The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible
Chapter 8: Climate
What, then, of the climate change activist who says, “Certainly, inclusivity, exposing unconscious racism and classism, giving voice to the marginalized, nonviolent communication, deep listening skills, and so forth are all worthy goals, but we are talking about the survival of our species here. We need to achieve CO2 reduction by whatever means necessary. These other things can come later. None will matter if we don’t stop the six or eight degree temperature rise that our present course entails. Therefore, to devote oneself to these things, or indeed to most social issues, is a bit frivolous.”
It may not be obvious, but this view buys in to another version of the Story of Separation, in which the universe comprises a multitude of independent phenomena. In it, an environmental leader’s neglect of his family or contracting of minimum-wage janitorial services has no bearing on global climate change. Quantum mechanics, with its collapse of the self/other, object/universe, observer/observed distinction, offers us a new set of intuitions about how reality works. I won’t say that it “proves” that by changing your beliefs or relationships you will remedy climate change. It does, however, suggest a principle of interconnectedness that implies that every action has cosmic significance. But even without sourcing that principle in quantum mechanics, we can get there simply by asking, What is the real cause of climate change? CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases, perhaps? Okay, what is the cause of those? Maybe consumerism, technological arrogance, and the growth imperative built in to the financial system. And what is the cause of those? Ultimately it is the deep ideologies that govern our world, the defining mythology of our civilization that I have called the Story of Separation.
Carbon dioxide emissions will not change unless everything else that encourages them changes as well. Simply wanting to reduce CO2 isn’t enough, as the abysmal failure of 1992 Rio climate accords shows. The world solemnly declared its intention to freeze CO2 emissions; in the twenty years following, they rose by 50 percent. Rising CO2 is inseparable from every other facet of the Story of Separation. Therefore, any action that addresses any of those facets also addresses climate change.
Sometimes, the web of connections that ultimately implicates climate change is visible through our usual lens of causality. Those whose cause is cannabis legalization could point to the ecological benefits of plant medicine over technology-intensive, energy-intensive, chemical-intensive pharmaceuticals, to the biofuel potential of industrial hemp, or even to the way that marijuana smoking weakens some people’s drive to participate fully in the Machine. For other areas of activism, the causal link to climate change is harder to see. How about marriage equality? Ending human trafficking? Giving shelter to the homeless? In the separate self’s understanding of causality, it is hard to see how these relate.
Let us ask, What kind of human being is politically passive, votes from fear and hate, pursues endless material acquisition, and is afraid to contemplate change? We have all those behaviors written into our dominant worldview and, therefore, into the institutions arising from it. Cut off from nature, cut off from community, financially insecure, alienated from our own bodies, immersed in scarcity, trapped in a tiny, separate self that hungers constantly for its lost beingness, we can do no other than to perpetuate the behavior and systems that cause climate change. Our response to the problem must touch on this fundamental level that we might call spirituality.
It is here where the root of our collective illness lies, of which global warming is but a symptomatic fever. Let us be wary of measures that address only the most proximate cause of that symptom and leave the deeper causes untouched. Already some would justify fracking, nuclear power, and other ecologically destructive activities on the (specious) grounds that they will ameliorate climate change. Technological ideologues propose vast geoengineering schemes that would seed the stratosphere with sulfuric acid or the oceans with iron, actions that might have enormous unintended consequences, and that are an extension of the same mindset of managing and controlling nature that is at the root of our ecological predicament.
For this reason, I am a bit wary of the conventional narrative about global warming, in which reducing CO2 and other greenhouse emissions is the top environmental priority. This narrative lends itself too easily to centralized solutions and the mentality of maximizing (or minimizing) a number. It subsumes all the small, local things we need to do to create a more beautiful world in a single cause for which all else must be sacrificed. This is the mentality of war, in which an all-important end trumps any compunctions about the means and justifies any sacrifice. We as a society are addicted to this mindset; thus the War on Terror replaced the Cold War, and if climate change loses popularity as a casus belli, we will surely find something else to replace it—say, the threat of an asteroid hitting Earth—to justify the mentality of war.
The mentality of war, which justifies and compels the sacrifice of all things for the sake of Victory, is also the mentality of usury. As I describe in Sacred Economics, a money system that like ours is based on interest-bearing debt impels the endless growth of the money realm and the conversion of the many into the one—the diversity of values into a unitary quantity called value. As society becomes increasingly monetized, its members accept that money is the key to the fulfillment of any need or desire. Money, the universal means, becomes therefore a universal end as well. Just like the paradise of technological Utopia or the final victory in the war against evil, it becomes a god with an insatiable demand for sacrifice. The pursuit of it subsumes the small or unquantifiable acts and relationships that make life truly rich, but that the numbers cannot justify. When money is the goal, everything that cannot be translated into its terms gets squeezed out.
The same happens with war, of course, and with any campaign toward a grand unitary goal. If you have ever been a crusader to save the world, you may have noticed how the little things that make life rich get deprioritized and squeezed out. You may wonder, “What kind of revolution am I fomenting here? What experience of life am I upholding as an example?” These are important questions! They cannot be ignored if it is true, as our intuitions tell us, that the crisis we face today goes all the way to the bottom.
There is a danger that the climate change issue occludes other important environmental issues: deforestation, eutrophication, fishery depletion, radioactive waste, nuclear accidents, wetlands destruction, genetic pollution, toxic waste, pharmaceutical pollution, electromagnetic pollution, habitat destruction of all kinds, soil erosion, species extinction, aquifer and freshwater depletion and pollution, and biodiversity loss. Some of the things we need to do to reduce CO2 emissions would also mitigate these other problems; in other cases, they appear unrelated. If the well-being of, say, a coral reef, or even of just one pond, doesn’t implicate the future of civilization via climate change, should we not care about it? Focusing on greenhouse gas emissions emphasizes the quantifiable while making the qualitative—might I even say the sacred?—invisible. Environmentalism is reduced to a numbers game. We as a society are comfortable with that, but I think the shift we must make is deeper. We need to come into direct, caring, sensuous relationship with this forest, this mountain, this river, this tiny plot of land, and protect them for their own sake rather than for an ulterior end. That is not to deny the dangers of greenhouse gases, but ultimately our salvation must come from recovering a direct relationship to what’s alive in front of us.
We implicitly devalue that direct relationship when we cite greenhouse gases as our reason for opposing fracking, tar sands excavation, or mountaintop removal. We conform to the mentality that sacrifices the local and concrete for the sake of the global and the abstract. That is perilous. Numbers can be manipulated; data can be misinterpreted. For instance, climate change skeptics point out that atmospheric temperature has remained steady since 1997 (but what about the oceans?). It is likely to rise again soon, but what if we face not continued warming, but increasingly violent climate gyrations as the atmospheric composition changes with unprecedented rapidity at the same time the primary homeostatic control systems in the forests and oceans are degraded? Or what if some geoengineering scheme brought down CO2 levels, or promised to do so? Then fracking and drilling opponents would have no ground to stand on. That is why, in addition to systems-level measures to address climate change (for example, a fee-and-dividend system for carbon fuels), we need to appeal directly to our love for the real, local, unique, and irreplaceable land and water. No amount of data can obscure a clear-cut. It can obscure “total acres of clear-cutting,” but not this clear-cut. We need to ground environmentalism on something other than data.
Skeptical as I am about the conventional story of climate change, I am even more skeptical of climate change skepticism. Most of the skeptics seem to dismiss every environmental concern with the same blithe confidence that Earth can withstand anything we do to it. The issue of climate change is coming from an important realization that is relatively new for our civilization: that we are not separate from nature; that what we do to the world, we do to ourselves; that we are a part of the dynamic balance of Gaia and must act as responsible members of the community of all life on Earth. Many climate change skeptics seem to long for a simpler time, a story in which we lived on Earth and not as part of it.
In the Story of Interbeing, we should expect that any imbalance in our own society and collective psychology would be mirrored in analogous imbalances in Gaian processes. CO2 and other greenhouse gases surely contribute to the instability of the climate. Even more dangerous, though, is deforestation, because the forests are so crucial in maintaining planetary homeostasis (in many ways, not only as carbon sinks). With healthy forests, the planet is much more resilient. Forests, in turn, are not merely collections of trees: they are complex living beings in which every species contributes to their health, which means that biodiversity is another factor in climate regulation. Clear-cutting aside, the decline of one after another species of trees all over the world is something of a mystery to scientists: in each case, there seems to be a different proximate culprit—a beetle, a fungus, etc. But why have they become susceptible? Acid rain leaching free aluminum from soil silicates? Ground-level ozone damaging leaves? Drought stress caused by deforestation elsewhere? Heat stress due to climate change? Understory damage due to deer overpopulation due to predator extermination? Exogenous insect species? Insect population surges due to the decline of certain bird species?
Or is it all of the above? Perhaps underneath all of these vectors of forest decline and climate instability is a more general principle that is inescapable. Everything I have mentioned stems from a kind of derangement in our own society. All come from the perception of separation from nature and from each other, upon which all our systems of money, technology, industry, and so forth are built. Each of these projects itself onto our own psyches as well. The ideology of control says that if we can only identify the “cause,” we can control climate change. Fine, but what if the cause is everything? Economy, politics, emissions, agriculture, medicine … all the way to religion, psychology, our basic stories through which we apprehend the world? We face then the futility of control and the necessity for transformation.
Let me take the argument of interbeing to its extreme. Climate change skeptics often blame climate fluctuations on the sun, which of course is not influenced by human activity—right? Well, I would hazard to bet that most premodern people would disagree that the sun is unaffected by human affairs. Many of them had rituals to thank and propitiate the sun, so that it would keep shining. Could it be that they knew something that we do not? Could it be that the sun is recoiling in pain from the ingratitude and violence humanity is perpetrating on Earth? That it will inevitably mirror our own derangement?
Yes, my friends, the conceptual revolution we are beginning goes this deep. We need to rediscover the mind of nature, to return to our original animism and the ensouled universe it perceived. We need to understand nature, the planet, the sun, the soil, the water, the mountains, the rocks, the trees, and the air as sentient beings whose destiny is not separate from our own. As far as I know, no indigenous person on Earth would deny that a rock bears some kind of awareness or intelligence. Who are we to think differently? Are the results of the modern scientific view so impressive as to justify such arrant presumptuousness? Have we created a society more beautiful than they? In fact, as the example of the quantum particle suggests, science is finally circling back toward animism. To be sure, scientific paradigms that countenance an intelligent universe are mostly heterodox today, but they are gradually encroaching on the mainstream. Take the example of water. Emerging from the shadows of homeopathy, anthroposophy, and research by marginal figures like Masaru Emoto and the brilliant Viktor Schauberger, the idea that water itself is alive, or at least bears structure and individuality, is now being explored by mainstream scientists like Gerald Pollack. We still have a long way to go before anything like the sentience of all matter can be accepted, or even articulated, by science. But imagine what that belief would mean when we contemplate mountaintop removal mining, polluting aquifers with fracking fluid, and so on.
Whatever the mechanism—greenhouse gases, deforestation, or solar fluctuations—climate change is sending us an important message. We and Earth are one. As above, so below: what we do to each other, even to the smallest animal or plant, we do to all creation. Perhaps all our small, invisible acts imprint themselves upon the world in ways we do not understand.
8. Similar things can be said of the oceans, where overfishing, eutrophication (by fertilizer and sewage), and other forms of pollution may harm the ocean’s climate moderating function. Acidification due to CO2 may also contribute to this problem.