I was travelling back from Italy yesterday. It has become such an ordinary thing and yet, if you think about it, it is stunning. I got driven 60 miles to the airport in Rome from where I was staying. I got carried on countless moving stairs and moving walkways across the vast airport – as big as a small town – with hundreds of shops, restaurants, bars, toilets and endless corridors. Then I got into an Easy jet airplane and was directed to a seat packed closely together with over a hundred other seats. Whilst sitting comfortably, the two hour flight took me soaring 2000 odd miles high over planes, snow capped mountains, rivers, hills, seas, towns and cities and lots of cloudscapes. Lest I should get bored on this extraordinary trip, I was given all kinds of ‘shopping opportunities’, supplied with inflight magazines full of exciting things to do and places to go and plied with as many drinks and snacks as I wished. Then I arrived at Gatwick airport – which is like a small city – where I was enticed with perfumes (which promised to improve my figure as well as my complexion and supply me with muscly handsome brooding young men), and countless other unnecessary glittery items, drinks, jewelry, watches at apparently discounted prices (although I remained unconvinced that buying all this stuff would actually save me money!)… I got carried on a shuttle across terminals and then directed to the train station. Two train rides and a taxi ride later I was home. In short, I spent 10 hours travelling from A to B, carried by countless moving vehicles or contraptions, using God knows how much energy, for relatively low cost… alongside thousands of other people. What is phenomenal is that this is a normal part of my life!
I justify this insane energy expenditure by convincing myself it is worthwhile, that what I offer when I teach abroad is valuable, that my time with my grandchild and daughter abroad is indispensable, or that rest time in warmer climes helps me recharge and is therefore good for everyone around me as well as for me. I do it because I live in an age where this is considered normal and acceptable, despite the fact that the risk our planets very survival is off the charts. And this is one factor among many hundreds of activities I engage in from eating meat and imported fruit and veg, buying things in plastic packaging, heating my home more than is strictly necessary, buying clothes and shoes I don’t actually need, running a car, using a smart phone, etc etc.
The difficulty is that because all of this is normal, those of us who have an environmental conscience have some idea of the cost and the unsustainability of it, and yet we do it anyway. Because everyone else does. And speaking for myself, I have not made any significant sacrifices to use less energy because quite honestly it doesn’t suit me, and even more than that, I don’t believe it would make any real difference.
I read yesterday an article by George Monbiot who said that
“a series of research papers reveal there is no significant difference between the ecological footprints of people who care and people who don’t… one article says that those who identify themselves as conscious consumers use more energy and carbon than those who do not. Why? Because environmental awareness tends to be higher among wealthy people. It is not attitudes which govern our impact on the planet but income. The richer we are, the bigger our footprint, regardless of intentions… none of this means that we should not try and reduce our impact but that we should be aware of the limits of the exercise. Our behavior within the system cannot change the outcomes of the system. It is the system itself which needs to change.” The conclusion is that any system which is reliant on continual ‘growth’ in order to survive, on a planet whose resources are limited and already over stretched is suicidal.
And this may sound pessimistic, but it seems to me that no matter how many individuals make big life changes to live more sustainably, if the system itself is rooted in a necessity of on-going exponential economic growth whatever the cost, the slow-motion fatal car crash we are involved in will keep unfolding relentlessly.
Nevertheless I take my hat off to those who do seek to live their principles for the sake of life on Earth. My daughter Lua and many like her has taken such a plunge. She has stepped out of the predominant rush of our culture and lives in the Canary Islands where her and her partner grow their own vegetables, and live without electricity or hot water. They have a tap and a water vat which is re-filled by the council, they have a compost loo, and they live a frugal, simple existence doing without the comforts which most of us take for granted these days. But even so, she has a mobile phone which she charges at friend’s houses, she runs a car, and regularly flies back to England. Some of her friends out there manage with donkeys for transport, and really do live completely off grid. They have a community of like minded people who all want to come back to a simpler way of being and bring up their children without computers, washing machines, television, or excessive toys and equipment. They have a kind of home schooling community venture for the youngsters, and a system where once a month many people gather together to work on each others’ land. There are young people from all over the world who have had enough of the rat race. They live in shacks, tipis, benders, caves, caravans or small houses for those who can afford it. The life is not easy in many ways and yet I see a shining aliveness in the eyes of the young people I meet there which is unusual and inspiring.
I was reading an article today by Pat McCabe who is an inspiring woman of Native American descent, and what I would consider an ambassador for the planets’ survival (and all of us who dwell in her)…
“Now we speak of our consumption in terms of “how many earths we are using” at any given time. The latest I hear, we are operating at using one and a half earths now. This is a perfect illustration of the mind’s complete irrationality when it is trying its best to be most rational. To point out the obvious here, we don’t have one and a half earths in our bank account, we only have one. What’s more, I believe we are supposed to share it with other lifeforms…”
She goes on to speak about environmental consciousness and shifting to ‘green energy’, recycling and all the gestures many of us make to ‘do our bit’…
“My sense is that the shift we are looking for is going to ask much more of us than this. First of all, this way of life that I sometimes refer to as “the island life” is set up such that we are attempting to create an entire ecosystem for each family unit or even for each individual human, so that they can continue to live in isolation, apart from larger community. This way of life is not sustainable, no matter what is powering it. Not sustainable in terms of “resources” from the Mother Earth, not sustainable in terms of our human development needs (do you know what the statistics are for youth suicides in your community?) nor in our shift from an economic system that is unsustainable and untenable as well, in which we are pitted against each other under the dark spell of scarcity.”
I am sometimes called a pessimist by my friends, and at times I think they are right, but I also consider myself a realist. I cannot see that the shift which Pat mcCabe and George Monbiot are speaking about, is likely to come about without the breakdown of our economic and political systems and the inevitable chaos and suffering which that will entail. The momentum of the juggernaut of so called ‘progress’ has gone beyond being stoppable because a few people think it is a good idea.
I have been told that in Chinese the word crisis combines two characters meaning crisis and opportunity – it has sometimes been translated as ‘opportunity disguised as loss’. It seems to me that us humans are loathe to change unless circumstances dictate that we have to. During the second world war, draconian measures were taken in honour of the war effort, which cut the consumption of this country in ways which today would seem both unthinkable and un-implementable. In a democratic system it is impossible to impose un-wanted changes without risking not being re-elected, so written into the political system is a system of brakes which maintain the status quo even when Life itself is hanging in the balance. The only thing which would make the kind of dramatic shifts necessary to slow down the seemingly inevitable run-away climate crisis would be – it seems to me from my limited perspective – a complete breakdown of the banking system and therefore the whole system we are increasingly dependent on. Then what? Crisis on a major scale which would make the current refugee crisis look like no big deal. And only when we are on our knees as a global community – and its not far off as far as I can see – will it be possible to impose the kind of changes we need to make. God knows what that will look like, I shudder to think… And yet what rises out of the ashes of destruction and devastation is very interesting.
Many children and teenagers I know now are suffering from huge psychological problems as well as physical ones; not to mention the adults. The crisis is already here, and is happening on every level, including within each of our bodies and psyches. As Pat alludes to, youth suicides have gone through the roof.
I believe we need community. We need a sense of deep connection with the earth and each other. We need a sense of deep purpose which allows life to actually make some kind of sense and motivates us to get creative. We need to take care of one another across the generations. We need to get real and come out of virtual bubbles. We need to sing and dance and find enjoyment even when things are dire. We need to get more local in our orientation.
About 6 years ago I went to an Ecopsychology conference at the Eden Centre in Cornwall. I was particularly inspired by Joanna Macy and her Work which Reconnects which is based on 4 guiding principles:
Gratitude for what is.
Honouring our pain for the world. Most of us live with the unbearable knowledge of mass species extinction and the fact that the beautiful-beyond-belief natural world we enjoy is on the verge of being destroyed by what we humans are doing. Because it is unbearable to face it, we tend to avoid feeling the pain of it, which numbs us to every other aspect of life along with it, and makes us incapable of any real response.
Seeing with new eyes: in this we are encouraged to see the world fresh and also recognize our interconnectedness with all beings as well as a sense of connecting with other generations, both those before us and those to come.
Going forth, in which we can start to appreciate our power to support change and participate in what she calls The Great Turning where each of us can contribute to creating new life sustaining cultures, depending on our natural gifts, inclinations and life situations.
There is a wonderful, joyous and life-enhancing love of life and the possibility it keeps offering us that she brings, alongside a chilling realism about what we are really up against here, synthesized in this quote –
“The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world, we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and to each other.”
I came out of the conference seriously sobered but also inspired to step out of my nihilistic pessimism and actually dare to believe it was worth living each day as if it were my last and planning for the future as if it would carry on forever (regardless of whether it actually did or didn’t). I remember going to have my hair cut and saying to my hairdresser, “I feel as if I have just received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, except it doesn’t just involve me, it involves the whole of life as I know it. And I am drawn then to ask myself , What am I going to do? Am I going to drive myself nuts trying to do everything I can to stay alive despite all the odds, trying out every possible cure which might prolong my life (whatever the cost), or am I going to accept reality and give myself with my whole body and heart to the time I have left? And that would mean loving more deeply and completely, opening all the doors I have been trying to keep shut, finding whatever ways I can to give my gift in the time I have: the gift which only I can give!”
The hairdresser was lost for words (which was unusual). I think I remembered it because the passion in which I spoke to someone who was on a very different wavelength, stunned us both.
A couple of years later a student of mine passed a video on to me in which a climate scientist called Guy MacPherson gave a terrifying report on our chances of survival from climate change, even if our carbon output were to come to a complete halt right now. Nil. In his estimation at that time, we had about 20 years left before human beings were extinct. I had a look at an interview with him done this year in which he has updated that prediction based on what has unfolded since then. He now says that the shift in our climate based on many different feedback loops on all kinds of levels is such that we have less than 10 years left.
When he first started realizing what was in store for us he hit despair and fell into a deep depression, compounded by the fact that nobody was prepared to face the possibility that his bleak outlook might be true. So not only was he facing our extinction within years, but he was alone in facing it. But after a while he moved beyond the despair into a deep acceptance which then led to an awakening of the heart. His offering now is this – don’t bother trying to change the world, it is too late. But live life as fully as you can and love as deeply as you are able. What else is there left to do?
I am not inclined to outright disbelieve his prognosis, even whilst I sincerely hope it is not true. But saying that leads me to another point which is about hope.
What is hope? Other than a clinging onto a possibility of reality being better than it is at present? It is seen as being a good thing, but what if it is no more than the proverbial carrot dangled in front of the donkey to force him or her to move forward? What if, in Steven Jenkinsons’ words, we were to move beyond the swing between hope and hopelessness and land in a place which is essentially hope free?
Jenkinson is a man who has spent most of his life working with the dying in palliative care, and founded in 2010 the Orphan Wisdom School, redefining what it means to live and die well. His view is that we are facing the possible death of life as we know it and certainly the death of the culture which gave us our existence and our identity – and in order to move beyond the swing between hope and hopelessness it is absolutely essential to feel the grief of that loss. He says, “To see the death of what you love and be willing to continue to love it when it’s not going to last, that itself is an act of love… Our times require us to be hope free and burn through the false choice between hope and hopelessness which are two sides of the same con job. You don’t require hope to proceed, you require grief to proceed. And if you awaken in our time, you awaken with a sob”.
I find this inspiring. I am tired of looking at all of this in terms of being pessimistic or optimistic. I would rather draw back from my terror of what is in store for us, or my hopes for a dramatic, magical shift in consciousness which will save us all by producing miraculous changes, and give myself wholeheartedly to what makes my heart sing and aligns me most fully to whatever step I am moved to make. And this necessarily means that I regularly feel broken-hearted by what is happening in our world, and because of that rather than despite that, broken open to the absolute wonder and beauty of existence.
George Monbiot article – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/22/black-friday-consumption-killing-planet-growth
Pat McCabe – http://womanstandsshining.strikingly.com/
Joanna Macy – https://workthatreconnects.org/
Guy McPherson – https://guymcpherson.com/
Stephen Jenkinson – https://orphanwisdom.com/
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Albert Einstein