Nick Gottlieb is the author of Sacred Headwaters, a bi-weekly newsletter that gives critically important insights into how we can protect our planet.
Nick, you write that Sacred Headwaters “aims to guide a co-learning process about the existential issues and planetary limitations facing humanity and about how we can reorient civilization in a way that will enable us to thrive for centuries to come.” What have been the catalysts driving you towards a co-learning and inclusive approach in these newsletters?
Climate change is a symptom of much deeper problems in the social, political and cultural structures that we collectively call human civilization. Overcoming those problems requires reimagining what we value as humans and what we expect from life. But the systems we’re trying to replace are so embedded that they constrain the way we think and the scope of what we perceive as possible. I chose this format for my newsletter because I – perhaps naively – believe that if people learn enough about how the system is failing and why, they’ll come to recognize the patterns of that system in their own cognitive frameworks, their own minds, and through that recognition free themselves to begin the process of change.
You move from climate change and planetary boundaries to current politics and ideas. “Defunding the Police,” “Indigenous Ways of Knowing,” “Environmental Racism” and “Degrowth” are a few of the titles of the newsletters. What are your overarching goals in sharing these newsletters?
The climate movement tends to focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but this narrative fails because it identifies them as the “root cause.” We’ve known that GHG emissions cause global warming that threatens our way of life since at least 1959. In 1992, 88% of Americans believed global warming was a serious problem. But we live in a world where companies are incentivized to externalize costs and maximize “profit,” leading them to actually fight against solving climate change despite knowing full well its implications. We’ve seen parallel stories play out over and over again; climate change is just one manifestation. I’ve been writing about issues like environmental racism to try to draw those connections for readers, to make clear that if we want to survive the climate crisis, we need to recognize that it is a symptom of a much more invasive disease than GHG emissions.
In your newsletter “Introduction to Systems Thinking,” a memorable sentence, “The earth is a system,” stands out. You describe Sacred Headwaters as being “about the systemic nature of everything.” Can you explain this, please?
We have a tendency towards reductionism rooted in what our culture thinks of as “science”: we isolate every problem so we can solve it, but the real world is governed by deep complexity and interconnectedness. This is true in ecological systems, as we can see in the speed with which we’re exceeding most of the modelling of global warming’s impacts, and also in the systems of organization that govern human society. Climate change, environmental racism and widespread inequality are interrelated problems with systemic causes. My goal is to elucidate the deeper causes of these crises to enable more people to envision a world without them.
How do you feel about your generation’s response to the Earth’s crises? What, if anything, do think it needs to do better?
Personally, I don’t like the generational narrative. This isn’t any one generation’s problem. We need to rebuild our lost cultural capacity for multi-generational thinking and planning. That said, I think the millennial generation is facing some unique challenges that position us well to be a generation of change. We are the first generation in the modern era that’s worse off than our parents’. We can’t afford houses, wages are stagnant, jobs are rare. The life our parents had is not an option for most of us, but as challenging as that is it’s also a gift, because it’s forcing us to reimagine what life looks like, allowing us leeway to experiment, to divine what a life that’s compatible with a liveable future might look like. The more of us who give up the false hope that we can have the lives our parents enjoyed, the better.
What direct actions do you feel we must commit ourselves to in order to save our planet’s ecological integrity?
The oil industry is dying. Even before the pandemic, big players in finance were getting out of the fossil fuel industry. It’s only a matter of time, but those in power are trying to hang on. Here in Canada the government is doubling down on new oil and gas infrastructure that will likely never be profitable. This transition period – the next few years, probably – is important because once infrastructure is built it’s hard to stop using it. In a few years no one will be trying to build LNG export facilities or drilling for new oil and gas, but in the interim we need to do what we can to ensure that new infrastructure doesn’t get built. Part of that is what movements like Extinction Rebellion are doing, and it’s humbling to see people like Dr. Takaro hanging from trees in Burnaby to stop the Trans Mountain expansion.
What do you wish to flourish as a result of your efforts?
The big picture answer is that I’m working to radicalize as many people as I can. We will see untold human suffering in the coming decades and likely the end of what we call civilization if we don’t make radical changes in every aspect of our society. The more people who realize this, the better our chance to effect change. On a small scale, one friend credited me with motivating her to install solar on her house and buy an electric vehicle; another told me she moved to a small town to try to minimize the impact of her lifestyle, in part because of my work. These don’t sound like much, but they add up, and they mean a lot to me personally.