Let's begin this journey with the story we tell ourselves. In the Western world, at least, we largely view our planet as a steady, infinite pallet for human existence. We build our cities, homes and industry without much consideration of how the landscape may change or the ecosystems that live there. Our economy is driven by the pursuit of perpetual growth, disregarding the finiteness and integrity of Earth’s resources (including people). Earth, like most things, is a commodity, its use up to our discretion.
As such, we divide up the world by abstract borders, disregarding the dynamic systems of landscapes, climates, currents and species. Metaphysical connections like “love” are mysterious cherries on top to a world of discrete, happenstance parts – not fundamental elements of how Earth operates. And our lives, amidst this fragmented world, are journeys of the self, relevant only to our own lifespan and to the people in our immediate circles. Under the belief that our existences are small and isolated, as activist Joanna Macy puts it, "problems of the world – other peoples, nations, and species – are seen as far away and irrelevant to the drama of our personal lives.”[i]
And more, what isn’t as obvious, is how degrading the rest of our fundamental beliefs are. Our impression that we are discrete, hierarchical beings on a happenstance world takes us away from our greatest source of power — our connections with other beings. Secluding ourselves to the nation state hinders us from harnessing global cooperation. Obsession with thought and reason disconnects us from our emotional compass — one of our most acute ways of sensing the world – and treating our landscape as an inert playground prevents us from embracing our dynamic capacity to adapt and grow. Moreover, in addition to harming countless people every day, our oppressive social structures deny each of us the compassion and connectedness essential to being fully human, and prevent us all from living freely. Our pervasive individualism and exploitative outlook on the world neglect the immense strength and opportunity available to us in the collective network of humanity, and of life on Earth.
As Amitav Ghosh, author of The Great Derangement (a must read), describes, “this climate crisis is a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.”[ii] The widespread beliefs dictating how we operate society are what are preventing us from waking up to the issues at hand and realizing the solutions – not our human nature. For when we look at our history as part of this planet, we see that humans are born with what it takes.
[i] From “Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy” by J. Macy and C. Johnstone, 2012, p. 16. New World Library.
[ii] From “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” by D. Grinspoon, 2016, p. 260. Grand Central Publishing.
[iii] From “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” by A. Ghosh, 2016, p. 9. The University of Chicago Press.
Our Current Story
We all learned Darwin’s “survival of the fittest" theory – the idea that evolution is a competition amongst individuals. This framework fits in quite well with our understanding that humans fundamentally operate on self-interest, and helps to seed a deep lack of trust throughout society. We treat this anxiety by seeking order and control — through our obsession with “reason”; through religious, political, and scientific ideologies; through governments and social contracts. We view our quantifiable thoughts as a much more legitimate way of knowing than our whimsical, fluid emotions. And we hoard assets and power, oppressing each other to do so. Social orders built on cruel hierarchies, such as white supremacy, sexism and classicism, allow us to believe that some of us have a leg up in this competition.
And alas, in lieu of climate change, there is a new popular notion that "the human race is inherently ignorant, destructive, and divisive.”[ii] Our histories of war and brutal exploitation, and now our stubborn destruction of the environment, seem to tell us that we are messy creatures who ultimately will not be able to escape our greed. That we are inevitably doomed.
This last belief obviously isn’t empowering, and it is wrong. There are countless humans on this planet who have been fighting their oppression for centuries, calling for us to create a more just society. We (those in power, at least) just haven’t been listening.