How can we respond to the climate change crisis from disciplines that aren’t in the sciences?

Climate change is both a wicked problem and a grand challenge. These are OSU Dance Professor Norah Zuniga Shaw’s words, and, as she pointed out to the Ministerium a few weeks ago, most people don’t feel personally equipped to do anything about wicked problems and grand challenges. We all know that climate change is a reality, but, beyond recycling and watching our energy footprint, most of us feel that there’s very little that we, personally, can do about it. Particularly at a time when we are overwhelmed by change. New technologies, new social behaviors, and the collapse of old institutions can leave us feeling lost at sea. But for Norah, this means that it’s time to take stock of our gifts, abilities, and choices, rather than to despair.

“What do you do to respond to uncertainty and change?” She asked us, and then asked us to list out some answers to that question. This was what she calls a “priming process,” in which a problem is stated (we live in a time of great change) and people are invited to name the agency they already have (list the responses). As a pedagogical method, these priming processes come out of the world of dance, and especially out of the work of one of Norah’s mentors, the West Coast dancer Simone Forti. They allow groups to have a certain kind of conversation and then see what kinds of associations arise from those conversations.

Having been primed in this way, we were then asked to think about that huge, overwhelming question of climate change, and relate it to our own disciplines. Since most of us in the Ministerium are clergy, lay religious leaders, and theologians, it came as no surprise that many of our disciplines had to do with God and community. But Norah pushed us to think beyond our work and consider our practices and our identities as well. She handed out a worksheet that had three simple questions, and space to answer them.

How do we confront ecological crisis through __________? (Make a quick list of your disciplines, working methods, experience you bring, and who taught you.)

What are your practices of taking action/making/doing and what role might your practices play in activating alternative futures? (List your practices and where you learned them, try not to edit yourself, just write what comes.)

What do you know already about climate change as a _____________ and who else can you turn to for answers? (List your relevant identities, relevant geographies, disciplinary groundings, relationships, and what you already know from these positions.)

Norah used these methods with dance students to create the piece “Let’s Make Climate Change.” She found that bringing the topic of climate change into the studio helped students engage with it. Suddenly a wicked problem was scaled to a size where they could respond to it by using their gifts, not just as dancers but as students, young people, women and men, children, romantic partners, and everything else that comprised their identities. And the things that they already did, those daily practices that we all have, could be brought to bear on the problem.

We’re all in the position of those dancers. We have gifts and positions within our wider culture that help us address any problem. We have daily practices that have great power. Solutions to any problem arise when a great number of people bring their diverse abilities to bear on it, when they name their personal responses and bring these responses together into grand collaborations.