CHERYL LYON – We are getting more and more climate scenarios of “bad-to-worse” and even human extinction. Humans (and possibly other sentient beings) feel fear, anxiety and despair over how very difficult things can become. How to be? What to do?
The long view
We consider our societies “civilized.” Successive human civilizations have collapsed over history. None have lasted forever. Even the most long-lived one, the Roman Empire, only managed 1426 years. A blip on the timeline of our history.
Throughout history, the human species has had repeating cycles of forming our communities in ways that divide us into classes where power accrues to a few at the top and the rest are exploited. As civilizations evolved, they developed dominant elites, became more and more materially comfortable, with higher and higher expectations of ease, gain and being entertained. Material acquisition and ‘power over’ replaced living in harmony with nature and one another. And we now see this happening in our time: the depletion of our natural resources and the erosion of our institutions of caring, sharing and our innermost and communal guiding values.
Our civilization is the first to call its members “consumers.” As such, we are eating up our very life resources, having lost the awareness of our utter dependence on and relationship with the natural forces that regulate life systems on Earth.
Relatively speaking, we have not been on the planet for a very long time, not becoming the homo sapiens genus (literally “wise man”) we now are until about 2 million years ago – a mere blip in evolutionary time. Dinosaurs had a longer run.
Looking back, we know that we have had very, very bad times over our history and we survived through them. We adapted using new ways of thinking and behaving. We kept the human species alive (e.g. through Ice Ages, the “winters’ created by volcanic explosions, wars’ devastations, famines.) Now, though, it’s different. Human extinction is being openly discussed. The condition of Earth’s climate raises the realization that our current civilization could disappear.
The existential work
How are we to think and act in this unprecedented situation of considering our own disappearance? Standing in sackcloth on a corner crying “the end is near” or deciding that any climate action is futile is to abandon our human responsibility for our situation. Putting on an optimistic outlook is facile. “The climate” didn’t create the crisis, we did. Science is describing – and warning – that the “climate” is just doing what it has to do according to the laws of Nature. We must face what we have done. That begins with fundamentally spiritual work.
Inner or spiritual work sends us into uncomfortable places, “dark nights of the soul,” not only individually but as communities of a species among others on the planet. The crisis is in humanity, not the climate. We are confronted with the meaning and mortality of being human. This is a profound reckoning playing out in daily living right in our own communities and neighbourhoods, in our own personal lives.
The hard questions
We are having to choose between hope and despair as our basic stance in the crisis. Where despair has taken hold, do we see its face in the opioid crisis, the craziness of trucker convoys or right-wing conspiracy theories? In the fracturing of political consensus on what is “the common good” for a neighbourhood, a city, business, education of children?
Hope and despair are twins. When what we hope for doesn’t happen, we despair. Dashed optimistic expectations depress us and are poor motivators of action. Even our own images of ‘the good’ we want to happen may not be what’s needed because we are in very uncertain times. We know pretty much for sure some things that are happening, like disappearance of biodiversity, mounting CO2, melting glaciers etc. But we really don’t know exactly what the world will be like, where the tipping points will go. We’ve not been in this territory before! Who are we now? What are humans to do? How do we live with the guilt of what we’ve done to Earth? Spiritual questions.
We are faced with the fact of being “part of the problem.” This requires a new kind of humility – the kind that asks us to give up our “dominion” over the Earth and the notion that we can “fix” it and then all will be well. How do we “fix” a melting glacier? Are we willing to abandon the rapacious capitalist economic system that continues to pump carbon into the air and that gives us all the comforts and profits of consumerism? What sacrifices are we willing to make? This ultimately sends our spiritual self-examination into changing how we know ourselves, knocking the human into its place among animals, plants, microbes and soil.
Awareness, gratitude, kindness
Tending to the wounded and dying has always involved awareness, gratitude and kindness We are now acutely aware of the wounded and dying on our planet due to our human ways of being, from the decimation of biodiversity, to droughts and forest fires, to pandemics, to the social ravages of homelessness due to our commodification of housing.
Awareness requires that we look unflinchingly at the state of the world as it is, and then at our own deep, intimate dependence on Nature. When we arrive there, only the most hardened person could not feel gratitude to the Earth for this life-sustaining relationship. From this flows the kindness toward and caring for that life-sustaining relationship. These three are the well-composted soil of any action of adaptation and mitigation in the time before us. They are essentially a contemplative way of being in the world.
The most accessible place to begin action is locally, right in our own backyard, our home, our community. This is where we directly, personally experience the world-wide climate crisis. With open-eyed and informed awareness, we give thanks for what we have and bring a lens of caring to our choices of action: are individualism, profit-making, competitiveness, rage, the materialistic model of life offered to us for the past 200 years really going to serve our life together as neighbours and humans into the future?
If the way we have lived together is ending, as with a terminally ill person, the first step is to acknowledge that. Then we make awareness and kindness (not profit, ideology or power) fundamentals of policy and system design in education, health care, business, employment, justice systems into the coming decades. Through all, we remember our human place in something vaster than our individual selves – Nature, this Earth.
Real resilience in these times begins in those things, not in preaching hope but in facing reality together, aware of our human place, grateful to Nature and acting in kindness to one another.
Spending as much time as possible in Nature, in our favourite local parks or conservation areas, our own backyard, a garden tree or “at the lake” is fundamental. Participating in community work on climate change bring us together in common purpose. Sharing our stories with one another in the arts and public discourse and political decision-making builds bonds.
This doesn’t mean that the future won’t be very, very hard; that my fear and suffering will go away. But continual, loving connection with Nature and each other will be the best wellspring and motivator of action to change how we live as individuals, in our homes and as communities.
Contemplating our small human role in the greater scheme of the universe brings humility and questioning of our place in all creation. It faces us with our sins. Spiritual accountability.
Facing the reality of our times.
Joseph Tainter, in the The Collapse of Complex Societies, says that “collapse is possible only where there is no competitor strong enough to fill the political vacuum of disintegration.” But soulless political power exercises have always been a major cause of collapses.
The time is now to take an honest and loving look at what’s facing us. If we fearlessly contemplate our human role now on Earth, the climate will change. Our work is to find our proper human place again in the community of Life. And an excellent support to that contemplation is good science.