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Why aren't there more climate cults?
Some hypotheses on why our growing desire for belonging and the worsening climate crisis haven't produced more mainstream climate movements.
If you talk to a younger millennial about cults I’d wager the most common response is excitement. People want to be a part of cultish groups. To be clear, what most people have in mind is joining Soul Cycle or CrossFit, not becoming a Branch Davidian or a Rajneeshee. The desire to be in a cultish group is more accurately a desire to belong to something larger than yourself in our hyper-individualized age. This story about the decline of community in America has long been opined but it bears repeating that institutions such as religion which we’ve historically looked towards to find belonging have lost much of their influence. Corporations have tried to step into the breach but after a certain size, the profit motive and scale demanded by investors usually turns any sense of communal cohesion into a sickly charade. In the past I've written about how this decline in institution-based community has led to the rise of conspiracy theory groups which look very similar to extremist religious sects. For most people after you graduate from high school or college, you’re spit out into a world where even if you hate sports you’ll gladly join a kickball league just to feel like you’re a part of a team. Given this unmet need for belonging, it’s surprising that there isn't an overabundance of groups seeking to meet that need by centering climate change. Said another way, why isn’t there a CrossFit for taking climate action?
Now there are some groups that work on climate mitigation and provide a level of social connection. But your options today are limited. Broadly there are groups focused on political activism, environmental protection, local issues, and career transition. The most well-known are the environmental protection groups such as the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. The most communal are the activist groups such as the Sunrise Movement or Extinction Rebellion (pictured above and maybe actually a cult). And it makes sense that such groups foster the strongest sense of belonging because a core requirement of any political movement is shared solidarity. Also worth noting are the slightly less activist organizations such as 350.org and the Citizen’s Climate Lobby. All of these groups have some level of national acclaim but still aren’t household names. The Sierra Club is the largest at around 1 million members and the Sunrise movement is the smallest at around 80,000 members. For completeness we could also consider the Democratic Party as a group that focuses on climate change (or at least claims to). But the party doesn’t offer much in terms of belonging to a group. No one’s going around wearing an “I’m a Democrat t-shirt”. So despite these options, nothing sticks out as an accessible and mainstream group for where you can find community and center climate change.
I’m surprised by this mostly because in many ways climate change is an ever-expanding opportunity to bring people together to work towards a common cause. What we do in the next decade or two will set the course for another 100 or more years. The stakes have never been higher and the only viable solution is collective action - individualism will never yield the change we need. It’s David vs Goliath and Goliath is literally polluting the very air that we breathe. The climate crisis is the ultimate setup for creating a shared sense of belonging at a time when people crave exactly that. Yet as far as I can tell the two haven’t intersected at scale. The groups mentioned above are the most popular yet all combined they only have approximately 2 million members. So what exactly is preventing us from using the climate crisis as a means for filling our desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves? I have two hypotheses.
The first is that fossil fuel interests and those who want to maintain the status quo have long worked to vilify any and all environmental movements (and they continue to do so today). Non-corporate organizations looking to focus on climate change invariably end up fighting the ghosts of previous efforts to paint such causes as radically undermining society. The opposition has gone as far as rewriting laws defining terrorism and rights to assembly in order to stop environmental movements both in the past and present. Powerful people in powerful places have undoubtedly played a role in preventing the formation of more broad based climate groups. Even today, Conservatives in America try to paint anyone who supports climate legislation as a cultist. The cumulative effect of such framing is that groups like the Sunrise Movement are tinged with a shade of radicalism to the eye of the general public. When in reality their policy recommendations are somewhat similar to what's been proposed and passed as recently as 2009. At the same time, the opposition has also rather successfully managed to convince many people that climate change is purely an individual moral failure, not the systemic and individual problem that it actually is. It’s always fascinating to watch when someone learns that the term “carbon footprint” was invented by Beyond Petroleum. Groups looking to create community around climate aren’t working in a vacuum. The opposition continues to intervene and has outsized influence in America.
The second hypothesis is that while climate change does have elements which should enable us to find purpose and communion, it also has aspects that make it equally difficult to rally around. To start, it’s an overwhelmingly massive problem. No one can comprehend what the US’s 5.3 billion tonnes of emissions per year really means. This presents a hurdle to get motivated when most things that can be accomplished in a year or two have to be measured in thousands of tonnes of CO2 - a 6 order of magnitude difference. Relatedly the problem is so massive that it touches every facet of life. Every object in the room around you needs to be decarbonized in some way. Where do you even start? Going one step further, because climate change is so all encompassing, it’s inherently a very politicized problem. In fact it’s almost entirely a political problem. While this is exciting for some, most people aren’t ready to dive into political activism. Just maintaining voter turnout is a struggle unto itself. The scale of the problem cuts both ways in terms of providing motivation to come together.
Another issue is that just existing in America means you end up emitting somewhere between 2 and 5x more CO2 than the global average. Because of the unevenness in emissions across the world and the fossil fuel industry's framing of the problem as an individual issue, people start out from a place of defensiveness. It’s similar to bringing up veganism at almost any dinner. Getting past this barrier where you need to reconcile living within a system while simultaneously demanding that it radically change is not easy and creates another roadblock for coming together. It’s not impossible to overcome this defensiveness but it creates friction when there’s already more than enough obstacles.
Which leads to the final aspect of climate change that makes it difficult to build a community around. All too often the narrative around climate change is about sacrifice with no positive vision for what the future looks like if we succeed. This stands in stark contrast to religion which has always had the allure of some kind of afterlife, salvation, or nirvana even if your time on Earth was miserable. Crypto, the new religion of our time, similarly also has the prospect of untold financial wealth so long as you believe and hold long enough. But with climate such a promise of a better tomorrow is harder to articulate. If we instantly solved the geological and atmospheric aspects of climate change, the Earth would look exactly like the one we know today. That should be more than enough but we’ve been conditioned to always expect something bigger and brighter if we put in hard work, not the same exact thing we have right now. Preventative measures are never as appealing as interventions. There’s been a few attempts like this AOC video that try to paint a vision for the future but none have found real success. If we can't define a positive vision for the future then we're left with only fear for what is to come. And while conservative groups thrive on bringing people together around fear, it's not as desirable or as approachable to most people when compared to the promise of a better future.
Given these two hypotheses, new and existing groups will need to incorporate the following characteristics in order to have a chance at more mainstream success: An emphasis on relationships as opposed to emissions reduction, a membership journey that incrementally ramps up involvement, personalized and high touch onboarding, and the creation of relevant rituals which serve to center a positive vision.
Relationships should be prioritized over impact because the end goal is about creating a group that can survive even if results aren’t immediate. 5.3 billion tonnes of CO2 is an impossible number. No group just starting out can hope to shave even a fraction of that total. Building deep relationships amongst members which can endure long periods where nothing happens and activate with full force when opportunity arises should be the priority.
Incrementally ramping up involvement is about meeting people where they are. Engaging with climate change means engaging with the political nature of the problem. Not everyone is ready to participate in a political action on day one. This kind of incremental build up is common to all kinds of groups. Union organizers call them structure tests while a martial arts gym might have introductory and advanced classes. And even if new climate groups don't focus on politics, an electrify-your-home club shouldn’t lead with getting new members to put solar panels on their roof as soon as they join when installing LED light bulbs is a more approachable and is still directionally correct.
Personalized and high touch onboarding helps counteract the defensiveness or resistance that prevents people from engaging with climate. It’s also just good practice for building any kind of community. The Sunrise Bay Area chapter does this reasonably well but other groups leave something to be desired when it comes to the experience of going from their website to participating in one of their events. To enter into the climate mitigation space without a guide of some sort is tough and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Rituals are another common feature of any successful group, whether they are explicitly called out or not. They are a glue that helps sustain cohesion within the group. More importantly they present an opportunity to repeatedly tell the story of a positive vision for the future. As a manager once told me, “Repetition does not spoil the prayer”. Articulating the relevant positive future a group is working towards is core to maintaining engagement when doomsday thinking is never far out of sight when it comes to climate change. Humans have been doing this for all of history yet in our modern times we often lose sight of how crucial rituals are for bringing us together.
I’ve yet to see any groups that incorporate all of the above into how they operate. Part of the inspiration for this post was googling “Climate groups near me” and not finding anything that really impressed me. That’s not to diminish the work that people are undoubtedly doing but to call out the room for improvement. With the cultish fitness groups the model is very well designed. You can go from googling a CrossFit gym to going to your first class pretty quickly and there’s a clear ladder of progression once you’re in. I’m a part of a number of climate related groups, some small and some large but I wouldn’t say any evoke a deep sense of belonging. In a time when we’re still living life on Zoom, the desire to be a part of something is only getting stronger. Mitigating climate change is one of the most meaningful things each of us can be a part of in our lives. Yet there’s few places today to gather with those who have similarly gotten to the point of wanting to do something and are curious about taking the first step. Not everyone is going to be able to switch their career to focus on climate change, but everyone should have the ability to participate in the effort in a substantive way. The social institutions of our past are not coming back. We aren’t built for the levels of loneliness modern society imposes upon us. And the climate crisis will continue to worsen given the emissions we’ve already locked in. The stage is set for a new breed of groups, organizations, and movements to seize this moment. There will be challenges and the opposition will not go quietly. But despite being let down by my google search, I’m still quite hopeful about the future of climate focused groups that can foster the sense of community we're all looking for.