“… we will not win the battle for a stable climate by…arguing, for instance, that it is more cost-effective to invest in emission reduction now than disaster response later. We will win by asserting that such calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation.” – Naomi Klein
All roads lead to Rome for me these days, Rome being the looming catastrophe of global climate change/warming. Journalist Dahr Jamail, in a series of in-depth articles on the subject, more aptly calls it “anthropogenic climate disruption” (http://truth-out.org/news/item/22521-climate-disruption-dispatches-with-dahr-jamail). “Anthropogenic” places the responsibility where it seems to belong, on the shoulders of humans with our shortsighted addiction to fossil fuels, money, and consumption. “Disruption” means this is not ordinary change, but something well beyond the normal cycles of planetary systems.
As Naomi Klein documents in her recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, the underlying systemic dynamics that are engendering climate disruption also give rise to most if not all of our other major crises: income inequality, financial breakdowns, racism, colonialism, war-making and militarism, weapons production and sales, threats to democracy at home and abroad, air, water, and soil pollution, radiation, and depletion—and on and on. Making the radical changes needed to mitigate climate disruption will also go a long way toward resolving these other crises.
Most of us know what changes are needed, but feel helpless to implement them. We can (and do) limit our consumption, recycle, etc, but if we live in a first world country, we cannot help contributing to resource depletion, pollution, and climate disruption just by going about our daily lives. That is because our economic, political, and social systems are unsustainable, no matter what we as individuals do.
Rebecca Solnit addresses this quandary in a recent article:
Many people believe that personal acts in private life are what matters in this crisis. They are good things, but not the key thing. It’s great to bicycle rather than drive, eat plants instead of animals, and put solar panels on your roof, but such gestures can also offer a false sense that you’re not part of the problem.
You are not just a consumer. You are a citizen of this Earth and your responsibility is not private but public, not individual but social. If you are a resident of a country that is a major carbon emitter, as is nearly everyone in the English-speaking world, you are part of the system, and nothing less than systemic change will save us. (http://www.ecobuddhism.org/science/featured_articles1/cffdio)
So we find ourselves faced with a profound moral dilemma. No matter how much we want to live in harmony within the web of life on Earth, our “Industrial Growth Society” looks the other way, looks to profit and power rather than the common good. And our choices at the ballot box, in the workplace, at the market, and even in our homes are severely circumscribed by the hegemony of this economic system.
Even after years of reading and writing about this issue, it is still very difficult for me to grasp how pervasively destructive to life this system is. This is partly because nearly everyone around me accepts it without much question, assuming it is basically sound (while possibly needing some reform). We assume, implicitly or explicitly: “Of course we need food and other goods to purchase and use, and agribusiness and the trucking industry provide them to us. Of course we need jobs, and welcoming an extractive industry to town is a great way to provide them. Of course we need to travel to meetings, conferences, and vacations, and airlines take us there. It would be good to use more solar and wind energy, but that will take a few years to come on line, and meanwhile…”
How do we comprehend that our whole way of life is unsustainable, that it is killing life on the planet at an increasing rate, that it is taking humans over the precipice of near-term extinction? How can this be?
The evidence is before us in reports from climate scientists all over the world. The Industrial Growth Society has already set in motion a number of self-reinforcing feedback loops involving melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice, thawing of permafrost with exponentially increasing methane release, forest fires expanding in acreage and intensity—among many others. (For a more complete list, see guymcpherson.com/climate chaos/.) Meanwhile, our corporate controlled media keeps us in the dark about all this, because the real news might decrease sales and profits. This censoring creates another self-reinforcing feedback loop: if we don’t know the extent of our peril, we won’t change our behavior to avert it. Nor will we prepare ourselves psychologically and spiritually to meet the enormous challenges ahead.
What if we face up to our situation and accept at least the possibility of near-term human extinction? How then shall we live?
We cannot foresee or prescribe what genuinely adaptive actions we will need to take in the face of radical climate disruption and the chaotic conditions that will accompany it. What constitutes adaptive, effective response will depend on the particular slice of chaos affecting each of us, and that will be unique for each person, family, and community. I can only offer suggestions aimed at developing our readiness to cope adaptively, to have a better chance to emerge from the chaos at a more just and sustainable systemic level.
The Work That Reconnects
One of the hallmarks of the Work That Reconnects is that it is mostly done in groups, based on the premise that we have collectively gotten ourselves into this mess, so we need to work together to transform it. We need each other’s emotional support, perspectives, and practical skills to find our way; none of us can do it alone. We need each other to keep steady in the face of global crises, to help us choose the story to which we want to dedicate ourselves.
By “story” is meant our version of reality, the lens through which we see and understand what is happening now in our world. Often our story is largely unconscious and unquestioned, and we assume it to be the only reality.
In the industrialized world today, the most commonly held stories seem to boil down to three. We have found it helpful in workshops to present these three stories as all happening right now; in that sense, they are all “true.” We can choose the one we want to get behind, the one that seems to hold the widest and most useful perspective.
1. Business As Usual is the story of the Industrial Growth Society. We hear it from politicians, business schools, corporations, and corporate-controlled media. Here the defining assumption is there is little need to change the way we live. The central plot is about getting ahead. Economic recessions and extreme weather conditions are just temporary difficulties from which we will surely recover, and even profit.
2. The Great Unraveling is the story we tend to hear from environmental scientists, independent journalists, and activists. It draws attention to the disasters that Business As Usual has caused and continues to create. It is an account backed by evidence of the on-going derangement and collapse of biological, ecological, economic, and social systems.
3. The Great Turning is the story we hear from those who see the Great Unraveling and don’t want it to have the last word. It involves the emergence of new and creative human responses that enable the transition from the Industrial Growth Society to a Life Sustaining Society. The central plot is about joining together to act for the sake of life on Earth. (Macy & Brown, 2014)
This essay has outlined the Great Unraveling in some detail, because it is happening right before our eyes. Anthropogenic climate disruption is one of its most cataclysmic results, but not the only one. Indeed the hopes for a Great Turning saving us dim with every passing day. However, even if we cannot save ourselves from near-term extinction, a Great Turning in consciousness can enable us live out our remaining time with dignity, integrity, and love.
The Work That Reconnects is organized in a Spiral with four stages: Gratitude, Honoring Our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth. We start with gratitude to open our hearts and appreciate the beauty and support the world offers us right now, in this moment in time. We thank our ancestors for the gifts they have brought to us, for the struggles they endured and the creativity they manifested in bringing us to this point in history. We acknowledge the more-than-human beings that support our life every moment, providing oxygen, water, food, shelter, materials—and beauty. No matter what the future holds, we can experience the blessings of the world we inhabit now.
Honoring our pain for the world is the central movement in the Work That Reconnects. We reframe our grief, anger, fear, and even numbness as healthy responses to a world in torment. These feelings are a form of feedback; we feel them because we need to! Allowing ourselves to plumb the depths of our pain for the world in a supportive community puts us right in touch with the depth of our love, and the essential fact of our interconnectedness within the web of life. The pain we experience is direct and irrefutable evidence that we are of Earth.
And so we begin to see with new eyes—we see ourselves and the world around us realistically, removing the false lenses of our industrial, competitive society. We discover our connection with one another and with Gaia and all her beings, through space and time. From this new vision, we feel called to act on behalf of life, each of us in our own unique way. The fourth stage of the Spiral, Going Forth, unfolds as we find ways to support one another in working for the Great Turning. No matter what the outcome, we can choose how we want to live and serve.
We have many rich wisdom traditions that can guide us in these extraordinary times. I have described one that informs my life, but in no way want to ignore others. Had we lived by the teachings of most indigenous traditions, we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in, and those traditions can still teach us how to live through adversity. The essence of most religions can offer us guidance as well, if freed of their institutional baggage and the distortions acquired from the Industrial Growth Society. Let us open our hearts and minds to the most loving and wise ways of living—and then beyond to what more-than-human beings can teach us. Let us dedicate our lives to Life on Earth.
References and further reading
Carolyn Baker and Guy McPherson, Extinction Dialogues: How to Live with Death in Mind. (Next Revelation Press, 2014)
Carolyn Baker, Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating the Relationships We Need to Thrive. (North Atlantic, 2015)
Molly Brown, Growing Whole: Self-realization for the Great Turning. (Psychosynthesis Press, 2009)
Molly Brown and Carolyn Treadway, eds. Held in Love: Life Stories to Inspire Us Through Times of Change. (Psychosynthesis Press, 2009)
Piero Ferrucci, Your Inner Will: Finding Personal Strength in Critical Times (Tarcher, 2014).
Mark Horowitz, The Dance of We: The Mindful Use of Love and Power in Human Systems. (Synthesis Center, 2014).
Dahr Jamail, “Climate disruption dispatches.” http://truth-out.org/news/item/22521-climate-disruption-dispatches-with-dahr-jamail
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, (Simon and Schuster, 2014)
Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects. (New Society, 2014).
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In without Going Crazy (New World Library, 2012).
Rebecca Solnit, “The age of capitalist fossil fuel dependency is over.” http://www.ecobuddhism.org/science/featured_articles1/cffdio.