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Art and Activism: Julie Johnson

By Julie Johnson, Climate Reality Leader trained in 2015

· Advocacy Stories

Julie Johnson is a mom, educator and writer, trained as a Climate Reality Leader in Toronto in 2015. She is the co-creator/facilitator of a youth empowerment program for grades 3-8 centred on the UN Global Goals. Her climate activism comedy novel, Hill of Greens, is available on Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble. She lives in Oro Medonte, Ontario, and is actively involved in local social and climate justice initiatives. Below are a few excerpts from her autobiographical works, centered around her experiences as a climate activist.

Some New Names for Climate Change Emotions

When you wake up to the stark reality that is Climate Change, you might have some…feelings.

These feelings are so distinct to the climate emergency that I believe they need their own names.

Let’s work these words into our daily lives, our common usage. I think it will make it easier to share our feelings and support each other!

Eco-anger: that intense spike of burning indignation that happens when you witness people making detrimental choices that you know will lead to (more) environmental and social devastation. These are the things that cause you to start shouting at the news report something like: Why? Why? Why?

Eco-anxiety: that jittery, nagging intensity that happens when you continuously think about the continued lack of consistent action on climate change. This can lead to Eco-melancholy (staring forlornly out the window, wondering if things will ever change in your lifetime) and Eco-Insomnia (staring forlornly at the ceiling, wondering if things will ever change in your lifetime).

Eco-optimism: a positive, uplift swelling within the heart area, the antidote to eco-anxiety and eco-anger. Usually requires you to take some kind of action to address climate change but it can also occur when you are inspired by others who are taking action.

Eco-Bliss: the radiant happiness that spontaneously arises when you are in the midst of taking any positive action, big or small, to support climate action and climate justice. You feel a sense of purpose, connection and contribution to the greater good! Yeah!

Eco-Brain Freeze: the sudden panic, vocal sputtering and stomach churning that accompanies forgetting everything, all the facts, even your own name, when a person with climate denial challenges you on the spot. This often happens with co-workers and extended family members. It unfreezes hours later, in the shower or at three am.

Eco-Mood Swings: feeling hopeful, feeling despair, feeling hopeful, feeling despair, feeling hopeful...this typically occurs when you scroll on social media, see tweets about positive climate action...and then start reading the comments...

So, now that we have some new words, how are you feeling today?

The Six Phases of Writing About Climate Change

After attending the Climate Reality Leader training in Toronto in 2015, I started writing about the need for climate action.

In those five years, I have written letters to the editor, emails to politicians, many tweets, Facebook posts, and, eventually, a comedy novel called Hill of Greens (about a group of climate action activists trying to be raise awareness about climate change while balancing the daily pressures of “ordinary life” … because work, romance, health, and family obligations don’t just disappear when you decide to take action on climate).

When I started doing all of this writing, I found it to be QUITE THE CHALLENGE!

Pardon my ALL CAPS shouting in the sentence above but it really is quite the challenge to maintain a calm and rational demeanor while writing these pieces.

It starts out fine.

Phase 1: Reasonable Tone (more or less)

Dear so-and-so;

The realities of climate change are visible on the news and outside our windows: droughts, wildfires, wonky polar vortexes, extreme heat, extreme cold, powerful storms, and so on...

But then I’ll think: wait, this approach doesn’t fully impress upon the reader the absolute necessity of action.

Phase 2: Strongly Worded

We are living in the midst of environmental catastrophe! We must solve this problem immediately!

But then I’ll think: wait, maybe that’s too alarming to my reader. I want to scare them into action, but, also, maybe, they need to be inspired?

So I will move on to...

Phase 3: A Positive Shift

Just imagine it: healthy communities, sustainable and just, emphasizing environmental and societal wellness. No more eco-anxiety! No more melancholic, apocalyptic malaise! Wouldn’t that feel good?

Go on! Focus on the positive! But then...


We have the opportunity here to reshape our society so that we NO LONGER HAVE TO FACE THE TERRIFYING PROSPECT OF TOTAL CIVILIZATION COLLAPSE!

Ah, darn it! How did I end up shouting (again)? I was supposed to mention: a vibrant, circular economy, abundant food and clean water resources, improved social justice and equality, healthier, active lifestyles!

Maybe I’m going about this all wrong.

Phase 5: Creative Nonsense Takes Over

I am a time traveller calling you from the future! You need to [unintelligible] or else [unintelligible]! Oh no! I can’t maintain the vortex time portal much longer! Act now on climate change or—[transmission ended].

Phase 6: Nothing But Symbols

I think about giving up. I wonder if I should just write:

What the $&@! $&@&?!

Or maybe four emojis can cover it: 🔥🌎🤯🤬

Surely the Mayor will understand what these mean? What else is there to say, really? Can I finally click ‘send’?

And that’s where I would end up after an hour’s worth of writing focus.

I tell you it is QUITE THE CHALLENGE but eventually I made my way to Phase 7, which is a combination of the above six, rotated randomly, and combined into the aforementioned novel.

Someone let me know if you discover a Phase 8, m’kay?

Don’t You Think?

There’s a rather remarkable absence in our pop culture as regards climate change, don’t you think?

Where’s the pop song cooing: you’re so hot, hot, baby, I’m melting like I’m polar ice, baby…

Or the rom-com asking us if the sassy wildlife photographer can win the heart of the sexy oil company CEO in time to stop the arctic drilling? Come on, don’t you want to find out what happens?

Where’s the TV show about a group of diverse friends in NYC united in their efforts to create more urban green spaces and food gardens...but it all goes comically awry? It's so funny! I swear you’ll love it!

Or what about another one of those “choose your own adventure” style Netflix series? One, say, where you’re the nation's leader and you must reduce carbon emissions...or suffer the dire consequences! What will you do? Will you save the planet and save humanity? Or not? YOU DECIDE!

Apparently, it’s not enough to have innumerable science reports, UN reports, news articles, weather reports, and the occasional Margaret Atwood cli-fi series. We need more!

Give us a song to sing! Or something. We need it.

Don’t you think?

Visionaries, We Need You

So: she wants to know how to stay motivated in the face of “potential civilization collapse”… do we have any suggestions for her?

Something to help her maintain her inspiration in the face of the positive feedback loops, those ever widening splays of destruction and desolation already at play.

I am in a lineup as I read this email.

I’m with my children, getting French fries at a summer eatery.

I guess that is one question to confound me on my vacation: how to function in reality, with similar questions on my mind…and which aspect do I look at, the POTENTIAL or the COLLAPSE?

It’s a seesaw, so familiar from my childhood when the threat of nuclear annihilation was all the rage. Mushroom clouds in music videos had a beat and you could dance to it and there were episodes on TV showing the after effects of an all-out nuclear attack on a town that should’ve known better.

The lunacy of their wrong decisions made you want to pull your hair out.

But at least that was a choice?

These day (she says, in her email) the apocalypse has already been chosen by a thousand different people hitting a thousand different buttons on a thousand different days and they’ve put it into motion.

A revolving, growing cascade of ecological disasters is gyrating ever closer on our horizon.

But surely the power of story will save us. If the climate crisis gets embedded in our music videos and binge-worthy clicks, won’t we then realize our true potential and try and lean the other way?

As I reach for the ketchup bottle, I am also reaching for those affirmations supporting the mingling of our creative complexities to create a third path.

We need a path of care not yet fully seen or realized (but it will be soon, in the next installment), supporting our capacity for startling plot twists, surprise guest appearances and paradigms shifts.

If there are any visionaries out there invoking the power of narratives to save us, to repair our broken systems and heal our global consciousness, then I guess you’d best get busy in asserting how we are the mature and wise custodians of our future, neither suicidal nor terminal.

It is time for you visionaries to step forward because we’re lined up, we’re waiting, and someone needs to write this woman back.

She wants to know how to stay motivated in the face of “potential civilization collapse.” What should I tell her, on humanity’s behalf?