Despair & Empowerment – The Movie

<March 2009>

These are strange times, are they not?

The world financial system is collapsing, the effects of climate change are now so widespread and obvious that climate change deniers resemble nothing more than dazed members of some bizarre Flat Earth Society. And many people seem to have resigned themselves to the extinction of our species.

I can’t say I’m at all sure we’re going make it; who, at this point, can say for sure?

One thing does seem certain, though, and that’s that apathy and denial aren’t going to get us anywhere we really need or want to go.

Last night I watched “Climate Change – Despair and Empowerment,” a 50-minute film made in 2006 that features Ross Gelbspan and John Seed, and this was a darn good idea, if I do say so myself. I’ve been doing environmental work for 20 years now, and I do a lot of the things these two men recommend, but I still need a shot in the arm from time to time in order to help keep my spirits up.

You can watch the movie at - and I highly recommend that you do!

Ross Gelbspan is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist – and author of Boiling Point – who makes it clear he is not an environmentalist (his motivations have more to do with a passion for democracy and honesty and truth). He is incredibly knowledgeable, however, about the climate change issue – its causes, horrific current and predicted future impacts, and the measures we can take to steer the human race off the suicidal path we’re on. He spells out how the coal and oil industry spent millions of dollars (or was it billions?? I’m not that great with numbers) on a carefully-crafted PR campaign to deny climate change. “Manufactured denial,” he calls it.

John Seed is an internationally known rainforest activist who has worked with Buddhist scholar, writer and workshop leader Joanna Macy, who pioneered “despair and empowerment” workshops. Macy came to understand how in our culture we learn from childhood to hold down feelings that are seen as inappropriate – to suppress and deny our true emotions.

As John Seed explains in the film, it takes a tremendous amount of psychic energy to suppress our feelings – basically, it saps our life force to do so. Our emotions become “dumbed down” and our ability to make good decisions in this state is very much hobbled. We become “emotionally illiterate.”

And everywhere we go, we’re surrounded by people who are in the same state. As Seed says, “We all know what’s going on, but who’s doing anything about it?”

When we’re given the opportunity to express and articulate the anger, despair and depression we all spend so much energy holding in, it’s incredibly liberating. Far from being terrifying or destructive, it leads to a powerful release of energy. It frees us from our emotional paralysis.

If all this seems farfetched, I suggest you take 50 minutes and watch the film yourself. Gelbspan and John Seed are far more articulate about all of this than I am.

Something I can add to this is my own increasing awareness over the couple of years preceding my attendance at a John Seed workshop in 2007 that things I was experiencing as an individual were/are mirrored in the “outside” world (of course, this inside-outside business is merely an illusion, the illusion that contributes to the huge and overwhelming feelings of alienation that plague so many of us…) – and that the things I was seeing “outside” (e.g., denial, anger, dysfunction) were/are also present “inside.”

Where do we go from here?

Gelbspan and Seed lay out suggestions for how to proceed – on both the personal and the societal levels.

As individuals, it’s important that we ally ourselves with like-minded people, so we can put an end to the alienation that is so epidemic (and so soul-destroying) among us. As a person who’s been doing this for the past 20 years, I can attest to its value. If I hadn’t begun to create “circles of strength”(1) for myself, I’d have gone off the deep end years ago.

We have to find allies – and then do our important work together.

No one has any guarantees for us. Meanwhile, can we change??

Of course!

John Seed says, for example, that if we all begin to use clotheslines to dry our clothes, (2) instead of energy-sucking dryers, we’d be able to close down nuclear plants.

If, in the U.S. the speed limit was lowered from 75 mph to 55 mph (so John Seed said), the amount of oil saved would be equivalent to the amount that currently needs to be imported.

Are we capable of such measures?

Can we fly people to the moon and send spaceships off to explore Mars and other far-flung planets, yet not be able to dry our clothes and make other lifestyle changes and choices in ways such that the human race can survive?

Well. It is up to each of us as individuals to help decide these matters. To “vote,” as it were, with our hearts and minds, our hands and feet. And then too, of course, to require action from our so-called “leaders.”

I’ve come to believe we human beings are capable of feats most of us can barely imagine. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What lies behind us and what lies ahead are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

I say, “Fossil fuels may be a finite resource, but our human potential – human psychic energy itself – is infinite!” You can quote me on that!


Recommended Viewing

Despair and Empowerment

Embracing Pain – 4-minute Tim Wilson film featuring Joanna Macy. You can find it at this link

From the site: “Joanna Macy, Ph.D., is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and 
deep ecology. In her workshops she counsels the embracing of pain about the
world as a way of deepening our connection to it.  For more information 
about Joanna Macy's books and workshops, please visit

Joanna Macy – visit

Earth Spirit Action – 16-minute film that features John Seed, Vandana Shiva, Ruth Rosenhek, Starhawk and Matthew Fox. Inspiring, informative. Explains how inner changes – spiritual changes – must accompany outer ones. “Global activists, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk, Matthew Fox, Ruth Rosenhek and John Seed speak on Deep Ecology, Living Democracy and Revolution in Consciousness in a fast moving discussion of the type of change that needs to take place for a Sustainable Future. An inspirational and stimulating film including beautiful nature footage and a colourful array of global action shots.”

John Seed

Ross Gelbspan –

(1) This phrase comes to me no doubt from the book Circles of Strength – Community Alternatives to Alienation, a New Society Publishers book edited by Helen Forsey & published in 1993.

(2)  Here in Canada, of course, in addition to outdoor clotheslines, we also need indoor clotheshorses for winter drying; I have two sturdy wooden ones, one of them close to 30 years old by now. Still chugging!