Climate emergency is confronting us with the accelerating effects of our materialistic culture: extreme droughts, storms, and fires, and not just oceans filling with plastic, but micro-plastics polluting the air. And the voices of young people are demanding action, as Greta Thunberg’s school strike goes global, and Extinction Rebellion tells the truth of life on Earth in crisis as, “we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.” Young people see their future and the future of the Earth being destroyed by profit-hungry corporations and the dark side of capitalism. Humanity has only a dozen years to the take the actions necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5C), or face catastrophic impacts.
But facing this catastrophe, what is the future we are imagining? And although there is an ever-increasing emergency—as Greta says, “our house is on fire”—is there the danger that we are avoiding the real consequences of our collective behavior, and are in fact trying to address this crisis with the same attitude, the same consciousness, that created it? Yes, we need to reduce carbon emissions and plant trees.1 But if we continue to see the Earth, its climate, or the environment, as something separate from us—a problem requiring a solution—we are just continuing the same story, placing a band-aid over the festering wound our present civilization has created.
We have to accept that our civilization, with its materialistic values, its addictions to consumerism, is past its sell-by date. Its values and patterns of behavior have become so self-destructive, even psychotic,2 that it is coming to an end—to quote Paul Kingsnorth: “brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world.”3
A grounded response requires us to acknowledge that while governments or corporations may offer short-term fixes for reducing carbon emissions and encouraging renewable energy sources, their model of our civilization with its ideology of progress and images of continued economic growth, is not only unsustainable, but pathological.4 Instead we need to confront “the end of the world as we know it.”5 Taking real responsibility means that we cannot avoid the consequences of our actions. Even if we do not know the future that is waiting, we need to recognize what is happening.
Historically we can look back at the dying days of the Roman Empire, a time before the Dark Ages swallowed Europe for centuries. When the last Roman legions left Britain at the end of the fourth century—as the buildings crumbled, or were left abandoned—what were the feelings, the attitude of those left behind, knowing their world, their civilization was ending?6 While it took decades, even centuries for the Roman era to end, Baghdad, then the largest city in the world, was destroyed in less than two weeks by a siege of Mongol hoards in 1258, when every building of note, every mosque and market, was demolished. The Islamic Golden Age ended, and the irrigation system that had supported Mesopotamia for millennia was destroyed and never repaired.
Is our arrogance similar to the rulers of the Baghdad, thinking their civilization would outlast the Mongol force of nature? We do not know the timeline of how climate change will end our era, and most imagine we will adapt and continue.7 Are we really prepared to confront the forces of nature that our own arrogance and ignorance have unleashed?
What does it mean to live at the end of an era? What does it require individually and collectively? We are present in a moment of profound transition, one that requires our full awareness and participation. And for this work we need resilience, the tools to face our insecurities, our fears as things fall apart, the possibility of social collapse and the patterns of denial that accompany these forebodings.8 As we accept our grief, the deep sadness at the natural beauty and wonder that is passing, and also confront our own impermanence and even mortality, we need to enquire what are the spiritual roots that can sustain us, the ethical values that are essential to this time of transition? And how can we put these values into action, both individually and as a community?
We also need to learn how to be present at the place where the worlds come together, where the old dies and the new can be born. This is not a place of comfort, and anger or blame at those whose apparent blindness and greed has caused this crisis will not help—all of us who participate in this civilization, drive a car, sit in a bus, eat food not locally grown, have contributed. What is required is a radical shift of consciousness. Instead of our Western focus on individualism and its recent neoliberal ideology,9 we need to value cooperation rather than competition, and relearn how to live from a place of connection—connection to each other and to the Earth as a living presence. Of necessity we need to embrace a life of simplicity, supported by community rather than consumerism. And, if possible, an awareness of the sacred that permeates all of creation, the suffering Earth as well as our hopes and dreams. These are some of the basic tools of transformation.
And as we take responsibility for a possible climate catastrophe, it is essential our responses are rooted in a justice model and demonstrate solidarity with people of color and those in places where people are already suffering from climate collapse. As we are already witnessing in the prolonged drought in Somalia, those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are living in the poorest countries, and the world’s 2.5 billion smallholder farmers, herders and fisheries who depend on the climate and natural resources for food and income. Climate justice and social justice must walk hand in hand if we are to transition into a future that moves beyond our present divisiveness to support the diversity of humanity and the living Earth.
Collapse and transition can co-exist, especially if we can embrace a future that looks forward to the next seven generations, as in the Native American tradition.10 Yes, we need the tools for this transition, the resilience to take us through a possible social collapse, but also the vision of a future that is deeply sustainable for all forms of life, which for indigenous peoples has always been founded upon an awareness and relationship to the sacred nature of creation—combined with consciousness of the Earth as a living unity. I am not suggesting that reconnection with nature, or the sacred within creation, will save us from climate catastrophe or social collapse. But that these qualities of interconnectedness are necessary to sustain us during a time of possible collapse and transition, as well as belonging to a shared future with the Earth—a future that can only come from such a radical shift in our collective consciousness.
Turning towards a living future means not just fewer carbon emissions but a profound revolution of consciousness.11 A shift from seeing the Earth as something separate—whether as a resource to be exploited or a problem to be solved—to a living being to which we belong, who is in distress and needs our love, care and attention. We do not know how our civilization will end, or how long it will take—we are living in a time of radical uncertainty. But we can recognize that it is over, and that the seeds of a new era are already present, even if mostly unrecognized. If our shared future is to be sustainable in any real sense we need to return to a living relationship with the Earth, a state of “interbeing.”12 Only then can we turn our awareness to how to give birth to a new civilization that can exist in balance, in harmony with the Earth and Her living systems. There is an immediacy to this work even if it may take centuries for it to unfold—and it is where our hearts and hands are needed.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is the author of many books including Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, and forthcoming title, Including the Earth in Our Prayers: A Global Dimension to Spiritual Practice. The focus of his writing and teaching is on spiritual responsibility in our present time of transition.
1 A new study found reforestation could be a far more important tool against climate change than previously believed. “This new quantitative evaluation shows [forest] restoration isn’t just one of our climate change solutions, it is overwhelmingly the top one,” said Prof Tom Crowther at the Swiss University ETH Zürich.
2 Any species that consciously destroys its own ecosystem can be considered as psychotic.
3 “Hope in the Age of Collapse,” an interview with Paul Kingsnorth, Thoreau Farm.
4 Again, to quote Greta Thunberg, “This ongoing inaction of people in power and the companies responsible will, in the future, no doubt be remembered as a crime against humanity.”
5 Ibid., Kingsnorth.
6 By the late fifth century the Roman town of Londinium, which had many large buildings, piped water, and a drainage system, was an uninhabited ruin. Two centuries later the Saxons built another town nearby.
7 Many believe that renewable energy sources, “sustainable development,” or a “green economy” (“Green New Deal” in the USA) will allow us to continue our energy-intensive way of life. It is even seen as a boost to economic growth, making money in green tech and the transition to a low carbon economy. This is in contrast to the no-growth advocates who contend that green capitalism can’t stem climate change or the general, ongoing degradation of the planet. “What goods or services are such that their production, use, and disposal do not consume land, energy, or other resources? Passive houses, electric vehicles, eco-textiles, photovoltaic systems, organic food, power lines, combined heat and power plants, solar thermal heaters, cradle-to-cradle beverage packaging, car sharing or Internet services: none of them fulfill this condition.” (Niko Paech, Liberation from Excess: The Road to a Post-Growth Economy.)
8 The blind spot of any culture is “the inability to conceive of its own destruction and possible extinction.” From “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” by Jem Bendell.
9 Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling. In his seminal paper, “Deep Adaptation,” Jem Bendell suggests that, “The West’s response to environmental issues has been restricted by the dominance of neoliberal economics since the 1970s.”
10 An ancient Iroquois philosophy states that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future…
11 The ecologist John Milton, speaking of well-intentioned efforts to reform institutions, writes: “By themselves [these efforts] won’t bring about the penetrating changes in human culture that we need for people to live in true harmony and balance with one another and the earth. The next great opening of an ecological worldview will have to be an internal one.” Over the past two decades (since writing Working with Oneness) I have argued that the necessary shift in consciousness is an awakening to oneness, an awareness of the interconnectivity and living unity of all of creation—and that rather than separate individuals we are an integral part of this living whole.
12 “Interbeing” is a term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh to describe our deep interconnection with one another and with all life.