06 July 2014

Dilettantes of the World, Start Your Climate Change Dabbling!

I was called a dilettante recently (by someone who attended our Toronto event and apparently would have done it differently, as we would have in a perfect world). 

I looked the word up cuz it's not one that floats around in my vocabulary. 

dilettante: a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge 

"Dilettante comes from the Italian word dilettare, 'to delight.' Its connotation is that someone enjoys doing something, but does not take it seriously enough to become a professional at it. Most often used in relation to the arts and often is used as a critical way of describing someone who simply dabbles in the arts and lacks the discipline to perfect their skill.”

Now the funny thing is that he threw this epithet out as an insult. But it doesn't insult me. Except for the "without real commitment" part (he has no idea how much of my life is dedicated to this cause), it's true. I'm someone who has had to cultivate an interest in environmental issues, especially climate change, but I didn't have much knowledge in the area. (I'm a French teacher by training. I'm also a Gemini, which means I have fingers in many pies. Plus I'm the wage earner in my family, and a volunteer in my community, and a caregiver, and someone who enjoys long walks on occasion.) And despite the many hours my husband and I spend on climate change, we certainly aren't professional in the sense of getting paid to do this work.
I'm pretty sure the hurler of this would-be insult is simply a misunderstood genius with a short fuse and an impatience with people like me who have to work hard to understand things. But he got me thinking....
We probably need more dilettantes in our climate change campaigns, right? We need more people, period, working on our side, and very few of us are experts. But it seems people are wary of "dabbling" in climate change. Do they think it will take too long to understand the issues adequately? Is it a lack of confidence? Or a lack of mentors? 
During my master's research into effective learning about sustainable development, I realized that a major barrier is what I called the "I'm-not-an-expert" barrier. Here's what I wrote: "Many people don't become involved in environmental issues because they believe they don't have adequate knowledge or experience. John Gaventa (in a book chapter called 'The powerful, the powerless, and the experts: Knowledge struggles in an information age') poses several questions that point to an ideology of expertise held by many people in our culture:

  • Who has the right to define knowledge?
  • What is the relationship of 'popular' knowledge to 'official' knowledge?
  • Who produces knowledge? For whose interests?
  • What are the mechanisms of the power of expertise?

"David Orr accounts for the I'm-not-an-expert barrier as an overspecialization problem, which makes ecoliteracy difficult for Westerners. 'The ability to think broadly, to know something of what is hitched to what ... is being lost in an age of specialization.... To think in ecolate fashion presumes a breadth of experience with healthy natural systems, both of which are increasingly rare' (in Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world)."

Ah, interesting. We're criticized for being non-experts and non-specialists, while the experts are lamenting overspecialization. Can't win for losin'.

The irony of this fellow's stinging critique was that he preceded it with a quote from Naomi Klein: "Not until we have a plan to heal the planet that also heals our broken selves and our broken communities do we have a hope." 
It strikes me that if this is the way climate change dilettantes and dabblers are going to be treated by the people on our own side, we're a long way from the hope and healing that's going to safeguard the future.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?