Ecological Hope, and Spiritual Evolution
Christiana Figueres was Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010-2016, and is known as the powerhouse who made the 2015 Paris Agreement possible — in which 195 nations worked with their wildly diverse conditions and points of view on the what and the when and the why, and yet made commitments in service of our hurting planet and the future of humanity. Her book, written together with Tom Rivett-Carnac, is The Future We Choose. She is founding partner of the organization Global Optimism and co-hosts the podcast Outrage + Optimism. Image by Revista Perfil/John Durán.
Transcription by Alletta Cooper
Krista Tippett: Sink into this as a way into the conversation that follows: In the world in which I was born, and maybe you, too, the weather was the stuff of small talk. The seasons of the year were the underlay of planting and harvesting food that nourishes and fuels our bodies, of course. But seasons have also been the very mundane, predictable rhythm of our days and our lives. Now, the loss of seasons as we knew them, the loss of storms as we knew to navigate them, is an experience we are all sharing in all the places we inhabit and love. This is closer to home than every fight we have about climate and the science around it, the meaning of it. We feel this in our bodies, the young among us most keenly. It leads some of us to those fights and some of us to retreat within, overwhelmed.
My guest today is the exuberant and mighty Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres. She has, as much as anyone alive on the planet right now, has felt that overwhelm and stepped into service. She is a most eloquent articulater — both of the grief that we feel and must allow to bind us to each other, and what she sees as a spiritual evolution the natural world is calling us to. If you have wondered how to keep hope alive amidst a thousand reasons to despair; if you are ready to take your despair as fuel — intrigued by the idea of stepping into love as a way to stepping into service, and open to immediate realities of abundance and regeneration — this conversation is for you.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Christiana Figueres was Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016 and is known as the powerhouse who made the 2015 Paris Agreement possible, in which 195 nations worked with their wildly diverse conditions and points of view on the what and the when and the why and yet made commitments in service of our hurting planet and the future of humanity. She spoke to me from her home in Costa Rica.
Tippett: Hello there. Can you hear me?
Christiana Figueres: Krista.
Figueres: I can hear you.
Figueres: I’m so delighted to be talking to you.
Tippett: So Zack, are we, are we good to start whenever we’re ready? Okay. Well, Christiana, I’ve known your name for such a long time. I’ve followed your work for such a long time, and it’s such a pleasure and, really, an honor to be able to have this conversation with you. Thank you.
Figueres: No, no, no. Let’s correct this. Let’s correct the facts here, Krista, okay? [laughter] I have known about you. I have been following your On Being podcast, plus many other things that you’re doing, for such a long time, and it truly is humbling. Thank you so much.
Tippett: Okay. [laughs] Well, here we are. And that’s all you get to say about me. Now we’re talking about you for the rest of the time but…
Tippett: …it means a lot.
Figueres: I’m not sure I can obey that rule, but you can try.
Tippett: All right, but it means a lot. You have such an interesting personal history — and I know that all of our personal histories come with drama, and I’m sure an interesting personal history comes with even more drama — but that your father was also someone who’s known as the father of modern Costa Rica, and that you grew up partly in the president’s residence at times, and partly on your father’s farm, on your family farm.
Your mother was a Danish immigrant, and at one point, Costa Rican ambassador to Israel. And your father’s also been described as a “farmer-philosopher.” What a family to be born into, and also what an incredible place to be born into, Costa Rica.
Figueres: Yes. Well, you’re right. What a family lineage. No pressure. You can imagine we grew up with absolutely no pressure to live up to our parents’ expectation of always being in service. That’s definitely what they passed along to us in our DNA, is to always be in service of others. And I’m quite humbled, actually, and thankful, especially to my father’s teachings that are so deep, and as you say, formed the Costa Rica that we enjoy today: a country that has no army, thanks to the vision of my father, a country that has five-percent of global biodiversity, despite the fact that we’re absolutely tiny postage size.
Tippett: I had no idea. That’s incredible.
Figueres: Yeah. Yeah, because my father, when he decided in 1948, to disband his own revolutionary army that he formed in order to protect democracy, and then he disbanded the national army. His logic was, “Why do we even have an official army? Let’s take that budget and put it into what really counts.” He put it into public education and protection of nature. That was in 1948.
Figueres: So a total, total visionary. Yeah. So you can imagine that growing up under the shadow and under the light — both, right? Under the shadow of such a powerful pair of parents, but also under the light of their expectation and their ambition that they had already substantially realized, and their expectations for their kids. Not an easy upbringing, I would say.
Figueres: We didn’t spend too much time in the playground. [laughter]
Tippett: Right, right. And then I’m very intrigued — because I’m always interested in the spiritual background of a childhood, however that is defined. I’m also quite intrigued that there’s this figure in your life of your maternal grandfather in a very Catholic country who was a Christian Scientist.
Tippett: I wonder what that bequeathed to you?
Figueres: How odd is that? Yes. So my maternal lineage, my grandparents and my mother, were Christian Scientists. My grandfather in particular — very, very devout Christian Scientist, and lived to the ripe old age of 105 without ever taking medicine, just on the power of his positive thinking all the time. I grew up as a Christian Scientist until I was 16. And more-or-less when I turned 16, I went like, “Wait, wait. Okay. There is something really powerful about this Christian Science practice, which is to recognize the power of thought.” But the piece that I actually decided I cannot stay a Christian Scientist is because my sense is that there was a lack of recognition of the part of reality that had to do with pain, that had to do with suffering, that had to do with disease.
And because there is such an emphasis on the power of positive thought in Christian Science, there’s also a de-emphasis, or in fact, a blind spot, I would say, to the power of everything that is on the other side of that: disease or any ill that we experience in our lives. For me, I just needed something that brought both of those together, because I thought, “Actually, I just feel more comfortable if I can have a conceptual structure that allows me to hold two realities on equal standing at the same time, even if simplistically they seem to cancel each other out. But I just need to hold them both.”
Tippett: So what I also hear when you talk about those things you wanted to hold together, the light and the darkness, the pain and the healing, you were really, even as a teenager, getting at — you wanted to own the fullness of reality, which equally has those things in them. It strikes me that that capacity of yours, that orientation of yours, becomes such a gift. It becomes one of your gifts to the world, and in particular, one of your gifts to this reckoning, this ecological reckoning this — I try not to overuse the word climate, which I think you probably understand. It’s not just about climate. Climate is the thing we end up talking about, but it is the ecological reality that we’ve come to at this point.
Figueres: Ecological crisis.
Tippett: The ecological crisis, and it is our ecological present, and there are callings and reckonings to it. I just want to kind of note that, that I feel like that orientation is something you brought into this work that you could not possibly have known you would’ve done when you were a teenager.
Also, something that strikes me about your early life is, your childhood was also implicated in the life of a nation. You and your family, in a way, belonged — as you said, you probably didn’t get enough playground time — but you belonged to the wider world. And yet, the story you tell of what turned you towards, what I would say, became your calling, was your sense of loss of a small creature, a species of frog. Is that right? That was an early kind of beckoning to this particular work you walked into. Would you tell that story?
Figueres: Yes, absolutely. I’ve since become aware of how this loss in my life has marked so many chapters in my life, but that was perhaps the first one that really opened a completely different door for me.
I was a recent mother, I had just had my two children, which followed each other very quickly, and I wanted to imbue them with so much. One of the things that I really, really wanted to seed in them was the love of nature, the awe of nature, the thirst for being in nature. I remembered that when I was much younger — because I followed my parents to every corner of the country on their political campaigns — I had gone to Monteverde, which is a rainforest reserve in Costa Rica, and I had seen this tiny little golden toad that was absolutely, absolutely glorious. You just cannot believe that nature creates something as beautiful as this. And quite to my misery, I discovered that by that time, that species had gone extinct because it only existed in that one rainforest in the world. That was it.
I was heartbroken, I was horrified, but I was also very intrigued. That was my introduction to begin to ask scientists and begin to read myself into the topic of climate change. Ever since the ‘90s, I have devoted my life to addressing climate change, because Krista, above all, I am a parent. I am mother to my own children, and mother to future generations. That’s the way that I think about myself.
I thought, “Okay, if I as a mother have received from my parents a planet that had X number of species in it, and now I am turning over a planet diminished with less species to my two daughters, how can that be a responsible term of reference of any mother or any parent?”
That’s how I got into climate change — because of the loss of a species that represented the loss of many other species, and the loss of future other generations to be able to enjoy the diversity of species that we used to have.
Tippett: One thing I think about a lot in general with the great — I want to use that language again, the callings and reckonings of this young century — is what we’re all standing before, the work we’re standing before is at one and the same time intimate and personal and civilizational and kind of at a species level. One of the ways I look out at what we’re facing with climate, with ecology, I see human beings individually and collectively acting as human beings do when we are afraid.
On some level, it’s that simple. We know what those different patterns are, and you write about this: we fight, we deny, we get paralyzed. Something else that I’m seeing now — I don’t know where it fits in that paradigm, but I’m sure it’s part of it — is we normalize. I think this is something that our bodies and brains do, and I understand it, but just how quickly just in these recent years. We’ve lost — When I was growing up, when you were growing up, the weather was a matter of small talk. The weather and the seasons had a predictability that was a rhythm of our lives, and how quickly that has shifted, and we just kind of — It’s so interesting to me and a little bit terrifying how we so quickly move into accepting that there’s fire season.
What I want to also say about you is that you really bring into focus — and you do speak eloquently about all of that, and I want us to talk about that — but you also bring into focus the bigger picture, that the old world that, as you say, that you were born into, is not the world that your children have inherited. It’s not the world that our children collectively inherited, that the old world is passing and a new one is being born. Part of the job right now is to really step into — name, step into, kind of claim that reality.
Figueres: And how painful that is, Krista, how painful it is for everyone; but I would argue, especially for those who have been at the front lines of this for years and decades, those who have been personally affected continue to be affected. Those in low-lying states, those who really depend on their planting and reaping to survive. It’s actually a polycrisis that we’re facing, but as you have mentioned before, it just reaps fear. We just go into fear, and —
Tippett: Which is understandable, which is reasonable…
Figueres: Which is totally understandable, absolutely.
Tippett: …but the way we respond is not helping us.
Figueres: No. And the way we have responded as human beings, since we developed as human beings as a species, is we either, when in the face of threat, we either go into flight, or freeze, or fight, as you’ve said. How do we do it better? Flight, or getting distracted the moment you turn on the news and you see more wildfires: “Well, then, turn the channel so I can look at something else.” That’s the flight piece. That’s, “Let me get distracted from this, so that I can think about something else.”
Or how many people, Krista, especially young people, are into burnout because they are so pained, and they go into freeze mode because they can’t act. They pull the covers over themselves because of the burnout, because of the fear and the pain and the grief and the loss that they cannot manage. And so they just go into burnout, and they freeze.
Or the others — just to bring the third in, those who fight — they go out there and start blaming people for things that are sometimes justified and sometimes not.
The question for me is, how do we get out of this flight, freeze, fight triangle that we have developed as a species for thousands of years? How do we manage our emotions better? How do we get to the point where we can choose to act out of being grounded in our emotions, which means understanding, embracing the pain, not looking away, definitely embracing the pain, the suffering that comes to us every single day; and, at the same time, understanding that that pain and that fear and that grief is what I would call an alarm bell. It’s an alarm bell to not sink into the bed covers again, but rather jump out of bed and generate the clarity of what needs to be done. And it is that grounding in our emotions that, again, puts those two things side-by-side: “Yes, I am in deep pain, and yes, precisely because of that, I am committed to do everything within my sphere of influence.”
Tippett: And what you’re starting to point at when you speak in this way — I’ve interviewed, across these years, people who are doing an incredibly beautiful deep work to heal our planet in different spheres; and as much as anyone I could interview, you are a person who has stepped up. You’ve played your part on a global stage; you were critical to the Paris Accords, which remains the most significant agreement that we’ve made to date, that has commitments and goals attached — imperfect, because everything human beings do is imperfect. But it’s the best we’ve done so far.
And what you just said to me about the critical elemental underlying work that we, each of us and collectively, have to do. I feel you’ve come to this point and you’re talking about grounding in our emotions, but you’re also talking about rising to this crisis — to this calling — at a spiritual level. And that without that, as good as the technological fixes may be that we can find, as important as all the action, this is still ground on which we will either flourish or falter. Is that too strong to say it that way?
Figueres: No. No, absolutely: our spiritual evolution. I honestly think, Krista, that without diminishing the task of climate change — to which I have devoted my whole professional life — without diminishing that, and without diminishing the complexities of the energy transition and all of that — but if you look at it from a little bit farther back, my sense is that climate change is the gym in which we as human beings are strengthening our muscle to be able to evolve to a much higher sense of awareness, consciousness, action, than we were before. And that the way that we understand that is measured in the way that we understand our relationship with nature.
Once we get to the point where we really understand that it’s not like we are extracting from nature, which is what we used to do, or even living with nature, which is what most of us are trying to do now. No, we have to get to the point where we are living as nature, because —
Tippett: Which we always were. We were of nature, not in it.
Figueres: Which we always were. Exactly.
Tippett: We were wilderness before we decided we were civilization.
Figueres: In our infinite wisdom. We divorced nature from ourselves. How wise was that? So it’s interesting that we’re coming full circle as we evolve. So it’s not a circle, it’s a spiral, because we’re coming around to be, again, part of nature as we always were, but from a much higher understanding — which was not lost, by the way, by most of the indigenous cultures of the world.
Tippett: That consciousness has existed, but it wasn’t —
Figueres: Has existed.
Figueres: But it has not been the predominant mindset, and we are hopefully getting back to that.
[music: “Fields on Forms” by Sanctus]
Tippett: I’d like for you to also talk about how you started to think in this way, because my understanding is that — actually, while you were in that process of building towards the Paris Accords in 2013, 2014, 2015, you’re overseeing 500 people, you’re working with 195 nations — you fell into a deep despair; and it was out of that despair that a new kind of spiritual inquiry, and perhaps you might even say personally a spiritual evolution, began for you.
Figueres: Yes. That was, I would say, my second huge loss in life. I had been married for 25 years. I actually thought I was in what I would call “picture book marriage,” “picture book family,” doing everything to give the family and my daughters the strongest underpinning for their life in terms of values and principles. And then one day, I was completely surprised by an announcement on the part of my former husband that just completely destroyed the marriage. And that was — I just felt like, “Whoa, I’ve been hit here by a two-by-four, that I absolutely did not expect.” And as you say, my day job was to continue to lead the negotiations toward the Paris Agreement.
So it was a pretty difficult situation. I didn’t want to let my colleagues know that I was in this terrible, traumatic situation. I didn’t take one day off from work. I cried myself to sleep for a whole year, and then I woke up the next morning, had a shower, put my smile on my face, and went to work because I had told all my colleagues, we have to work with love and with joy if we’re going to get anywhere.
And so I was living two realities. One at night and one during the day. And after a while, Krista, it just became completely unmanageable. And I — well, I have said before publicly, so I don’t have any need to hide it — I started having suicidal thoughts, because I just couldn’t manage this contrast between me at work and me at home, or me with my professional colleagues and me with myself. It was just too painful. Too difficult.
And it was in that desperation that the universe led me to Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a Vietnamese Zen Master. I was living in Germany. I went without knowing anything about Buddhism or anything about the place that I was going, just guided by the universe. I went to the monastery that was close to my home and started a study that has lasted over the next 10 years, up until now. I have become very active in that community, in the Plum Village Tradition, because, A, it helped me so very, very much to understand my pain and to ground it much better, not to walk away from it or deny it, but also not to be controlled by it, but rather it helped me to be able to regain sovereignty over my personal circumstance.
And then I discovered, “Oh my gosh, it is so helpful for my professional life,” because the truths that I was learning apply to me as an individual, but also apply to everyone else collectively, and above all, applies to all levels of the system. And I honestly think that if I had not had that guidance and those teachings, I don’t know how we would ever have gotten the Paris Agreement, because it was just so fundamental.
Tippett: And as I think you know, I interviewed Thich Nhat Hanh — Thay — in 2003 or 2005, so early in this adventure, and it’s meant so much. It was indelible. So when I read you writing about, or speaking about what you learned at Plum Village — and you’re just saying that now, that there was so much that, in fact, had incredible pragmatic value. I’d love to just tease out some of those ingredients. One of them I think that I have seen you talking about is — that again, went into your work as a diplomat and a global negotiator — things like deep listening.
Figueres: Deep listening, yeah.
Tippett: I think that this deep listening, as you learned it at Plum Village and in this particular Vietnamese Zen Buddhist lineage, is so connected to qualities of presence and a quality of silence. I’d love for you to get more granular about these spiritual practices that you brought into your diplomatic work.
Figueres: Well, you’re right, Krista. It really is about the quality of presence, because I think — it’s perhaps too simplistic to say, but let me say it anyway — that anything can be mundane. Any experience, any interaction, anything can be mundane. And anything can be spiritual. The very same interaction, the very same experience can be either mundane or spiritual. The only difference between the two is how I live it. What quality of presence do I bring to it? And that is true about our experiences. It is also very true about our mindset, about our narrative and our action. And to understand that mindsets lead to narratives, lead to action, and above all, that every single action of ours carries our signature. And that is true for a conversation. It’s true for an interaction. Whichever way I interact with — with my neighbor, with my daughters, with the person where I go and buy my vegetables.
That conversation, the way that I walk into that place where I go and buy my vegetables: if I just walk in and go, “Okay, I have to buy two tomatoes, one onion, and three avocados” — that’s one way of walking in. The other way of walking in is to pause, take a breath, and go, “Wow. This little shop is run by four sisters who inherited this little shop from their father. And their father had this immense beautiful ambition that the four of them would do this together. And every single tomato, every single onion in here is an expression of their love for their father, and their collaboration among the four siblings.” Now I’m having a completely different experience about the tomato.
Tippett: [laughs] Right. And this really leads into just a fundamental conviction you have that I also think is there in that spiritual worldview of Plum Village and in the great traditions. You said, “With our thoughts, we create the world.” Maybe that’s a way Thay said it.
Interestingly, I heard you say something very similar about your Christian Science grandfather, that there’s this powerful belief in thoughts in a way that science is now validating, and that this belief, this understanding of the power of — what you just illustrated — it’s not just our thoughts and that becomes our very presence, and that becomes transformative for us and for other people. And you also hold this up as that changing the story that we’re telling ourselves of this ecological climate reality, this new world we are already in, it absolutely has to be such an important focus of our energy and our imagination and our creativity and our work.
I saw you being interviewed by The Guardian about your book — which is wonderful — that you wrote with Tom Rivett-Carnac, called The Future We Choose. And I feel like these questions themselves really illustrate that we’re up against something in saying that changing the story can matter.
The journalist said, “Only 11 pages or so of the book describe the terrible consequences of unchecked climate change, while the rest talks about the possibility of a much better world. Why?” [laughs]
And then there’s another question — “A lot of the book is about the need for a shift in people’s consciousness.” — and then here’s the question, and this is the bias of modernity — “Isn’t this rather grandiose, or on the other hand, too vague to make a difference in the real world?” I want to say that I love The Guardian, but I think that this person is representing something larger. [laughter]
Figueres: Yeah, yeah. I just find that very sweet because I think that the journalist was really trying to give voice to the readers. Are the readers ready for this? And so I just really appreciate that intention. But yes, the answer to the question is: Wow, once we wake up to the fact that it is our thought that determines our word and our word that determines our action, or the other way of thinking about it is our mindset, when you think about it collectively, what is the predominant mindset now? It’s about, “We are so doomed. There’s no way we’re going to get out of this mess. We are way too late.”
I can’t tell you how much it pains me, Krista, to hear that there are many young people who think of themselves as being “the last generation.” The last generation on this planet. That mindset is… wow. It is so dug into pain and grief and loss, and it gives me the same pain and grief just to listen to that. We do have to change that mindset, not denying the reality of the fact that we’re way late and that we’re going over tipping points, and all the science in which we’re deeply steeped. But also to realize that precisely because of all of that, that’s why we have to change our mindset to a mindset of hope. And I say hope not flippantly. A mindset of conviction that we have everything that we need to make a difference in a timely fashion.
And with that mindset shift, then we can change the narrative and we can look for all of the evidences — of which there are many, but the media doesn’t carry — that we are changing the energy profile of the world. So many of these technologies are on exponential growth curves, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And with that, then the public and leaders go like, “Oh, okay. Well then maybe we do have a chance, so therefore let’s double down on our action.”
So mindset shift, narrative change, and then ground that into action. And that chronology is really, really important. But it starts with the mindset shift. It starts with, “What are we thinking?” because —
Tippett: Yeah. And you’re on — Go on, go on. I was just saying, you’re —
Figueres: No. I was just going to say —
Tippett: Go on. You go on.
Figueres: [laughs] I was just going to finish by saying, those of us who work on climate know that 2030 is a very important deadline, that we are in the decisive decade of the ‘20s. And so whether we’re able to have emissions from where we are right now to the end of the decade really determines the quality of life on this planet for generations to come.
But in my book, the way we meet the 2030 deadline is just as important as meeting it itself. Honestly, meeting the 2030 deadline without the deeper understanding is like walking into that vegetable store and just buying your tomatoes and your onions. It’s not just about meeting the 2030. It’s how we meet it.
Tippett: Okay. Well, I want to talk about the mindset shift, but also I just first want to note, you note subtleties of the way we think about this that was helpful for me to just get aware of. So even if the question that it gets asked, or what we’re focusing on is, how expensive will it be? Is it too expensive, too late? That skews where the entire imagination goes, and sidelines other important questions that we’ll be animating in a different way.
Also, something I know we’re so aware of is the dystopian vision. The dystopian novel. The dystopian movie. And look, those make for great stories, and they can make for great movies. But you say this kind of doom is dangerous. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because that’s how powerful our imaginations are.
Figueres: Exactly, exactly. That is how powerful our mindset is, and that then predetermines what our actions are going to be or what they’re not going to be. And as you were saying before, Krista, neurolinguistics is really now the scientific proof of that. That actually, whatever we think and say becomes the reality that we create out there.
And how wonderful. How wonderful that now we don’t have to assume that there is this ridiculous barrier between spirituality and physical reality. How wonderful that we can understand that those two are actually in constant interaction with each other. What we think, what we feel, what we say, is in constant interaction with what we are co-creating out there. And it took us a long time to get scientific proof, but now we have it.
Tippett: Yeah. And this notion of actively orienting our intentionality, our choice, and practice. This runs all the way through your work and your thinking now. You had a wonderful conversation with Roshi Joan Halifax and Rebecca Solnit and you talked about, and I think this maybe came from something Rebecca said…
Figueres: Gorgeous women.
Tippett: …“Hope is a verb with the sleeves rolled up.” I often talk about —
Figueres: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I thought that was Rebecca’s, but she told me, no, it’s not hers.
Tippett: She told me it’s somebody else’s. Yeah, I talk about muscular hope. But what we’re talking about is —
Figueres: There you go, I like that one.
Tippett: We’re not talking about wishful thinking.
Tippett: We’re talking about deciding that it doesn’t have to be this way and throwing your life behind it. So a couple of the other mindset shifts that you mentioned, that I just want to talk about, because I think they could sound paradoxical to people. One of them is “endless abundance.”
Figueres: Yeah, “endless abundance.” We are so programmed to think in scarcity terms and in competition terms. And one of the historical roots of that is the unfortunate interpretation of the survival of the fittest by Darwin. And that’s why you go into this zero-sum game: that if there’s a scarcity, then either you win and I lose or I win and you lose. And so many ramifications of that.
But that’s not what Darwin said. He said the survival of the fit. And what he meant by that was the survival of those species who are fit to the environment in which they’re living, because the environment is constantly changing. Impermanence, another really helpful concept. So because we have impermanence, the species are constantly adapting, and those that constantly adapt to those circumstances are more fit to those changing circumstances and have higher resilience.
Well, that’s a very different concept than scarcity. And the abundance actually is our natural state of being when we really understand what our roots of being and acting are.
Let me put it into energy terms just to get out of the woo-woo land. The fact is, Krista, that we are on an incredible exponential curve to increase our renewables. We can get by 2030 — which is the deadline that we all have in front of us — we can triple the energy capacity that we have right now. From all of the renewables that we have.
In fact, if you only take the new renewables without counting geothermal and water and those — if you only take the newer renewables, wind power and solar power, we are currently at 12 percent of all electricity in the world is already produced by wind and solar. And those are the new ones. And we’re on track that by 2030, which is scarcely seven years from now, we will be at 40 percent of all electricity being wind and solar only. And to that you can add all of the other renewables.
So it’s a question of understanding that this is entirely possible. It’s possible from a technological point of view. It’s possible from a resource point of view, because there is no limit — get out of our scarcity mindset — there is no limit to the wind and the sun.
So let’s let go of the anchors, the mental anchors that we have that belong in the 20th century. I say, let’s be thankful to the oil and gas industry that powered at least half of the world, and gave creature comforts to half of the world in the past century. Thank you for that.
And, my dear oil and gas industry, you are now facing your expiration date. Because we no longer need you. We now have much better technologies that can actually power the whole world, and not just half of the world. And we will very soon, Krista, be in a world of ubiquitous energy. Cheap energy, accessible energy, clean energy. We will have more energy than we can possibly consume.
Tippett: Okay, so there is endless abundance. All right, I see it. [laughs]
Figueres: Endless abundance.
Tippett: I see it. I see the mindset shift.
Figueres: Okay, cool.
Tippett: And you’re not asking people to believe in things that don’t exist…
Tippett: …but it is such a pivot, an imaginative as well as a practical pivot. And then the other phrase that you use is, in terms of mindset to apply to this, not just the future, but this new world we are now living in, is “radical regeneration.” So talk about that.
Figueres: Well, radical regeneration — let’s talk at the individual level, Krista, let’s start there. So with all of these fantastic people who are into doom, despair, grief, loss. Honestly, what we’re trying to do with one of our efforts here is to invite all of these wonderful people to find a place of regeneration for themselves. Because there’s no way that they can go out and be the agents of change that everyone needs to be if they’re actually in total despair themselves. So number one, let’s regenerate ourselves. And let’s become much more resilient at the individual level, at the corporate level, et cetera.
But think about nature, also. We have destroyed nature. We have depleted nature. And so our task now is not just to save the bit of nature that we have, save the old standing forests that we have, not just to save the few corals that are left, but actually to intentionally regenerate: regenerate the soil, regenerate the coral reefs, regenerate the forest, regenerate, and allow nature, with our help, to get back to the resilience that she used to have. Because frankly, it’s in our own interest that she have that resilience.
So radical regeneration goes all the way — and I’ve just used the two extremes there, Krista, for the individuals and then for the planetary system — but it applies all the way across the spectrum.
Tippett: And those different levels of transformation, I think I hear you saying, must go hand-in-hand.
Figueres: They have to go hand-in-hand.
Tippett: Systemic transformation, personal transformation — we don’t get one without the other.
Figueres: No. We say systemic transformation is deeply personal.
[music: “The Science Behind Karma” by Sanctus]
Tippett: I want to talk some more about the new generations, because this is also something very much on your heart, and you’re in a relationship and a dialogue with this very understandable despair and grief that I think younger people really feel in their bodies, more consciously perhaps, than older people.
But one of the moves I see them making is claiming joy. And claiming an abundance of relationship, and community, where it is to be found. And insisting on knowing what they love, and on being attentive to beauty wherever it is to be found. Also — and I want to use this word — as “fuel”…
Tippett: …as fuel for the hard, hard work that is ours to do.
Figueres: Yes. So true, so true. That intentional cultivating of a mind of love and joy is so critical to our personal resilience, to our personal regeneration, to our personal agency, to our capacity to engage. It’s just a sine qua non. Without it, there is no capacity to engage in a positive manner, in a constructive manner, in a transformational manner with anything outside ourselves. It just isn’t.
And so the more young and not-so-young people realize that yes, we are at a very deeply painful moment in the history of this planet and of human evolution, and that we can either succumb to that, or we can use that, as you say, as fuel. We can use that to intentionally decide that we’re going to stand up. Using the depth of the pain to root us so that we’re not swayed by the wind. Use it to root us in our determination to do everything for a better world, not just for us, but for generations to come, Krista.
And that’s the piece that I don’t think that we have very clear yet. Whatever we’re doing over the next seven years, and this is no Latin American exaggeration, whatever we do over the next seven years is really going to determine the quality of life on this planet for generations to come. Hence the alarm clock.
Figueres: This is an alarm clock. It’s an alarm clock about speed and scale, but it’s also an alarm clock about quality of mind — as you say, cultivating the mind of love and joy.
Tippett: And that our love — that our love for this planet, and for the beauty that’s around us, and the places we come from — that that is as much a motivator as what we have to fight.
I watched you at an event at TED in Scotland. [laughter] And I wish we could spend about an hour talking about that, and we can’t. But it was very moving. You ended up very expertly leading a panel on which there was the CEO of Shell Oil. And then a young woman who was carrying her pain and letting that pain into the room and also expressing her difficulty at being on a panel with the CEO of Shell and…
Figueres: Her anger, is what I would say.
Tippett: …her anger, and her intolerance of, that we are at this point. And with the participation of powerful, powerful places. And I will say, also, that I could see this CEO really being present and thinking and wanting to be responsive.
But what I watched you do — and I’m driving to this because I think you can do this also for everybody who’s going to be listening to this across time and space, and I felt like you, yourself, had been on this trajectory of understanding that this was something you needed to invoke — is just inviting everyone on that panel and everyone in that room to stand before the loss and the grief, and let that pain itself be some of the connective tissue across these differences. If nothing else, that we share.
Figueres: Exactly, exactly. So just for correctness, it’s the former CEO of Shell, because he is no longer CEO. But the case still stands. The more radical conversation, if you will, was the one between, as you say, the former Shell CEO and the young activist, who spoke and acted out of deep pain, anger, blaming, all of which is completely justified. All of which —
And then, all of a sudden, almost literally threw herself off the stage onto the shoulders of her colleagues that were waiting for her. It was quite a dramatic moment. It was quite a traumatic moment. Because there we were, with the pain and the trauma of years right on stage in front of us.
And what I did not want to occur was for the audience to divide itself up in, “Which of these two points of view am I going to support? Am I going to support the Shell CEO, because we have a whole bunch of corporates in the room who think that X, Y, Z? Or am I going to support the very eloquent climate activists because Shell has to be blamed and shamed?”
So what I did not want is for the audience to fall into that simplistic division between what all of us think is what is right and what is wrong. And I wanted to keep everyone in their own pain. Because we all have the pain. Every single one of us, no matter what, we have this pain because we are aware of the loss that we are witnessing. So I did call for everyone to take a moment, breathe, and get into the pain. And avoid the immediate blame and shame. Because that is where we would’ve gone very quickly.
Now fast-forward, Krista. How moving was it for me that just a few weeks ago, we held a retreat in Plum Village in France for climate activists and climate leaders who seek to find better ways to manage their emotions, and to be grounded in their emotions so that they can act from a deeper sense without having to just react, right?
Figueres: So get away from the fight, flight, freeze, to much more of a grounded, clean action. How moving for me was it, that that very climate activist who threw herself off of stage came to that retreat with most of those young people who were waiting for her there, and held her, and then they marched out? Most of them came to this retreat. How moving was that for me?
And the fact that after six days of really intensive study of the Dharma teachings, but more than anything, intensive digging in to self and into the pain, and learning how to turn the pain into strength, how moving was it for me that these young people emerged transformed — recommitted to continue to working on climate change from a space of possibility, and love, and joy? Honestly, long time since I have felt so much gratitude for the power of these teachings.
Tippett: I sense that — so there’s that. And also, I hear you saying in your writing and in your speaking: Do not give up on people. Do not give up on — this language, even, of climate denier. That’s a label, and that’s a drama in our midst. But to me it’s just another side of, again, we all feel the disarray and the disrepair of our natural world, of which we are part, in our bodies. And whether that’s at the level of awareness or not, we’ve had different ways of responding to that same fear. And you say: Don’t give up on climate deniers. Again, I hate the label. I feel like the people you’re really impatient with are people who are making a choice to be indifferent.
Figueres: Indifferent. Yes. So true. That’s the piece that I really — ooh — I really have to extend my compassion to an extent that — I’m not quite there yet — to people who are indifferent. How can you be indifferent? How can you be indifferent to everything that we’re witnessing today? And especially because you [inaduble] the consequences of today on tomorrow, how can you stand in indifference? That’s the piece that I have — Yes, you have identified very well. I have a very hard time.
Tippett: Well, and this can be subtle as well. Because it can be — and I am going to say I fall into this, too — is it can be, “Well, it’s just all over anyway.” Just, there’s news as we’re speaking, and this same news will recur that the ice melting in the Antarctic is much, it’s happening at a much more rapid pace than was once thought. And so what we’re calling indifference can just be a resignation, which feels itself to care, but can’t care anymore. So it’s complex. It’s as complex as we are.
Figueres: Well, is it? Is it? We just talked a little while ago about self-fulfilling prophecies. So if we say it’s all over anyway, and we really stand in that “reality,” then we actually will create that reality. Then it will be over anyway. And that’s the choice. That’s the piece, Krista. This is a choice. It’s a choice of attitude. It’s a choice of mindset. It’s a choice of thought. It’s a choice of words and narratives and actions. It’s a choice. It’s a daily choice. So yes, of course the easy thing is to go, “Well, it’s too late anyway. Bye.” Hello? Really? Is that the way? For those people who take that, I just wonder, how are they going to answer their grandchildren’s questions, “What did you do?” All our grandchildren will be asking us, “What did you do?” And everyone is going to have to answer that question, “What did you do?” Because nobody can say, “I didn’t know.” Nobody can say that anymore.
Tippett: Not anymore.
Figueres: My parents could say that. But my generation cannot say that anymore. So the question that we have to get ready for, and that is already being asked by many young people to their parents is, “What did you do?”
Tippett: You said at one point that it is the nature of evolution, that is the nature of this world, the way it works, that creatures are constantly adapting, that the environment is constantly evolving, that we as well as other creatures are constantly adapting to the environment. And that is the nature of vitality and the conditions of our time. You use this language of “exponential curves.” Our world is on so many exponential curves. The natural world is on so many exponential curves. As you say also, the possibilities for very new realities are also on exponential curves. But that’s ongoing. It’s not realized. It’s not visible. It’s not the dominant story yet.
Tippett: And it is hard. It is hard for us as creatures to live with this kind of uncertainty. It’s very challenging at a physiological as well as a spiritual level. But I don’t know. I guess I’m kind of ending up circling back to where we started. In your book The Future We Choose, you have 10, are they actions?
Tippett: And the first one is still, it’s a thought action. It is, “Let Go of the Old World,” which sounds so massive. But I think — I want you to talk about how that is a beginning, and how that can be a beginning, a step, a step, an action in and of itself.
Figueres: Yeah. “Let Go of the Old World” is actually, now that I think about it a little bit more, it’s almost like a funny invitation, because the old world is gone anyway. [laughs] And so what’s the point of hanging on to something that has already gone by?
Tippett: But that’s what we do. That’s what we do.
Figueres: But that’s what we do. I know, but we have to laugh at ourselves that we do that, Krista, because it makes absolutely no sense. It makes no sense. And when we understand that everything is in constant change, when we understand that we have — if there is anything that is certain, it’s uncertainty. If there’s anything that is permanent, it is the reality of impermanence. Everything in our lives.
Tippett: But we structure our lives to be in denial and to push that back.
Figueres: I know. Yes.
Tippett: We feel like that’s our power. [laughs]
Figueres: I know. How funny is that? You have to see that with a sense of humor. The fact that we know that everything is in constant change. You and I are not the same people when we started this conversation. I certainly am not the same person as yesterday, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Our relationships change. Everything changes all the time. The world is changing all the time.
And so we’re in constant flux and constant uncertainty. The past has passed. We can’t do anything about it. The future, we cannot really guarantee. We can try to influence it for the best and for good, but we can’t really control it. So I think there’s a heavy dose of humility here to understand that past is gone, the future is uncontrollable, we don’t know where things will go. We have to be able to develop that muscle that you were talking about. What did you call it? Muscular…?
Tippett: Muscular hope.
Figueres: Hope. Muscular hope. Well, in this case, it’s the muscular capacity to understand that we are in constant sway, in constant uncertainty, and have the humility to truly, deeply, deeply know. We don’t know how it will go. We have all kinds of scientific projections and predictions, and that’s science. But let’s not confuse the map with the territory. That’s the map. We don’t really know what the territory is. We don’t know how — for sure, for certain, we don’t know how it will go, because for one thing, it’ll depend a lot on what we do.
But in the meantime, the question that is most important for me is: How do I want to be in the meantime? How do I want to turn up in the world in the meantime? During the time that I’m here, which is a blink in the history of 4.5 billion years of this planet. We are here as a blink. What kind of a blink do we want to be? Who do I want to be? How do I want to turn up in the world? The answer to that question does not guarantee any success or any achievement, but it does influence the direction that we move in.
[music: “Looking for Something” by Sanctus]
Tippett: There’s another question that I’ve seen you ask that feels helpful to me, because I think using words in a slightly new way, asking a question in a slightly new way, can just be a spark to our imagination. So this question you’ve asked is, “What is it that we bring to bear?” “What is it that I bring to bear?” is an interesting question to walk around with in this context of this world in which even the weather — which everything about the ground we stand on and the air we breathe is in a terrible flux.
Figueres: It is in a terrible flux. And “What do I bring to bear?” is a question 24 hours a day. What do I bring to bear to my conversation with you, to the way that I greet my little vegetable ladies? It’s anything that we do. Any conversation that we have, especially with younger people. What role modeling are we having for young people? Because they’re looking at us, they are definitely looking at us. So how do I want to be in that conversation? Who do I want to be? What is my full presence? What is the highest interpretation of myself that I can bring to any circumstance?
Tippett: I’ve heard you use this phrase, that ever since I heard you use it, I’ve just been walking around with it, and I’m so intrigued by it. And that is that this transformation — if we are to flourish rather than merely survive, that this world needs “spiritual infrastructure” as well as the other kinds of infrastructure with which we’ve known to build. Would you just say some more about what is connoted in that for you? And do you see that spiritual infrastructure emerging from where you sit?
Figueres: I do see that spiritual infrastructure emerging and strengthening and building itself where we are building it. I see it constantly emerging. I see so many young people who are asking that same question: “Who am I? What am I capable of? What is my role while I’m here? How do I react to the threat? How do I react to the pain, to the grief that I’m carrying? How do I contribute to a much broader scaffolding that has to go beyond myself?” The scaffolding, the spiritual infrastructure that we have to build is, yes, at a personal level for sure. That’s where it starts. But it goes way beyond that because it’s not about what one individual is going to be able to do.
Hold on, I have to close the door because of course they decided now to cut the grass.
Tippett: [laughs] Okay. The real world breaking into our conversation appropriately.
Figueres: [laughs] Appropriately. It is about the recognition, Krista, of collective impact, collective wisdom, collective leadership. That’s how we build the spiritual infrastructure, because we sow the seed individually, but germinating the seed and being able to grow it so that we can harvest from it requires a collective effort.
Tippett: And I think also spiritual language for that, which you also use, would be for the same thing, but which again, kind of orients in a different way, is “accompaniment,” or that notion of presence, like bringing presence, a quality of presence to walking alongside and working with others.
Figueres: Absolutely. And getting away from this individualistic thing. The number of, I don’t know, myths that we have convinced ourselves of. Scarcity being one, individualism being another. Extractivism. But at this point, individualism, when did we come up with that?
Figueres: How helpful has that been?
Tippett: Yeah. Well — And my body and yours have more microbial cells in them than human cells. So even physiologically, we’re not individuals.
Figueres: Exactly. So why this myth? This myth that we have been cultivating, so unhelpful.
Tippett: And you’ve pointed out that we’re in this astonishing moment where science is exploding that myth and it’s knowledge that was always in our spiritual traditions and in ancient indigenous traditions. And it’s just becoming un-unseeable. I think I want to end with —
Figueres: Can I just say something about that?
Figueres: Because honestly, I am so excited about being alive right now. I have to tell you, Krista, here is the amazing, amazing thing. Okay. So the list is long, but I will try to keep it short. We have most, if not all, of the technologies that we’re going to need for this transformation. We have the capital collectively. We have the capital. We know what the policies are. Science is confirming to us that this is yes, about technology, capital, and policy, but that it is also about how we think about ourselves and our impact on the world. And we are at a moment in time in which electrification meets AI, meets digitalization, meets glocalization, both global and local. And all of this put together — if you put all of this in a pot and stir it around, this is the most magical potion you can possibly ever have dreamt of, and it is leading to change that is beyond anything that we could possibly, possibly imagine. So I am so excited about being alive right now.
Tippett: And you see some right now.
Figueres: A lot.
Tippett: You are able to see some of that being realized that the rest of us don’t have visibility to.
Figueres: Oh, well, wait, wait, wait. No, I won’t take that. I won’t take that as a fact. [laughter] It’s not that we’re not able to; it’s choice that we make in what information we let in. If we go out there into the world and we say, “Right, I am going to let in positive proof points of exponential change,” you will see them. So I am not going to take it as a fact that people cannot see this change. It is about our internal attitude and how we show up in the world, what information we let in, and then we can all see this change. And honestly, don’t we all want to be part of that change?
Tippett: Yes, yes. [laughter] Oh, we’re so strange, aren’t we?
Figueres: We’re actually hilarious. I just think it’s so funny.
Tippett: We are hilarious. Something I’m thinking about a lot right now — and this also just gets at our strangeness, and it’s very bittersweet — everything feels so precious to me now, in a new way. When I have a passionate experience of beauty in the natural world, or a beautiful weather day, or even just the feeling of kinship with other people, it all feels so precious because it’s endangered. That’s also a way we roll. And I’m wanting to be conscious of that.
And I listened to you also have a conversation that feels connected to this to me, with Rebecca Solnit and Roshi Joan Halifax, about something Rebecca’s written a lot about and talked about on this show is, there is this thing that happens when the worst happens, that the best of human nature also rises up. We find our capacity to care wildly in those moments of disaster and catastrophe. And so that’s this thing that happens in an “acute emergency” — this is your language. And I think if we come back to where we started here about your vision, that not just what could happen now, but what, in fact, this climate, this ecological rupture may be calling us to, may enable us to, is another phase of human evolution, an evolution of spirit and consciousness.
I think about Dorothy Day, 1906, watching in the middle of the San Francisco earthquake. Rebecca writes about this, too: watching — or she’s 9, 6, 9 — watching people coming across the bay who’ve lost everything, and seeing all the adults around her knowing exactly what to do to step in and be of service and to care for strangers, and to just expand, instantaneously expand that web of human relationship and care. And the question she asked was, “Why can’t we live this way all the time?”
Figueres: Yes, exactly.
Tippett: And I feel like you asked this question in this context, and I wrote this down. You said, “How do we nourish a deep well of yearning to be with each other and to be helpful to each other in the absence of an acute emergency where what we have is a chronic emergency?” We have a new reality that is going to unfold ahead of us as long as we can see. Maybe that’s a good place for us to end, for you to just reflect on how you imagine that, what that means to you, that question.
Figueres: Well, I don’t have the answer to that question. It’s an inquiry that I take with me everywhere, and it’s an inquiry, as Rebecca has many examples, but we all share the example of the pandemic, don’t we?
Figueres: Where we saw just so many examples of caring and compassion and support for strangers in so many ways that might have been unthinkable without the pandemic. So we are, as human beings, we are entirely capable of it, as we say there, in the face of an acute emergency.
Now, how do we expand that? So it’s not about creating something that is not there. It’s about watering a seed that is already in our fertile ground and watering it to the extent that it can carry over longer periods of time and geography, so that we can feel the responsibility toward future generations, and we can feel responsibility toward people in other corners of the planet.
And so the beginning of an answer, but it’s not the full answer yet, Krista, is it’s the watering of that seed. It is an intentional watering that we have to do every day, that we have to choose to do every day. Because that seed bloomed and gave fruit during the pandemic, and that was fantastic, but the seed is still there. So can we intentionally water it? That is the best of humanity. Those actions, that compassion, that solidarity, that helping each other, that responsibility intergenerationally, that is the best of humanity. Can we continue to water that seed so that we build our muscular capacity to do so over space and time? Because we’re not there yet, but can we do it? I think so.
Tippett: Yeah. Those are the moments when we look at ourselves and others, including strangers, and we think how beautiful we are as a species.
Figueres: Yes. Yes. So beautiful.
[music: “Eventide” by Gautam Srikishan]
Tippett: Christiana Figueres is the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and she led the process that secured the 2015 Paris Agreement. Her book, written together with Tom Rivett-Carnac, is The Future We Choose. She is founding partner of the organization Global Optimism and co-hosts the podcast Outrage + Optimism.
The On Being Project is: Chris Heagle, Laurén Drommerhausen, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Colleen Scheck, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Gautam Srikishan, April Adamson, Ashley Her, Amy Chatelaine, Cameron Mussar, Kayla Edwards, Tiffany Champion, Juliette Dallas-Feeney, Annisa Hale, and Andrea Prevost.
On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. We are located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. Our closing music was composed by Gautam Srikishan. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
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