Saving the World: It Starts with You

Every week seems to come with news of more trouble in the natural world. This week it was the report of dozens of emaciated gray whale mothers washing up dead on the U.S. Pacific coast, starved to death. Scientists say that only 10% of dead whales generally end up on the beaches, so this could be the remnants of a much larger die-off of yet another species succumbing to the drastic changes roiling our oceans.

If the oceans are in trouble, our entire planet is in trouble, as the oceans are our great climate stabilizer. It’s hard to imagine a warm, acidified ocean empty of most life besides, perhaps, jellyfish and creatures of the deep dark canyons. Yet this is where we’re going, and fast. It’s not clear whether anything we do now can reverse the huge planetary climate changes that have been set in motion by human population growth and industry.

So where does that leave us, as people who are aware of the unfolding catastrophe of climate disruption? Do we curl up and hide under the covers until the waters rise and sweep us away? Do we hedonistically make hay while the sun shines, telling ourselves that we all have to die anyway? Or do we roll up our sleeves and do what we can to adapt to our rapidly changing world, and mitigate the impact on ourselves, our children and all the other innocent species now in the crosshairs?

I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t believe that what we do now, as individuals and as societies, matters. In fact, a large part of our so-called environmental problems are really social and psychological problems.

In the last century, as the fossil-fuel and chemical industries have exploded, we humans have lost touch with our ancient connection to the natural world of which we are a part. Our leaders, in their climate-controlled towers, have forgotten that we are entirely dependent on plants and bacteria for our air and food—the forests and grasses of the land, as well as the plankton and plants of the sea. Perhaps they imagine an artificial world, like the Dome experiments, where the entire biosphere is created by humans. But what kind of existence would that be?

The great task of our time is to reconnect humanity with our planet, rekindling our awareness of our role as stewards of the great oceans and landscapes of our beautiful home. C.G. Jung, writing in the wake of the horrors of World War II, was prescient in his diagnosis of the problem of humanity as being a disconnect from our ancient reverence for the Earth. To heal our relationship with the planet, he said, we must first heal ourselves:

“The tempo of the development of consciousness through science and technology was too rapid and left the unconscious, which could no longer keep up with it, far behind, thereby forcing it into a defensive position which expresses itself in a universal will to destruction….This problem cannot be solved collectively, because the masses are not changed unless the individual changes. At the same time, even the best-looking solution cannot be forced upon him, since it is a good solution only when it is combined with a natural process of development. It is therefore a hopeless undertaking to stake everything on collective recipes and procedures.

The bettering of a general ill begins with the individual, and then only when he makes himself and not others responsible. This is naturally only possible in freedom, but not under a rule of force, whether this be exercised by a self-elected tyrant or by one thrown up by the mob” (C.G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 349; emphasis mine).

It appears that the best thing each of us can do for the health of our planet is to stay awake to what is happening, as painful as it may be to witness; to grieve the irrevocable losses of this great transition time; and to share our new awareness honestly and openly with those around us.

This is the work Joanna Macy pioneered with her Work That Reconnects, which invites us to deep empathy with the more-than-human world: grieving over the dying whale mothers and their doomed calves as we stare wide-eyed into a starkly changed future, remembering that such changes have happened before in geological time. Inevitably, the planet will restore herself and begin creating anew, in the fierce will to life that  philosopher Andreas Weber calls “enlivenment.”

Margaret Mead said long ago, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

More recently, political analysts like Erica Chenoweth have demonstrated that big societal changes can come from the concerted efforts of a relatively small percentage of the population: if just 3.5% of the population work hard for change, it can happen, and often does.

So if you care about the well-being of oceans, fresh water, forests and prairies and mountains…if you care about the well-being of every denizen of our beautiful planet… know that the best thing you can do is to stand up and be counted.

Share your feelings with friends and neighbors. Show up for meetings and rallies to protect the lands and waters in your backyard. Take the children in your life out into nature and open their eyes to the beauty and grace of our common home, Earth.

These times are filled with grief and upheaval, yes. But there are also so many opportunities, every day, to work for the thriving future we wish for our descendants and all the bright creatures of the planet. Now is our time. Let’s make good use of it.

Join me for a deeper dive into the inner work necessary for effective earth activism: “Purposeful Memoir as a Path to a Thriving Future,” September 22 at the summit of Mount Greylock, MA; September 26 at the Transformational Language Arts conference in Scottsdale AZ; and October 20 at the Bioneers conference, San Rafael CA. More information here. 

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