The ecological mess we are in is a direct consequence of civilized humans being civilized humans. We have developed in such a way that our first impulse is not to adapt to our environment but to manipulate the environment to force it to adapt to us. We alter every landscape we enter to suit our needs and preferences, and indeed we are very good at this. Most of us see this as a good thing, a sign of our intelligence and general superiority. We like the feeling of being in control.
This attitude is prevalent even among those of us who know we are making a mess of the world and need to change. The change we envision is more manipulation, more geoengineering, more application of “renewable” energy technologies, the sudden discovery of unlimited fusion energy, more efficient cars, more carbon capture technologies, etc. Only a few of us talk about the need to have fewer children, to drastically reduce our material demands on the planet, to live with less, to fundamentally change how we live.
I think there is a reason for this. The reason is that such a change, at this point, requires a complete about-face in the human psyche, and that feels like a total change in human nature. It is not inaccurate to say that bringing about such a change is nearly impossible, or at least highly unlikely. One of the things I have realized as I have observed my own mind at work, is that we are much less free to make choices than most of us assume. We think we are making choices all the time, when, for the most part, we are playing out mental scripts laid down over millennia and written in our genes, and written in our cultural norms, and imprinted in infancy, and so fundamental to our sense of who we are, that they appear to be (but are not) immutable. The change required now to alter the trajectory that humanity is on is nothing less than a change in human nature, or at least a change in behavior that is so fundamentally different from the norm that it feels like an assault on our very identity.
I place no hope in technology and no hope in a sudden, cultural transformation. The kinds of changes in human society we have seen in the past, like the civil rights movements of the 60s, or the tearing down of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, are often held up as exemplars of radical changes in human society. These were significant, but nothing on the order of what is required of us now. They did not fundamentally alter the basic orientation of civilization to exploit whatever resources and labor might be available to enrich the few (people) at the expense of the many (people, plants, animals, minerals). They have not come close to altering human orientation in such a way that we adapt to what is best for the whole biosphere in the long term, rather than altering the biosphere to suit us in the short term. Most people want change to be external to themselves, if they want it at all. They want someone else to change. They want the system to change. But they do not want to change themselves. They may be willing to put solar panels in the yard, or driving an electric car (if they can afford one), or use a cloth shopping bag, but not to change inwardly, not to be changed in their fundamental sense of what it means to be human.
The fact remains: we must change. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we must be changed, for I do not believe that we are capable of changing ourselves at the depths where change is required. Something outside of us must change us. What is needed here is an inner/outer revolution. The whole thing must change, the psycho-social system that we call civilization and that we also call “me.” The very foundation of the “self” has to change. I have to be changed, fundamentally. That is a change no one dares consider, or if they do consider it, can even begin to imagine how it might happen. We need an intervention. We are not going to do this on our own. And maybe that is the point. Intervention is required when we have so isolated ourselves from reality, that we can no longer see and hear and think clearly enough to act on our own behalf. Intervention brings us back into the community of the real.
This intervention is only going to come from the Earth. The loss of habitat. The silent springs and silent autumns we are already experiencing in diminished bird song and diminished insect song. The poisoned wells and disappearing fish. The deadly storms and fires. These are heart breaking. Maybe a broken heart will motivate deep change in us. Maybe the chaotic climate will force us to change. The Earth gets the final word. In the end we cannot live beyond the physical limits that Earth imposes.
From any perspective other than the contemplative, the change required of us now is impossible. Even the contemplatives, who bear witness to the fact that such transformation is possible (if rare), do it imperfectly. The early Christian monks were often aggressively in opposition to their bodies. They battled against every carnal impulse, and ushered in generations of misogyny and spiritual disembodiment in the process. You find it in contemporary versions of “spiritual awakening” in which your “true nature” is supposed to be a pure, disembodied consciousness. This notion of spiritual purity that can only be pure if it is disembodied has been around a long time and is killing any chance of re-entering the natural community in a healthy, balanced and fruitful way. We are inoculating ourselves with spiritual nonsense against the pleas of the Earth for essential change. Earth is speaking, but are we listening? Do we even remember how to listen to the voice of the Earth?
I do know that under the right circumstances, the human mind, the place where these problems originate, can change fundamentally. But it takes extraordinary circumstances, something akin to ‘hitting bottom” for an addict, for such a deep change to occur. “Hitting bottom” is what the contemplative spiritual life has always been about. You throw out your illusions and get to the bottom of what is real. The Earth is real. Life is real. We are real when we are immersed in the Earth and Life. When we are immersed only in the products of our own manufacture and the virtual reality of our own minds, then we are not real. We are figments of our own imaginations.
Listen to the Earth. It’s the only thing that can change us before change is forced on us. The Earth is speaking. Are you listening?