Climate Collapse, Solution Focus and me

Fred Ehresmann

We are delighted to feature a post on the Solution-Focused Collective blog from Fred Ehresmann, who has been actively involved in responding to the climate crisis and considers here what a solution-focused approach can offer.

When my then 8 year-old daughter announced in November 2018 that the planet is dying and that she fears not living long enough to know what it’s like to be a teenager or a grown-up, all my solution focused and parenting skills deserted me, like so many rats scuttling off a sinking ship. All that remained was the trusty ‘Dad Joke’ – “Yeh, but not before Saturday as we’ve got hot chocolate to drink and the stalls to browse at St. Nick’s Market.” Two months later, my 32 year-old daughter let me know that her quest for motherhood was at an end because, “why would I knowingly put a person into a future that looks like that?” Again…where was the question to invite her to think differently? Why should she think differently…maybe she was thinking perfectly reasonably? Every potential solution-focused question that popped up seemed trite, formulaic and, frankly, cowardly.

And so began a two-year journey down the rabbit hole of problem talk. What is this thing that threatens my younger daughter’s sense of longevity? What is this future to which my elder daughter refuses to condemn her never-to-be-born child? Well, like pretty much most problems…the answers are complicated, which is probably one of the many reasons why we SF-ers prefer not to get involved growing conversations about them. Best focus on the solution, right? Unfortunately, this time…no, wrong. As Bill O’Hanlon points out, acknowledgement of difficulty has an impact on capacity to think in terms of possibility. Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards have shown that it’s possible to talk frankly and constructively about what is problematic and worrying (in this case child abuse and neglect) and still nurture sometimes fragile conversations about solutions.

This particular problem, I was soon to learn, is a many-headed beast made up largely of two components: (1) What’s happening now that is really troubling; (2) Its impact in the future. As far as climate scientists are concerned, the consensus answer to component (1) is clear – climate collapse as a result of human activity. Many others have added their own penny’s worth along the way, ranging from the political – for example, the expansion of neoliberal capitalist growth economics, to the slightly more poetic – for example, our species’ disconnection from its identity as and connection to nature. There are plenty more where those answers come from. Either way the message is clear – we are in very serious trouble. So serious, even David Attenborough made a documentary saying so. How serious?

This brings us to future impact, where things seem to be very much more tricky. There are some apparently very credible climate scientists insisting that human extinction in the ‘near term’ is not just possible, but guaranteed. Others are slightly more circumspect and suggest that, while climate, political and social collapse are on the cards we still have time to adapt to cushion the blow and preserve what we can. And then we have the green economists, sustainability specialists and geo-engineers insisting that this is nothing that we can’t fix. As a dyed-in-the-wool SF’er I found myself gravitating naturally to the latter group since “there’s nothing wrong with you that what’s right with you can’t fix”, right?

And yet…something wasn’t sitting right. Stone-in-the shoe moment. I took the shoe off to have a look. The stone was my terror. Not just fear, but abject terror. And I would embrace anything that would make that terror go away. Did I really believe in my heart of hearts that the future was going to be OK? Could I look my daughters in the eye and say, with conviction, those magic words any parent would want to say “Don’t you worry…it’ll all turn out fine.” What if it didn’t? As Gail Bradbrooke, one of Extinction Rebellion’s founders, is reputed to have said “Hope? Don’t talk to me about hope – I hope it doesn’t happen to me. I hope that I’m long dead before the worst of it arrives here, because it’s already arrived in other parts of the world.” Preferred future? Good luck with that.

And then, as if by magic, in stepped my SF brain. Just in the nick of time. It reminded me that, right now in this moment, the future does not exist in reality – only in imagination. When I’m with a client, a couple, a family, a team, the only time that exists is now, as I stay present and listen intently with my constructive ears to what they have to say, which will offer the seeds of my next question. I cannot allow myself to be distracted by my mind dragging me off somewhere out there that hasn’t arrived yet. But we could imagine a future, right now in this moment. We could act, right now in this moment, in ways that are consistent with that future actually existing. And if we keep doing that as best as possible, maybe….just maybe. Hurrah for the next small step – for isn’t that what each moment is? A small step. Then another one. And so on. As the future gets created right now.

I was asked recently what my best hopes are for my climate activism. My best hopes for my climate activism are that my children and as many other people’s children as possible, are engaged, aware, adaptable to and prepared for the uncertainty that they face. My best hopes for my climate activism are that I can openly acknowledge and engage with the very real reality of the problem, in a way that is constructive and maintains possibility for the future.

And as for hope? That might need some re-defining before I sign up….but I’m still open to the idea. I am an SF Practitioner after all.

Fred Ehresmann

18 May 2021

Fred Ehresmann is a senior lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of West England, and a trainer in solution-focused practice. He is a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance’s outreach service, supporting people struggling emotionally with the climate crisis. In 2019, together with John Sharry, Fred ran a fascinating workshop at the UKASFP conference, Hopefulness in the face of climate breakdown, biodiversity extinction, and pending economic and social collapse – possibility or pipe dream?