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Episode 203: Turning Eco-Anxiety into Climate Action with Climate Psychologist, Renée Lertzman
Today's guest is Renée Lertzman, Climate Psychologist & Strategist and Founder of Project InsideOut. Renée walks me through her career path, why she focused on climate psychology, and her strategic consulting experience in the private and public sectors. We also discuss eco-anxiety and how to turn anxiety into action.
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Renee, can you just give us an overview of the work that you do and maybe some of the origin story as well of how you came about to be doing this work in the first place?
I'll start with just orienting to what I do. So I actually work with organizations, leaders, and leadership teams. So my work is very much about organizational capacity and capability. I work right now across pretty much all sectors. It's not only climate, it could relate to plastics and packaging and just all kinds of ESG sustainability issues. I will work with startups or foundations corporate kind of players, scrappy NGOs, maybe some educational kind of informal science institutions, like let's say, Monterey Bay Aquarium, or places that are actually venues where people come in and kind of are engaging and thinking about these issues.
So I work across many kinds of sectors, but the main thing is I work with Orgs and I do not do like therapy, I don't have a private practice as a psychologist. I really feel like what's needed right now is to take the skills, and expertise, and insights that have been sort of honed and developed more in those realms of psychology, neuroscience, cognitive, behavioral, the more somatic work to translate that and apply that and scale that in a whole variety of ways. So that's basically what my work is about and what I've been doing for a number of years. And it's very high impact kind of work.
It's sort of like when you were talking earlier about how you came to do this work and the, and the community that you have, and the kinds of people who are in the mix, my thinking is, well, everything that we're doing and you're talking about humans are pretty central to it. And so all we're looking at here is really just deepening the understanding of the human psychological dimensions of this work, which are completely inseparable from everything we do.
So would love to unpack that a bit more with you in a very practical way. But to start, I'll just respond to your question about the origin story, especially given this is really like foregrounding what our journeys are. And I love that, and I think that's so powerful for us to share our kind of origin stories and how we come into this work. So I'll just start by saying that, for me, it's always a little hard to know where to start because of just how we evolve as humans. It's like, well, was it my childhood? And was it where I grew up? And what are the influences? But I would really locate this in that first year I had as an undergraduate when I was studying at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1980s. I talk about this in my TED talk a bit, and I talk about it a lot in my other kind of forums because it was such a powerful experience.
So in the late 1980s, I was a freshman, I was already thought that I would become a psychologist. I was very influenced and benefited from psychology even in high school I had seen a therapist. And I grew up actually in Palo Alto and was just exposed to that kind of thinking maybe a little bit more than in other parts of the country and the world. And so I just knew, okay, I have a thing for psychology, I'm going become a therapist. And so I enrolled as a psych major.
And what happened was I happened to take a class, one of those introductory classes as a freshman, and was introduced to a whole variety of environmental and climate threats. And I found it incredibly perplexing that I was going into these, these lecture halls and being told about what's happening, species loss, deforestation, and ice sheets. It was so much to process and yet we weren't really talking about the profundity of it. We would go in and have these lectures, and then I would come out and just kind of feel like I was just sort of dropped on my own to deal with it. And then I was going into my psychology classes and of course there was no mention of any of that. And that just seemed very bizarre to me.
And so from that point on, this was in 86-87, I became just very clear that we need to join these fields up and we need to get to the bottom of, why is it that in light of what's happening, humans, I'm just generalizing here, but there's a pretty slow response to actually kind of mobilize and to engage? And so to me, that's really fundamentally a psychological question, but I don't mean just as an individual, I mean socially.
So another way of putting it, it's psychosocial. So it's not just me, I'm not just one person kind of in my own little world determining how I'm going to engage or respond, it's really, how do we, as communities, as societies, as organizations, as populations come to terms with these issues? So that really started my journey. That was in the late 1980s, it was not really a well-defined or clear field at the time. I ended up leaving eventually to do my own major because I could not find a way to do it without being creative.
And so I went out and I found my mentors, I found the people who I could train with and study with, who could enable that kind of bridging of these worlds of psychology and climate change and environmental threat. And also for a while, I was focusing mainly on communications, on how do we communicate about the issues? How do we educate people? And so for years I was really focused on that. I did a Master's in communications and I worked with some amazing people. And I just started to see that it's not just about communications it's really about how do we relate, how do we interact, and how do we engage with ourselves but also with other people when it comes to these issues.
And I just started being sort of aggressive or ruthless in my quest to surface, what do we already know? What do we understand about humans? About how humans handle anxiety, how humans handle high stakes, how humans handle risk. Like, how do we take that and apply that to this issue, this task? And what does that look like in policy, in startups, in innovation?
It really is about reframing our entire way of understanding what it takes to kind of elicit action on these issues. Because if, if anxiety actually has a way of potentially paralyzing people and making us not want to engage for a variety of reasons, if we just accept that one piece that is established already, then the implications for how we do what we do can and should be profound.
We haven't talked about your portfolio of work. But if you look at your overarching charter and how you determine which work is a fit, is it more about accelerating the transition and using psychology to undo the knots? Or is it about better equipping us to deal with what's happening so that we can be resilient and hold ourselves together? How do you think about the goal of your work?
That's a great question, because I don't separate those things out. So the end goal is absolutely about accelerating action and, and mobilizing people to frankly access our capacities to be as innovative, and agile, and flexible, and nimble as possible, right. To do work in this space, you have to be able to tolerate really high levels of uncertainty. You have to tolerate complex and messy human dynamics because you're partnering now with all kinds of new actors and stakeholders. And so there's a kind of a high kind of human developmental capability that I think we're being asked to evolve into, right. So I like to really frame it as this opportunity we have as humans to evolve into that. And in order to do that, we do have to look at the other part of what you ask, what enables us to navigate and kind of hold it together and be effective in light of what's happening.
So my work tends to focus like kind of hold those things together and encourage people working, particularly in leadership roles and leadership teams, funders, people who have, frankly, really high impact, people who really can have key leverage points in the, in the system, how to model a way of doing this work that gives, so many others kind of examples in templating and permission to see what it looks like to be effective in this space. And so in terms of my portfolio and who I work with, there are a few things that I look for, and this will determine whether I agree to take something on or not. And one of them is actually a readiness and an openness to think differently and to examine one's own and your organization or team's theories of change.
Now, I talk a lot about theories of change, which is the ability to take a step back and say, okay, let's look at how we're thinking about this and approaching this, is this, is this make sense? Is this grounded in, frankly, what the research says or are we defaulting to our assumptions or are we able to have the courage and the ability to take a step back and say, okay, we're at a point now where we're ready to, to really be as discerning as we can and really thoughtful about how we're going about this work? So that is a, kind of a rare trait [laughing]. I want to speak to why that's rare in a second, because I think it's really important. But that's one of the attributes.
And then I also look for what's connected to that is cart and people who are really coming at this from a place of kindness and wanting to bring our full selves to the work and our full selves to how we work with other people, right. And then I think a third would be humility. And that relates to the other two, which is, I really partner with organizations or leaders who have humility. And that is also can be in short supply when it comes to facing such just huge, massive challenges.
When it comes to theories of change, let's say there's, I'll just pick a random example, but a, a coal miner labor union, right. And we want to get off coal as quickly as we can because of the problem, and we want to of course ramp up cleaner sources like renewables and, and others. But we have to make sure there's a just transition and that we can't just leave these communities and these families without employment and without the means to provide for them and their loved ones.
How important is it to convince people, and in this case, coal miners and their families, that this problem matters and this problem is worthy of solving, and, and we have a duty, and versus just saying, hey, let's re-skill you and you can make substantially more income with better quality of life and more security and stability over time in a growing industry instead of a dying one? How important is it that collectively as individuals, we all understand the problem versus just making the transition and, and getting there as quickly and efficiently as we can?
I think what you're asking really goes to the heart of what we all should be talking about right now and thinking about. So my response to that is, as you were talking I was feeling like, well, on an emotional level, as someone who's been doing this work for 30 years now, and I, I come from more of a deep green kind of a radical background, I'm a deep ecologist, yeah, of course, I want people to feel emotionally involved in like this is the most important thing. And of course, I want people to have a revelation where we realize we are all connected and we have to live in balance with nature. And, oh my god, what have we done? I want to heal and repair the earth. Like, tell me what to do, sign me up and I want to heal and make reparation. Of course, I want that. Of course, I would like everyone right now to wake up and have that experience.
But I don't think that that's reasonable, I don't think that's necessarily appropriate, and I don't think that's necessary. My theory of change is that basically, each person has their own right to relate to this context we're in, in a way that makes the most sense for them. It's not my place to try to convince people of anything, that's really important. So I come from an orientation that's informed by what's called a body of work in the public health sector called motivational interviewing. And motivational interviewing is what's used in the public health sector by clinicians when they're working with people on behavior change and health issues. It's very insightful, it's very wise, and it probably has more insight about the reality of human response to change than most anything I've found, which is that we need to really honor and respect the integrity and the dignity of each human and how they are coming to this work.
So my job is not about trying to persuade, convince, or educate people about what's happening. My job is to provide the context where people can feel invited and engaged to be co-creators, to be partners in what's happening. So in your example with the coal that's a really good example. You create the conditions, you lay out the context of what's happening, but we allow people to find their way to it. And if some people feel very emotionally engaged with, oh my God, I'm having an awakening, what do we do? I need to sign up for this. That's fine, that's great. If others are finding their way into this in terms of, oh, I get to evolve and develop new skills and practices, and I'm able to earn well for my family and take care of my community that's completely great too. So I think that it's important we approach this almost an emotionally intelligent way to approach this is the way to go.
if you could change one thing outside of the scope of your control that would most accelerate your work and undo the knots as it relates to human psychology that are creating barriers to inhibit us from addressing this problem with the urgency it requires, what would you change and how would you change it?
I would ensure that those working in this space have a baseline literacy of the psychology of climate change. And what that means to me is not just behavioral science, or messaging, or design thinking, it's actually understanding and appreciating the psychological dimensions of what it means to confront this work and to engage with this. And so, so to me, it's like having a baseline competency and capability.
And two is understanding and appreciating the role of anxiety. That when, when there's anxiety when people are feeling anxiety for a variety of reasons, it actually has a profound impact on our ability to learn, to grow, to be expansive, to be flexible, to be resilient. And to me, the X factor here is if people in this space, working in climate, actually prioritized and, and understood, at a deeper level, that work just like we do with science, tech, and policy, it has to also include the psychological dimensions as well. That is the one thing I would do.
Maybe that's a lead in to the project that I started a couple of years ago, which is a grant-supported project called Project Inside Out, that I set up as an experiment. It's super scrappy and really early days, but the objective is, is exactly that, is to provide people working on these issues with some tools and frameworks to orient towards the work we do, no matter if you're a startup or an entrepreneur, or if you're a ... whatever you're doing, to look at your work through that lens of the psychological dimensions of this work, hopefully in a, in a practical way.
And Renee, for anyone that's listening that's inspired by your work, how can we help you? Or who might you want to hear from, if anybody?
So you can help by becoming a partner or supporting Project Inside Out, so it's projectinsideout.net, and you can get in touch with me. I'm always very open and interested in funding partners. So I mean, people can always just contribute however they want, but I'd like to be in partnership and to see what is possible when you bring different disciplines and skillsets together, and it makes our work better. So that's Project Inside Out. And then I love working with organizations, so I welcome conversations to explore partnering on that level.
And then I guess the third thing I would say is just talk about these issues with each other Start talking about how we're feeling and how we're doing as part of doing this work and to kind of help each other normalize that so that it's okay to start a meeting and have everyone just check-in and say, hey, this is how I'm doing right now. And that actually really supports your ability to be even more effective and productive. To, to give each other permission to be ourselves with this work, to be gentle with ourselves, to give ourselves that kind of grace, that this is really hard stuff, this is sometimes really overwhelming, and it's actually okay to feel overwhelmed sometimes. It's okay, it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. And that will come out of it. That is just part of the territory.
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