Our Brains on Climate Change and Other Confusing Stories ~ Part 1

Dreams from an Ecovillage
Dreams from an Ecovillage

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars

~ Walt Whitman

When Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) was in Vietnam and many villages were bombed (he tells us in “Peace is Every Step”), he and his monastic brothers and sisters had to decide what to do: continue to practice mindfulness and meditation at the monastery or leave to help the people in suffering? They decided to do both: “go out to help people and do so on mindfulness” (p.91). They call it “Engaged Buddhism” and Thay says: “Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”

Bombs and destroyed villages are tangible: if you have them in front of you, you have to be a monster not to react.

Climate change and resource depletion are hard to trace and, for many, still very abstract: if you live in a big city or belong to middle-class, it is hard to “believe” in resource depletion: supermarkets are full of “variety” and malls, full of new gadgets and stuff to buy…also, if you haven’t been touched by a hurricane, a flood or a wildfire you tend to think these are all unfortunate things that happen once in a while “somewhere else”…if you have enough money, you haven’t yet made the connection between food prices and draughts and if you have a good health-care system and live in a “developed” country you can’t understand that Ebola and similar epidemics are related to social injustice and ecosystems collapse.

Climate change doesn’t have a “here” and “now” and certainly not a specific “enemy” you can fight against. The same happens with resource depletion: who exactly is the enemy? Science? Progress? Technology? The White Man? Monotheism? Corporations? The Free Market? Capitalism?

Also, when you decide to help villagers to rebuild their livelihoods, you have a very practical task ahead: Thay and his monk friends helped villagers to re-build their homes, grow food and start the local economies. They also helped with the most difficult task of them all: the healing of the soul.

But what exactly are the tasks to deal with for something that is looming and has different faces? Something that is partially here but not so yet…something so big and dreary that maybe, just maybe, nothing we do will work?

Dear Sunshine Coast
Dear Sunshine Coast

And I would travel with you
to the places of our shame

The hills stripped of trees, the marshes grasses
oil-slicked, steeped in sewage;

The blackened shoreline, the chemical-poisoned water;

I would stand with you in the desolate places, the charred places,
soil where nothing will ever grow, pitted desert;

fields that burn slowly for months; roots of cholla & chaparrala

writhing with underground explosions

 I would put my hand
there with yours, I would take your hand, I would walk with you

through carefully planted fields, rows of leafy vegetables
drifting with radioactive dust; through the dark
of uranium mines hidden in the sacred gold-red mountains;

I would listen with you in drafty hospital corridors
as the miner cried out in the first language

of pain; as he cried out
the forgotten names of his mother I would stand
next to you in the forest’s

final hour, in the wind
of helicopter blades, police

sirens shrieking, the delicate
tremor of light between

leaves for the last
time Oh I would touch with this love each

wounded place

~ Poem by Anita Barrows (cited by Joanna Macy in “Coming Back to Life”)

I am currently reading two books about climate change: one is Naomi Klein’s “This changes everything” and the second, George Marshal’s “Don’t even think about it”. Both are half way and recently I finished Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway “The collapse of Western civilization

In my self-inflicted “Intro to University Writing” class, we were also asked to write a research paper on a topic of our choice (from five given topics). One of them was based on how journalism influences public perceptions (and behaviours) on certain topics so I chose this one and added my own personal touch: how media influences public perceptions on climate change.

I am not new to climate change: I’ve been reading and researching for some time now, first I linked it to food security (for a pilot online course I designed using Moodle for my VCC certificate on Online Instruction). The course was about “Food Security” and related the “positive” loops created by and through food/climate change: how not only industrial agriculture but all its intricate system of faraway and “convenience” consumption and waste (of food) created a self-fulfilling loop where you wouldn’t know at this point whether climate change creates food crisis or it is the other way around…

After that, I explored various online courses, from the one accessible through the Red Cross training and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) and the many presented by prestigious universities through Coursera and edX…the courses go from the hard science behind climate change to exploring potential “solutions”, exploring both mitigation and adaptation, the politics behind and even the social context: who is affected most, who does less.

So it is no surprise that, as many others, I have wondered why, being it possibly the most studied topic of all times and the biggest threat of all times, we are doing so little about it.

The issue is compounded by the fact that we “not only” face climate change: we have many other scary things right here and in store for us: resource scarcity (starting from water and soil and going all the way to biodiversity, fossil fuels and raw materials to support our lavish lifestyles); waste and pollution (which, in turn, affect the availability and quality of the “resources” we need such as water, air, soil, biodiversity and even oxygen) and all of them gracefully decorated with a nice icing made of poverty, exploitation, social injustice, religious and political extremism, wars and so on…

While there are institutions, groups and individuals doing things here and there to deal or “fix” each one of these predicaments (from climate change to resource depletion to social issues), it seems to me as if all the efforts are somewhat “too little, too late” and in most cases, not looking at the big picture: the efforts are isolated and therefore their impact small in scope.

Yes, I can see people turning to renewable and buying locally; I can see others buying hybrid cars and changing their light bulbs; I can see even others practicing Permaculture, going off the grid, walking or biking and practicing yoga…but I also see even more people still driving fancy cars and buying tons of stuff during Halloween, Thanksgiving, Black Friday and now Christmas…

On the big picture, I can see universities, grassroots groups and city councils working on projects with the word sustainability, green and environment on them…but also on the big picture, I see city, province and federal governments re-writing laws to protect corporations and developers, giving permits to sack the land, destroy ecosystems and build more suburbs, pipelines and dams…

When I see the people I help in my job, I know there is no way they would afford basic clothes, school supplies or even food without Walmart and the sort: it is easy to talk about growing your own food and living off the grid if you haven’t tried it yourself with a family of four or more to support…it is also easy talking badly about jobs as if they were all devil sucking our blood, when you haven’t been unemployed and trying to feed your children and keep a roof over their heads…

Why is important to speak and write about these things? Because if we don’t acknowledge, we can’t do much about them…and because every step we take to “solve” the problem may be in the wrong direction if we don’t look at not only what is causing them, but what is causing denial and, worse of all, inaction and apathy…

In my case, thinking and writing about this (and trying to do something) is also important to keep myself sane and healthy: I deal really badly with denial and can’t process “artificial positivism” without having a spiritual indigestion: I need to see with the eyes wide open, I’m not afraid of the dark.

All passes and still...
All passes and still…

We know ourselves to be made from this earth.

We know this earth is made from our bodies.

For we see ourselves. And we are nature.

We are nature seeing nature. We are nature

with a concept of nature. Nature weeping. Nature

speaking of nature to nature.”

~ Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature (“The Fruitful Darkness” Ch. “The World Wound” by Joan Halifax)

Who is the enemy?

Overcome any bitterness that may have come
because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain
that was entrusted to you.
Like the Mother of the World,
Who carries the pain of the world in her heart,
Each one of us is part of her heart,
And therefore endowed
With a certain measure of cosmic pain.

You are sharing in the totality of that pain.
You are called upon to meet it in joy instead of self-pity

~(Sufi Saying, quoted by Joanna Macy in “Coming Back to Life”)

Sunset Washington Coast
Sunset Washington Coast


Some authors such as Yuval Noah Harari (“A Brief History of Humankind” – and “Sapiens”) believe the “enemies” (he doesn’t call it that way) are of religious-cultural nature: the hegemony of monotheism has created anthropocentrism: the belief we (humans) are the center of the universe and all the rest are below us: they are either resources or companions, in any case, something to be used and abused. Monotheism also tends to make people think theirs is “the one” and only truth and those who convert are “the chosen”…there is a belief in “beyond” that somewhat relieve people from their responsibility to be accountable here and now. History shows how monotheist cultures have always tried to convince others of “their truth”, in most cases showing zero tolerance for others’ ways to see the world. When you see yourself as different from Nature and believe you have a second (and eternal) opportunity after this life, why bother? While this is not true for many individuals and groups, it is an interesting thesis as it shapes the “sense of entitlement” so pervasive among Western cultures: conquer, take, oppress…

Harari and other authors also think the enemies are of socio-cultural nature: we have built civilization on the shoulders of hierarchy and patriarchy: more than anthropocentrism, we have androcentrism (centered in men): androcentric cultures are authoritarian and deny the feminine: caring, sharing, giving life, creating, communication and similar features are considered “weak”. Masculine implies domination of others, including Nature and therefore war and the cult of “success” and progress as opposed to love and simplicity.

Others think all started with agriculture: when humans realized they could “domesticate” nature and change it to fit their needs and wants: that was when we stopped being hunters and gatherers and even developed new religions: religions and empires increasingly became monolithic and “universal”, created hierarchies and rules and complicated our relationship with nature: we were no longer animists, this world suddenly wasn’t enough for us: we needed to dream of an “after life” and even now, looking at the stars and other planets not to admire them, but to conquer them…

And Harari reflects in this piece, what is also the main element in many other thinkers: that is humans who are wrong to start with: “The romantic contrast between modern industry that “destroys nature” and our ancestors who “lived in harmony with nature” is groundless. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of life.” (From Animals into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind)

Naomi Klein’s main thesis seems to be that what keeps us in this loop are the political, economic and social systems we have created: the same thinking that accepts and creates poverty, discrimination and exclusion and beliefs humans are separated by nature and somewhat a “chosen” species is the one behind climate change, resource depletion, etc. I agree with her to a certain point: if we see land, minerals, animals, plants and even people as “resources” to be used and dominated, what else is to be expected but exploitation and hierarchies, discrimination and arrogance?

Naomi points out that the main reason initiatives like the Kyoto protocol, Copenhagen and the sort have failed is free market: at the same time these institutions were created, the free market created things like WTO and NAFTA or the upcoming TPP: while none of the climate-related initiatives had enforcing “laws” (the agreements were no binding for the countries signing them), the opposite is true for WTO, NAFTA and son on: she cites the failure of Ontario’s plan to re-localize and incentives to renewable when another WTO country “denounced” that (Ontario) was being protectionist and not allowing other nations to “compete”…

George Marshall explores the topic from a different perspective: beyond institutions, social and political systems, the denial and lack of fully involvement on climate change (and I would add all the other similarly scary stuff) is part of how human beings think and feel, and the implications for those trying to communicate about climate change or to exert any practical changes.

As he mentions in his most recent blog-post: “It seems that we see climate change as a threat – and are therefore able to harness that innate reaction to an external enemy – only once it is poured it into the mould of our familiar stories, with their heroes and villains.”…he invites us to talk openly about it (and I would add, about all the other predicaments we have!): “So if we are to really mobilise action on climate change it is vital that we recognise that it exists in two forms: the scientific facts and the far more potent social facts of constructed narratives or deliberate silence.” (Marshall, 2014)

Yet Oreskes and Conway point out that the key of our failure to do something has to do with science and its almost religious intellectual rigour that doesn’t allow scientists to express anything that hasn’t been thoroughly peer-reviewed and tested: emotions and inter-connections between diverse facts and theories are not part of their repertoire: but because “regular people” don’t understand the use of “uncertainty” in science and because journalists are used to present “balanced” news, these confuses it all: when mainstream reads that “a single storm cannot be attached to climate change with certainty” or “scientists are uncertain about how a +40 degree world will be” or “we don’t know what the exact impacts may be” they tend to dismiss the science as highly speculative and not to something related to their own lives here and now…

There is another interesting thesis coming from Oreskes and Conway’s little book: that we are “trapped in the grip of two inhibiting ideologies: positivism and market fundamentalism.” (p.35)

Positivism (or Baconianism, as cited by Oreskes and Conways) helds that “through experience, observation, and experiment, one could gather reliable knowledge about the natural world, and that this knowledge would empower its holder”. However, while we are now truly knowledgeable (as a society, not individuals) of the science of climate change, this knowledge has not empower us. According to the authors, the reason is that “power [doesn’t] reside in the hands of those who [understand] the climate system” (p.36).

Market fundamentalism (as the authors call it, a quasi-religious faith) is based in two main things: one, that demand and supply would be always balanced by the “invisible hand” of the market (therefore, it has to be not regulated, as it regulates itself “magically” by the needs and wants of the participants), and the second (unsurprisingly as any monotheist religion): that this (free market) is the only way to satisfy material needs and wants to it doesn’t scarify individual freedom…without regulations or coercion of any kind, things won’t magically change as most people not only don’t know what they want (and many times, they also ignore what they need) but also because the market fundamentalism ignores that apart of people, there are fundamental (and real) needs expressed by other factors of the ecosystems: the market doesn’t care about trees or oceans even when they support our lives!

I totally agree with George Marshall about the need to break the silence and choose the narrative carefully: the enemy, I would add, is within us, not opposite to or beyond: he is not out there hiding on the pockets of oil and gas companies or big industrial agriculture corporations; he is not even among politicians or economists who believe in free market: each of us contributes, and instead of looking for enemies, we may start looking for common threats and causes, George Marshal couldn’t put it better: “Above all, though, we need to recognise that the narrative we choose will shape what happens from now on. We may continue to fall back on our need for an enemy. But the very best story would be a one of common purpose, based around our shared humanity.”

Spirit that hears each one of us,
Hears all that is —
Listens, listens, hears us out —
Inspire us now!
Our own pulse beats in every stranger’s throat,
And also there within the flowered ground beneath
our feet,
And — teach us to listen! —
We can hear it in water, in wood, and even in stone.
We are earth of this earth, and we are bone of its
This is a prayer I sing, for we have forgotten this
and so
The earth is perishing

~ Barbara Deming (exert from “Spirit of Love” poem)

References and additional resources:

Don’t even think about it – why our brains are wired to ignore climate change by George Marshall – Website: http://www.climateconviction.org/

George Marshall’s blog: http://climatedenial.org/

IPCC Fifth Assessment report: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

Rob Hopkins (from Transition) review on Naomi’s book: https://www.transitionnetwork.org/blogs/rob-hopkins/2014-11/naomi-kleins-changes-everything-review

The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway – Goodreads reviews: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19145016-the-collapse-of-western-civilization

This changes everything by Naomi Klein – Website: http://thischangeseverything.org/

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of humankind

4 Comments on “Our Brains on Climate Change and Other Confusing Stories ~ Part 1

  1. Very well done Sylvia, thank you!
    I appreciate the various thoughts about how we got into this mess, and what’s keeping us in it’s loop. An additional explanation, and the one I currently prefer is to relate it to systems thinking principles with a fundamental foundation of thermodynamics. Howard T. Odum pointed out the maximum power principle that all systems tend to maximize power by harnassing energy and complexifying it for maximum benefit. This is all fine and normal, until resources become scarce, at which point we need to consider other strategies to maximize energy in a limited resource world. David Holmgren’s permaculture principles are based on this realization.

    Peter Pogany has theorized that cultural evolution has brought us to the place where we now live in a Global System – a socio-cultural system that is akin to the Gaia system of our natural earth. This current global system is committed to protecting its growth at all costs way of life. The only thing that will change it will be the natural forcings – the bifurcation that will usher in a chaotic transition, hopefully toward a new Global System which “will favor cooperation over competition; acquiescence over indifference; responsible sociability over isolation; integrative open-mindedness over stubborn, perspectival dogmatism, altruism over extrasomatic hedonism.”
    I wrote a bit about this in my latest post. http://integralpermaculture.wordpress.com/2014/11/30/fossil-fueled-republicanism-and-the-six-myths-about-climate-change-that-liberals-rarely-question/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks David, I was going to read “six myths” when your comment came in…I don’t have the answers and think nobody else has them either…but I do agree with Erik (Lindberg) that a radical way of life change needs to happen and that those “on the other side” fail to see their own denial…I haven’t read Pogany but I’ll follow your links…not sure if we are in a constant “progress” or leaps between systems (that’s how nature works) or is only we choose to see it that way because us (humans) tend to look for the gestalt all the time and what is there is just chaos (nature is also chaotic) In any case, the transition (is my perception) won’t happen as we want but it will be imposed to us…those who have a glimpse of what’s going on and are more “prepared” may have a better chance of surviving…but sometimes, surviving can be a curse…we just don’t know…:)


  2. Walt Whitman conveys well the feelings around the science vs. a breath of fresh air. A friend recommended Naomi Klein’s book and I went to the library for it and was surprised it isn’t in the system yet. Davids comment above about a bifurcation moment is scary but probably the most realistic playing out of the present crises. Really, all we have now to do is to work towards harm reduction.Work hard, that is. I think you may appreciate Charles Brandt’s Zen approach on things – much alligned with Thay, and others who live a “conserver ethic”. It is a rather enlightened viewpoint coming from a 91 year old Catholic monk – let me know what you think about it Silvia. http://throughtheluminarylens.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/father-charles-brandt-the-land-as-sacred-commons/ Thank you for this deeply reflective post – it helps with my own process of soul searching.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bruce, the post made my day, I left you a comment…it is absolutely inspiring to see that we are a rather “small” group of bloggers, but share similar concerns, values and goals. It seems true what some say about us humans being “Gaia’s conscience” …I truly hope we are “awakening” and “the right thing” can still be done, but my heart and realistic/skeptic nature tell me otherwise…I loved Aldo Leopold’s quote…”A thing is right when it tends to preserve the beauty, integrity and stability of the biotic community. Otherwise, it is wrong “ and Thomas Berry one: “Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycle of transformation is good; what is opposed to this meadow or negates it is not good “ Never thought it that way, but they express what is in my heart…


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