But this was different. This was a training session about changing the story - a program in response to a request from the Indigenous people of the Amazon to bring forth an ecologically sustainable, socially just, spiritually fulfilling human presence on the planet[ii], – to bring an Indigenous world view of reciprocity with the Earth and all our fellow species to the dominant, consumer culture. We learned how the opportunities for radical transformation were greater than the danger. Full of hope committed in action, we still had to face the possibility of failure.
I discovered that I love this world so much that it hurts. A lot.
Over time the shock faded. Indigenous leaders were saying all along that the Earth was seriously ill and would have to get rid of us humans in order to get better and, while I retained an irrational attachment to the continuation of the human species it seemed reasonable that the Earth could do quite a bit better without us. The problem was that if we went, we would take a lot of the rest of nature with us. Still, our projected demise was some time in the future.
Then, another shock. In 2010 I came across material by two Russian scientists[iii] studying the source of methane release in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf[iv]. They realized it was coming from the shallow sea bed as well as the exposed permafrost. They were not at all happy with their findings - because if even one percent of the hundreds of gigatons of frozen methane are released into the atmosphere the risk of a positive feedback spiral of catastrophic climate change would become exponential, and would double the methane content of the atmosphere – and without summer ice protection it can happen within decades.[v]
Realization number three. I have heard Indigenous people saying for some years now that Mother Earth will heal by getting rid of us humans. More recently though I hear speakers like poet and elected chief Stacey Laforme speaking of Mother Earth, who has loved her children and continues to love us as she is dying. Mother Earth, the living being whose physiology is as complex as our own, upon whose well being we are as dependent as a fetus in the womb, who provides everything we need to live, who protects us from cosmic radiation, feeds us, shelters us, even teaches us, is under severe stress. It’s not that far fetched – every atom of our being comes from the Earth. There’s no way around it, she is a living being and is our Mother. And that makes us related to every other being on this planet, from the bacteria, plants, insects to the largest mammals.
Traditional Indigenous knowledge teaches us that each species was given their original instructions at the time of creation, its responsibilities for maintaining the well being of the whole, just as each cell, each organ, of our body is responsible for making sure our whole body functions properly.
The global forest has precisely the same function as our lungs[vi]. The membranes of the leaves exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen in exactly the same way as the lining of our lungs exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide. So, here we have the Earth’s forests being stripped from her – 75% in the past century at an accelerating rate (an area the size of Congo lost from Brazil between 2006 and 2017; Borneo and Malaysia almost stripped bare). Imagine your lungs functioning at less than 25% capacity. Imagine you continued smoking. Would you be having difficulty breathing? Would it affect the chemical balance of your blood? Would you be in danger of other organs failing? Any doctor would tell you the answer to all of these is “Yes”.
Another image: suppose a few cells of your body decided to pursue what they considered to be there interest, ignoring their responsibility for the wellbeing of the whole body. Suppose they became very successful and grew beyond their organ boundaries. Chances are, as soon as you found out, after a period of panic and getting a second opinion, you would turn your life upside down to find a cure.
Well, there is a cure.
It is already happening everywhere around the world. And it is scientifically proven.
But before we embark on that journey, we need to know we are acting out of love instead of fear. So, imagine a place in the forest, or by the sea, or on a river bank that you loved as a child. Imagine the love you feel for sound of the birds in the morning, the fresh breeze carrying the scent of the evening flowers, the smell of the ocean, or any part of the non-human natural world. Allow yourself to feel that connection deeply. Now imagine all that you love diminished, paved over, polluted.
When Buddhist teacher Tich Nhat Hahn was asked what can we do, he replied “We need to hear the sound of the Earth crying” – we need to open our hearts to be able to hear the sound of the Earth crying, and allow ourselves to feel the grief of what we have lost and weep with her. If we can allow ourselves to feel that pain we will be able to act authentically from our hearts, and be able to communicate our new story to others.
When we feel the grief in our hearts then we will be able to resist our addiction to constant growth, which demands continual extraction of the Earth’s capacity to sustain life in order for the economy to stand still, just as an addict continues to inject just to stay alive, knowing they are killing themselves.
Then we can help the Earth stop “smoking” – stop putting more carbon dioxide into the air than the Earth’s diminished lung capacity can absorb.
How do we do that?
Project Drawdown[vii] has analyzed hundreds of scientifically reviewed solutions to reversing global warming – removing carbon from the atmosphere – and ranked the top 80 in terms of carbon reduced, cost of implementation and the amount of money saved. All of them are in existence and proven to work. And all of them can be scaled up to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
Rather than being a burden upon society and individuals, these are all things we would want to do anyway, regardless of effect on warming, such as empowering girls and women globally, reducing food waste, switching to a plant rich diet, using regenerative farming methods, as well as the expected energy and transport solutions, many of which appear much lower in effectiveness than one would have thought. Furthermore, the money saved through implementation of these solutions is twice the cost – a 200% return on investment. So instead of pain and upheaval, we can create a more livable, more enjoyable, more equitable, more breathable life for all of us, and bring our Mother back to life.
But we need to start with our heart. We need to STOP what we’re doing, and listen to the Earth and to our hearts. Or as Tich Nhat Hahn has said “Don’t just do something, sit there.”
[i] Thomas Berry The Dream of the Earth, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988
[ii] the Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream symposium – www.pachamama.org
[iii] Natalia Shakhova and Igor Simelitov (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3gVZniFHA4)
[v] N. Shakhova and I. Semiletov. Methane release from the East-Siberian Arctic Shelf and its connection with permaf rost and hydrate destabilization: First results and potential future developments Geophysical Research Abstracts Vol. 14, EGU2012-3877-1, 2012; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3gVZniFHA4
[vi] Diane Beresford-kroeger The Global Forest, 40 Ways Trees Can Save Us, Toronto: Penguin, 2010