“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”
~ Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion
“O joy of understanding,
greater than the joy of imagining, greater than the joy of feeling!
I saw the universe and saw its secret designs. I saw the origins told by the Book of the People. I saw the mountains that rose from the water, saw the first men of wood, saw the water jars that
turned against the men, saw the dogs that tore at their faces. I saw the faceless god who is behind the gods. I saw the infinite processes that shape a single happiness, and, understanding all, I also came to understand the writing on the tiger”. JL Borges, El Aleph (The Writing of the God)
John Foster is an associate philosophy teacher at Lancaster University, UK. He recently wrote a book “After Sustainability” which I am currently reading.
Lost in the midst of books and articles readings; laboratory guides on soil chemistry and organic gardening; MOOCs about resilience, environmental science, sustainability and future of our food crops or the last lesson on disaster preparedness, I carry it with me, anxious to understand and answer the question Foster asks:
“What if we stop pretending?”
Even from people who usually encourage us to have hope and act (“there is always a tomorrow”) I am increasingly hearing and reading voices of despair and anxiety, such as in this last article appearing at The Work that Reconnects blog: Anthropogenic Climate Disruption and its Moral Challenges by Molly Brown.
At the beginning, I suspected it: “green” and “sustainable” were just adjectives carefully selected to convince us that if we only changed all around us (buy a Prius, go into solar and wind, eat vegan and local), we would not only “feel right”, but we could keep growing and progressing: these new concepts would create jobs (green), change the economy and bring sustainable happiness to all. “Sustainable development” and feeding developing countries’ economies so they also grew, would save them from poverty, hunger and “un-development”: now they could build irrigation systems to stop draughts, dams to stop floods, huge malls with air conditioner to stop feeling the increasing heat and big fast food restaurant chains to stop hunger…the dream sold to us was that of a huge green-washing paradigm of more of the same forward and forever.
Since the early 90’s, we have seen treaties and conferences come and go: from Kyoto to the last one in Lima, these talks do nothing but pretend: countries agree on emissions’ reduction (which never happen and is never reinforced or punish) and nothing substantial changes.
Environmentalists, and those who should know better, Foster argues, also pretend: for more than 30 years now, we have heard that we are “close” to a collapse: Peak Oil, the many tipping points of climate change, collapse of soil, fisheries, water, minerals, oceans, biodiversity and so on…the “tipping points” just move a bit further: we are always “on the brink” but nothing big happens and they end up like the story of the kid calling wolf: not that the world didn’t exist: it came, but when nobody was paying attention anymore!. Meanwhile, everything continues to be exactly the same or worse: with the exception of small groups and individuals here and there, the majority of the population and institutions of all kinds are consuming and demanding more than ever and throwing their waste to rivers, landfills and oceans.
A few years ago, we were told that 20C was the threshold we shouldn’t surpass if we wanted to avoid catastrophic climate change. Since last year, I keep hearing that now we have to prepare (and try to avoid) 40C instead.
We have people exaggerating the issue and claiming “the end” will come within 20 years; and we have scientists still arguing whether nuclear is an option (as if energy were the only challenge we face, and trying to “fix” a problem with a worse one)…
Meanwhile, in the real world, ecosystems continue to collapse, glaciers and ice-sheets disappear, species are being lost and many around the world scarcely can cope with the effects of a world that is already 10C warmer.
In the Six Americas 2012 report by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, it says that 16% of people are “alarmed”, 29% “concerned” and 25” are “cautious” about climate change…what we don’t have, is an accurate report that measures how much people’s lives have really changed as a result of those perceptions.
Last month Clive Hamilton’s article “Climate change signals the end of the social sciences” shows something we should pay attention to: we can no longer separate humans from Nature and the artificial divide, created by the Cartesian model is now over; we must no longer occupy our thoughts with that what happens to “humans” and focus on the “social” as if we were made of different “stuff” than animals, plants, fungi or rocks, because we are not…there is no way a war, revolution or the best “policies” would change or improve our predicaments: no at least until we consider ourselves part of the giant ecosystem/organism that contains us all.
What do all this mean?
We need to stop pretending, and, paraphrasing Paul Kingsnorth from the Dark Mountain Project (also cited by Foster in his book): we need to look down the abyss; there is no other way around.
This means asking questions: difficult and powerful questions about where we are going, what we are doing and to what we are contributing.
Questions about how do we live (individually) are important, and they should lead to real transformation and transition in our lives (otherwise, they are just mind games); but much more important are questions about what we are doing in community and as part of the groups and institutions we are attached to.
It also means asking difficult ethical questions: what type of decisions are we facing? And how prepared are we to make them?
One type of ethical questions we may need to ask is how would we ride the transition? And transition to what?
This book review from Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Movement: “A Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, really?”, raises many good questions but also misses some important ones: something nobody (that I know of) in either the transition or Permaculture world has ever asked: what about the thousands of peoples and systems currently depending on fossil fuels directly or indirectly? Have you ever thought what will happen to them when the switch is off, when suddenly things we are used to or depend on start becoming scarce or plain missing? Have you ever thought that more than half of the population we currently have in the planet would not exist (and would not survive) if we unplug the tube that have us all attached to the fossil fuels?
And that is what makes all this not “a problem” (or even a mix of many complex problems), but a messy, ethical dilemma: we talk about earthworks, cob-houses and ovens and that is really nice: but how many in the world would be able to realistically build one? We talk about bikes and walking, do you know how many people do not have access to a bike or safe places to walk? Do you know that many people’s health or condition don’t allow them to ride a bike or walk?…
We talk about so many other things that don’t apply to at least 1/3 of the population!
And that is exactly why even those who know the facts, the numbers and the potential consequences, continue pretending: because facing reality is too painful to bear.
“Tragedy entails losses which can’t be mitigated or compensated, but it can also reveal us to ourselves in ways from which we may be able to learn” (unknown)
In the Tibetan version of the story of Tara, Chenrezig had been working to help sentient beings for a very long time. He had been able to help hundreds of thousands of beings become free from samsara, but then realized there were still so many more beings suffering in samsara, and began to cry. From the pool formed by his tears a lotus arose and Tara appeared from the lotus, saying, “Don’t worry — I will help you.”
We are all Taras…
Accepting that the times ahead will NOT be easy or happy is the first step to stop pretending: accepting that there will be suffering and death and destruction of many (if not all) of what we love, is essential if we want to honestly move ahead and do something of value.
What do we do, then?
“So what you’re saying is that what we need to do, individually, is to go through collapse right away.” Said an attendee to The Age of Limits Conference.
“Exactly,” John Michael Greer responded. “Collapse now, and avoid the rush.” J.M. Greer, presenting “How Civilizations Fall” and as posted in his blog: The Archdruid Report
Accepting and embracing collapse is not easy: it implies changing our minds (and lifestyles) and stopping playing games: we have an ethical date with ourselves, if not with destiny and the world at large…
Nothing in the facts we know about climate change, ecosystems disruption and resource depletion indicates that what is coming is clear: nobody really knows what exactly, how and when will happen. It is certainly not a Hollywood-type of unravelling, where the entire world starts collapsing in a matter of days (or weeks, or months). Real collapses are more humble and less sophisticated.
The collapses we expect will hit differently in different places and to different populations: in most cases, those who are already used to live without much dependence on “across-the-sea” bananas, winter-tomatoes and gas-fuelled cars may fare better than those who do. In other cases, the poor and the disfranchised would be hit worse, as international aid will decrease and immigration’s doors will close. Those with fuzzy skills, the chronically ill, those in huge debt, the unfit and the unprepared will also feel it first: the world will not be the same and many things we give for granted (access to hospitals and medical equipment, medicines and government help to name a few) will dwindle due to financial and resource instability.
Resilience is the only way through (not out, not away): making ourselves and those around us more skilled and resilient so we can face reality with wisdom, awareness and compassion.
Power struggles about who is the leader of what or who did what first won’t matter anymore, so why should they matter today?
Relationship struggles and conflicts will only add pain and suffering, so why to feed them today?
Judgement and blaming will not make any difference in the end, so why should they be of interest today?
Material things and money are nothing but an invention and a wall that divide us, so why to fight for them today?
Stop pretending, it will only bring deception and suffering
Work hard towards simplicity: it will prepare you
Be curious, aware and open minded: things will change, rapidly
Be ethical: you’d face many dilemmas
Polish the skills you’d need: you will need them
Offer your gifts to the world: be prepared to accept the fact that many will not appreciate them
Enjoy every moment and every being that is here and now
“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”
~ Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
“Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.”
~ Pema Chödrön