21 Questions for 2020: #8

#8. From pandemics to politics to melting poles and wildfires—how are we to understand the rapid-fire changes sweeping over our planet? How should we respond? 

I know I am far from alone in feeling battered by the constant deluge of shocking news. There is no time to ponder and assimilate; we are like human shock absorbers—take a punch and keep on rolling. 

2020 started off with the wildfires burning millions of acres in Australia, and has moved on rapidly to the uncontained spread of the COVID-19 virus, followed by a global stock market slide so steep that we are suddenly hearing the R-word—Recession. The poles are melting dramatically, while the usual political processes are melting down in the wake of Russian intervention designed to sow distrust and chaos. 

What in the world is going on? 

The transition of our planet is speeding up and intensifying. We are all feeling the pressure of the birth canal now, and it’s far from comfortable to both witness and be part of such rapid and profound change.

The fires and floods; the climate disruptions; the pandemics and the economic and political upheavals—all are part of the vast interconnected system called Gaia, and she is working now to return balance to our planet. The first task is to check the growth of the invasive species called Homo sapiens, which has been responsible for the overheating of the planetary atmosphere, the loss of so many other species, and the contamination of soils, seas and air.

We know that humans have pushed the planet beyond her carrying capacity—not so much in numbers as in consumption. The planet could support billions of people, if we lived in harmony with her life support systems, rather than raping, pillaging and destroying our home. 

Take a look around. You are living in a very rare moment on Earth—a slow-motion tipping point, with the luxury of time to apprehend what is happening, and perhaps even time to affect the outcome. 

Are you going to hold on for dear life to the old ways that brought us to this crisis? Or are you going to let go of the past and let the winds of change propel you forward?

The Democratic primaries have been an exercise in precisely this kind of decision-making. Will the electorate choose retrograde candidates, or politicians who are not afraid of change? 

Each of us is a like a tiny cell in the vast organism that is our planetary home. Like the trillions of cells and bacteria that compose our bodies, every element of this planet has a role to play in creating the health and well-being of the greater living system. The choices we make matter. Every day is an opportunity to contribute to the greater good. 

The one thing certain in life is that we will die. One day we will be released from what Ojibewe elder Mary Lyons calls “the shell of the body.” Paradoxically, transformation is what creates stability on Earth. 

When you look into the world and see the rapid changes taking place, steady yourself with the knowledge that they are signs of Mother Earth seeking to stabilize her life systems to better serve the planetary organism as a whole. 

The long historical arc of human innovation known as the Industrial Revolution is bending towards its finish line. A new cycle of growth is already underway, rooted in an ecological understanding of the interdependency of all life on Earth.

Let’s grow! Let’s go! Let’s let go of the past and embrace the new with all the exuberance of a wild meadow bursting into flower in the springtime. Life is calling us all to dance. What are we waiting for?

I leave you with a favorite poem by Mary Oliver, who, as always, gets it just right.

When death comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

© 1992 by Mary Oliver, from New & Selected Poems: Vol 1. Beacon Press, Boston

An All-Hands-On-Deck Moment

In reading the recent back and forth between Jeremy Lent and Jem Bendell, I have the feeling I’m watching two great intellectual stags locking horns, jockeying with each other for dominance. These two climate philosophers are quite polite as they tear into each other’s work, and I think they both mean well. But do we have time, really, for this kind of academic jousting?

Does it really matter whether we counsel “transformative hope” (Lent) or “positive deep adaptation” (Bendell)? Does it matter whether we say social/environmental collapse is “likely” (Lent) or “inevitable” (Bendell)?

Both thinkers are really going for the same outcome, which is a cultural shift into confronting the seriousness of our current predicament (as a species, but also in terms of the stability of our planetary ecosystems). Both acknowledge that we may have to take some time to work through our despair and grief over the inevitability of change; and that ultimately we will need to turn to our neighbors and do our best to salvage what we can as we power down the old western civilization and power up, hopefully, the “ecological civilization” Lent has been calling for.

I am grateful to both of these guys, along with George Monbiot and Greta Thunberg, for getting climate breakdown and social collapse out of the realm of dystopian cli-fi and into the mainstream media.

Yes, what they are saying is scary. We are living through scary times—not just because of the current occupants of the White House, but because of the increasing chaos in our planetary life support systems. The Holocene is coming to an end, the Anthropocene is beginning, and it’s going to be a hard time for most species on Earth—human beings very much included.

We have to talk about this, and we can’t sugar-coat it. We humans need a wake-up call in the strongest terms, and sometimes a little fearmongering is necessary. It’s all very well for Charles Eistenstein to say that we need to come at the climate issue from a place of love rather than fear, but let’s be real. How many of the 7.6 billion people on the planet are in a strong enough relationship with Gaia to be motivated, purely out of love, to work hard to resuscitate and stabilize her?

But if you show people pictures of wildfires, flooding, hurricanes and droughts; if you tell them that agricultural systems are threatened, that climate refugees are already on the move, and that the entire natural food chain is collapsing both on land and sea…well, you might just be able to get their attention.

Right now we’re in a kind of agonizing slo-mo catastrophe. Sometimes it’s so slow that you can fool yourself into thinking everything’s fine. That’s why the work that Lent, Bendell, Monbiot, Thunberg and other activists are doing is essential—saying loud and clear, in no-nonsense terms, that THINGS ARE NOT FINE.

Although the Gaian indicators have never been worse, I find myself more hopeful now that I was a few years ago, when even a “good guy” like President Obama was posing with fossil fuel pipes behind him and refusing to kill the Keystone XL. At least we don’t have that kind of liberal hypocrisy running the show anymore.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal make me hopeful.

The Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion make me hopeful.

Student climate strikes make me hopeful.

The worldwide interest in the Findhorn Climate Change & Consciousness conference makes me hopeful.

I find hope in my own small contributions towards waking people up and helping them find their way to what Joanna Macy calls “active hope.” For example, in the workshop I’ll be giving here in the Berkshires on April 27, “Aligning the Personal, Political and Planetary for a Thriving Future.”

I would like to see Jem Bendell and Jeremy Lent go out for a beer and work out their ego-driven differences with some good old-fashioned humor and humility. We need all hands on deck now, pulling together into the thriving future we yearn for.

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