“We might not make it.” Hearing these words, I felt a wave of shock through my body. After 30 years of environmental and Indigenous rights activism, that phrase struck home like nothing before. Back in the 1990s I had heard Thomas Berry[i] say “I don’t think the human is a viable species.” Pretty outrageous then, it was meant to wake us up to the destructive path we were following, to change our story, our operating assumptions of constant growth and the illusion of progress.
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 an Indigenous world view of reciprocity with the Earth and all our fellow species to the dominant, consumer culture. [ii], 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.
In the process of leading these workshops I came even closer to the precarious position we are in as a species, while I deepened my contacts with my Indigenous teachers. The maxim “when the student is ready the teacher will appear” was true and I am privileged to have had so many. One of my teachers was the rainforest of the Amazon basin of Ecuador. Following our Achuar guide through the forest at the equator at noon, under the canopy the temperature was comfortable. And while there was lots of stagnant water, I realized there were more mosquitoes in my back yard in Toronto than in the rainforest. Commenting on this I was told that in the areas where the forest had been cleared for oil or mineral extraction the heat was unbearable and there are swarms of mosquitoes. In this intense cauldron of life it was evident that where there is diversity there is balance – more mosquito eaters than breeders.
Over time the shock faded. Indigenous leaders had been saying all along that the Earth was seriously ill and would have to get rid of us humans in order to heal 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. I really did not want to face the possibility of human or any other extinction, although I knew it was happening at a great rate.
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 that would double the methane content of the atmosphere would initiate catastrophic climate change, and without summer ice protection it can happen within decades.[v]
Realization number three. Adding to the story of Mother Earth healing by getting rid of us humans, more recently I am hearing speakers like poet and elected Mississauga 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. Conventional science is beginning to catch up to Indigenous knowledge. 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 its 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[i]. Imagine your own 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”. And so it is with the sacred, living Earth. By burning fossil fuels, we are adding more carbon than she can absorb (smoking); and her blood chemistry is changing – the ocean is becoming less alkaline just like your blood if you can’t get rid of the CO2 efficiently through your lungs.
Another image: suppose a few cells of your body decided to pursue what they considered to be their best 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 the diagnosis, after a period of panic and getting a second opinion, you would turn your life upside down to find a cure. So it is with the Earth - we are using up more than she can produce (about 150% more every year) and have taken over much of the non-human natural world. We humans have taken over every aspect of the Earth’s being, like cancer cells taking over your body.
Why are we not paying attention? Why do we continue to participate in this pernicious process of self-destruction, the delusion that it won’t happen to me, the addiction to escaping from reality.
Can an addict stop? Sometimes they have to hit rock bottom. Sometimes it is the realization that they can lose everything they love. And there are signs everywhere that recovery is happening, in small pockets, from the school striking youth, to the huge resurgence of Indigenous culture, scholarship and activism, to the growing resistance to oil extraction, plastic pollution, human rights violations, deforestation, the list goes on. Still the odds seem insurmountable. How can we change popular culture to embrace the changes – go through the inconvenience of recovery?
Perhaps we need to reflect on what we love about this world, what we risk losing, and what has already been lost. 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, dried up and disappeared. Allow yourself to feel the loss.
When Buddhist teacher Tich Nhat Hanh was asked what can we do, he replied that 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. For 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 consumption of disposable goods which require continual extraction of the Earth’s capacity to sustain life – all this just for the economy to maintain it at its present state -- just as an addict continues to inject just to stay alive. We need to cure our addiction to fossil fuels that require the ongoing exploitation of Earth and our fellow humans to keep our addiction alive.
We also need to control the Earth’s chills and fever that we experience as climate change. We need to help the Earth to stop “smoking” – that is, we need to stop putting more carbon dioxide into the air than the Earth’s diminished lung capacity can absorb.
Can we do this? Can we change the dominant culture of over-consumption, which has become self-cannibalizing, to regeneration? Can we reverse centuries of the belief that humans had the right, even the duty, to control, dominate, exploit even enslave other species (our relatives) and the Earth herself?
From this the image emerges of the Earth enslaved. Like cancer cells focussed exclusively on perpetual growth those of us in the dominant culture have enslaved our Mother to perform what we thought was in our interests. Ever since King James’s scholars, who were rooted in their feudal understanding of the world, translated Genesis to say that God gave Adam and Eve the duty to subdue the Earth and everything on it; ever since the medieval Church declared wilderness ungodly, that the peasants’ spiritual connection to the land had to be destroyed; ever since western Europeans received the papal edict to conquer and enslave those whose lands they “discovered”; ever since the Enlightenment and industrial revolution, which were financed by theft from plundering the colonized world, the leaders of the dominant culture imagined Nature – the Earth – to be profane, lifeless except where exploited for progress, of no inherent worth except as a source of materials, energy and wealth. Like the slave master and the slave. Like the addict, we became separated from our inner selves, from each other, from the Earth and everything on it. We became dismembered.
To believe otherwise was to be pagan, savage, primitive and therefore available to be exploited and enslaved like the rest of Nature. That is changing. The dominant imagination is shifting. From dismemberment we are re-membering ourselves.
We are beginning to allow our hearts to open. Science is actually catching up to Indigenous thought – that the Earth is indeed a physiological, living and therefore sacred being. Alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations are forming everywhere. Indigenous peoples are asserting their rights, their cultures and spirituality around the world. Rivers and mountains are being granted personhood, when only as recently as 1929 were women in Canada granted the same honour.
And we are finding solutions. Project Drawdown[ii] has analyzed hundreds of scientifically reviewed solutions to reversing global warming – removing carbon from the atmosphere – and ranked the top 80 in terms of the amount 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, the actions we need to take to reduce global warming (the fever) are all things we would want to do anyway, regardless of effect on warming. Empowering girls and women globally, reducing food waste, switching to a plant rich diet, using regenerative farming methods, as well as implementing the expected energy and transport solutions, all of which if applied generally will produce a more equitable, more breathable, more enjoyable, more prosperous world for all of us. Carbon reduction is a bonus. 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 better life for all of us, and bring our Mother back to life.
But we won’t do what we need to do unless we act out of our deep love for this world, for the forests, the waters the animals and the people too. We need to STOP what we’re doing, and find the stillness to listen deeply to the Earth and to our hearts. Or as Tich Nhat Hanh has said “Don’t just do something, sit there.” We need to take the time to reflect on ourselves in relationship with all else. We need to understand that we humans are just one species out of many, and not the most important life form on the planet. We need to realize that we have become an invasive species as we have forgotten our original instructions, our responsibility to take care of the land and our Mother. And COVID-19, for one brief moment, made us stop and reflect. It showed it was possible for the world to come together and act.
We need to learn to tell this as a love story with Mother Earth as the central character. It can be a heroic story of salvation, or a deeply human story of compassion and healing. It can be told to doctors, politicians, parents, children and youth. It needs to tell the story of the people already in the story who are working and playing in healing and treating their addiction. It is our story - our love letter to the world.
A few years ago I participated in a workshop on Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects – the antidote to the disconnectedness/ dismemberment the dominant culture imposes. After reflecting on what we love about the world as it is, and what breaks our hearts, we were to draw – whatever we felt. I was so distraught on my reflection that all I could produce was a scribble of chaos, energized by grief and anger. Then a curved line came in and circled around the scribble, and some blue waves below it like a river. Trees “appeared” with some animals and birds and a frog and fish in the water. I was feeling better.
Our allotted time ended, we each had a chance to comment on each other’s work and then to review our own with everyone else’s comments and then to write something. Without thinking what I was writing, I wrote as fast as my hand could go. Then I looked at what I had written. Tears started streaming down my face for what seemed like a very long time, sobbing quietly, trying not to appear foolish. Prophetic or wishful, or perhaps a point of intense vulnerability, this is what was written.
From anger, fear, chaos and destruction,
the water of life enters and surrounds,
bringing forth the creative spark, the force to unite.
Life enters and surrounds the fear.
All life is equal.
[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] DianA Beresford-kroeger The Global Forest, 40 Ways Trees Can Save Us, Toronto: Penguin, 2010
[vii] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-24950487 Overall, between 2000 and 2012 the planet saw a net loss of 1.5 million sq km of forest - an area the size of Mongolia.
[i] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-24950487 Overall, between 2000 and 2012 the planet saw a net loss of 1.5 million sq km of forest - an area the size of Mongolia.