‘I think making the climate connection to reproductive justice is the most important thing that we’re offering right now’

Originally published by ecoRI News, a nonprofit newsroom covering environmental news in Rhode Island. Read more at ecoRI.org

Ten years ago, Josephine Ferorelli and Meghan Kallman began hosting small discussion groups, calling the project Conceivable Future. The goal was to examine “that environmental collapse is now a major factor in family planning … by bringing people together, we help develop and sustain an activist community that can be stronger than the challenges we face.”

A decade later, they have released a book based on their work and conversations. The Conceivable Future “explore(s) the ways in which the climate crisis is affecting our personal decisions about family planning, parenting, and political action.”

The book navigates the dense terrain of climate emotions, taking the reader on a journey from the personal to the political, from the individual to the systemic, and from climate despair to hope. The authors talk to activists across the country who share their fears, beliefs, and work engaging in the fight for climate justice.

Ferorelli is a writer, artist, and yoga instructor who lives in Chicago and has been arrested for direct action at a BP oil refinery in Indiana. Kallman lives in Pawtucket, R.I., serves in the state Senate as a Democrat representing District 15 in Pawtucket and Providence, is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and plays trumpet with the Extraordinary Rendition Band.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q. What is the Impossible Question? How does “Conceivable Future” propose we confront this question?

Ferorelli: The Impossible Question often shows up as: Should I have a child because of climate change? And the reason that it is impossible is because it … implies a correct or moral or political answer when that is not possible. And it’s not possible because everybody’s reproductive lives, everybody’s lives in general, are so fully constrained by the busted systems that we’re living in right now.

The call to action is not to answer the Impossible Question, but to identify it. We’ve been saying for a long time that it’s the fact of the question that has political meaning, not anyone’s personal, specific answer to it.

It took us a little time in our organizing to even identify it, because it’s so thoroughly buried in the way that our culture functions and the way that the environmental conversation has been conditioned. Specifically, the way that women and parents have been conditioned to believe that there’s a right answer out there somewhere, but you don’t know what it is, and you’re probably doing it wrong. Whichever way you’ve personally decided to operate within the busted system, it’s the wrong way. I think that’s the sort of default position in the mainstream.

Kallman: Another dimension of the Impossible Question is not just that the onus is on you to answer it, but also that there are systems in place that make it so that lots of people don’t have a choice about if and how they parent, right? It is all the things that bear down on people’s access to reproductive health care and reproductive autonomy and sovereignty.  

The question is impossible because there’s so many impossible dimensions to it, including this idea that you should fix the problems of climate change with your womb, which is insane.

Q. “The Conceivable Future” explores the intersectionality of issues, influenced by the pillars of the Reproductive Justice Movement (a movement started and led by women of color). How does intersectionality inform your work as authors and organizers, and does this perspective lead to a vision for building power and making change?

Kallman: It starts with a few things — the recognition that everybody’s experience of gender, for instance, is not the same. It’s conditioned by all the other things that go into our identity. There’s a woman named Kimberly Crenshaw, a legal scholar, who invented or who popularized the word intersectionality. And she did it in order to illustrate the way that black women were being treated differently because of the intersection of their race and their gender. It leads to this idea that when we work with all of the different facets of our experiences and our identities, we come up with a richer set of analyses about the problem and also a richer set of analyses about potential solutions.

When we think about climate change, we think about the way that it affects people of different genders, but also you have the understanding that, for instance, within the category of women, you have huge variation: in economic earning capacity there’s massive pay disparities between women of different races. Same with rates of domestic violence or violence period. For example, cis women experience radically lower rates of violence and intimate partner violence than our transgender sisters do. Once you start to look, you realize that the categories have to speak to each other in the same way that the richness of our human experiences speak to each other. It can point us toward what more effective solutions are.

Our learning about reproductive justice emerged, in part, because when we started this organization, we quickly realized that we couldn’t have the conversation that we were trying to have without acknowledging all the other bad ideology and bad politics that were out there and learning about it. We worked our way sort of backwards, starting from the feelings that we were experiencing ourselves, trying to figure out how to make sense of them.

 Ferorelli: From a more mainstream perspective, the way that we talk justice is often “the people that are most harmed by this need the most help, need the most restorative justice.” But the point is that the people who have been most harmed are often the people with the most specific, practical, and comprehensive ideas about what the solutions are.

Kallman: The white mainstream climate movement has shown remarkably little interest in learning from other movements. I would say that that’s slowly starting to get better, and I’m really grateful for that. It’s important. But the other important thing in the spirit of acknowledging intersectionality is that there’s all kinds of work right now that is climate work that’s not being acknowledged as climate work. So anti-lead poisoning or anti-asthma work is put under the bucket of public health, but asthma comes from living near dirty fuels in many cases, right? To give credit where credit’s due, the climate movement has gotten a bit better about recognizing these interconnections. Without which we don’t get at the stuff that we need to change.

The climate movement will only ever be able to get so far making relationships with justice-based organizations if it doesn’t acknowledge the bad ideas, the bad ideology that’s baked in around reproduction and around family planning; this idea that we can all be allies, but, deep down, we really believe that each baby is a carbon sin and you’re irresponsible if you’re having babies. This is the kind of stuff people really encounter on the intrapersonal level in movement building, as well as on the institutional level, in certain parts of Big Green organizations and international aid organizations. So, it’s there and bringing it out into the open is kind of the only thing that you can do if you want to address it and get right about it.

Josephine Ferorelli, left, and Meghan Kallman – Submitted photo

Ferorelli: The reproductive perspective really helped us locate the climate crisis in the here and now, both emotionally and physically. I think we still have this idea that [the climate disaster] is in the future. And it’s true that a lot of things are going to get worse, but, I mean, we’re experiencing climate effects in our bodies, right now. Everybody is, and so if you want to find the place to connect to action, you just can take it in where you are, you don’t need to go looking very far at all. So that that’s both quite alarming and pretty helpful in terms of figuring out what your what your stake in the fight can be. 

Q. A powerful theme in the book is the tension between individualism and collective action. Chapter 4 (The Freedom to Feel) explores how our feelings in relation to the climate crisis (despair, grief, guilt) are tools that can inspire political action, but themselves are not the required collective action needed to confront climate change and its myriad impacts on health, poverty, racism, neo-colonialism and more. On Page 111, you write “Politics is what you do, not what you feel.” How does this perspective help us move from feelings to action?

 Ferorelli: I want to talk a little bit about the way that you phrased it in the question — that these feelings, guilt and shame and despair, are tools. One of the things that I think is really important is to uncouple your feeling from “what utility they might serve,” right? A lot of climate communication has been about how do we turn our feelings into something or how do we use our feelings to do something? And I think the freedom to feel comes from realizing that what we do and what we feel do not have to be concordant in every moment of our lives; that a lot of emotions [that are talked about in relation to the climate crisis] can be huge impediments to action. When I’m feeling really guilty or really ashamed or in despair, I might actually need to lie on the floor for a whole day or something like that and that has to be okay.

We talked about hope a lot in the book. But our working definition of hope is that it’s not really an emotion; it’s like an orientation, and it’s a practice. It springs from feelings, but hope itself is the belief that what we do matters, right? That the future is unwritten. And that what we do in the moment, even if we don’t know how or in what way it’s going to, it is going to have an effect, we can take action that’s meaningful.

For Megan and me, the ability to connect to that, even in the face of negative emotions, even in the face of bad news, [gives us] the ability to take a take a next step. And then another one. It comes from the belief that what we do matters. I feel like the first step is really allowing yourself to make space between your emotional experience of something and what’s being required of us; and particularly saying, “this is not your fault, it’s not my fault,” that I’m not, personally, a wretched person because I’m complicit in the climate crisis. When we identify our position in a broken harmful system, when we see the harm that we’re participating in, it’s a lot more tempting to just be like, “I don’t want anything to do with that, I’m going to, you know, move to a commune, somewhere isolated, and stay off the internet and just, you know, put potatoes in the ground or whatever.” It’s much harder, but also much, much more powerful, to work within the group, to make the group less harmful, instead of just rejecting the group. And, you know, I don’t really think we can that do anyway.

Climate emotions are important and participating in a conversation about your climate feelings is important to do but is not political action by itself. Politics is what we do with the meaning that we make from the experiences that we have, the things that we do collectively to change the systems that cause the feelings.

Kallman: There is this interesting thing right now where climate grief has become a thing that we talk about, that therapists talk about. It’s useful. I’m a sociologist, I believe that naming things and exploring them gives us leverage. However, there is this troubling sort of turn that’s like, oh, now we’ve discovered climate grief, and then we just sort of bottom out.

Feelings aren’t action. Feelings aren’t politics. Feelings are feelings, right? They deserve their due, but as Josephine was saying, they do not absolve us from action, right? Feeling bad about the climate crisis does not mean that that’s the sum total of the work that you’re going to do or that it’s expected of you. We hear a lot from quite elderly people, “Oh, we’ve left such a mess for the world’s blah, blah, blah.” Are you dead? If you’re not dead, then there’s something to be done, right?

What we’re trying to support people in doing is sort of disentangling the paralyzing stuff. And in doing that, you make space for the feelings, but also part of making space for the feelings is making space for the action that you do.  Even when it’s a shitty day or when you’re arguing with your neighbor, when it’s tedious, when you’ve been at the Statehouse until 2 in the morning, the feelings exist. Everyone, all the grownups of the world, need to figure out where they have some leverage and put their shoulder into this fight. So that’s part of it: feelings are valid, and also, action is required.

Q. Underlying everything else in this book is the question of hope and the impetus to act based on hope. On Page 106 you introduce the “Theory of Balanced Climate Efforts,” writing “Our theory of change begins with personal, internal work, and movesto family and community buildingthrough which we create the biggest solutions we can imagine.” How can we find hope when it feels to many that we are already so far down the road to environmental calamity that a bleak future is all we have left? 

Kallman: You know, we’re not in the business of peddling outcomes. That’s not anything that anyone has ever been able to promise, much less now. But as Josephine alluded to earlier, our working definition of hope is: what we are doing matters, it matters to our ability to live with ourselves, and it matters in some future ways that we’re probably not going to ever be able to identify as well as a couple that we probably will. And so, in that sense, it’s a little bit faith, there’s this belief in a future that you cannot articulate.  

Whatever you believe the outcome is, hope is a practice, it’s an orientation, it’s a way of living, not necessarily a reflection of some future that I can’t foresee. And so that definition of hope is important to us, because it takes away this idea of cheery optimism and replaces it with something over which we have much more control, which is our orientation to and our work in the world and the way that we choose to engage with each other, our integrity, individually and collectively. And I find that extremely empowering. Because what I can do is put myself into the world to the best of my abilities, toward the things that need doing, with the belief that my behaviors matter, not just in terms of the law, but in terms of the other interactions that I have, and in ways that I probably won’t ever recognize it. I find that very, very empowering. It really gets me unstuck.

 Ferorelli: I have kind of a generous and an ungenerous way of thinking about this, depending on where I’m at. And the ungenerous way is that I think that feeling fatalistic about the future is a certain luxury for a lot of people that, in their day-to-day experience, are usually not experiencing the flavor of the Apocalypse; there’s this idea that, well, “The die is cast and something down the road is going to be so horrible that all of human existence is going to be wiped out.” For some reason, that’s a kind of a comfortable place for some people to occupy and I think that reason is because it excuses them from action. Here’s the ungenerous part: I think not getting involved is the easy way out.

If I’m feeling generous, not getting involved is because we’re blocked with a lot of guilt, with a lot of shame, with difficult things in our lives. I understand that there’s this balance between being involved in solutions, that being involved in building the future that you want to live in, takes a kind of energy and takes the kind of relationships that some of us don’t have at any given moment.

The second half of our book is very nuts-and-bolts about how we take care of our emotional selves, and also how we cultivate those relationships, how do we deepen and strengthen those relationships so that they become the kind of foundation for the work that needs doing? I think the important part is viewing those deficits — the fact that we’re often exhausted, the fact that we don’t often have the imagination for dreaming of the world that we’d like to live in — are also a symptom of the problems that we’re confronting.

Q. You propose a response to the interrelated crises of climate change, systemic oppression, and a history of capitalist exploitation: we must engage in hope through organizing. We will build a “beloved community” and then collectively act for change. We will, you write, reject the causes of the crisis (the Big No) and then create the world we want (the Big Yes).  Can you describe this community, and the world we live in once we have said No and then said Yes?

Kallman: A beloved community isn’t just people who love each other, it’s people who create and shepherd institutions that ensure that everybody is treated well, it means that as we care for each other, we do so with an eye toward making the world safer, and more loving for each other. Some religious communities have some terms for it, and some secular communities often just call it social justice. But the idea is that it is social, which means it’s comprised of people caring about each other. And it means that resources and risks are distributed equitably, and people’s needs are met to the best of our collective ability. And that is the foundation for any sort of activism. Anything that we try to do that’s meaningful has to happen at a scale bigger than ourselves, right? So how do we get it to scale bigger than ourselves? We become a part of a community, or multiple communities, and standing on that platform of community, of collectivity we can reach for bigger levers.

Briefly, the Big No is all the stuff that we needed to stop yesterday. But it’s not just “I don’t want the trash dispensary in my backyard,” it’s “No, we need to move toward a world where we don’t have a trash dispensary because nobody should have it in their backyard, so what’s the alternative and let’s work for that.”

And the Big Yes is all the stuff that we need more of that would help make our worlds bigger and richer. Back to the conceivable future: what’s the life worth living here? What is it that we want out of the world? And can that be an animating force for us?

Climate action needs a transformation of systems, needs us to say no at a heroic level, it needs us to say yes at a heroic level and different people are going to do different things at different instances. But there’s a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. And sometimes it means saying absolutely not. And sometimes it means saying, yes, yes, yes, more. But none of it happens unless we connect with each other.

Ferorelli: I think the Big No and the Big Yes are about how do we imagine a project that moves us, a project that we can aim bigger with, that is both doable but it’s also not doable alone, you have to do it with other people, it’s a recognition of being a part of a whole. That is, no one can do this alone and no one should punish themselves for not doing it alone or not doing it entirely.

Climate is changing on a scale that’s so monumental that it’s very paralyzing. One of the things this book is trying to do is give people the tools and the ways of hooking into a human scale where you’re not totally annihilated by how big the climate crisis.

Q. What else would like to communicate to readers?

Kallman: I feel like it’s important to underscore that climate-minded people, because of the trajectory of the mainstream climate movement, among other reasons, really, really need to get right on what is justice, especially in a reproductive context. I just want to make sure that I said that, because it was part of a learning curve for us. We walked into this conversation not knowing what it was and what it meant and what our positions in it meant. We did 10 years of work and are continuing to do it. You can’t talk about this without an understanding of history, and an understanding of history demands justice.

Ferorelli: I think making the climate connection to reproductive justice is the most important thing that we’re offering right now. And all the caveats apply, that we’re not figures of the reproductive justice movement, but that’s the missing piece that we experienced, and that we were trying to address through this work.

Kallman: Also, I think, at a certain point, middle class people have to dig in, like fewer book clubs, more joining organizations. I would suggest people use resources like 350.org to find where you might plug in on something. The call to action is: go figure out what’s going on in your community and what the big fights are, and then find a group and plug in.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Craig O’Connor / ecoRI News contributor.