Contrary to its self-conception, Extinction Rebellion is not actually about climate change. The climate issue is, rather, the vehicle for the expression of a deeper yearning. Greta Thunberg and the climate strikers embody a refusal to comply with a system that is anti-life. “I will not go to school. I will not participate in this. I want no part of the program.”
The climate emergency gives form to an intuitive, inarticulate alienation from the project of civilization as it stands. It offers a focal point to identify as the source of wrongness. It channels onto one thing the revolutionary aspiration to change everything. But if we were to awaken tomorrow to the news that the science was mistaken and global temperatures have leveled off, the driving energy of the protestors would persist. That is because they recognize that the challenge facing humanity is not “How do we sustain business-as-usual using carbon-neutral fuels?” Business-as-usual is not OK, and switching fuels will not make it so. Like the anti-war radicals of the 1960s, like the anti-globalization protestors of the 90s, like the Occupy Wall Street occupiers, they do not aspire to modest reforms. They know that modest reforms do not reach deep enough. They recognize, whether consciously or not, that ecocide is a feature and not a bug of the current socioeconomic system. They know that we can do better than a world of unrelenting poverty, inequality, warfare, domestic violence, racism, and environmental destruction. And they know that each of these generates the others.
In other words, the issue is not whether our current civilization is sustainable. Do we even want to sustain it? Can’t we do better than this?
Speaking at the inauguration of the Berlin Extinction Rebellion camp last October, I hazarded a guess about what the movement is really about. What we really want, I said, is for humanity to hold nature sacred again. What we want is to move from a society of domination to one of participation, from conquest to co-creation, from extraction to regeneration, from harm to healing, and from separation to love. And we want to enact this transition in all our relations: ecological, economic, political, and personal. That is why we can say, “The revolution is love.”
Such a goal does not easily translate into politically articulable demands. Every demand I could make is either too small or too big. If it is politically conceivable, the demand is too small. If it is within the power and willingness of existing political authorities to implement, if it fits within the current political universe, it must not require fundamental change. At best, such demands alleviate a symptom or suggest a direction we might follow, a destination we might aspire to. At worst, they would have us play a diverting tune to accompany the world’s death-march.
If, on the other hand, we issue demands commensurate with the magnitude of the change we wish to see, then pray tell: of whom are these demands to be made? Do we imagine that the global industrial economy and its surrounding political apparatus are a freight train, and we can simply ask the engineer to throttle the engine? The political and corporate elites are as helpless as everyone else, subject to forces beyond their control and, for the most part, beyond their understanding. What we really want – the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible, and whose unrealized possibility will instigate new rebellion with each generation – is beyond the power of any authority to grant. That does not mean it is impossible, nor that we are helpless to serve its becoming. What it means is that the language of demanding may not be appropriate.
The fossil-fuel based system has enormous momentum. It is woven into every facet of modern life, from medicine to agriculture to transport, manufacturing, and housing. Every activist must understand that a demand to get off fossil fuels is a demand to change everything, and that this demand is impossible to fulfill. Its goal is not impossible; a change in everything is what we are here to serve. But it cannot be realized as a demand, because there is no one with the power to fulfill it.
Even the articulated demands of Extinction Rebellion are impossible for currently constituted power to fulfill. Look what happens when governments do so much as increase fuel taxes. Riots and protests around the globe, from France to Ecuador to Zimbabwe to Indonesia, follow hikes in fuel prices, and governments must either capitulate or send in the troops to quell unrest. (Usually they do both, since canceling the price rises cannot assuage the deeper unrest that they tapped into.) Since fossil fuels are integral to global society, to transition away from them entails society’s total disruption. It is not just a matter of replacing fossil fuels with solar, wind, and biomass, perhaps applying carbon capture devices and geoengineering technologies to draw down carbon and allow business as usual to continue. No. The intermittency problem, land use requirements, and limits to supplies of rare earth minerals make this infeasible. But even if we could continue business as usual, do we really want to?
By framing anything as a demand, we entrench existing political power relationships. We limit what we can achieve to what those in power can grant. We confer power upon those whom we hold powerful, and inevitably set them up as enemies when they fail to enact the ultimatum.
A demand implies a threat: “Do as I say – or else!” To make a demand, backed by the threat of force or at least the threat of inconvenience, that someone is unable to fulfill is to make them an adversary. Movements that do this tend to shrink over time, not grow. Alienated from the public they are trying to save and unable to achieve tangible results, they shrink into a self-righteous cadre of martyrs. We have seen the same pattern play out again and again. Inevitably, the police confirm the self-righteousness by committing some act of brutality in the course of maintaining order. The debate becomes about whether the police violence is justified, whether violent measures are justified in turn, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. The protests themselves become the issue, rather than what the protests are about. The protestors attempt to leverage each incident of police violence to shift public opinion to their side – we must be the good guys, because look how bad the government is. A media war ensues, a struggle to control the narrative. Within their separate media bubbles and social media echo chambers, each side becomes more and more convinced of its virtue and of the other side’s turpitude. In this way, both sides enact the archetypical drama we call war, adopting the age-old assumption that the key to solving any problem is to overcome an enemy. Progress is won through a fight, a struggle for domination. Can we not see that the same domination mentality underlies civilization’s ecocide? Another kind of revolution beckons.
There is a certain comfort in establishing a set of enemies as the key to solving a crisis. We replace a goal we don’t know how to achieve (changing everything) with one we do (toppling a leader, overthrowing a government, seizing political power). In this way, the illusion of power diverts our revolutionary energy onto a lesser goal. If the engineer won’t throttle the engine, why, we’ll toss him off the train and throttle it ourselves. Probably, like most revolutionaries, we will fail to seize control at all. In the unlikely event that we succeed and find ourselves in the engine room, we will discover we are just as incapable of throttling the engine as its previous occupant was.
None of this is to say we should just give up and go home. Let us trust hope. Authentic hope is not a distraction from reality, it is the premonition of a possibility. To reach it, we have to step outside conventional problem-solution vicious circle, in which each solution generates the same problem in another guise. The conventional diagnosis of the climate change problem is itself part of the problem, and so, therefore, are the solutions that come of it. Stepping outside of it, we may arrive at different demands and, more importantly, ways that address the crisis that lie outside the mentality of demanding altogether.
The incapacity of our leaders to make significant changes mirrors the incapacity of the public. I heard a story of some London protestors who managed to halt an Underground train. Doubtless, they were thinking that any inconvenience suffered by the passengers is nothing compared to saving the human race from extinction. Dramatic action is needed! Maybe a general boycott of all fossil-fuel transport. Well, the passengers were not supportive. One said, “Maybe I’m on my way to the hospital – have you thought of that?” Many were working class, commuting to jobs upon which their families depend. To a greater or lesser degree, most people’s lives are likewise wedded to the world-destroying machine. Appealing to personal virtue to persuade people to use less, burn less, ride less, is pointless when they inhabit a system that requires them to use, burn, and ride just to survive.
The disruptive tactics alienate people who suffer the disruption, signaling, “We are willing to sacrifice you to The Cause.” “We are here to save you – whether you like it or not!” In doing that, the protesters are creating in their public relations the same us-them dynamics that pertain to their relationship to the authorities.
Can you think of other contexts where some must be sacrificed, against their will, for the greater good? Where some beings are just in the way of progress? Where the freedom of someone is overridden without her consent? This is not to say that one must obtain the consent of everyone affected before initiating a protest action. It is simply to take them into account. To pause for a moment to see the world through their eyes, and to understand their experience of life. It is to embrace empathy. Empathy is unavailable when the fog of judgment clouds the heart.
Adding to public distrust of activists is the self-righteousness that is coded into appeals to personal virtue. If we hold ourselves virtuous for our activism and low-carbon lifestyles, and grant ourselves self-approval and membership in the ranks of the moral, we thereby cast others into the ranks of the immoral, the ignorant, the wrong. The more we douse ourselves in the perfume of virtue, the more we give off the stench of sanctimony. We would be more effective if, rather than holding ourselves apart in unforgiving judgement, we would seek to understand deeply the totality of the circumstances of those we judge. That is called inclusivity. It is the gateway to a revolution of love.
Much of the exclusivity of the environmental movement stems from the reduction of “green” to a function of carbon accountancy – a dangerous simplification that leaves out the beings, including human beings, who seem not to “count.” What is the carbon contribution of whales? Sea turtles? The tube riders? Homeless? Prisoners? Nightingales? Owls? Wolves? When will we learn that the beings we exclude end up being the most important of all? When will we learn that we are all in this together? This is not the kind of revolution where we sacrifice some beings for “the cause” of saving the world, it is one where we recognize that healing will come through valuing the devalued. After all, what has been othered, excluded, and devalued more than nature herself? To value nature’s beings in terms of carbon, a measurable quantity subject to the customary cost-benefit analyses, is not a very big departure from valuing her beings in terms of money. Everyone and everything left out of that valuation will come back to haunt us, because the truth is that all are important in maintaining conditions for thriving life.
What is devalued when we count carbon? What is not counted? Well, ecosystems for one. To scale up “green energy” technologies such as solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, and electric vehicles would require a vast expansion of mining. Does the reader understand what a major mining operation looks like? It isn’t an innocuous hole in the ground. Here’s a description of the Peñasquito silver mine in Mexico:
Covering nearly 40 square miles [100 square kilometers], the operation is staggering in its scale: a sprawling open-pit complex ripped into the mountains, flanked by two waste dumps each a mile long, and a tailings dam full of toxic sludge held back by a wall that’s 7 miles around and as high as a 50-story skyscraper. This mine will produce 11,000 tons of silver in 10 years before its reserves, the biggest in the world, are gone.
To transition the global economy to renewables, we need to commission up to 130 more mines on the scale of Peñasquito. Just for silver.
Similar mines are necessary to meet renewable energy’s increased demand for copper, neodymium, lithium, cobalt, and other minerals. Each takes a bite out of forests and other ecosystems, poisons water tables, and generates vast amounts of toxic waste. Each generates untold social misery to accompany the ecological misery, and a geopolitics just like that of petroleum extraction. One need look no further for an example than the whitewashed coup in Bolivia, which possesses enormous reserves of lithium that the ousted president, Evo Morales, had planned to nationalize.
The other main renewable energy technologies – hydro and biomass – are, when produced at industrial scale, perhaps even more ecologically horrific than mining, leaving dislocated people and destroyed ecosystems. This cannot be what we environmentalists have in mind: to convert Earth’s biota into fuel and her rivers into power plants.
Those who care about this earth, I beg of you: be careful what you ask for. Be careful of making the wrong demands – the too-small demands that actually change nothing and might cause more harm than good. Beware of the go-to solutions that your pressure and your urgency invite. Some of them may be solutions that exacerbate the problem, solutions that are acceptable to established power because they bear no threat to its foundations.
To be sure, fossil fuel extraction wreaks horrible damage to the earth and water, regardless of CO2. Maybe we need to shift the emphasis from carbon – which disallows fossil fuels but allows all kinds of other harm – onto ecocide, which disallows both and sets a new and very different standard for what counts as “green.”
It is time to take a stand for a transition more profound than can be encompassed in carbon metrics. What kind of change is required to know ecocide to be what the word implies – murder?
The deeper causes of climate change are identical to the deeper causes of most of the violence, injustice, and ecological harm on Earth. Some say that cause is capitalism, but the former socialist countries were just as rapacious as capitalist countries, if not more so. I propose that the root cause of ecocide is the world-story of modern civilization. I call it the Story of Separation: the story that holds me separate from you, humanity separate from nature, spirit separate from matter, and soul separate from flesh; that holds full beingness and consciousness to be the exclusive province of the human being, whose destiny is therefore to rise to domination over the mechanical forces of nature to impose intelligence onto a world that has none. The Story of Separation embeds capitalism-as-we-know-it. It scaffolds all of our systems. It mirrors the psychology that has adapted to those systems. Each – story, system, and psychology – perpetuates the others.
The first demand of Extinction Rebellion is that the government tell the truth about climate change, but does it even know the truth? Who is prepared to tell the truth that Earth is alive? That the cause of ecological degradation lies in the deepest stories that civilization tells itself? Who is prepared to tell the truth of what the crisis therefore asks of us – total transformation, an initiation into a new kind of civilization?
A life initiation begins with a crisis that dissolves what you knew and what you were. From the rubble of the ensuing collapse, a new self is born into a new world.
Societies can also undergo initiation. That is what climate change poses to the present global civilization. It is not a mere “problem” that we can solve from the currently dominant worldview and its solution set, but asks us to inhabit a new Story of the People and a new (and ancient) relationship to the rest of life.
A key element of this transformation is from a geomechanical worldview to a Living Planet worldview. The climate crisis will not be solved by adjusting levels of atmospheric gases, as if we were tinkering with the air-fuel mixture of a diesel engine. Rather, a living Earth can only be healthy – can only stay living in fact – if its organs and tissues are vital. These comprise the forests, the soil, the wetlands, the coral reefs, the fish, the whales, the elephants, the seagrass meadows, the mangrove swamps, and all the rest of Earth’s systems and species. If we continue degrading and destroying them, then even if we cut emissions to zero overnight, Earth will still die a death of a million cuts.
That is because it is life that maintains the conditions for life, through dimly understood processes as complex as any living physiology. Vegetation produces volatile compounds that promote the formation of clouds that reflect sunlight. Megafauna transport nitrogen and phosphorus across continents and oceans to maintain the carbon cycle. Forests generate a biotic pump of persistent low pressure that brings rain to continental interiors and maintains atmospheric flow patterns. Whales bring nutrients up from the deep ocean to nourish plankton. Wolves control deer populations so that forest understory remains viable, enhancing rainfall absorption and preventing droughts and fires. Beavers slow the progress of water from land to sea, buffering floods and modulating silt discharge into coastal waters so that life there can thrive. Migratory birds and fish such as salmon transport marine nutrients inland, sustaining the forests. Mycelial mats tie vast areas together in a neural network exceeding the human brain in its complexity. And all of these processes interlock with each other.
In my book Climate – A New Story I make the case that much of the climate derangement that we blame on greenhouse gases actually comes from direct disruption of ecosystems. It has been happening for millennia: drought and desertification has followed wherever humans have cut down forests and exposed soil to erosion. Wouldn’t it be convenient to blame it all on greenhouse gas emissions, and continue to reproduce our material culture using renewable energy?
At the present writing, Australia is suffering unprecedented catastrophic heat, fire, and drought. Australia has also been clearing trees at the rate of 5,000 square kilometers a year. Again, wouldn’t it be convenient to blame it all on global carbon emissions?
The phrase “disruption of ecosystems” sounds scientific compared to “harming and killing living beings.” But from the Living Planet view, it is the latter that is more accurate. A forest is not just a collection of living trees – it is itself alive. The soil is not just a medium in which life grows; the soil is alive. So is a river, a reef, and a sea. Just as it is a lot easier to degrade, to exploit, and to kill a person when one sees the victim as less than human, so too it is easier to kill Earth’s beings when we see them as unliving and unconscious already. The clearcuts, the strip mines, the drained swamps, the oil spills, and so on are inevitable when we see Earth as a dead thing, insensate, an instrumental pile of resources.
Our stories are powerful. If we see the world as dead, we will kill it. And if we see the world as alive, we will learn how to serve its healing.
The world is alive. It is not just the host of life. The forests and reefs and wetlands are its organs. The waters are its blood. The soil is its skin. The animals are its cells. This is not an exact analogy, but the conclusion it invites is valid: that if these beings lose their integrity, the whole planet will wither.
I will not try to make an intellectual case for the livingness of planet Earth, which would depend on what definition of life I use. Besides, I’d like to go further and say Earth is sentient, conscious, and intelligent as well – a scientifically insupportable claim. So instead of trying to argue the point, I’ll ask the skeptic to stand barefoot on the earth and feel the truth of it. I believe that however skeptical you are, however fervently you opine that life is just a fortuitous chemical accident driven by blind physical forces, a flame of knowledge burns in every person that earth, water, soil, air, the sun, the clouds, and the wind are alive and aware, feeling us at the same time as we feel them.
I know the skeptic well, because I am he. A creeping doubt takes hold of me when I spend a lot of time indoors, in front of a screen, surrounded by standardized inorganic objects that mirror the deadness of the modernist conception of the world.
Surely the exhortation to connect barefoot with the living Earth would be out of place at an academic climate conference or meeting of the IPCC. Occasionally such events indulge a moment of touchy-feely ceremony or trot out an indigenous person to invoke the four directions before everyone enters the conference room to get down to business, the business of data and graphs, models and projections, costs and benefits. What is real, in that world, is the numbers. Such environments – of quantitative abstractions as well as conditioned air, unvarying artificial light, identical chairs, and ubiquitous right angles – banish any life except the human. Nature exists only in representation, and Earth seems alive only in theory, and probably not at all.
“What is real, in that world, is the numbers.” How ironic, given that numbers are the extremity of abstraction. With problems defined by numbers, the “realistic” mind seeks to solve them by the numbers too. My inner math geek would love to solve the climate crisis by evaluating every possible policy according to its net carbon footprint. Each ecosystem, each technology, each energy project, I would assign a greenhouse value. Then I would order up more of this one and less of that one, offsetting jet travel with tree planting, compensating for wetlands destruction here with solar panels there, to meet a certain greenhouse gas budget. I would apply the methods and mindsets that have grown up around financial accounting – money being another way of reducing the world to numbers. (The world of finance is another place where the numbers are what is real.)
Unfortunately, as with money, carbon reductionism ignores everything that seems not to affect the balance sheet. Thus it is that traditional environmental issues such as wildlife conservation, saving the whales, or cleaning up toxic waste get short shrift in the climate movement. “Green” has come to mean “low-carbon.”
In the Living Planet view this is a huge mistake, since the ignored whales, wolves, beavers, butterflies, and so on are among the organs and tissues that keep Gaia whole. By offsetting our air travel miles with tree planting, sourcing our electricity from solar panels, and thereby donning the mantle of “eco-friendly,” we assuage the conscience while obscuring the ongoing harm that our present way of life entails. We imply that “sustainability” means the sustaining of society as we know it, but with non-fossil fuel sources. That’s why established powers have so easily embraced the climate narrative I call carbon reductionism. Even the fossil fuel companies are OK with it, since it means that they can continue business as usual as long as we implement carbon capture technology and geoengineering.
The real threat to the biosphere is actually worse than most people, even on the left, understand; it includes and far transcends climate, and we can meet it only through a multidimensional healing response. Earth is approaching death by organ failure. We live, in the words of naturalist J.B. MacKinnon, in a “ten percent world,” the poetic statistic he uses to describe the decimation of life on Earth that began with the first mass civilizations and accelerated with the industrial era through to the present day. We have today maybe 10% of the whales that lived before commercial whaling. About 10% of the large predatory fish. Half the Asian mangrove swamps. Twenty percent of the Atlantic seagrass meadows. One percent of North America’s virgin forests, and half the number of trees globally. A 30% decline of birds in my lifetime, and a 50%-80% decline in insects. On and on goes the list.
It would sure be nice to be able to blame all of that on a single cause, i.e. climate change. Then we could operate in the familiar territory of reductionism. We would, in principle, know what to do. When the cause comprises a multitude – herbicides, insecticides, noise pollution, electromagnetic pollution, toxic waste, pharmaceutical residue, land development, soil erosion, over-fishing, forest destruction, aquifer depletion, apex predator elimination, and greenhouse effects, each synergistically interacting with the others – then there is no single solution. Not knowing what to do is uncomfortable. It is tempting to escape into the illusion of a single cause. But not knowing is a lot better than thinking, falsely, that we know.
With healthy ecosystems, elevated CO2, methane, and temperature might pose little problem. After all, temperatures were higher than today in the early Holocene as well as during the Minoan Warm Period, Roman Warm Period, and Medieval Warm Period, and there was no runaway methane feedback loop or anything like that. A living being with strong organs and healthy tissues is resilient.
Sadly, Earth’s organs have been damaged and her tissues have been poisoned. She is in a delicate state. That is why cutting greenhouse emissions is important. However, a Living Planet view invites a different ordering of priorities than the one that conventional climate discourse suggests. Many of them could translate into actionable demands and policies that governments, businesses, and individuals can adopt right now, with tangible, local effects.
First priority is to protect all remaining primary rainforest and other undamaged ecosystems, like native grasslands, coral reefs, mangrove swamps, seagrass meadows, and other wetlands. All pristine ecosystems are precious treasures. They are reservoirs of biodiversity, regeneration hothouses for life. They hold the deep intelligence of the earth, without which full healing is impossible. They are where Gaia’s memory of health remains intact. At the moment of this writing, the Amazon rainforest is under ferocious assault, and the situation in the second-largest rainforest, the Congo, is even worse. The third-largest, New Guinea, is also seriously threatened by logging and palm oil plantations. In the carbon narrative, these places are already important; in the Living Earth narrative, they are vital organs. If the carbon narrative serves their protection, then fine, but we must not propagate the notion that their value is reducible to their carbon storage.
Second priority is to repair and regenerate damaged ecosystems worldwide. Ways to do that include:- Massive expansion of marine reserves for ocean regeneration- Bans on bottom trawling, drift nets, and other industrial fishing practices- Regenerative agricultural practices that rebuild soil, such as cover cropping, perennial agriculture, agroforestry, and holistic grazing- Afforestation and reforestation- Water retention landscapes to repair the hydrological cycle- Reintroduction and protection of keystone species, apex predators, and megafauna
To perform regeneration effectively, we cannot rely on scalable formulas. Each place is unique. What works in one valley or on one farm may not work in the next. When we see the places and ecologies of this planet as living beings and not ensembles of data, we realized the necessity of intimate place-based knowledge. Quantitative science can be part of developing this knowledge, but it cannot substitute for the close, qualitative observation of farmers and other local people who interact with the land every day through generations.
The depth and subtlety of the knowledge of hunter-gatherers and traditional peasants is hard for the scientific mind to fathom. This knowledge, coded into cultural stories, rituals, and customs, integrates its practitioners into the organs of land and sea so that they can participate in the resiliency of life on Earth. Unfortunately, much of what goes under the name of “development” – even sustainable development – undermines their way of life and subsumes them under the global commodity economy. When development means integration into the global economy, the hard currency to repay development loans and import high-tech goods can only come through the export of natural resources, via logging, mining, and commodity agriculture. Thus, the first two priorities require us to reconceive the whole paradigm of development, along with its associated financial system.
Third priority is to stop poisoning the world with pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, plastics, toxic waste, heavy metals, antibiotics, electromagnetic pollution, chemical fertilizers, pharmaceutical residues, radioactive waste, and other industrial pollutants. These weaken Earth on the tissue level, pervading the entire biosphere to the point where, for example, orcas are now found with PCB levels high enough to classify the orca’s body as toxic waste. Neonicotinoid insecticides pervade terrestrial systems, leading to plummeting insect populations and, following them, declines in birds and the rest of the food web. In the oceans, the basis of the food chain – plankton – is under a parallel assault from agricultural runoff, chemical pollution, seismic surveys, and apex predator decimation. The soil in vast agricultural areas is virtually dead, mere dirt, after decades of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Huge tracts of land on different continents are routinely sprayed with insecticides in hopes of controlling disease vectors or invasive species. The earth’s biota is under constant assault.
The fourth priority is to reduce atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. Abrupt changes to atmospheric composition put more stress on global life systems that development, extraction, and pollution have already dangerously weakened. The ecosystems – in particular forests, savannas, and wetlands – that once anchored patterns of flow are severely damaged. Meanwhile, greenhouse gases have intensified the system’s thermodynamic flux, further disrupting atmospheric patterns and further damaging weakened ecosystems. However, even without elevated greenhouse gases, the massive killing of life would spell disaster. Fossil fuel emissions intensify an already bad situation.
If the reader is disturbed by my assigning greenhouse gas reduction to a lowly fourth priority, consider that emission reduction is an inevitable by-product of the other three priorities. For one thing, to truly protect and repair ecosystems would necessitate a moratorium on new pipelines, offshore oil wells, fracking, tar sands excavation, mountaintop removal, strip mines, and other extraction of fossil fuels, as all of these entail severe ecological damage and risk. To love and care for each precious part of this planet, we have to transform the fossil fuel infrastructure regardless of the greenhouse gas issue.
Furthermore, reforestation and regenerative agriculture can sequester massive amounts of carbon. Estimates vary widely as to how much holistic grazing and no-till organic horticulture can sequester, but top practitioners such as Allan Savory, Gabe Brown, and Ernst Gotsch achieve as much as 8-20 tonnes/Ha annually, while also equalling or exceeding conventional growers in terms of productivity, mostly without chemicals. Given that nearly 5 billion hectares of land are under pasture or cultivation globally, transitioning just 10-25% of it to these methods could offset 100% of current global emissions. Granted, not every farmer or rancher is going to immediately equal the success of gifted innovators like Savory, Brown, or Gotsch, but the potential is enormous. Furthermore, global warming skeptics can support these practices too for their beneficial effects on biodiversity, aquifers, and the water cycle. Healthy soil absorbs rainfall like a sponge, mitigating floods, and then via transpiration releases it over time into the air, extending the rainy season and transporting heat from the surface into the atmosphere where more of it radiates into space. Thus, it contributes to cooling and to resiliency in the face of climate change.
Paradoxically, we do not need to deploy the greenhouse argument to reduce greenhouse gases. The priorities listed above suggest a myriad of concrete, achievable goals of protection and regeneration that, added together, could surpass what the climate movement is calling for, but from different motivation. There are significant points of departure, however. The Living Planet approach rejects big hydroelectric projects because they destroy wetlands, degrade rivers, and alter the flow of silt to the sea. It abhors the biofuel plantations that are overtaking vast areas of Africa, Asia, and South America, since these often replace natural ecosystems and small-scale, sustainable peasant agriculture. It dreads geoengineering schemes such such as whitening the sky with sulfur aerosols. It has little use for giant carbon-sucking machines (carbon capture and storage technology). It looks with horror at the consumption of forests around the world to produce wood chips for converted coal-fired power plants. It is doubtful of huge bird-killing wind turbines and vast photovoltaic arrays on denuded landscapes.
To know Earth as alive is a step toward holding it sacred again. It is a step into reverence for all beings. Isn’t that what the climate uprising really wants to be about?
Reverence for all beings is the foundation of a revolution of love. Without reverence, we shuffle the cards without changing the game. Victim becomes perpetrator, perpetrator becomes victim, hate hijacks anger, punishment hijacks justice, defeat begets vengeance, and victory begets new enemies.
Reverence animates the four priorities I have outlined, and they do not and cannot stand apart from other dimensions of global healing. Any issue of social, political, economic, racial, or sexual justice – any restoration of the full humanity of those who have been stripped of it – would be at home among them, not as politically correct add-ons, but as structural components of the same edifice. None can stand without the others. Among these, however, there are two I would like to promote to special status, because they set the tone and template for all the others: debt, and war.
Imagine you are a country, say Ecuador. The world community comes to you in the form of a man waving an Earth flag and says, “Protect your rainforests! Protect your rivers, your wetlands, and your soil! The fate of the world depends on it.” Then he puts down the flag and pulls out a gun, puts it to your head, and adds, “However, you must keep the debt payments flowing,” knowing full well that the only way you can do that is by liquidating precisely those rainforests, rivers, wetlands, and soil. Refuse, and the punishment is swift. The international bond market abandons you. Your currency crashes. Transnational corporations and their nation-state allies regime-change you. The new government, celebrated as “democratic,” institutes austerity, removes barriers to ecological pillage, and is rewarded with yet more development loans.
None of this is happening due to the wickedness of bankers, deep state bureaucrats, military imperialists, or the cabal of illuminati and reptilian ETs that run world affairs behind the scenes. It is happening to serve a systemic necessity for economic growth. A monetary system based on interest-bearing debt requires endless growth to function, and generates endless pressure on all its participants to do something, anything, to bring more of nature into the realm of products and property, and more of relationship into the realm of services.
I was (sort of) joking about the reptilian ETs. It would sure be nice to identify something, or someone, we could battle and dominate to save the world. Conquering evil is the oldest solution in the book, a seductive solution, a false solution which veils complexity and mutes the discomfort of not knowing what do to. But if evil were in charge of the world, all it would have to do is install an interest-based money system, sit back, and watch mayhem ensue.
My book Sacred Economics is one of many that describe what must change for economy to rejoin ecology. A post-growth economics is possible that understands progress in terms other than growth, and wealth in terms other than quantity. For now, I will just mention a first step toward it, something we might, someday soon, demand: large-scale debt cancelation. Debt is familiar to every tube rider, and it is central to the functioning of the world-consuming growth machine.
The growth machine extends market relationships into every corner of life. In a market relationship, each party tries to get the best deal, while other beings become instruments of its own self-interest. The relational baseline is therefore one of hostility. Debt in particular is a form of power-over; as David Graeber says, behind the man with the ledger always stands a man with a gun.
The separation and domination inherent in debt-based economic relations takes extreme form in the phenomenon of war. The war industry consumes vast amounts of money, energy, and material, but the greater threat to the future lies in the fracturing of collective human will. To shift course toward world healing will require solidarity and coherency of purpose. If our creative energies and life forces are used up fighting each other, what will be left to enact this mighty transition? Our ship has been seized by a whirlpool. Maybe, if everyone pulls on the oars, we can escape it; instead, the crew fight each other on the deck as the ship careens toward its doom.
As long as war in all its forms rages upon this planet, none of the four Living Planet priorities will ever come to pass. When reverence is the source of the revolution, then the real revolutionary is the peace worker. War thinking generates a psychic climate inhospitable to reverence, because it dehumanizes the enemy and excludes from the circle of empathy any being that gets in the way of the war effort. Just so, modern economy has objectified nature and excluded from the circle of empathy any being that gets in the way of profit.
War thinking extends far beyond military conflict. Today’s intense political polarization is another of its expressions. Division into opposing camps, dehumanization of the other side, association of moral virtue with the war effort, belief that the solution to our problems will come through victory – all are hallmarks of war. If your political strategy is to inflame the public over the inexcusable, reprehensible people in politics, corporations, or the police, you are waging a war. If you believe the people on the other side are less moral, less ethical, less conscious, or less spiritual than you, you are on the verge of war. So yes, expose the actions that are killing the world. But do not attribute them to the perfidy of the actors, and do not imagine that firing the actors will change the roles.
Earlier I referred to the controversial claim that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than the present. I would like to revisit that, not because I think it is important to establish one way or another, but because it offers a window onto the aforementioned deeper problem of polarization, which freezes our culture into a holding pattern on practical every important issue, not just climate change.
Hockey stick reconstructions seem to show that today is warmer than any time in the past ten thousand years. On the other hand, skeptics assail the methodological and statistical underpinnings of these studies, and adduce evidence of early warm temperatures such as higher sea levels in the early and middle Holocene, and treelines hundreds of kilometers north of where they are today.
After several years of book research I am confident I could argue either side of the issue. I could, with extensive citations, argue that the Medieval Warm Period (now called the Medieval Temperature Anomaly) was not really that warm after all, and in any event mostly concentrated in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean basin. I could also argue, again citing dozens of peer-reviewed papers, that the anomaly was significant and global. The same goes for pretty much every aspect of the climate debate – I can argue either side well enough to satisfy its partisans.
Already the reader’s hackles might be up that I’m implying an equivalency between the two sides, one of which consists of unscrupulous corporate-funded right-wing pseudo-scientists who let their greed come before humanity’s survival, and the other of humble scientists of integrity backed by self-correcting institutions of peer review that ensure that the consensus position of science approaches ever closer to the truth. Or is it that one side consists of brave dissidents who risk their careers to question the reigning orthodoxy, and the other of groupthinking, risk-averse careerists beholden to the globalist agenda of rabid left-wing “enviros” and “greenies”?
The polarizing invective coming from both sides suggests a high degree of ego investment in their positions and makes me doubt that either side would countenance evidence that contradicts their view. They cannot even agree on what constitutes a fact. Each of the many sides, which range from catastrophist to alarmist to skeptical, seems to occupy its own reality tunnel. Subjecting any contradicting information to hostile scrutiny, each accepts with little question anything that reinforces its own position. Therefore, whichever side is wrong is unlikely ever to find that out. And that, dear reader, includes your side!
In the face of the extreme polarization of Western society today, I’ve adopted a rule of thumb which applies as much to warring couples as it does to politics: the most important issue is to be found outside the fight itself, in what both parties tacitly agree on or refuse to see. To take sides is to validate the terms of the debate, and to keep hidden issues hidden. What do all sides unconsciously agree on? What is taken for granted? What questions are not being asked? Could the ferocity of the debate be obscuring something more important which really needs our attention?
A meta-level tacit agreement in the climate debate is the reduction of the question of planetary health to the question of whether the planet is warming due to greenhouse gases. By pinning alarm over ecological deterioration onto global warming, we imply that if the skeptics are right, then there is no cause for alarm. In the Living Earth paradigm, there is cause for alarm, regardless of which side is right. Beholden to the runaway warming narrative, however, the climate movement must prove the skeptics wrong at all costs – even to the point of excluding evidence of historical warm temperatures, since these do not fit the narrative.
The alarmist camp is channeling into warming an authentic alarm at the anthropogenic deterioration of the biosphere, and the human condition that drives it. Something is indeed horribly wrong; something that implicates everything. Unfortunately, the environmental movement has largely accepted runaway global warming as a proxy for the all-pervading wrongness that is the true object of its dissent. In so doing, I fear that it has ceded sacred ground and agreed to stage the fight on difficult terrain. It has substituted a hard sell for an easy sell. It has substituted a fear narrative (the costs of climate change) for a love narrative (save the precious forests). It has preconditioned care for the earth on the acceptance of a politically charged theory that requires trust in the institution of science along with the systems of authority that embed it. This, at a time when overall trust in authority is, with good reason, on the wane.
As for the skeptics, I am afraid that the “denialist” slur is in many cases accurate. Whether or not there are valid criticisms to be made of establishment climate science, the skeptical position typically is part of a larger political identity that, in order to maintain its solvency, must dismiss every environmental problem along with global warming. Hewing to a position that all is well, climate skeptic blogs usually insist that plastic waste, radioactive waste, chemical pollutants, biodiversity loss, electromagnetic pollution, GMOs, pesticides, etc. are not a problem either; therefore, nothing needs to change.
Fearful of the profound change that is upon us, the climate skeptics are only the most obvious deniers. Perversely, the global warming mainstream perpetuates a kind of denial too, by upholding a vision of sustainability attainable merely by switching energy sources. The common oxymoron of “sustainable growth” exemplifies this delusion, as growth in our time entails the conversion of nature into resource, into product, into money.
Perversely, the dominant global warming narrative facilitates denialism by shifting alarm onto a defeasible scientific theory whose ultimate proof can only come when it is too late. With effects that are distant in space and time, and causally distant as well, it is much easier to deny climate change than it is to deny, say, that whale hunting kills whales, that deforestation dries up the land, that plastic is killing marine life, and so forth. By the same token, the effects of place-based ecological healing are easier to see than the climate effects of photovoltaic panels or wind turbines. The causal distance is shorter, and the effects more tangible. For example, where farmers practice soil regeneration, the water table begins to rise, springs that were dry for decades come back to life, streams begin flowing year round again, and songbirds and wildlife return. One can see all of this without needing to trust the pronouncements of scientific authorities.
Furthermore, while the sincerity and intelligence of most individual scientists is beyond doubt, as an institution science is subject to a collective confirmation bias that has repeatedly led it astray. Witness the recent collapse of two longstanding, nearly universally-accepted orthodoxies: (1) that dietary cholesterol and saturated fat cause arteriosclerosis, and (2) that evolution happens solely through random mutation and natural selection. (This was unquestionable dogma until horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, and gene self-editing were accepted.) The public’s distrust in scientific authority may not be entirely unjustified, particularly when science, later revealed to be faulty, has so often been invoked to assure us of the safety of pesticides, GMOs, cell phone towers, and various toxic pharmaceutical drugs. That is not to say climate science is wrong; it is to caution against relying on public acceptance of it, when such acceptance is unnecessary from the Living Earth paradigm. The elites tacitly ascribe public resistance to science to irrationality and ignorance, offering patronizing remedies to correct them. Is the take-home lesson of climate change “We should have trusted the scientists”? “We should have listened to teacher”? “We should have believed what authority told us was true”?
Many on the Left hold science (as an institution) to be the last redoubt of sanity in an otherwise degenerate culture, a bulwark against a rising tide of irrationality. What if it is just as flawed as our other institutions? If it is dethroned as the final arbiter of right and wrong, how would we know ourselves as members of Team Good, and self-identify as the light-bearers of reason in a crusade against an ignorance that threatens the very world?
This is not a call to abandon science, but rather to return to its sacred source: humility. Freed of its institutional ossification, science would likely overturn many of the established dogma that its evangelists proclaim as unassailable truths. I am not the only one who has had experiences that science says are impossible nonsense, who has benefitted from healing modalities that science says are quackery, or who has lived in cultures where scientifically unacceptable phenomena were commonplace. This is not to say that the standard narrative of global warming is wrong. I don’t know that at all. It is just that I don’t know that it is right either. What I think is that it is hugely incomplete. That is why I have turned my attention to what I do know, starting with the knowledge that comes through my own bare feet.
That knowledge is the knowledge that Earth is alive. From the Living Earth view rise policies and actions that make sense whichever side of the climate debate is right.
The Living Planet view acknowledges an intimate link between human and ecological affairs. I often hear people say, “Climate change is not a threat to Earth. The planet will be fine. It is only human beings that might go extinct.” If we understand humanity, however, as the beloved creation of Gaia, born for an evolutionary purpose, then we could no more say she will be fine without humans as we could say a mother will be fine if she loses her child. I’m sorry, but she will not be fine.
The aforementioned idea of an evolutionary purpose, while contrary to modern biological science, follows naturally from a view of the world and the cosmos as sentient, intelligent, or conscious. It opens the question, “Why are we here?” and even, “Why am I here?” Gaia has grown a new organ. What is it for? How might humanity cooperate with all the other organs – the forests and the waters and butterflies and the seals – in service to the dream of the world?
I do not know the answers to these questions. I only know that we must start asking them. We must – and not as a matter of survival. Whether as individuals or as a species, we live for something, and if we neglect it then vitality, aliveness, ebbs away. We are not given life merely to survive it.
We are not given life merely to survive it. No organism on Earth merely survives. Each offers gifts to the whole. That’s why an ecosystem becomes weaker when any species is removed from it. Through the lens of pure competition, a species should be better off when its competitor is extinguished, but in fact it is worse off. Again, life creates the conditions for life. By this principle, humans are here to render gifts to the rest of life too; we are here to serve life. We as a civilization have long done the opposite. Nothing less than a total revolution of love, a great turning, will therefore suffice.
Accordingly, movements like Extinction Rebellion cannot, at their root, be about human survival. Its rhetoric speaks of irreversible tipping points, methane feedback loops, twelve years before it is too late, but I refuse to believe that this is what it is about. As I wrote earlier, if global temperatures stopped rising, the rebellious urgency would be no less.
The following scenario demonstrates vividly that the object of our struggle is not actually human survival. A more dreadful possibility lurks behind the proxy fear of extinction. Suppose we are able to continue converting Earth into a giant parking lot, strip mine, and waste dump. Suppose we replace soil with hydroponic farms and vat-grown meat cell cultures. Suppose we migrate our lives entirely into climate-controlled indoor spaces. Suppose we develop space mirrors, carbon-sucking machines, and sky-bleaching chemicals to control global temperatures. Suppose we continue on the course of the last ten thousand years, in which each generation leaves the planet a little less alive than the previous one. And suppose that, as for the last ten thousand years, humanity continues to grow in its measurable wealth. I call this scenario the concrete world, in which nature has completely died, replaced by technology, and we seem hardly to notice as we plug into nature’s artificial digital replacement. Here, the extinction is not of humanity, it is of everything else. I ask you, Is that an acceptable future?
The climate movement has made human survival into the main issue. That is a mistake. Here are three reasons why: (1) It reinforces the valuing of nature for its use to human beings, which is the same mindset that has long facilitated its despoliation. (2) Whether or not it will continue to be true, experience has so far shown us that humans will survive just fine as the rest of life dies – more and more of ourselves, less and less of everything else. (3) It is dishonest to make the issue human survival, when that isn’t really what motivates us. Suppose human survival on a dead world were guaranteed – would we breathe a sigh of relief and join the ecocide?
Extinction Rebellion is (or should be) about what kind of world we want to live in. It is about who we want to be. It is about why we are here and what we serve. It is about turning and standing in service to all life.
Why would we want to serve life? Unlike self-preservation, that desire can only come from love.
Let let us consider one more dimension of extinction. Above I posed a scenario in which nature dies while humanity survives. To even state this, though, implies the separability of humanity and nature. In fact, we are inseparable; we are nature’s expression. Therefore, we cannot actually be “just fine” when the rest of life is dying. It is not necessarily that we cannot survive as the rest die. It is that with each extinction, with every ecosystem and place and species that passes, something of ourselves dies as well. With the shriveling of our relations, we become less whole. We might continue to progress in GDP, in miles traveled, in years lived, in floor space and AC units per capita, in educational attainment, in total consumption, in terabytes, petabytes, and exabytes, yet these endlessly swelling quantities will only mask and distract from a ravening spiritual hunger for all the things they have displaced: connection and belonging, a familiar birdsong that is a little different each time, the smell of spring, the swelling of the buds, the taste of a sun-drenched raspberry, the grandfathers telling stories of a place that the children know well too. With each step into an isolation chamber of our own making, so sharpens our suffering. We see already the symptoms of extinction in ourselves, in rising rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, addiction, self-harm, domestic violence, and other forms of misery that no amount of material wealth can assuage.
In other words, the depletion of life on earth accompanies a depletion of our souls. As we destroy beings, we destroy our own beingness. No longer enmeshed in a web of intimate, mutual relationships, no longer participating in life around us, surrounded by contained, dead things, we become less alive ourselves. We become zombies, wondering why we feel so dead inside. This is the ultimate source of the protests. We yearn to recover life. We want to overturn the Age of Separation.
What do we serve? What vision of beauty beckons us? This is the question we must ask as we pass through the initiatory portal we call climate change. In asking it, we summon a collective vision that nucleates a common story, a common agreement. I do not think the story will be the old future of flying cars, robot servants, and bubble cities overlooking a befouled and barren landscape. It will be a future where the beaches are profuse with seashells again, where we see whales by the thousands, where flocks of birds stretch horizon to horizon, where the rivers run clean, and where life has returned to the ruined places of today.
How do we attain to such a future? I do not know, but I can say this: because the cause of the ecological crisis is everything, the solution involves everything too. All healing is part of Earth healing. If we are to issue demands, or perhaps instead, invitations, let us broaden them to include all in need of healing, even and especially those who seem not important: the prisoners, the destitute, the marginalized, the neglected places and people. Humanity is an organ of Gaia too, and Earth will never be healthy if civilization is not. The social climate, the political climate, the relational climate, the psychic climate, and the global climate are inseparable. A society that exploits the most vulnerable people will necessarily exploit the most vulnerable places too. A society that wages war on other people will, conditioned to violence, surely wreak the same upon the earth. A society that dehumanizes some of its members will always devalue nonhuman beings as well. And a society devoted to healing on one level, inevitably will come to serve healing on every level.
Any act of healing, however small, is a prayer, a declaration of how the world shall be. Can we connect with our love for this hurting, living planet, and channel that love through our hands and minds, our technology and our arts, as we ask, How shall we best participate in the healing and the dreaming of Earth?
This article was first published on charleseisenstein.org
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