1. The Sky Is Vast
The dumbest moment at the Copenhagen Climate Conference came late on the night of Dec. 12, 2009, after 100,000 protestors had marched three miles from downtown Copenhagen to the Bella Center, site of COP 15, to demand climate action from 192 world leaders gathered there. That wasn’t the dumb part. The dumb part came next. Having demanded an end to greenhouse gas emissions, many of the remaining protestors stacked their signs in a pile and lit them on fire, filling the sky with smoke.
The volume of smoke from that thoughtless bonfire may have been comparatively small, but the assumption behind it is the same assumption made by the worst polluters those protestors had spent the day castigating. They assume the sky can take it.
A few decades ago, when rivers were catching fire and people started getting cancer in their own backyards, we caught on to the idiocy of dumping pollution into water and onto land. Smog gave us a hint the air was no exception, but we’re still dumping carbon pollution full tilt into the atmosphere.
I believe it was Elisabeth Moyer, a geoscientist from the University of Chicago, who impressed upon me how delicate is our atmosphere. Thanks to its diffusion of sunlight, the sky looks vast to us from our humble perspective on the surface of the earth, but relative to the diameter of our planet, it’s razor thin, like the skin on a grape—if the skin on a grape were only made of gas. Life depends on the stability of that wisp of vapor clinging to our hurtling planet.
Among the vital services the atmosphere offers us, it moderates temperature. The moon circles about the same distance from the sun but wears a thinner atmosphere, and daytime temperatures can reach 250º F on the moon while nighttime temperatures can drop to -208º. We are spared those extremes because of the chemistry of our atmosphere. Do we want to dump trash into that veil of shared breath?
2. Nature Is Other
The way we’re headed, the caption beside our diorama in some imagined interstellar archeology museum might say, “Humans knew enough to save themselves but meticulously documented their demise instead.”
And it will say, “They thought they were separate from nature.”
There has been a grave misinterpretation of a line in a book that has had an outsize influence on industrialized Western culture:
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
The results of that dominion? Extinction has reached unprecedented rates for this epoch, with a million species threatened. Roughly 40 percent of creeping things are in decline. Humans have eliminated 83 percent of wild mammals on earth and half of plants. Only 4 percent of the world’s mammals are wild. The remaining 96 percent are headed for slaughter or euthanasia.
Much of this horror derives from our use of animals as food, a practice that consumes 80 percent of agricultural land and denudes forests in its hunger for more. It subjects beings with emotional capacities not much different from our own to abject confinement, sexual assault, forced pregnancy, separation from loved ones, and terrifying, untimely death.
“We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures,” writes Pope Francis in his green encylical, Laudato Si’. He reminds us that man was also directed to “keep” the garden, which “means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.”
Some think responsibility too weak a word. Some go several pages further in the dictionary, to reverence: animal activists, vegan activists, spiritual leaders, ethical philosophers, movements of experts. The One Health movement, for example, is made up of doctors, veterinarians, scientists who see human health, animal health, plant health, and planetary health as, you guessed it, One Health, inextricably interdependent. But those with reverence are too few.
3. Everything Will Be Fine
Once when a new baby was announced into a group email chain among my friends, I replied-all with a message to the new earthling that said, “Welcome to earth. Sorry it’s a bit of a mess.” The friend who watches Fox News replied by saying, essentially, that everything will be just fine.
Scientists have a name for that common response—the idea that everything will be largely as it has been in the past: normalcy bias. A behavioral scientist named Jason Hreha describes it well:
“Normalcy bias is a psychological phenomenon in which people have a tendency to underestimate the likelihood or impact of a disaster or other crisis. This bias can lead people to make inadequate or inappropriate preparations for a crisis, or to underestimate the severity of the situation. For example, if a hurricane is approaching, people with a normalcy bias may assume that the storm will not be as bad as predicted and may not take appropriate action to evacuate or protect their property. Normalcy bias can be dangerous, as it can cause people to underestimate the risks of a situation and to be unprepared for the consequences.”
But it’s not just my Fox News-fed friend who suffers from normalcy bias. In a way, just about all of us are relying on the assumption that everything will be fine when we continue to drive cars, eat meat, fly in airplanes, run air conditioners, and/or make more new humans—the very actions that ensure that everything is not going to be fine.
4. Stuff Can Fill The Void
You may have seen the famous animation “The Story of Stuff” that illustrates the problem with consumption. A deeper insight comes from a 20th Century Indian swami named Chidananda Saraswati. I can only offer a nibble here of his luminous essay “Your True Purpose in Life.” Chidananda writes:
“The individual exercises his faculties in order to obtain things which are calculated to promote the experience of happiness. Unfortunately he does not get happiness. Why? For a very simple reason. He is searching for something where it is not. He is looking for happiness amidst objects of this universe which are imperfect, changeful and impermanent. Since imperfection and changeability are the very nature of external objects, they cause in the mind mixed experiences to ensue from their contact. This is the reason why man’s efforts invariably end in disillusionment, disappointment and total dissatisfaction. Whenever one object fails to satisfy, man will try another and then another and yet another.”
This addiction, this cycle of consumption, this hunger for stuff to fill the void drives an economy that plunders nature for resources and pours the resulting waste into the fragile sky. What’s a surer path to happiness? Read the Chidananda, or read on….
5. More Better Stuff Will Fix Everything
The easiest path for world leaders—some economists might say the only path—is to nudge the cycle of consumption in a cleaner direction. So the solution to the climate crisis is often portrayed as more better stuff: solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, heat pumps, fusion reactors and plant-based burgers. We need all of those things, of course. But we also know, if we’re honest, that the most those things can accomplish is to buy us time.
Even if more better stuff succeeds in mitigating the climate crisis, the many converging environmental crises—toxicity, deforestation, biodiversity collapse, micro-plastic pollution—demand that we evolve beyond extraction-consumption-pollution. They demand that we puncture our delusional separation from nature.
So far, political leaders haven’t been willing or able to approach the deeper, darker specter of life on earth: an economic system that depends on relentless human population growth, which feeds ravenously on virgin resource exploitation and industrialized animal agriculture, which themselves feed on the obliteration of wild nature.
Some people and organizations are willing to approach that specter. I’m going to highlight just one. In 39 years of environmental reporting, I’ve been most impressed by the insight and commitment of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition of Engaged Buddhism. Pope Francis published his commendable green encyclical in 2015, but he didn’t take his church vegan, as Thich Nhat Hanh did in 2007 upon learning of dairy’s culpability in climate change. The Plum Village monastics know what drives the environmental crises, they know how to fix them, they know the inadequacy of the establishment approach, and they speak out.
“Why is it so hard to change the direction of our civilization?” asks Sister True Dedication, a former BBC journalist turned Buddhist nun and a leader of Plum Village’s youth and environmental initiatives. “I’d like to suggest that what’s missing at this point is not more facts and information or even technology. We have more than enough. What’s missing is insight.”
Insight, importantly, into ourselves. Insight not just into the peddlers of stuff but into the consumers of stuff. Insight not just into the Fox News-fed denialists but into the daily denialism of continued participation in the status quo. Insight not just into big polluters, but into those of us huddled around the protest bonfire.
“It is our way of being that has got us into our current crises,” Sister True D says, “and it is our way of being that can get us out.”
Plum Village sent monks to Glasgow in 2021 for COP 26, both to care for the individuals working at that conference and to offer them insight. In a side event at the COP, one of those monks, Brother Phap Linh, told the assembled parties where our efforts need to go:
“What I think we’re seeing here is that it’s natural to approach the problem as a problem of measurement, information, and solutions, and sometimes techno-solutionism. Of course. We need all of those things. It’s not to dismiss any of that. We really know that we have to rely on the science. That’s the base. But for us it’s important to combine all of that information, that sort of ‘head’ world, with heart, with love. And with a different relationship to who we are, who we believe we are, what we think our life is, and what this world is. Is it mere stuff? Is it matter just to be extracted and used, you know?
“For us, it’s kind of like even if we’ve solved—so-called ‘solved’—the climate crisis, even if we keep heating to 1.5 degrees, even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases, for us that’s not enough, actually. I don’t want to add another problem to everybody’s plate, but actually I think this is part of the solution, which is looking at our relationship with Mother Earth, our relationship to ourselves, and bringing in a spiritual dimension, a dimension of reverence, of love, of looking at how we look at each other.
“So not just to use our heads, but to allow ourselves to be motivated, guided, fueled, by love. Because if we’re only fueled by the profit motive—
“You know, we say, ‘Trust the market! We’ll be able to flip this around with the race to zero. We’ll make the companies compete against each other to get to carbon zero. We’ll use competition to get to where we need to go.’ And that’s fine as far as it goes. But even if we achieve success, it’s a kind of success that may be toxic—actually toxic to us as human beings—if we’re always competing and struggling. So what we want to say is there are other energies that can drive us: compassion, love, generosity, inclusiveness, spirit. And those things will never be toxic. They can grow infinitely. Love can always grow.”
If this sounds idealistic, consider that they also have a method. And it only takes meeting one of them to know that it works.