The world is burning (and drowning and starving), and what are we doing?
Some of us are in complete denial, or don’t dare to admit what we know, or are overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, so we carry on with business as usual. We keep growing the economy, keep burning fossil fuels, keep razing the forests, keep mining the minerals, keep exploiting human and animal labor, keep accumulating wealth in fewer and fewer hands. We continue treating the planet as nothing but a resource to be exploited. The status quo is all we know, so it’s all we can do.
Denial is getting harder to maintain. With floods and fires and storms and droughts and oven-hot temperatures and climate migrations (of humans, plants and animals), Earth is making it hard pretend. Unable to avoid those elemental messages, many of us are putting our faith in green technology. We still think the economy can continue growing, but it can be done with cleaner technology: solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles (still large and powerful), heat pumps, green buildings, maybe a little nuclear power thrown in to level the supply of energy, and so on. The means have to change, but the ends (infinite growth in material wealth and personal power) do not. If necessary, maybe economic growth can somehow be decoupled from growth in material and energy consumption. But that is a long way off. In the immediate future, we keep growing materially; we just green it.
Green growth is one form of a larger approach to trying to solve the crisis (or avoiding the crisis while convincing ourselves that we are solving it). I’ll call it Magical Thinking. Magical Thinking believes the human mind is so powerful that it never needs to compromise. It will always find a way out of the dilemmas it has created, without requiring any sacrifice. There has to be some technological solution, or some new social arrangement, or some new economy that will allow continued and growing affluence, and will prevent destruction of the web of life. We haven’t found it yet, but very soon, some clever person is going to have some transformative insight that shifts the paradigm and allows us to keep on keeping on. What is not required is any fundamental change in our essential assumptions and commitments regarding who we are and how we live. Some magic new source of free energy (humid air?), for example, would solve all of our problems. So we wait for it.
And then there is a fourth way, the only one that recognizes the problem. It understands that endless material growth is impossible (and deadly) and proposes some form of contraction in the human ecological footprint. The only way out of the “growth is killing us and the planet” dilemma is to stop growing. Stop growing the human population and stop growing the consumption of materials and energy. But more than that, we need to reduce. Reduce the human population (voluntarily, through education and readily available birth control) and reduce our material consumption. Live more simply. This isn’t about the end of skilled work or trade or commerce, but it is about the end of investment capitalism and most global shipping and travel, and most meat production and many other forms of industry and industrial agriculture. The demand for infinite growth is killing the planet and simply has to stop.
No one seems to know exactly how much reduction is needed. Probably not going back to living in grass huts, but definitely not living like the wealthiest 1% (those with incomes over US$109,000) who are responsible for 15% of carbon emissions, and probably not like the wealthiest 10% (incomes between $38,000 and $109,000) who are responsible for over 50% of carbon emissions. Maybe not even like the middle 40% (incomes between $6,000 and $38,000) who are responsible for 41% of emissions, since the current total is still too much, but perhaps somewhere above the poorest 50% (incomes under $6,000) who are responsible for only 7% of emissions (These numbers all come from a 2020 report from Oxfam called Confronting Carbon Inequality).
I’m using carbon emissions as an example because they are relatively easy to measure, not because carbon is the only problem. The problem is also destruction of habitat (especially for industrial-scale agriculture), exploitation of Earth’s plants, animals and minerals, invasive species spread by travel and shipping, and all of the forms of pollution (carbon, plastics, nitrogen, forever chemicals, noise) that go hand-in-hand with industrial civilization, all aspects of the extractive economy. The carbon emissions profile doesn’t cover all of those other destructive forces, but it is a proxy for where we need to be heading: everyone at an income level (and equivalent consumption level) of around $10,000-$15,000 a year. Lianos and Pseiridis in their 2015 study (Sustainable welfare and optimum population size. Environ Dev Sustain 18, 1679–1699 (2016).) placed that figure at around US$11,000 (but they also concluded that Earth could support only 3 billion humans living at that level).
I have lived at that level in the United States for most of my adult life. It’s not destitution, and it’s not extreme affluence. It’s a decent life, but not extravagant. The hardest necessities to achieve at that income level in the United States are housing and health care. In my case, shelter only came thanks to the generosity of my landlord who charged a modest rent for my simple apartment because I was stable (I lived there for 20 years) and quiet and responsible and he, definitely in the 1%, didn’t need much money. So, as societies we have to figure out how to make it possible for everyone, on very modest incomes, to have safe, healthy shelter. Health care has been a mixed bag, sometime achievable, sometimes not, depending on the vagaries of state and federal health care legislation.
Sadly, even though this fourth way understands the nature of the problem, it is not moving us where we need to go. Resistance to its message is too strong. What the contemplative perspective brings to the conversation is that this necessary transition to “less” is blocked not only by societal forces, but also by psychological forces. We feel that we need more in order to be whole. Our identities, our sense of self-worth, are wrapped up in the demand for more and more, endlessly more, material prosperity. Even to stop, to be content with what we have, is hard. To contract, to live with less feels like a loss of self, a loss of power, of autonomy, of social standing. Who will take the first step, when those who do are devalued by a society that values material wealth and power above all else? I decided decades ago to live on a part-time income so I would have more time for my family and friends and for the Earth. Now I am paying for that with a miniscule social security benefit. So there are policy problems, and societal pressures and personal discomforts all of which need to be overcome to live with less.
The contemplative way has always seen the value of less. By seeing through the self, and reorienting toward life itself, toward our networks of relationships with each other and our wild kin, the plants, the animals, the trees, and rivers, and the air and the soil, we discover our greatest joy. As long as our basic biological needs (shelter, food, air, water, health) are met in modest ways, then meaning comes from the quality of our relationships. But one should not underestimate the power of identity—our attachment to more—that prevents us from moving away from this extractive, exploitative, destructive, competitive society. The contemplative way is not trivial or easy to fall into (although it is easy once fallen into). We need to stop or be stopped. We will be stopped by Earth herself if it comes to that, but only after we have done incalculable damage to ourselves and the fabric of life.
Contemplatives know that waiting to be stopped by our own destructiveness is not the only option. We can be stopped by silence. We can be stopped by a bird singing, or a tree sighing in the wind. We can be stopped by anything that we don’t think is “me,” suddenly announcing itself, sliding around our defenses, and telling us, “Look! Listen! I am what you are and you are what I am!” And you fall to your knees when you realize how wrong you have been about almost everything.
That is the only thing that can save us and this precious world.