Though I don’t consider myself a religious or spiritual person, the Serenity Prayer has been on my mind a lot lately, because it strikes me as good advice for anyone who is trying to create positive change in the world. For those who aren’t familiar with the Serenity Prayer, it goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Given how crazy life is these days and how many global crises seem to be exploding all at once, I need this reminder to focus on achievable goals and spend my “worry budget” strategically.
I’m familiar with the Serenity Prayer because my dad was a recovering alcoholic who attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings throughout my childhood (at which this prayer is used). We did not have a great relationship, but witnessing his struggles and his engagement in the 12-step recovery process certainly shaped my thinking about how people can be inspired to change and why they might falter.
In my current line of work, people look to me for guidance on how our entire society can change — very quickly — to address the climate crisis. In general, they seem to want a clear and concise plan, which I can’t easily provide, since the issue is so complex. But since the Serenity Prayer has brought me comfort lately, I decided to take a crack at developing a 12-step process (loosely based on AA’s 12 steps) that we can individually pursue to overcome our collective addiction to fossil fuels and accelerate the transition to a regenerative economy:
Step 1: Admit that you have a very big and serious problem that requires urgent attention. At this stage, there’s no need to get specific about the details (unless you want to). It’s sufficient to just acknowledge that you are a participant in economic and social systems that are causing great harm to people (both in our community and around the world) and the natural systems on which all of our lives depend.
Step 2: Identify good partners and surround yourself with positive, inspiring influences. Because this problem is bigger and more complex than you can possibly fathom or address as an individual, you’ll have to band together with other people who share your concerns and trust in your collective ability to accomplish amazing and important things. To find those people, you may need to explore new environments and put yourself in situations that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Though some of your attempts will fail, the process will help you clarify what type of companion you want on your journey and who you should avoid (at least initially). Prioritize building relationships with people who are kind, compassionate, patient, humble, and open to change. Steer clear of people who are self-righteous, judgmental, cynical, and inflexible. You should also be selective about what media you expose yourself to, since information overload and misinformation/disinformation can quickly lead you astray.
Step 3: Explicitly define your values and life purpose, ideally in writing. These can and should evolve over time, because creating new ways of being in the world and freeing yourself from harmful expectations that are a product of your socialization won’t happen overnight. Just keep questioning your assumptions about how the world works and regularly ask yourself who you want to be and what is truly important to you. Ideally, your intended purpose will include some contribution toward repairing Earth’s natural systems and/or our country’s social fabric, both of which are essential for human flourishing.
Step 4: Commit to engaging in a process of learning, unlearning, personal growth, and transformation that will ultimately align your day-to-day activities with your values and purpose. It’s OK if you have no idea how to accomplish this. Just decide that you’re going to do it and think of it as a life-long adventure! If that feels scary and intimidating, remind yourself that these feelings are normal and reach out to the people who inspire and support you. If other people are trying to hold you back, recognize that this is also normal. Your commitment to change will feel threatening to those who are comfortable with the status quo, because it will force them to recognize their own role in upholding harmful systems. If they give you too much grief, find ways to establish healthy relationship boundaries (especially if you live with them and/or see them on a daily basis).
Step 5: Take a good hard look at your life and identify which aspects of it align with your values and purpose and which don’t. You may want to ask others for help with this process, since you likely have blindspots. That could include gathering information from technical experts (e.g., getting an energy audit), internet research about eco-friendly practices for your home and workplace, talking to a friend or therapist about how the extractive economy shapes your way of thinking and behaving, and/or many, many other strategies. As you discover things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient, just keep in mind that you are not alone and you are not to blame for the systemic issues that make it very hard to live an environmentally and socially responsible life in this country.
Step 6: Publicly and openly acknowledge your personal shortcomings, challenges, fears, and hopes. Take responsibility for the ways in which you contribute to and participate in harmful systems, while also calling attention to the systems themselves. In other words, speak your truth! Engage your friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues in conversations about the journey you are on and where you are hoping to go. Again, frame it as an adventure (which is exciting precisely because it involves risk and uncertainty) and invite them to join and support you on that adventure.
Step 7: Claim your power and/or find ways to share your power. This is where my 12-Steps fundamentally depart from AA’s 12-Steps, which start out with claiming powerlessness. This form of surrender may be helpful for some people who are trying to break their addiction to alcohol and drugs, but I don’t think it was helpful for my dad (based on his periodic relapses and general pattern of not taking responsibility for his actions), and I definitely don’t think it’s helpful for anyone who is trying to break free from harmful, oppressive systems (such as the extractive, fossil-fuel-based economy). I believe that everyone has the power to do something in their personal and professional lives that will contribute to creating a better world. You just have to figure out what your strengths are and how you want to deploy them. If you are a person who already holds a great deal of power, look for opportunities to equitably redistribute that power and support the empowerment of others.
Step 8: Divest from extractive pursuits. This can’t/won’t happen overnight, but as quickly as you can responsibly manage, stop spending your personal resources (time, energy, expertise, attention, money, skills, etc.) on anything that upholds the extractive economy and harms people and/or the planet (based on the opportunities you identified in step 5). If an activity doesn’t align with your values and life purpose, just don’t do it. If this requires dramatic lifestyle changes, don’t hesitate to pursue them, but take time at the outset to develop a well-thought-out transition plan that accounts for how your actions might impact other people.
Step 9: Reinvest in regenerative pursuits, or in other words, dedicate your time, energy, expertise, attention, money, skills, etc. to activities that (1) equitably meet human needs, (2) support human health and wellbeing, (3) repair and restore natural systems, and (4) help humans live within the boundaries of what our planet can provide. This will likely include personal lifestyle changes, but don’t forget to contribute to changing systems too! Be mindful of how and where your personal resources are flowing, and then redirect them with intention and purpose. You may also find it helpful to reestablish your connection with the Earth and with other humans, so consider what that might look like for you.
Step 10: Celebrate your successes! This journey/adventure/transition will certainly have its ups and downs, but overall it should be fun, joyful, and pleasurable. So be deliberate about creating positive experiences, and then allow yourself to thoroughly savor them (in healthy, regenerative ways, of course).
Step 11: Help others who are on a similar journey. Once you start getting the hang of what it means to live a regenerative life, you can be a great resource for those who are trying to do the same. Gently guide and support them. Stay humble and patient. And most importantly, resist the urge to turn into a preachy, self-righteous jerk!
Step 12: Continually repeat and refine the previous 11 steps … for the rest of your life. This exhilarating journey has no finish line for people in my generation and older, since it will likely take multiple generations to repair the harm that humans have caused in the world. So embrace the process and enjoy the adventure!
Those are the 12 steps as I define them today. I welcome feedback that will help me improve them over time. I have to admit that when I started writing this column, I thought it was a light-hearted, silly exercise that I was pursuing just for fun. By the time I finished, it was clear to me that I need this guidance as much as anyone. Even though I’ve been doing climate-focused work for almost a decade, I’m still in the early stages of trying to (1) understand the deeper systemic issues that underlie the climate crisis and (2) figure out what role I can or should play in addressing those root causes.
As for the Serenity Prayer, here’s what it teaches me: I accept that I cannot singlehandedly fix or even completely understand the environmental and social crises that we are currently facing. I also recognize that this is a good thing, because it motivates me to coordinate/cooperate with other people and keep my ego in check. On a global scale, my role in advancing a better future will be basically undetectable, but so long as I can look my kids in the eye and honestly tell them that I did the best I could, I will be at peace with myself and experience serenity. Keeping this goal in mind gives me the courage I need to pursue opportunities for productive action. Though I clearly don’t have the wisdom (yet) to accurately differentiate between things I can and cannot change, I find it tragic how many people underappreciate and undervalue their personal power and capacity to make a difference in the world, so I am committed to erring on the side of boldness, even if I ultimately fall short.
I hope you will join me on this journey and find some use for these 12 steps as a roadmap. Though the path and destination are uncertain, I believe we are collectively embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, and I’m sure it’ll be more enjoyable if we travel together as willing, intentional, compassionate collaborators. So please, commit to overcoming your addiction to fossil fuels and finding your role in the transition to a regenerative economy, and try to get others involved in that process too.
Abigail McHugh-Grifa, Ph.D. is executive director of Climate Solutions Accelerator.e