The People’s Climate March: Taking the Evolutionary Leap of Radical Democracy

The People’s Climate March in New York City is just one manifestation of a huge sea-change sweeping through our culture. Or perhaps “seeping” would be a better verb—this shift in awareness is not happening with the tsunami force of a revolution, but more with the steady, determined drip-drip-drip of water undermining rock.

Humans are paradoxical. On the one hand, we love everything that’s new and innovative, we all want to be out ahead of the curve when it comes to technological breakthroughs and new ideas. On the other hand, we hold tight to the received wisdom of our forebears, living by enshrined writings thousands of years old (the Bible, the Koran, the Mahabharata, Confucius, etc.) or hundreds of years old (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights).

We have established elaborate educational, political and legal systems designed to hold us to a particular form of society, permitting free, innovative thinking only along narrow channels carefully defined by the interests of business and commerce.

The arts and humanities, traditionally the realm of creative, imaginative exploration, have been steadily starved in this brave new world, which can only imagine creativity in the service of profit.

What happens to a society that can only envision creative energy in an instrumental, utilitarian light?

We become a society of robots. We lose our connection to the soul of the world, the anima mundi that sustains us humans along with all other living beings on the planet.

http---pbs.twimg.com-media-ByDzJSPIYAA_RHcThe People’s Climate March, which is happening not only in New York City but worldwide, with 2,808 marches and events in 166 countries, bears welcome witness to the fact that the sparks of creative, independent thinking have not totally gone out.

There are many, many people worldwide who are aware, and aghast, at the failure of our political and business leaders to act in the best interests of the people and all the beautiful, innocent creatures who are slipping away into the night of extinction day by day due to the relentless human assault on our shared planet.

We are here, we are aware, and we are engaged. We are not going to stand by silently and let corporate greed and shortsightedness overwhelm us.

It is true that business and government have a stranglehold on official channels of communication, education and social change.

They control the curricula taught in our schools, what appears on our major media channels, and what projects and areas of creative exploration are funded. They keep us in line with the debt bondage of school loans, mortgages, car payments and the fear of not having enough money in the bank for a comfortable old age. We’re so busy running on the treadmills they’ve set up we have no time or energy to think about changing the system.

Or do we?

So far, the one social area that has not been overtaken by corporate/governmental control is the World Wide Web. It’s still a Wild West space, a place where you can find everything and everyone, from dangerous sadists to beneficent spiritual leaders. There’s room for every kind of idea out there to percolate through our collective consciousness. And make no mistake: the energy we’re seeing in the People’s Climate March is fueled in large part by the distribution power of the Web, the ability to get the word out and get people fired up to come together to take a stand.

We saw it happen in the Arab Spring, where people used cell phones and texts to organize themselves to resist oppression.

We saw those people get beaten back, the promise of their revolution squashed by the entrenched power of men with guns and tear gas.

The rise of the Islamic State, like the rise of Al Quaeda and the Taliban, is all about conservative forces resisting change.

I am just as afraid of men with guns and tear gas as the next woman. I am happier making revolution on my laptop than in the streets. But at some point we have to come out from behind our screens, get off the treadmills of debt bondage, look around us at the beauty of the world, and say: this is what I want to live for, and this is what I’m willing to die for.

Terry Tempest Williams.  Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Terry Tempest Williams. Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Environmental activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams, in her book The Open Space of Democracy, says that the time has come to “move beyond what is comfortable” (81) in pursuit of what she calls a “spiritual democracy.”

“We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt,” she says.

“It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships. A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honoring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few” (87)

Williams calls for a radical recognition of the interdependence of all life on Earth. “The time has come to demand an end to the wholesale dismissal of the sacredness of life in all its variety and forms,” she says. “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” (86)

If we humans could step into our destiny as the stewards of our planet, the loving gardeners and caretakers of all other living beings, we would harness our incredible intelligence and creativity to re-stabilize our climate and do what needs to be done to ensure the well-being of all.

Williams calls this “the next evolutionary leap” for humanity: “to recognize the restoration of democracy as the restoration of liberty and justice for all species, not just our own” (89).

DSC_2200WIf we are able to take this leap, we will not only avert climate-related disaster on a Biblical scale, we will also overcome many of the social problems that we currently struggle with. “To be in the service of something beyond ourselves—to be in the presence of something other than ourselves, together—this is where we can begin to craft a meaningful life where personal isolation and despair disappear through the shared engagement of a vibrant citizenry,” says Williams (89).

Williams’ small gem of a book grew out of a speech she gave at her alma mater, the University of Utah, in the spring of 2003, as America was rushing into its ill-conceived War on Terror in Iraq. She describes her heart pounding as she got up to make a speech advocating a different form of democracy than that embraced and espoused by all the conservative friends and family sitting in the audience before her.

Challenging one’s own friends and family, betraying one’s own tribe, is the hardest aspect of being a social revolutionary. You have to question the very people you love most, who have given you so much and made your whole life possible.

But if we become aware that the social systems that gave birth to us are the very social systems that are undermining the possibility of a livable future on this planet, can we continue to just go with the flow, to avoid asking the difficult questions?

Or will we become change agents who work slowly and steadily, drip by drip, to awaken those around us, those we love most, to the necessity of undertaking “the next evolutionary leap” in the human saga on the planet?

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Taking the risk to feel the pain of the world, and the love that can change it

Sometimes I wish I just taught math or physics—something dry and formulaic that would not require wading publicly into the messy, unclear, painful areas of life and interpersonal relations. My current mantra is “the personal is planetary.” If this is so, what does it mean for the planet that such a high percentage of my students over the years have revealed such terrible pain and suffering in the classroom over and over again?

Lately I’ve been reading Bill Plotkin’s magisterial work Nature and the Human Soul, in which he argues that human civilization has been stuck for too long (since Gilgamesh, I’d say) in an adolescent stage of development, where young men are encouraged in their shallow enjoyment of violence, sex and glory, and young women are encouraged to be pretty, compliant and deferent to authority.

The students at my institution are generally trying very hard to resist this overwhelming cultural message.  They try to think outside the box.  They have an earnest desire to be politically correct and intellectually sophisticated. It’s all very well on the purely academic front.  But what happens when the cracks in that academic façade appear and reveal deep emotions—anger, grief, fear, desire—that go way beyond the bounds of the merely academic?

Sometimes these emotions can be so frightening that the only sane response seems to be to numb out on drugs (licit & illicit) or get distracted by media entertainment & competition & the race to keep one’s economic head above water. Somehow in my classes these tumultuous, unruly emotions often come leaping into the foreground.  I allow and sometimes even encourage our class discussions to “go there,” to go into that dangerous gray zone between the purely intellectual/theoretical and the deeply personal lived experience. I believe that this is the zone where the most productive new thinking happens, the kind that can shift paradigms and change worlds.  So I’m willing to risk the discomfort of venturing outside our collective comfort zones, in the hopes that a spark set off in one of our class discussions or activities will ignite a fiery passion that goes well beyond the narrow confines of this class, this semester, or any one student’s career.

But in the aftermath, as I think back on the tears shed, the furrowed brows of the listeners, the potential for aftershocks to occur outside the relatively safe space of the classroom, I can’t rest easy.  I feel deeply, myself, the responsibility of leadership, even in the relatively small scale of the classroom.  The ripples of our conversations on any given day may spread out for many years, affecting those of us who listened and bore witness to his pain in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Some believe that we human beings are the consciousness of the planet. If the personal is planetary and vice versa, then it could be that these young people are in some sense channeling the pain of our planet itself. We owe it to our youth, to ourselves, and to the great planet we call home, to—at minimum—listen with respect, try to understand, and consider how our choices and actions can contribute to or lessen the pain.

It’s risky to do this active listening and thinking aloud, in the moment, rather than waiting until we are sure we “have it right,” “understand it all,” or “know what to do.”  But we don’t have the luxury of time now to get it all perfect.  The best we can do is continually check in with our own emotions, and try to be sure that whatever we say or do is rooted in compassion, concern and a sincere desire to make things better.

“In a voiced community we all flourish,” says Terry Tempest Williams.  Blowing with love on the shaky fires of these suffering voices, bringing them into a nourishing, respectful community, will help ease not only human suffering, but also, potentially, as the ripples spread out, the suffering of so many living beings on the planet.

LOVE—the one emotion that trumps all others, on both the personal and the planetary scale.  The one emotion we can never have too much of, and the one out of which new potentialities continually spring. 6a00d83451c79e69e2015432a3f0e2970c-253x300May the tears we shed as we think about the pain of the world water the dry, numbed-out hearts of those who profess not to care about the links between the health of humans and of the natural world.

May we take the pain born of love, and channel it into personal and planetary healing.  May we be wise enough to see the connections between our actions and their ripple effects in human society and the planet writ large. May we learn to feel all the love we’re capable of as humans and to act out of that deep wellspring of emotion. Let it be so.  Let’s make it so.

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