-year event” apply to situations all over the planet, every day. The disaster of global heating is no longer on the horizon, it has arrived – but, we need to remember, this is just beginning, just the leading edge of the storm.

Anyone who pays attention to relatively unbiased news sources – or, frankly, anyone who is paying attention to changes in their own climate – is bound to be developing a growing awareness of our crisis. Once we learn a little about the situation, we become aware that even our recent landmark climate legislation in the US – a wonderful start which should be celebrated – falls far, far short of what’s needed to prevent catastrophe.


A Feeling of Powerlessness in the Face of the Climate Crisis

Naturally, most of us start wondering what we can do about it. We tend to start by learning how our consumer and lifestyle choices can be changed to minimize our contribution to the problem. If we get a chance to vote for a politician who advocates for climate action, great. But beyond that? Most of us feel pretty powerless.

But what do those of us who confess to feeling powerless really mean by that?

I can’t see inside of other people minds, of course, but I suspect that most of us mean that we can’t think of anything we could do, as individuals, to prevent our looming climate and ecological catastrophe. Or even to make a significant difference.

Now, if we reflect on it, we know it’s unreasonable to think we could, as individuals, prevent climate and ecological catastrophe. Maybe some of us who are really ambitious daydream about such things as starting a movement that mobilizes the world, or inspiring a new religion that focuses on a sustainable relationship with nature. But even those of us who have ambitious daydreams eventually come face to face with our limitations as individuals.

Sooner or later, we realize that the world-as-it-is has tremendous inertia. Even the most passionate, dedicated, inspired, talented, clever, self-sacrificing, and privileged individuals fighting for change – people much more motivated, selfless, and skilled than I am – usually spend their lives toiling away on some issue few people even pay attention to, and see only incremental improvement despite their best efforts.

Massive social and political changes like the one we need to survive global heating – which have happened over the course of human history – often have had remarkable individuals as figureheads, but those individuals simply ended up riding on top of a tidal wave of change. They may have helped start that wave, but it extended far beyond them, and they were only a small part of the whole story. Based on a review of history, it seems like the chances that any efforts we make will contribute to a tidal wave of change seem about the same as the chances we’ll win the lottery.


Embracing Ordinary Power

Once we embrace our ordinariness (or if you’re someone who has been aware of it all along, and eschew delusions of grandeur), what then? The word “power” means the ability to control or influence people and events, or to produce an effect.[iv] As an ordinary individual, we definitely don’t have the power to control the whole world’s response to the climate and ecological crisis. Heck, the American president is sometimes called the “most powerful person in the world,” and Biden just struggled mightily to pass a much-watered-down version of his climate legislation.

If no one is really in charge, then – that is, no individual has the power to impose sweeping, radical change – and the world-as-it-is presents tremendous inertia, are we all doomed to float passively down the stream of causation and just send the world thoughts and prayers? Do we just have to hope the politicians and corporations will suddenly do what they have failed to do over the last fifty years (the amount of time we’ve seen the climate crisis coming), because they have power and we don’t?

If we do have any power at all with respect to preventing complete climate and ecological breakdown, surely that makes us responsible for doing something to help. But what do we have the power to do?

I think we’re all aware that we can control or influence some things around us. We have some limited power. I’ve described the kinds of things we can do on this podcast, including participating with groups like The Climate Mobilization, Sunrise, or Extinction Rebellion, getting involved with local environmental and climate-related issues, and campaigning for candidates who strongly advocate climate action.

However, I suspect that one of the main things that keeps people from getting involved in the climate movement this way, or that makes it likely people will burn out quickly after they start, is a sense of limited efficacy. Any activity has a cost in terms of our time, energy, attention, emotional investment, and perhaps also financial investment. When we conclude our effort isn’t making much of a difference, or that it’s not having the effect we wanted it to have, it’s very easy to feel discouraged and give up.

I’m speaking from personal experience here. At times in the past, I have been very active in the climate movement. At one point I was working on it almost full time. Now, besides this podcast, I do nothing. I don’t think this is permanent state, I just haven’t decided what to get involved in again. But I am very familiar with the frustration, burnout, and despair that arise when you’re doing your best to exercise what little power you have to snuff out a candle while the planet is engulfed in a raging fire. It seems natural to ask, “What’s the point?” and just retreat into enjoying our lives and trying to ignore what’s going on.

When I’m trying to give myself a “take action” pep talk, I remind myself that massive change can come about if each of us does our little part. That there are billions of us, and billions of small contributions actually add up to an incredible effort. I remind myself that we can’t know the true impact of our actions – that a small thing may appear to go largely unnoticed by the world, but quietly set off a chain of events that make a huge difference. That gradually changing minds and hearts – including our own – is as important as any tangible success.

Still, it’s awfully hard to make the effort sometimes when it feels like our power is so extremely limited. I aspire to be more selfless in this regard: To make my contribution without requiring evidence that it’s worth it. To add my droplet to ocean without knowing if I will live to see it become part of a tidal wave of change. To patiently do something good because… well, because it’s good, without constantly asking whether we’re there yet. To exercise what little power I have, at the very least as an antidote to the anguish of feeling powerless.








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