How leaving Mormonism is like accepting climate change
Updated: Feb 27, 2021
In the first few years I was learning about climate change, I was concerned, but it didn't feel urgent. I felt sad and cynical, but I didn’t feel hopeless. I recognized it was happening - as opposed to will happen in the future - but I did not yet grasp that humans could go extinct in my lifetime.
When you learn about climate change in an academic setting, you’re learning from a someone who is trained in the discipline of science. The appeal of science is it’s objectivity, right? There is this sense you can trust science, because science is unbiased and their conclusions, therefore, are unbiased.
For this reason, I was drawn to science after leaving Mormonism. I think I felt a kind of safety about the world in the scientific realm, after having lost my reality completely. It felt reliable and certain. It felt trustworthy, I didn't need to second-guess what science taught - it was all based on facts and evidence, the ultimate Truth.
And yet…science has it’s own ideology. One of the things science is super-concerned with is the idea that nothing can be said for certain until they are absolutely certain. Climate change science is a major challenge, then, when it comes to certainty.
Climate change is this unprecendented, constantly-shifting thing, and climate science is largely about trying to figure out what will happen in the future. Not only is the future inherently unknowable but also the large-scale systems included in climate models are incredibly complicated and unreliable. Those who are attempt to predict how the complex and intersecting dynamics involved in climate science will play out rarely get close to certainty.
So when science is uncertain about something, it will only – if at all! – say it’s most conservative guess about that thing. Sometimes it will only say, “we don’t know,” which can be super frustrating in a situation where the fate of the human species is at stake.
For this reason, we can say that climate data and predictions - by which I mean official science which has been published in a journal and vetted by other scientists as legit and has enough evidence and certainty to pass the standards of academic science - these things are underestimates. Meaning, it's much worse than scientists can say without losing their credibility. Meaning, whatever estimates and predictions "real" scientists are giving us, we can rightly assume those estimates are conservative, that the reality will be far worse.
In the same way as coming to the realization that Mormonism was not what I had been taught to believe it was, the realization that climate change was likely to kill me in perhaps a decade or less was a slow one. But once I did realize it, I was angry.
I was angry that I had been lied to – that “Science” had been telling me for all this time that everything was OK when it definitely was not, painting this picture like I had time when I didn’t, that it made sense to invest in a Master’s degree in ecological conservation as if there was going to be a world to conserve in 20 years. I was angry that my future was gone, that I had to now live in fear for the rest of my life, that I might have to watch those I love suffer, that I now had to think about my nephews and niece growing up in an apocalypse.
I was exceptionally angry that no one else seemed to care.
I remember during that time I was getting into a lot of arguments with people, particularly men, because people didn't believe me, they thought I was over-exaggerating or being dramatic. I remember getting into conversations with friends who I felt weren’t taking this issue seriously enough, and I felt I “needed” them to understand.
I remember during that time I felt extremely alone because I felt I had this knowledge and I didn't know how to make the rest of the world understand. I felt burdened with it at the same time as being absolutely fucking terrified and enraged.
I was that evangelical environmentalist. I found it difficult to socialize because the awareness of what was to come weighed on my every interaction, my every action, in fact.
I remember a time of obsession, when I made myself sick at the grocery store trying to figure out what to buy that wasn’t covered in plastic, or shipped from across the other side of the globe, or full of pesticides that were killing the bees. I would drive my car to go for a hike to calm my anxiety only to feel guilty the entire drive over the carbon dioxide I was selfishly emitting. I would sit in public parks and watch people walk by, counting the plastic bottles I saw, noticing trash bins overflowing with plastic, judging people for their meat consumption and their take-out containers and their plastic bags of newly bought synthetic clothing.
I remember spending my days reading about tipping points, then going to the grocery store on my way home to buy a bottle of wine, standing in line staring with absolute rage at someone using a plastic bag for one jug of milk. I remember going home after a day of reading about the millions of refugees already living in disgusting, hopeless camps because there is no official global recognition of “climate refugees” and finding dirty pizza boxes sitting on top of the recycling, and storming into the house to yell at my roommates for not knowing how to recycle properly, reminding them that less that 10% of recycling actually gets recycled because so much of it gets contaminated by things that don’t belong in the recycling bin, like pizza boxes.
On that particular occasion, after projecting my climate anxiety onto my room mates, I went to my room, lit candles and put on a yoga video in an attempt to calm down. Five minutes into the practice, I started sobbing.
It wasn’t about the recycling, of course. It was about the buildup of emotions without release, without commiseration.
It was a despair over a huge loss. Not simply the loss of my future and the loss of hope but more than that, the loss of an identity.
Science had been my replacement after I left Mormonism and I had used it to find security during a period when I had none. To realize that Science was equally disappointing and inadequate was heartbreaking.
To realize that Science had its own limitations and blind spots and that it could not be trusted to tell the full truth, to show me reality as honestly as I wanted - this was a grief to add on to the pile I was accumulating.
What I would come to feel later would be deep gratitude for my loss of faith in Science, just as I eventually felt deep gratitude for my loss of faith in Mormonism.
Because what happened when one worldview was lost is that I opened up to new ways of thinking and feeling , I saw that the ideology I had been clinging to was unhealthy or constricting.
For almost a decade I had been suppressing and ignoring a lot of unhealed trauma, grief and mental illness which resulted from my upbringing in Mormonism. I had been hiding from myself in many ways. My obsession with academic science and climate change had been a way to distract and ignore myself. And I could justify it because according to climate science, the best thing I could do as a human was monitor and restrict my carbon footprint in addition to just generally being aware of environmental problems and attempt to directly mitigate them.
In fact, what I would eventually understand is that the most helpful thing I can do for the Earth is to heal myself, heal generational trauma, reestablish a spirituality with land and ancestors. The future of Earth does not rely on how much plastic I avoid using in my lifetime. It relies on my attempt to relearn and rediscover the relationship that has been ignored and neglected for centuries but which is the only relationship that can "save" humans.
To relate to the Earth, to the non-human world, to the Underworld, to the After-world...these are the relations that will heal and regenerate the balance of Life on this planet.
And it took a crisis of faith for me to see that. It took loss.
So much of life is awakening disuised as loss.
Climate change, I believe, is exactly this.
Allowing ourselves to let go of a reality that doesn't really exist, allowing ourselves to grieve, allowing ourselves to admit we were wrong, allowing ourselves to see difficult, terrifying truths, allowing ourselves to lose our faith.
Only then will we open up to a future that is possible, though it's not the one we grew up believing we would have or the one we should desire and it certainly isn't a future that is easy, orderly and predictable.
But it's a future. Right now, we don't have a future. That's the truth. Right now, if we continue to understand climate change the way Science would have us understand it, there is no future.
Science will not be completely abandoned of course, we will need it to come with us into the future. It needs to release it's claim on certainty and truth, however. When it comes to the Earth, Science needs to let the Earth speak for herself. Science can not take us into the future in a safe and equitable way.
Our human capacity for spiritual depth and connection, for empathy and humility, for love and compassion, these are what will support us through the great transformation. There is no carbon-sucking technology advanced enough to heal centuries of oppressed spirituality and denial of relationship.
Climate change is overwhelming. That's OK. I felt overwhelmed when I realized that the religion I grew up believing was not the One Truth. It felt like the end of the world, truly, to finally admit to that. 12 years later, my heart beats with pride and love for myself for taking that step. I didn't have a future if I had stayed.
The future I did have required me to step into the unknown. I had to trust that there would be something else if I let myself let go of false certainty.
This is the same. I had to give up my belief in Science as the Truth in order to step into a future that was possible, even if that future was and still is unclear. Science is telling one version of the story of humanity and it's a version that can't take us where the Earth needs us to go. She needs us to let go of this world of false certainties and open up to other possibilities.
I've been here before. This is a step I know how to take.