“When your house is on fire, you either fight the fire or escape the house. We cannot escape this house. We have to fight the fire. And inside this house, the earth, is everything that we love.”

The quote above is from Dan Dolderman, an environmental psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He was giving a talk in 2013 about climate change.

Dan’s climate change talk began with a story about how his daughter broke his heart. It started with her attempt to solve climate change by stowing snow in the fridge so she could mail it to the Arctic in order to save the polar bears.

Dan knew that wouldn’t work, but it got him thinking. So he came up with a project, the Unstoppable Snowball, which is about promoting healthier relationships between people and the environment.

It has to do with climate change and energy production, issues that keep our lawyers and scientists busy on a regular basis. It also has to do with talking to each other so when I heard his TED talk, I decided to talk with him.

Dan: My name is Dan Dolderman. I’m a psychologist at the University of Toronto. I tell people I’m an environmental psychologist so I do work on sustainability and climate change related types of things.

So much of psychology is [about] how we are affected by the human world, the social world. Environmental psychologists just take this one step further. It’s an integration of psychology with the natural sciences. How does the physical environment affect our psychology? How does it affect our emotions, our thoughts, our feelings, our behaviours?

Pierre: How did you find yourself in that role? 

Dan: It was one of those value decisions. When I was doing my PhD, I was interested in what I was doing but my heart wasn’t in it. It was more like an intellectual challenge, a puzzle to solve. At some point, when I was about 30, [I remember] kind of waking up and saying, what is it that really matters to me? What have I always loved? What has always been important to me. And that took me back to when I was a kid and my relationship with the natural world was always really important to me and it’s where a lot of my joy came from. It’s where a lot of my appreciation for beauty came from. As I realized that it was funny because I went back through my mind over a lot of the different projects I’d done in school all the way back to high school and elementary school when I’m doing projects on global warming in the 1980s. Oh yeah, I guess I’ve known this all along.

Pierre: How important is the role of communication in issues of climate change and energy?  

Dan: So much of it boils down to effective communication. And can you persuade other people of your way of thinking. So much of it is about bringing information from the abstract into a feeling of psychology closeness. It’s getting to peoples’ emotions. And so abstract statistical information and arguments tend not to do that so much as vivid, compelling, personal stories that are specific and concrete.

A different kind of answer is what you have just told me you’re doing at Ecojustice, which is that you are trying to stimulate a conversation between you and other people working out there in the field, doing the kinds of things that you guys do. Instead of just marketing your perspective to them, you’re actually engaging them in a dialogue and I think that’s the deeper answer. The best thing we can do is getting people talking about these things with us.

Pierre: There’s a metaphor you use in Everything You Love about the earth being our house and the house being on fire. I thought it was a particularly moving metaphor. Can you tell me how you developed it? 

Dan: It came from my mentor in complex systems theory. It was this guy James K., who wasn’t your classic environmentalist in the sort of shaggy, nature-loving, get out [and] get dirty kind of thing. He was scientist and very much like that. And he said to me one day, talking about what the bottom line is for him, and he’s like, “All of the complexity aside, the bottom line is nature is our life support system and we’re pulling the plug.” […] He also used an analogy where he would say that he has a lot of hope because even though the patient’s on the operating table, the patient’s still on the operating table. Let’s operate.

Pierre: How do you feel about the opposition to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal and Enbridge’s Line 9 reversal?

Dan: Whatever one’s politics are, you look at the facts and there are cutbacks to government scientists, there’s the problematic control of the media during question and answer periods. There are these sorts of things that are outside of party ideology. They’re outside of politics in the traditional sense because they’re about the democratic process in a fundamental way. And I think that’s really waking people up. At this point something like the oilsands/tarsands debate, or the resistance to [Enbridge’s] Line 9, these environmental issues are for many people starting to be reframed as more like fundamental democracy issues. That’s a big shift.

Pierre: Your kids really influenced your Everything You Love climate-change talk. What is it about kids that makes their insight so profound or makes it so they are able to see so clearly?  

Dan: Kids have this great ability to see clearly. Because their vision is not cluttered with a lot of the complexity that adults have absorbed. Now all that complexity has its place too because putting snow in your freezer isn’t going to save the polar bears. When it comes to implementing solutions and figuring stuff out, the world is a complex place. Kids retain this ability to see things in a pure form in terms of their values and what really matters. And when you get right down to it what really matters is issues of the heart, the body, our mortality, our communities, things that speak to our soul, things like beauty and community. The love of living world is so deeply embedded what we are as human beings and kids can remind us of that.

Pierre: In your climate-change talk, you describe the Unstoppable Snowball project as people powered, a movement where all you have to do is talk to others, your friends and family, about climate change so that we get past these barriers and build the political capital necessary to see our society do something about climate change. Can you tell me a little more about the Unstoppable project?

Dan: [It’s] an attempt to create a dialogue to get a bunch of people talking [about climate change and its solutions]. We’re trying to solve the problem of how can you take the motivation that most people in society have, the motivation to create a more just and sustainable world. How can you take that energy and actually implement it and make practical use of it when in reality most people don’t have hours a day to put into something. But if you could create a dialogue that was both easy — so people could in tiny blips or tiny contributions — continue this dialogue or keep it going. If it was effective, it could harness people. It could do something practical with that tiny bit of time.

Imagine if you want to dig a ditch. Nobody’s like I’m not going to go dig a ditch for you for like a week straight. But you get 10,000 people and they are all like I’ll put in two minutes. You totally got your ditch dug.

People that do want to find out more about it, I strongly suggest that you send us an email. We will not inundate you with information because of course this is something you should be able to do with a couple minutes a month. Send us an email and we’ll connect with you. The email address is unstoppablesnowball@gmail.com.

Pierre: Once again, a special thanks to Dan Dolderman. To learn more about the Unstoppable Snowball project, remember to email him at unstoppablesnowball@gmail.com

I’ve been your host for today’s show, Pierre Hamilton. Thanks again for joining us. We’ll return next time with more thought-provoking interviews with the people who want to protect Canada’s wildlife and wilderness, land, air and water. People just like you.