I am dying to tell you all about my current adventures on the “Becoming Indigenous” course at Schumacher College” – a blissful cross between Harry Potter and the university that you always wanted to go to – but it’ll have to wait! I promised to follow up on my last blog entry, in which I wrote about the impact of witnessing the biodiversity in the Pacific Northwest. I need to close the loop, which means launching into some unsavoury discussion, but stay with me – there is inspiration at the end!
The joy and the sadness of coming face to face with the paucity of wildlife in the UK, Europe, and now the majority of the world. The figures, whilst hard to verify due to the complexity of measuring living systems, are nonetheless staggering – 60% of marine life gone in the last 40 years; as has over half of the Amazon rainforest; species are going extinct, not least due to the loss of habitats stemming from human expansion. That’s not even taking into account climate change…
When faced with the facts about what has been dubbed the “Quintuple Threat” – bio-devastation, overpopulation, Peak Oil, climate change and the underlying culprit of an industrial growth, debt-based economic model that cannot adapt to a sustainable, natural system of growth…decay…regeneration, even if we want it to – most of us feel so overwhelmed, horrified and powerless (how can any one person have any effect in the face of such a monumental challenge?) that we shut down. This first response of denial or distraction is described in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s classic work on the cycle we go through in response to grief. “This isn’t happening… It can’t be as bad as all that… If I don’t think about it, it’ll go away…” It is only human to find ways to avoid recognising the devastating consequences of our unchecked industrialisation.
Next up is anger: “Why is this happening? Who is responsible? How dare they / we continue to act in this ignorant, greedy, crippling way?” Anger is useful – it is the most dynamic of all the emotions and can drive helpful action. It can also generate blame, which in this case may be very useful in terms of targeting the organisations that continue to act against the interests of the environment and consequently all life including humanity’s long term survival. It is most effective when anger can be contained and filtered through a discerning self-reflective attitude that then brings us to a place of taking personal responsibility for our own contribution to the situation and active engagement with the creation of something new.
Joanna Macy’s incredibly powerful and beautiful ‘the Work that Reconnects’ focuses on helping us find the courage to turn and face the reality of our situation. Only by embracing the grief process of feeling the loss and the pain can we move to a place of acceptance, from which we can think effectively and act. Perhaps more importantly, through dropping out of a purely intellect-based approach to solving these problems and embracing the mysterious dimension of emotions, we give the unconscious a portal through which to express itself and contribute its genius to the creative process of reconstructing the way we live.
Ultimately, we each have our own way through these murky waters of overwhelm-inspired indifference. For me tuning into the ‘Cry of the Earth’ as Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (an old Etonian turned Sufi master) puts it has been an essential step. It has helped me to find the motivation to take small actions such as recycling (which doesn’t really do anything, just outsources the problem, but seems like a sensible step), using more local suppliers, eating organic where possible, driving an energy efficient car, supporting online campaigns such as Greenpeace and Avaaz, switching my bank account and financial investments to institutions aligned with my ethics. However it is all too easy to fall back into a pit of despair at the seemingly endless advance of our monolithic consumption-heavy culture. But discovering this permaculture framework for envisioning the future has felt tremendously empowering.
A leading proponent of Permaculture, David Holmgren, has developed an overview of the routes humanity can take in the face of the quintuple threat. Brown Tech (Techno Explosion) – which is a pressing the carbon-foot-to-the-accelerator approach, essentially maintaining our current worldview that the Earth’s resources are here for our benefit alone and that we can solve our environmental crisis with technology. Then there’s Green Tech (Techno Stability) – the aim is to stabilise our use of fossil fuels through improving our technology to use less carbon. Then there’s Regenerative Descent (Creative Response) – a controlled divestment away from fossil fuels to increasingly Life-sustaining practices in which humanity works increasingly in concert with planet’s Eco-system. Finally, the Lifeboat (Collapse) approach – a build-yer-bunkers and start stock-piling food and weaponry now outlook… We are all free to choose which of these scenario is we want to put our energy behind.
I’ve always loved the Chinese proverb “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”. Increasingly I am finding grounded, realistic ways in which we can do that on an individual basis. I really like the concept of working within our sphere of influence. We all have a sphere of concern, but if we shift our focus to the sphere of our individual influence a flow of cumulative actions can build up into something significant. This is the age of people power.
Gandhi offers a more sober expression of the same idea: “whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it”. He knows that to have too much attachment to an outcome undermines the capacity to act effectively, with persistence. He, mercifully, also encouraged us to “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. A call to arms (alms?) that Drew Dellinger delivers so powerfully in his poem Hieroglyphic Stairway. I offer it to you by way of inspiration.