The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Green Fragility

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I’ve been reading recently about “white fragility,” a phenomenon where white people refuse to listen to black people talk about racism unless that talk is carefully couched in terms that don’t make the white people feel bad.

The feeling bad part is understandable. It is difficult to stand accused of complicity in the entire racist system and not start sputtering “wait a minute! But I voted for Barack Obama. Doesn’t that count for something?” And, indeed, whether and how different people are culpable for racism is an interesting and important question. But then there are people saying “hey, my son is dead now and nobody seems to care. Why is this conversation about YOUR feelings all of a sudden? My baby is dead!”

I could write a lot about this, but other people (who know a lot more about it than I do) already have and you should go read their work. My topic, at least for this blog, is climate change. And the thing is, I see fragility here, too.

I want to be very clear that I’m not trying to steal the thunder of those who are talking about race. Instead, it is their work that has given me new and better language to discuss a problem I’ve been seeing in other contexts for a long time.

I see it in the self-described environmentalists who refuse to hear any suggestion that their behavior should change unless that suggestion is couched in the most gentle and complimentary terms. I see it in the behavior of environmental activists who have, for decades, struggled to shape their message into something reassuring and positive for fear of “making people feel guilty.” I see it in the writings of environmental educators who have insisted, for decades, that switching out a few light bulbs can and will save the Earth when the reality is the moment requires a lot more of us.

It’s not that how a message is delivered shouldn’t matter–having a righteous cause is not an excuse to treat other people badly, and the effective activists are the ones who can develop ways for allies to get involved and feel good about getting involved. All that is true.


If someone ran up to you and shouted “You idiot, your house is on fire!” would your first response be to chew them out for calling you an idiot? Or would you sniff around for smoke?

The fact of the matter is that fragility is not unique to the racial context—and it probably is not unique to white culture either. Somehow, we seem to see reality as optional, as though it were possible to make suffering go away by ignoring it. And when the scale of a problem is huge—and climate change is even bigger and more dire than racism—facing it feels almost existentially difficult. There is no way to relieve the sense of guilt, no way to earn a gold star for a job well done, because the job isn’t going to be done. The world is going to demand all we have and then keep on demanding more.

None of us is ever going to be good enough, measured against these (and other) issues.

The thing is, we have no time in which to argue about our personal self-worth. I don’t mean not to stand up for yourself if a person with a great cause happens to also be a jerk. I mean make a personal commitment not to make your recognition of reality conditional upon how you feel.

Your house is on fire. Stop worrying about whether or not someone else thinks you’re an idiot and put the fire out.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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