It’s becoming widely accepted that, for the Democrats to regain political leadership, they have to do more than resist the Trump regime. Recognizing this, many are drawn to particular initiatives that draw popular support, such as universal health care or a $15 minimum wage. This, however, misses the fact that in recent decades the right wing has not won on the issues, but by repeatedly telling a grand story of America. It’s a story that is false on many counts and based on a set of values that are driving our civilization to a precipice. But it’s been successful because there has been no coherent counter-narrative to override it.
We need a new story of our civilization based on humane values. This story would incorporate initiatives like universal health care and a higher minimum wage, but it must look beyond those towards a grander scope: a future of sustainable flourishing for all.
Ever since the 17th century, the values of Western civilization—which have since become the predominant global civilization—have been the driving force of history. Many of these values, such as democracy, freedom, and individual rights, have become the bedrock for a more humane global society.
But there is a darker underside to the Western value system that has fueled the modern right-wing narrative. My research revealed certain unique characteristics in the underlying pattern of Western cognition that have been responsible for both its Scientific and Industrial revolutions, as well as its destruction of indigenous cultures around the world and our current global rush toward possible catastrophe in the form of climate change and overexploitation of natural resources.
Beginning with the ancient Greeks, and continuing through the rise of Christianity and the Scientific Revolution, the core characteristic of this uniquely Western mindset, which has since become a global phenomenon, is one of separation.
Seeing themselves as separate from nature, philosophers such as Francis Bacon led the clarion call for humankind to “conquer nature,” while Descartes and Hobbes introduced the view of “nature as a machine” that has dominated Western thought ever since. Europeans, driven by the credo that “knowledge is power,” applied their newfound power to conquering, not just nature, but the inhabitants of much of the rest of the world.
At the core of the European value system was a thirst for power that justified disrupting any equilibrium. As Europeans colonized other lands, they imposed their worldview on those who survived their onslaught, inculcating core values of power and exploitation that have formed the basis of today’s global capitalist ethos.
These values have led to a grand story shaping modern political and moral discourse that is based on flawed assumptions, such as the ideas that humans are fundamentally selfish and that the earth can support limitless growth. These, and other elements of the modern story, reflect the underlying theme of separation: people are separate from each other; humans are separate from nature; and we understand things by viewing them as separate parts like a machine. The value system built on this foundation is the cause of much that threatens to tear our society apart: the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond appropriately to climate change, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By recognizing that our underlying values are inherited from previous generations, we can become more conscious of them. This, in turn, allows us to choose other values with the potential to lead to a flourishing future for humankind.
Rather than separation, these values tend to be based on the underlying theme of connectedness: seeing people as part of community, humans as an integral part of the natural world, and solutions to global problems as embedded within larger systems rather than independent techno-fixes. In this alternative narrative, the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. It invites a worldview where the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior.
Three core values emerge from this interconnected worldview. The first is an emphasis on quality of life rather than material possessions. Instead of measuring progress by economic output, we could care about progress in the quality of our lives, both individually and in society at large. Secondly, we could base political, social, and economic choices on a sense of our shared humanity, emphasizing fairness and dignity for all rather than maximizing for ourselves and our parochially defined social group. Finally, we could build our civilization’s future on the basis of environmental sustainability, where the flourishing of the natural world is a foundational principle for humanity’s major decisions.
Values shape history, and the values we choose to live by will shape our future. If we are to truly counter the forces that wrenching our society apart, we must formulate a new story for civilization—one based on values that could create a sustainable future of shared human dignity and natural flourishing.
Imagine living in a home with structural flaws in the foundations. At first, you might not notice too much. Every now and then, some cracks might appear in the walls. If they got too bad, you might apply a new coat of paint, and things would seem fine again—for a while.
But suppose your house were in an earthquake zone? Some of us who live in California know what it’s like to call in a structural engineer and be told the foundations need to be retrofitted if the house is to survive the Big One. Sometimes foundation work is necessary if there are hidden flaws that our home is built on.
We can think of our civilization’s worldview as a cognitive home that we all live in—an edifice of ideas that’s arisen layer by layer over older constructions put together by generations past. Our global civilization is facing the threat of its own Big One in the form of climate change, resource depletion, and species extinction. If our worldview is built on shaky foundations, we need to know about it: we need to find the cracks and repair them before it’s too late.
Our worldview is the set of assumptions we hold about how things work: how society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable and what’s possible. It often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives.
We form our worldview implicitly as we grow up, from family, friends, and culture, and once it’s set, we’re barely aware of it unless we’re presented with a different worldview for comparison. The unconscious origin of our worldview makes it quite inflexible. That’s fine when it’s working for us. But suppose our worldview is causing us to act collectively in ways that could undermine humanity’s future? Then it would be valuable to become more conscious of it.
In researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, I excavated the hidden layers of our modern worldview and found that many of the ideas we hold sacrosanct are based on flawed foundations. They are myths that emerged from erroneous assumptions made at different times and places in history. They’ve been repeated so frequently that, for many people, it may never occur to question them. But we need to do so, because the foundations of our civilization’s worldview are structurally unsound.
The good news is that, for each structural flaw, there is an alternative principle that offers a solid basis for long-term, sustainable flourishing. Our best hope for civilization to survive the Big One is to recognize these underlying defects, and work together to reconstruct a worldview with more secure underpinnings. Here are eight deep flaws I found, along with alternative principles that, together, could create a foundation for a flourishing civilization for future generations.
Structural flaw #1: Humans are fundamentally selfish
Modern economics is based on an assumption—backed by outmoded biological theories—that human beings are motivated predominantly by their own self-interest, and their collective self-serving actions result in the best outcome for society. In the words of old-school biologist Richard Alexander, “ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interest.” The geopolitical history of the 20th century is demonstrated as proof of this philosophy: Communism failed, we are told, because it was founded on an unrealistic view of human nature, whereas capitalism succeeded because it’s based on harnessing the selfish nature of each individual for the ultimate good of society.
New foundation: Humans are fundamentally cooperative
In fact, modern anthropology and neuroscience show that cooperation, group identity, and a sense of fair play are defining features of humanity. In contrast to chimpanzees, who are obsessed with competing against each other, humans evolved to become the most cooperative of primates through our ability to share intentions with each other, while recognizing that others see the world from different perspectives. This enabled early humans to work collaboratively on complex tasks, creating communities with shared values and practices that became the basis for culture and civilization.
An essential element in the ability of humans to work together is an evolved sense of fairness. We feel this so strongly that we would rather walk away with nothing than permit someone else to take unfair advantage of us. This intrinsic sense of fairness is, in the view of prominent evolutionary psychologists, the extra ingredient that led to the evolutionary success of our species and created the cognitive foundation for crucial values of our modern world such as freedom, equality, and representative government.
For 99 per cent of human history, we lived together in bands of hunter-gatherers, where an egalitarian ethos predominated. If a successful hunter began getting too socially dominant, the rest of the band would join together to keep his ego under control. A sharing ethic pervaded all aspects of life. When a hunter-gatherer in the remote Amazon was asked by an anthropologist why his band didn’t smoke or dry their meat for storage, even though they knew how, he responded: “I store my meat in the belly of my brother.”
Structural flaw #2: Genes are fundamentally selfish
At a deeper level, the idea that genes themselves are selfish has permeated the collective consciousness. Since Richard Dawkins’s 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene, people have come to believe that evolution is the result of genes competing against other in a remorseless drive to replicate themselves. Ruthless competition is seen as the force that separates evolution’s winners from losers.
Even altruism is interpreted as a sophisticated form of selfish behavior used by an organism to propagate its own genes more effectively. Biologist Robert Trivers established a notion of what he called “reciprocal altruism” as an ancient evolutionary strategy that could be seen in the behavior of fish and birds, and interpreted human altruism in the same way. “Under certain circumstances,” he wrote, “natural selection favors these altruistic behaviors because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them.”
New foundation: Nature is a network
This has been extensively discredited as a simplistic interpretation of evolution. In its place, biologists are developing a more sophisticated view of evolution as a series of complex, interlocking systems, where the gene, organism, community, species, and environment all interact with each other, both competitively and cooperatively, in a network extending over both time and space. Ecosystems rely for their health on the tightly synchronized interaction of many different species. Trees in a forest have been discovered to communicate with each other in a complex network that maintains their collective health—sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.”
Rather than a battleground of “selfish genes” competing to outperform one another, modern biologists offer a new view of nature as a web of networked systems, dynamically optimizing at different levels of evolutionary selection. This recognition that cooperative networking is an essential part of sustainable ecosystems can inspire new ways to structure human technology and social organization for future flourishing.
Structural flaw #3: Humans are separate from nature
Underlying these structural flaws is an even deeper one—the implicit belief that humans are separate from nature. The source of this idea can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Plato saw a human being as a split entity, comprised of an eternal soul locked in a mortal body. The ultimate goal of philosophy was to leave the body behind and identify only with the soul that linked us to divinity. Plato’s speculations became the foundation of Western thought. Two and half millennia later, Descartes updated Plato’s myth with his idea that a person’s true essence is their thoughts, while their bodies were mere matter with no intrinsic value.
The implication of this Cartesian split is that the rest of nature—animals, plants, and everything else—has no value because it doesn’t think like a human. With nothing sacred about nature, it became available for humans to use remorselessly for their own purposes. The Old Testament provided further theological justification to this myth, with God’s command to Adam and Eve that they should “subdue” the earth and “have dominion” over every living thing on it.
The scientific project, just getting off the ground in the 17th century, would henceforth view every aspect of the material world as free game for inquiry, investigation, and exploitation. Francis Bacon inspired generations of scientists with his call to “conquer nature.” He galvanized them to “unite forces against the nature of things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds and extend the bounds of human empire.”
New foundation: Humans are an integral part of nature
These ideas are so ingrained in the modern psyche that it is easy to forget they are unique to the European worldview. Other cultures throughout history saw humans as sharing the world equally with all other creatures. The earth was their mother; the heavens their father. Those who wished to harmonize with nature, in the words of the Tao Te Ching, should be “reverent, like guests.”
The findings of modern biology and neuroscience validate the implicit wisdom of earlier traditions. Humans are in fact integrated mind-body organisms, containing ecosystems within them as well as participating in the broader ecosystems of nature. When we destroy the complexity of the natural world, we undermine the well-being of all organisms including ourselves. In the profound words of a slogan at COP21 in Paris, “We are not defending nature. We are nature defending itself.”
Structural flaw #4: Nature is a machine
Along with the separation of humans from nature, another uniquely European cultural myth proclaims that nature is a machine. Since the 17th century Scientific Revolution, the view of nature as a complicated machine has spread worldwide, leading even some of today’s most brilliant minds to lose sight of it as a metaphor and wrongly believe that nature actually is a machine.
Back in 1605, Kepler framed his life’s work on this idea, writing: “My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but to a clockwork.” Likewise, Descartes declared: “I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.”
In recent decades, Richard Dawkins has spread an updated version of that Cartesian myth, writing famously that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,” adding: “That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.” Open any science magazine, and you’ll see genes described like programmers that “code” for certain traits, while the mind is discussed as “software” for the “hardware” of the body that is “wired” in certain ways. This machine delusion is ubiquitous, beguiling techno-visionaries seeking immortality by downloading their minds, as well as technocrats hoping to solve climate change through geoengineering.
New foundation: Nature is a self-regenerating fractal
Biologists point out principles intrinsic to life that categorically differentiate it from even the most complicated machine. Living organisms cannot be split, like a computer, between hardware and software. A neuron’s biophysical makeup is intrinsically linked to its computations: the information doesn’t exist separately from its material construction.
In recent decades, systems thinkers have transformed our understanding of life, showing it to be a self-organized, self-regenerating complex that extends like a fractal at ever-increasing scale, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth. Everything in the natural world is dynamic rather than static, and biological phenomena can’t be predicted with precision: instead of fixed laws, we need to search for the underlying organizing principles of nature.
This new conception of life leads us to recognize the intrinsic interdependency of all living systems, including humans. It offers us the underpinnings for a sustainable future where technology is used, not to conquer nature or re-engineer it, but to harmonize with it and thus make life more meaningful and flourishing.
Structural flaw #5: GDP is a good measure of prosperity
We continually hear Gross Domestic Product discussed as if it is a scorecard of a country’s success. Yet all GDP measures is the rate at which we are transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, no matter how beneficial or harmful. The basic fault with GDP as a measure of a country’s performance is that it fails to distinguish between activities that promote welfare and those that reduce it. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP.
When someone picks vegetables from their garden and cooks them for a friend, this has no impact on GDP; however, buying a similar meal from the frozen food section of a supermarket involves an exchange of money, and therefore adds to GDP. In this bizarre accounting system, toxic pollution can be triply beneficial for GDP: once when a chemical company produces hazardous byproducts; twice when the pollutants need to be cleaned up; and a third time if they cause harm to people requiring medical treatment.
The measure of GDP is not merely bizarre but dangerous for humanity’s future because metrics have a profound impact on what society tries to achieve. National leaders get voted in and out of office based on their country’s GDP growth. Recognizing this, various groups, including the UN and the European Union, are exploring alternative ways to measure society’s true performance. The state of Bhutan broke new ground by creating a “Gross National Happiness” index, incorporating values such as spiritual wellbeing, health, and biodiversity.
New foundation: Measure a country’s genuine progress
These alternative measures offer a very different story of the human experience over the last fifty years than the one presented by GDP. Researchers have developed a measure known as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that factors negative aspects such as income inequality, environmental pollution, and crime, as well as positive aspects such as volunteer activities and household work, into national accounts. When they applied this to seventeen countries around the world, they discovered that, although GDP has continually increased since 1950, worldwide GPI reached its peak in 1978 and has been declining ever since.
Once we begin measuring our politicians’ success on GPI, rather than GDP, it becomes more feasible that the world can move toward a more sustainable way of life before it gets too late.
Structural flaw #6: The earth can support limitless growth
The world’s financial markets are based on the belief that the global economy will keep growing indefinitely, yet that is impossible. When modern economic theory was developed in the 18th century, it seemed reasonable to view natural resources as unlimited because, for all intents and purposes, they were. However, both the number of humans and the rate of our consumption has exploded so dramatically in the past fifty years that this assumption is now woefully wrong.
At the current growth rate of 77 million people per year—equivalent to a new city of a million inhabitants every five days—demographers forecast a world with nearly 10 billion human occupants by 2050. People around the globe, bombarded with images of living standards from affluent countries, understandably aspire to the same level of comfort for themselves. Bolstered by this unremitting appetite for growth, the world economy is projected to quadruple by 2050.
Scientists have calculated that humans now appropriate about 40% of the total energy available to sustain life on Earth—called net primary productivity—for our own consumption. Humans use more than half the world’s freshwater and have transformed 43% of the earth into agricultural or urban landscapes. To sustain our current rate of expansion, human appropriation of net primary productivity might need to double or triple by mid-century. Do the math—it can’t be done on one earth. In the words of systems theorist Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
New foundation: Grow quality, not consumption
The solution is to transform our underlying culture—to stop seeking growth in consumption and instead seek growth in the quality of our lives. We can choose to participate in a circular economy, where we borrow, share, reuse, and recycle—and when we do have to purchase something new, make sure it’s sourced from a sustainable process.
But just like changing lightbulbs won’t stop climate change, so going circular alone won’t prevent civilization from collapsing under its own weight. We need to engage actively at the source of this frenzied rush for perpetual growth: the domination of our economy by global corporations impelled by the mandate of maximizing shareholder returns above all other considerations. Raising public awareness of how these nonhuman forces are driving humanity to catastrophe is one of the most important tasks for anyone who cares about the flourishing of future generations.
Structural flaw #7: Technology has the solution
Techno-optimists frequently ridicule Thomas Malthus, an 18th century English cleric who was the first to warn of the dangers of exponential growth. For every problem that emerges, they claim, technology offers a solution. However, solutions based purely on technology tend to miss deeper structural issues, often creating even bigger problems down the road.
An example is the “Green Revolution” of the late 1960s, which is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation by exporting high-tech industrial agriculture to the developing world. Its unintended consequences now threaten humanity’s future. Ubiquitous use of artificial fertilizer has led to massive ocean “dead zones” from nitrogen runoff and severe reduction in topsoil across the world; indiscriminate application of chemical pesticides has disrupted ecosystems; and industrial agriculture now contributes one-third of the greenhouse gases causing climate change.
One reason we’re facing a worldwide crisis of sustainability is that our culture encourages destructive attitudes to the earth. While technology has brought a plethora of improvements to the human experience, it has also bolstered the underlying Western belief that “conquering nature” is the primary vehicle for progress. Nature, however, is not an enemy to conquer, and each step we take in that direction further destabilizes the intricate relationship between humans and our sole source of life and future flourishing—the earth.
New foundation: Systemic change, not techno-fix
Rather than relying purely on technology, truly effective solutions tackle the systemic underpinnings of our crises, transforming practices that caused the problem in the first place. Agroecology, for example, an approach to agriculture based on principles of ecology, views the earth as a deeply interconnected system, recognizing that the health of humans and nature are interdependent. Agroecology designs and manages food systems to be sustainable, enhancing soil fertility, recycling nutrients, and increasing energy and water efficiency.
Already widely practiced in Latin America, it is rapidly gaining acceptance in the US and Europe, and has the capacity to replace the agro-industrial complex. Agroecology could even help sequester excess carbon in the atmosphere. The Rodale Institute has calculated that regenerative organic practices of agroecology—such as composting, no-tillage, and use of cover crops—could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions if practiced worldwide.
Structural flaw #8: The universe is essentially meaningless
Most science works through a reductionist approach: viewing the world as an assemblage of parts that can each be analyzed separately. This method has led to enormous progress in many fields, but its very success has caused many scientists to see nature as nothing more than a collection of parts, a viewpoint that leads inevitably to spiritual nihilism. In the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, “the more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.” Ultimately, the modern mainstream worldview is based on disconnection: separation of mind from body, individual from community, and human from nature.
New foundation: The universe as a web of meaning
However, in recent decades, insights from complexity theory and systems biology point the way to a new conception of a connected universe that is both scientifically rigorous and spiritually meaningful. In this understanding, the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. By emphasizing the underlying principles that apply to all living things, this understanding helps us realize our intrinsic interdependence with all of nature.
In place of the structural cognitive flaws that have led humanity to the precipice, the systems worldview invites a new understanding of nature as a “web of meaning,” where the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior. When we apply this framework to our lives, meaning arises from the way in which we’re related to everything around us. Meaning thus becomes a function of connectedness—and the meaning of life an emergent property of the network of connectivity that is the universe. Living with this deep realization, we are truly “at home in the universe.”
Setting the foundations for flourishing
It’s not necessarily easy work: restructuring foundations to prepare for the Big One, while so many others are blithely choosing new colors to paint over the cracks appearing in the walls. However, once we become aware of the structural flaws in the dominant culture, they can’t be ignored. We begin to see their manifestations all around us.
Not easy work, perhaps, but it can be deeply transformative. It’s an ongoing inquiry, a reconstruction of our value system, that can lead to the possibility of finding meaning ultimately through connectedness within ourselves, with each other, and with the natural world. These new foundations, based on seeing the cosmos ultimately as a web of meaning, have the potential to offer a sustainable future of shared human dignity and flourishing of the natural world.
I had a dream. I fell asleep to a nightmare, and woke up with a dream.
The nightmare is one we all share. It’s called the Presidential inauguration of a man fueled by hatred and anger, an unbalanced narcissist invested with the power to destroy all life on earth on a whim.
But it’s the dream I want to tell you about. It was Inauguration Day, January 2021. The new President of the United States was taking the oath of office, declaring her commitment to the dignity and flourishing of all people, regardless of race, gender, or creed. She had come to power on a tidal wave of opposition to the destruction wrought by four years of billionaires plotting to steal from the rest of us what they hadn’t already plundered. Her new Humane Party had risen from nowhere, emerging from the surge of untold millions, sickened by the assault on their humanity, voting for a platform based on basic human values of justice and compassion.
As she spoke, she extended a hand of peace and friendship to other nations around the world, and noted the swell of support that had lifted sister Humane parties in dozens of other countries, in reaction to the global xenophobic fear that had threatened humanity’s future.
The glow of hope filled the streets and reverberated around the world. Strangers stopped to greet each other in the street with a twinkle of the eye and a look of wonder. “The unthinkable has happened – again!” they said to each other. “We had come so close to despair, so close the brink. Who knew this was possible?”
I woke up with this dream this morning, and then joined the millions of others – people driven by humane values – who marched today for dignity, peace, and a future of hope. We are the majority around the world. Policies of fear-mongering and oppression will only swell our ranks even more, as regular, decent people realize they don’t need to live in a world of hate.
Share this dream with others. Let us act together, and we will make it a reality.
Every day, the news seems only to get worse. Trump’s Cabinet appointments are brazenly turning the U.S. into a kleptocracy – a land where those who have gained unprecedented wealth and power by cynically manipulating the rules now get to rewrite the rules for their own exclusive benefit. With all branches of government – executive, Congress, and the Supreme Court – in the hands of a morally bankrupt Republican leadership, the most powerful military and surveillance state in history is becoming a vehicle for corporations to ransack what’s left of the natural world for their short-term gain. With free speech under attack, along with threats of a Muslim registry and mass deportations of undocumented workers, we appear to be plunging rapidly into a bottomless abyss.
It’s natural for anyone who cares about dignity, justice, and the welfare of future generations to feel some despair. But in the very darkness of the times ahead, there is reason for hope that this bleak period will be the harbinger of a transformed society: a new economic and social order based on principles of equity, compassion, and natural flourishing. How can that be?
How change happens in complex systems
The source of this hope emerges from research in complex systems – and more specifically, how phase transitions occur in these systems. Complex systems exist everywhere in the natural world: in weather patterns, lakes, and forest ecologies. They exist within humans – think immune, cardiovascular, and neurological systems – and they exist in the systems we humans create: in markets, and in social and political systems.
These systems are nonlinear, which means the relationship between an input and output can vary wildly, and this characteristic makes them very difficult to predict. However, leading complexity scientists have studied how change happens in these systems, and have discovered principles that seem to occur universally. They are as true for a lake ecology as they are for a stock market. And they are equally applicable to our political system.
A crucial principle is that, while a complex system can remain resilient within a set of parameters for a long time, occasionally it becomes so unstable that it experiences a tipping point: a dramatic shift that transforms the system into something very different. A forest, for example, can get thinned out until it can no longer sustain itself, and it turns into scrubland. A real estate market gets overheated until it suddenly collapses. A person’s neurological firing can destabilize and suddenly puts them into an epileptic seizure.
These shifts – known as phase transitions – can also herald beneficial changes. A chrysalis transforms into a butterfly. A fetus develops until it undergoes the phase transition known as birth. Same sex marriage can remain unthinkable for generations, until it becomes the widely accepted law of the land within a few years.
Scientists have studied intensively how to predict when these phase transitions might occur, and have identified a few flags that indicate when we might expect one. An important indicator is an increase in the variance of fluctuations within the system. A stock market, for example, might start gyrating giddily before it finally crashes. Rainfall patterns may fluctuate wildly before a long-term drought sets in.
Tipping points in history
When we apply these findings to history, it’s easy to see these turbulent fluctuations preceding phase transitions – in retrospect. The Great Depression in the 1930s led to the rise of fascism. The global devastation of the Second World War cleared the way for new norms such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted three years later in 1948.
As we look at the current political situation, many signs suggest that we’re arriving at a new, historic tipping point. The globally dominant neoliberal political-economic system has caused unprecedented wealth and income inequalities, which have destabilized the foundations on which the past seventy years of relative peace and prosperity have been built. The Brexit shock, the rise of neo-fascism in Europe, and the impending cataclysm of Trump’s lawless brutality seem to signal an approaching tipping point. Our global society is most likely about to enter a phase transition, after which it will emerge into a new, stable state.
What will that new state look like? There is a real threat that we’ll see the end of democracy in this country. An even grimmer possibility is the total collapse of civilization. Trump’s narcissistic capriciousness could drive the world to global war which might easily go nuclear. Even without war, we can expect an acceleration of climate change following an orgy of fossil fuel extraction from the new Exxon Mobil/Trump/Putin axis, which could drive the climate to its own tipping points that may be incompatible with continued civilization.
Towards a Great Transformation of values?
But there’s another possibility for the long-term outcome of this dark period. The American people will only take so much trampling over accepted norms. Trump, with his cabinet of billionaires and corporate titans, is likely to pursue a strategy of continued reckless violations of traditional American values such as decency and civil rights. There’s a real possibility that their frenzy of greed, bigotry, and hatred will catalyze a powerful counter-reaction. A significant majority of voters already chose the Democratic candidate over Trump at the election. After years of having their rights trampled upon by a Trump presidency, and most likely witnessing brutality once unthinkable in their own country, Americans may be ready for a radically different type of society: one based on values such as dignity, compassion, and fairness.
This leads to another important lesson from complexity science: During a phase transition, a system goes through a chaotic period of shifting power dynamics. In this period, seemingly insignificant actions can have an outsize effect, sometimes dramatically impacting the character of the long-term outcome. When we apply this lesson to the current situation, this becomes a clarion call for citizen action. What each of us does over the next few years could have extraordinary effects on the future society we bequeath to posterity.
At the same time, we need to shine a light on a flourishing future that could still be available after this period of darkness. There is an enormous power arising from millions of interconnected people striving together towards a shared vision. We already know, within ourselves, what that vision looks like. In contrast to Trump’s intolerance based on a rhetoric of separation, the foundation of a flourishing future is our intrinsic connectedness: within ourselves, with others, and with the natural world.
Even before Trump’s regime begins, people are picking up on the urgent need for a transformation of values in American society. Political commentator Van Jones has initiated a “Love Army” to conquer Trump’s message of hate. Author Neal Gabler has called for a “kindness offensive.”
A society based on love and kindness is not just an abstraction. Kindness in action means resisting Trump’s brutalism. Love in action means working towards a transformation of society. Pioneers of a flourishing future have already been busily constructing a coherent platform of alternative ideas that can form the framework for a system founded on compassionate values. I’ve attempted to summarize some of them in a recent online conference where I took the role of a historian in 2050 looking back at how the world just survived climate catastrophe to enter a period known as The Great Transformation.
The traditional Chinese understood profoundly the dynamics of change that modern complexity scientists are discovering. Their famous yin-yang symbol captures a deep truth about how polarities can engender their opposites. In the middle of the black, there is a spot of white. When a wave reaches its peak, that’s when it begins to crash. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.
We haven’t yet hit the darkest hour of the Trump era. We’re just entering the abyss, and no-one can predict how bad it’s going to get. But as we move together into the darkness, along with our anguish and outrage, let us never lose sight of the light that lurks beyond. There will be casualties from his brutality. Few of us are likely to make it through unscathed. But by recognizing the power of our interconnected action, while keeping our gaze focused on the light beyond the horizon, we may well succeed in ultimately directing this tipping point away from collapse, and towards a society of flourishing, compassion, and justice.
I watched with horror last night, like millions of others, as the election began pointing to a Trump victory. It felt like the world slipping into a bottomless abyss. And now we’re in it, spiraling downwards. Which leaves the gut wrenching question, awful to contemplate: how bad will it get?
There are already a large number of disastrous outcomes that seem all but inevitable. A license for brutal treatment of undocumented immigrants, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and anyone who fits the criteria of Trump’s racist xenophobia. The end of Obamacare and any safety net for those with pre-existing conditions. With a climate denier in the White House, an open road for fossil fuel companies to ravage the earth, and speed up the onset of full scale climate catastrophe. The EPA gutted. A Supreme Court stacked with reactionaries to rubber stamp the Republican agenda and undo decades of moral progress in American society.
How Bad Could It Get?
Could it get even worse than that? There have been plenty of critiques comparing Trump to earlier fascist leaders, such as Hitler or Mussolini, who collectively caused over 60 million deaths and brought the world close to total ruin. With rising populist xenophobia around the world – the Brexit vote, racist political parties in Europe, the recent election of brutal Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte – this awful scenario needs to be contemplated.
I grew up in a Jewish family in London. The only reason my parents were alive was that their parents happened to migrate to England rather than somewhere else in Europe. During my teens, I became aware of the full horror of the Holocaust, leaving a dread deep down that never really disappeared. I felt blessed to live in happier times, and often wondered: how would I have reacted to the extremities of the 1930s if I’d lived through that period? Now, we may all be called to answer that question in our current reality.
Could Trump’s victory lead to the end of democracy in the US? Will the world devolve into global warfare? These questions may take years to answer, but a perusal of Hitler’s trajectory to power does highlight some warning signs that we’ll need to take seriously, such as:
Serious intimidation and threats targeting politicians and activists who disagree with Trump
Intimidation and legal action against newspapers and online media who oppose Trump’s agenda
Incitement of violence at demonstrations, leading to escalating rhetoric and further violence
Calls for emergency measures when cycles of violence begin to get out of hand
Lawsuits and arrests of activists based on fictitious charges
Of course, Trump’s election campaign has already flaunted all of these, and worse. With Trump as President, they may spell the end of any semblance of freedom and democracy we’ve been used to.
What Can We Do About It?
In a time of extreme polarity, faced with hatred, fear, and violence, how can we respond? I believe there are right responses at different levels of engagement: political, community, and individual.
Politically, it’s essential to become even more engaged than before. We can’t afford despair and finger-pointing. Each of us needs to identify the causes that matter most to us, and commit a significant amount of our time and energy to fighting for them, joining the national and global struggle for justice. (Two great examples: 350.org and MoveOn.org).
We need to keep our eyes firmly focused on a vision of future flourishing. Imagine how bleak the world looked in 1942, at the peak of Nazi dominance in Europe. Yet, even at the darkest hour, a better world was not far off. We may be descending into an abyss right now, but with enough of us actively engaged, we will eventually move through it into the light.
We need to build resilience and bonds within our community like never before. Trump’s brutalism is based on hatred and separation. Each one us has the power to combat it through compassion and connection. Take the extra moment to acknowledge strangers to let them know you see them. Turn acquaintances into friends. Turn friendships into mutually reinforcing nourishment. Look for new ways to actively support and aid each other – especially those who are in Trump’s crosshairs. (Two great examples: SURJ and Movement Generation).
And within ourselves, we need to find a moral courage that may be tested in ways we haven’t ever considered. When our core values are under attack like never before, we must connect with them even more strongly, and consciously live every day according to them. In an era of brutalism, each of us may face challenges that will define who we are: How can I use my own privilege to benefit others? Shall I speak up against that racist or misogynistic invective even if it makes me unpopular? Go on that demonstration even if I risk getting beaten up? Engage in civil disobedience even if I risk getting arrested?
We enter into a period of increasing darkness. None of us knows yet how dark it will get, how bottomless the pit. We do know, however, that we can choose to act as beacons of light. Joined together, that light can lead the way to a better place for us all, and a future of flourishing that seems achingly distant right now.
Even our common words have turned upside down. As Bill McKibben points out, words like “radical” and “conservative” need to be redefined. The real radicals are the fossil fuel companies changing the very composition of our planet’s atmosphere, careening our world towards a climate that hasn’t been experienced for over a million years. By the same token, the real conservatives are those struggling to keep the earth’s climate within the parameters of the last ten thousand – the stable, temperate period known as the Holocene that permitted humans to develop agriculture and civilization. Imagine a news headline: “Conservatives struggle to prevent radicals from global disruption” – in this context, it takes on a whole new meaning.
Language matters. The words we hear connect spontaneously to preset neural patterns in our brains that can either strengthen or weaken prior associations, frequently causing subtle emotional responses that ultimately affect our actions. If you live in a cooler climate zone, the term “global warming” can sound quite comforting by itself. Even “climate change” has a certain deadening quality to it: something just happening on its own. Better to call it the way it is: climate disruption, perhaps, but even that doesn’t get at what’s really going on. After all, we’re heating up the planet at the rate of 4 Hiroshima bomb detonations every second. Yes, every second. There go another four. At this rate, we’re on our way to heating the earth by more than 3º Celsius this century. How about climate emergency? One that threatens, if we don’t respond accordingly, to become climate catastrophe.
The turmoil our civilization is causing goes, of course, way beyond climate alone. In every part of the earth, natural systems that have sustained themselves from time immemorial are groaning under the human strain. The basic elements of life on Earth that we take for granted – forests, fish in the oceans, water to drink – are rapidly being consumed by humanity’s voracious demands.
We regulate the flow of about two-thirds of the earth’s rivers, and many of the greatest rivers – the Colorado, Yellow, Yangtze, Ganges, Nile – no longer reach the sea during parts of the year. Half of the world’s tropical and temperate forests have disappeared. In the same second we heat the planet by 4 atomic bombs, we’re also losing the Amazon rainforest by another acre. The nitrogen we use for fertilizer drains into the oceans, causing uncontrolled algae blooms that consume the water’s oxygen, leaving dead zones bereft of any other life. As a result of industrialized fishing, the oceans have lost over 90% of large fish such as tuna and swordfish.
There have been five times in the history of life on Earth when a global catastrophe caused a mass extinction of species. Scientists now recognize that the onslaught of humanity is causing the sixth mass extinction, driving species into oblivion at a rate a thousand times faster than would be natural. Up to fifty percent of all vertebrate species are threatened with extinction this century. Prominent scientists have concluded that humanity has now emerged as its own force of nature. The scope of human impact is so enormous, and will affect the distant future of the earth to such a degree, that they are describing our modern period as a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene.
Yes, we need a new language for this Anthropocene we’ve created. A couple of creatives, realizing this need, have formed the whimsically named Bureau of Linguistical Reality to solicit words for our experience of this new reality. Some of the words they’ve already come up with are disquieting: gwilt [the regret caused by letting plants wilt because of a drought], shadowtime [the parallel timescale of climate change shadowing our daily activities] and epoquetude [the reassuring awareness that while humanity may destroy itself, the Earth will certainly survive]. They invite you to add to the lexicon yourself if you want to play your part in setting the cultural frames of our future. (Here’s an interview I did with them on YouTube.)
Meanwhile, some words already exist in other languages that profoundly express our current experience. Japanese offers a treasure trove of these. Monoaware, for example, means “the pathos of things. The awareness of the impermanence of all things and the gentle sadness and wistfulness at their passing.” Yuugen is “an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses that are too mysterious and deep for words.”
But if language helps shape our reality, then why can’t we introduce words to express the reality we desire? Along with a new language for the Anthropocene, we need a new language for the Great Transformation in ideas, practices and worldview that could create a flourishing future for humanity. My own contribution is Liology (pronounced lee-ology): a word made up from the Chinese word “li,” which means “the organizing principles” and “ology” which is the Greek-derived word for “study.” So liology means “the study of the organizing principles.” You might ask: the organizing principles of what? The answer: everything. Waves, human relationships, bodies, stock markets and consciousness. The complete set of dynamic patterns that make up our entire universe – what the traditional Chinese called the Tao.
The study of these patterns through liology is not just an intellectual exercise, but one that we engage in with our entire embodied existence. Approaching our investigation in this way, with a true reverence for the miracle of this universe and our existence within it, naturally leads us to realize and cherish the connections within us and with all the other complex systems within which we’re embedded.
The recognition that we humans are intimately connected with each other, and with every part of the world around us, is ultimately what can lead us to a sustainable civilization, one that nourishes the earth rather than viewing it as a resource for exploitation. With the climate emergency we’re currently experiencing, thinking about language may seem an oddly arcane sort of response, but at the deepest level, new neural patterning is what we need to steer our culture towards a hopeful future, one where future generations can experience the yuugen that our universe still offers.
There was a resounding tone of history being made over the weekend in Paris. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was close to tears as he declared: “We have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity.” President Françoise Holland told the representatives of 186 nations: “You’ve done it, reached an ambitious agreement, a binding agreement, a universal agreement… You can be proud to stand before your children and grandchildren.”
And it wasn’t just our political leaders who declared victory. The Guardian boldly proclaimed “the end of the fossil fuel era.” Prominent environmental organizations such as Climate Reality Project joyously announced: “This is the turning point… We won!” Even progressive grassroots organizations are delighted. “Today is a historic day,” writes 350.org. “We did it!” cheers Avaaz, “A turning point in human history.” How justified is this sense of triumph?
Much of the jubilation stems from the contrast to the mess of the Copenhagen summit six years ago. At that time, all attempts at an agreement collapsed in disarray, leaving the environmental movement in a state of deep depression. Since then, much of the planning around COP21 has been to avoid a rerun of that fiasco. Instead of calling for commitments from countries, the UN merely asked for intentions. Instead of targeting a realistic trajectory to save our civilization, the parties merely noted that much more needs to be done. If you set the bar low enough, even the smallest step feels like success.
In fact, not everyone has joined the ovation. Prominent climate scientist James Hansen – the first to bring awareness of the climate crisis to Washington – called it “a fraud really, a fake.” Other groups, particularly those focused on the needs of the global south, agree with his take. In this alternative account of the Paris Agreement, 186 countries arrived at an emissions plan that puts the world on a trajectory for more than a 3° C rise in temperature by 2100. They’ve all agreed this plan is woefully inadequate, but decided to do nothing about it for another five years, when they will re-examine their targets. Their agreement made no mention that the vast majority of fossil fuels are unburnable if we are to prevent climate catastrophe, contained no discussion of the huge contribution to global warming made by industrial agriculture, and ignored crucial issues such as deforestation and indigenous rights. In spite of the consensus among prominent economists around the world on the need for a worldwide price on carbon, the deal avoided any mention of that idea.
There was no mention, either, of reducing the $5.3 trillion spent every year on worldwide subsidies to fossil fuels. Even though the wealthy nations have emitted 60% of the carbon in the atmosphere, they agreed only to “mobilize” $100 billion per year of the $1 trillion per year it will take to develop a fossil-free economy, mostly to be spent by developing nations – an amount they won’t review for another ten years. Meanwhile, the developing countries most vulnerable to climate disruption, desperate to get the wealthier nations to agree on a global temperature rise goal of less than 2°, were forced to give up their right to seek compensation for the present and future devastation caused by the developed countries’ pollution.
But, in spite of its gaping shortcomings, I do believe something important and historic emerged from COP21. It’s not so much the size of the step the world has taken, as the change in direction. Until now, the world has failed to agree even on the target we need to achieve. At Copenhagen, the parties merely noted the scientific consensus that a 2° C rise in global temperature above pre-industrial levels would likely lead to runaway feedback effects, and since then that number became the de facto objective. Yet, out of the blue, in the early days of COP21, a so-called High Ambition coalition of countries began talking about a 1.5° target, which, given that we’re already at 0.9° increase, is a truly aggressive goal. And although the 1.5° number didn’t quite make it to the final agreement, the countries did agree to aim for a temperature rise far below the 2° level, along with a goal of net zero carbon emissions by the second half of this century.
These new targets create a stark contrast between where the world agrees we need to go and where we’re currently headed. In fact, I would call it a chasm. Currently, fossil fuels account for 86% of the world’s energy, and that has barely changed over the last ten years. At the current rate of emissions, even according to Shell’s own climate advisor, we’ll be passing the threshold for a 1.5°C temperature rise by as early as 2028. Drastic changes will need to be made to every aspect of our economy – and fast – if we are to have any hope of reaching the Paris Agreement’s goal.
It is that very chasm, though, between target and current reality that gives cause for hope. As a result of it, we can expect far more talk about unburnable carbon. Divestment from fossil fuel corporations’ stock will become widespread as their market valuations are seen to be based on fantasy. The growing grassroots movement to “Leave It In The Ground” will become ever more unstoppable. A worldwide price on carbon, placed on it as it comes out of the ground, will soon become part of the public discourse. The renewable energy transformation, already under way, will burst into mainstream awareness.
The point is, as 350.org observes, that “Paris isn’t the end of the story, but a conclusion of a particular chapter.” It’s a chapter that has demonstrated clearly the power of the citizens’ movement. When Christiana Figueres, head of the climate talks, gave her closing speech to the summit, she emphasized the importance of the popular movement in forcing politicians to accept a new reality. “When in 2014,” she said, “hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of New York, it was then that we knew that we had the power of the people on our side.”
Citizen power was in evidence throughout COP21, in spite of the ban on public demonstrations. From the thousands of shoes placed in Place de la Republique before the conference began, to the golden sun painted ingeniously by Greenpeace around the Arc de Triomphe, the politicians in the Blue Zone knew their discussions were being closely watched by millions of citizens around the globe. Avaaz tells how, after the Indian Finance Minister came out against 100% clean energy, activists projected films of Chennai under water on a screen inside the talks along with messages from across India. The next day, India’s official position had changed.
Environmental organizations combined forces to focus the calls of millions of people worldwide for real action at COP21. On the last day of the conference, we the people had the last word, with over 15,000 of us ignoring the earlier ban on public gatherings to congregate on the road leading to the Arc de Triomphe, holding long red strips of cloth to symbolize redlines that we won’t allow the global corporate power structures to cross.
One of the key principles of the Paris Agreement is that the nations will continue to meet every five years to strengthen their emission cuts until they reach adequate levels. It is as though the politicians, recognizing their own inability to solve the problem themselves, are inviting the people of the world to put further pressure on them in the coming years, to make sure those emission cuts finally get to what we need. And the climate movement is ready to take them up on it. In the words of 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben:
For the next few years our job is to yell and scream at governments everywhere to get up off the couch, to put down the chips, to run faster faster faster. We’ll fan out around the world in May to the sites of all the world’s carbon bombs; we’ll go to jail if we have to. We’ll push… Think of us as a pack of wolves. Exxon, we’re on your heels. America, China, India – that’s us, getting closer all the time. You need speed. It’s our only chance.
There has never been a more important time to be part of the movement. A leading environmental analyst, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, surmised that this moment “is a turning point in the human enterprise, where the great transformation towards sustainability begins.” Whether his hopeful words become a true prophecy depends more than ever on each of us, and our own commitment to drag our politicians to a world they seemingly cannot get to by themselves.
This week, here in Paris, we saw what may turn out to be a major milestone in the history of humankind. I’m not talking about COP21, but about a 2-day tribunal which, although having no legal standing or powers of enforcement, may turn out to have an even greater impact on the future direction of our world. It was a Rights of Nature tribunal, and it represents the most recent step in an important and hopeful journey for humanity – the recognition and expansion of intrinsic legal rights.
Some historical context helps. Back in 1792, Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, was tried and convicted in absentia by the British for seditious libel. Paine’s troubles arose from the fact that he was blazing a new trail that has since become the bedrock of modern political thought: the inherent rights of human beings.
Paine’s writing deeply influenced the composers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, one of the most influential documents of modern history. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it declared, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These truths, while self-evident to the founding fathers, were radical ideas for that time, so much so that even those who signed the Declaration applied them sketchily, not even considering that they might apply equally to the Africans forced to work as slaves in their plantations.
By the middle of the twentieth century, in response to the totalitarian horrors of genocide, the world came together to create a new stirring vision that would apply equally to all human beings: the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time in history, fundamental human rights were universally recognized and given legal protection.
Of course, these rights continue to be abused in all kinds of ways. But new norms had been established, and nowadays, following the formation of the International Criminal Court, when a tyrant wreaks havoc on his population, he knows that he might have to face legal consequences from the rest of the world.
As we enter into the heart of the twenty-first century, a new set of crises face humanity: the ravages of climate change, deforestation, industrial agriculture, the destruction of natural habitats, and the impending Sixth Extinction of species. Like Paine and his associates, a new group of visionaries are expounding a revolutionary concept that responds to our troubled era: the Rights of Nature.
This week in Paris, this group held a 2-day Rights of Nature Tribunal, part of which I had the honor to attend and film. The Tribunal was based on the idea that nature also has rights, just like humans. Its foundational document is a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, calling for the “universal adoption and implementation of legal systems that recognize, respect and enforce the rights of nature.”
The Tribunal was a formal proceeding, with a panel of thirteen judges consisting of internationally renowned lawyers, academics and prominent activists. There were Prosecutors for the Earth, along with witnesses – comprising human victims of crimes against nature along with expert witnesses. They heard a wide variety of cases, ranging from the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, the devastation of boreal forests by tar sands extraction in Alberta, Canada, and oil exploitation plundering sacred native lands in Yasuní, Ecuador. In each case, after hearing from prosecutors and witnesses, the Tribunal considered the evidence and passed judgement.
The same year that the UN promulgated its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it also defined the crime of genocide for the first time, adopting a convention to outlaw it across the world. Similarly, the Rights of Nature Tribunal focused much attention on the crime of ecocide, defined in legal terms as “any act or failure to act which causes significant and durable damage to any part or system of the global commons, or threaten the safety of humankind.” Through the lens of the ecocide concept, the Tribunal assessed the “financialization” of Nature through market mechanisms as a crime rather than a solution, crimes committed by the Agro-Food Industry, and crimes being committed against those defending Mother Earth.
Meanwhile, crimes committed against nature have been happening not only in remote places – what journalist Chris Hedges has termed our civilization’s “sacrifice zones” – but only a few miles from the Tribunal in the Le Bourget district just outside Paris, where world leaders are negotiating plans to respond to climate change. Summing up the proceedings on the last day, environmental lawyer Linda Sheehan took the stand to indict the working draft of the COP21 agreement for failing to comply with the United Nations’ own laws, and for ignoring the rights of nature and the world’s indigenous peoples.
Formal as the proceedings were, they lack legal standing, and the world’s governments and multinational corporations continue on with their crimes against nature. However, even that is beginning to change. In 2008, Ecuador was the first nation in the world to adopt a new constitution formally recognizing the rights of nature. Since then, other nations and municipalities around the world are beginning to follow suit. Last year, for example, California’s Mendocino County passed a community bill of rights to make fracking illegal, based on the community’s right to a clean ecosystem without manipulation from corporations.
The significance of the Tribunal, as described by the founder of the Rights of Nature movement, Cormac Cullinan, in his summing up, is that it establishes a prototype for what is possible, a new legal discourse that could become mainstream before too long. The Tribunal, as he put it, is “setting the standard for new norms in the relationship between human civilization and the natural world.”
It took over a hundred and fifty years before the grand vision of Thomas Paine would be endorsed by the entire world through the UN’s declaration. We don’t have that long nowadays. But with the speed in which ideas travel in today’s world, we can be hopeful that these new norms will become a commonplace in our own lifetime. Each of us has a part to play in this, by opening our minds to these new possibilities, and turning them into realities on the ground, just like the citizens of Ecuador and Mendocino County.
By the end of this century, if our civilization continues to exist, it may be in no small part due to the ideas propounded today about the Rights of Nature. Perhaps, at that time, someone will look back and see this week’s Tribunal as a milestone in the global embrace of the “truths” that may, by then, seem “self-evident” to people everywhere.
The world is reeling from the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. Other massacres, in Beirut and Mali, deepen the suffering still further. Republican Presidential candidates vie for the most fervid expressions of hate and prejudice they can muster. Turkey shoots down a Russian fighter plane, portending even greater geopolitical instability.
The currents of global forces swirl around, threatening to derail the twenty-first annual meeting of world leaders to address climate change, known as COP21. Yet, as many have pointed out, COP21 offers the world the best chance for world peace. It’s widely accepted that our over-reliance on fossil fuels is a major factor underlying the horrors of recent days. It’s not just that the West’s addiction to Middle East oil has driven foreign policy strategy for decades. There’s also the direct effect climate change has already had, such as the worst drought in Syria’s history that contributed to 1.5 million desperate refugees and fragmentation of that country’s infrastructure.
The effects of climate change will only get worse. Much worse. By the end of this century, some parts of the Middle East are forecast to be too hot for human habitation. Climate refugees, fleeing flooded coastal cities and drought-stricken interiors, will likely overwhelm the resilience of many national infrastructures, creating multiple versions of Syria’s current tragedy.
That’s why COP21 – along with the engagement of millions of citizens across the globe – is now even more important than ever. The wealthier nations of the world have a moral obligation to change the course of humanity’s future. But we already know that whatever “agreement” arises from the official negotiations of COP21 won’t be enough. Unchecked, our carbon emissions are putting us on the path to a temperature rise of 4.5º Celsius by the end of the century. The nations of the world have agreed to a “soft” target of 2º C rise, which in itself locks in massive disruptions, global instability and suffering for untold millions. But even if you add up all the intended reductions agreed to in advance of COP21, this would barely move us to a 3.5º C rise. Nowhere near enough.
Which is where citizen action comes into play. National governments are subject to a variety of forces that cause them to make decisions that are not in the best interests of the people. It is only when decision-makers see that the common people represent the biggest force of all that our leaders will be pressured to set humanity on a path to hope.
The French government has decided to ban two demonstrations planned for before and after the formal COP21 proceedings, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens would have taken to the streets. That, however, is not going to stop the citizen activists converging in Paris from raising public awareness of what is at stake. Many important civil society events – showcasing the challenges and hopes of our generation – are continuing on as planned.
Along with those thousands, I’m planning to be there too, and will be documenting the voices of global citizens engaged in their individual and collective struggles for a just and livable earth. I’ll be part of a team, Citizens’ Voice, that will be streaming live video from all around the city during this time.
And I’ll be posting regular updates to this blog, sharing with you the energy and ideas flowing through the city. We all know that COP21 is not the conclusion of anything. It’s an important milestone on the way to our future – and along with many thousands of other engaged citizens, I’ll be doing my bit to try to make it a milestone on the road to a better future for humanity.
Pope Francis has brought a moral dimension to the crisis of climate change, raising global public awareness of the gaping inequalities of our times and the environmental catastrophe our civilization is causing. This week, in addressing the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, he used the public stage to emphasize his hallmark issues of global poverty, environmental destruction and the urgent need to address climate change.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the Pope’s stance is that he is speaking as head of one of the most conservative institutions in world history. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, published in June 2015, he wove together a masterful synthesis of traditional Catholic theology and a sophisticated, systems-oriented understanding of the effects of human activity on the natural world. As one crucial aspect of this synthesis, he has reformulated the traditional Christian account – shared with the other Abrahamic religions – of the relationship between humanity and the natural world.
Dominion Over Nature
The formation of the modern world has been undergirded by a series of root metaphors, embedded deep in the foundations of our culture, that have defined how humans relate to the rest of the world. Many of these metaphors came from the Bible, which served for a millennium and a half as the cornerstone of Western values. In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a Divine Lawgiver, nature’s commander-in-chief, boasting: “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.”
As Divine Lawgiver, one of God’s first laws was to bestow on mankind Dominion Over Nature. After creating Adam and Eve, God commands them:
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. [Genesis 1:26-8]
As many historians have noted, this root metaphor provided a theological and moral justification for humanity to exploit the natural world ceaselessly without concern for any intrinsic value it might otherwise have. It also provided Christian Europe with a deep-seated assurance that God had created the world for no other reason than humanity’s benefit.
The Pope’s ecological insight
Pope Francis attacks this idea of mankind’s absolute Dominion over Nature with all theological guns blazing. “This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” he avers. “Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays 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.” [Laudato Si, 67]
The Pope doesn’t reject the notion that God has given humanity Dominion over Nature; instead, he emphasizes that this dominion comes with responsibilities. “Each community,” he proclaims, “can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”
Showing a profound ecological understanding of the world as a network of interconnected systems, the Pope talks about “how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. These ecosystems, he declares, “have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system.” [Laudato Si, 140]
Reverent guests of nature
What is fascinating to me about the Pope’s take on the Old Testament is that, as much as he parts company with traditional Christian interpretations, his understanding of humanity’s relationship with nature feels right at home in other non-Christian worldviews.
Traditional Chinese cosmology saw humanity as interconnected with heaven and earth in a resonant web. Rather than claim dominion over nature, the Tao Te Ching proffers an alternative approach for those who wish to harmonize with the Tao: being “reverent, like guests.” [Tao Te Ching 15]
Traditional Chinese philosophers understood the natural world as a series of interlocking systems, recognizing that the same principles organized the human organism as well as the natural universe. In the memorable words of Zhang Zai:
Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.
What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.
All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.
The Chinese weren’t alone in this view. In fact, the vast majority of indigenous views of nature saw humanity as part of nature, and respecting the natural world as intrinsic to their very existence. Rolling Thunder, the native American leader, summarized this as follows:
It begins with respect for the Great Spirit, and the Great Spirit is the life that is in all things – all creatures and plants and even the rocks and the minerals. All things – and I mean all things – have their own will and their own way and their own purpose; this is what is to be respected. Such respect is not a feeling or an attitude only. It’s a way of life. Such respect means that we never stop realizing, and never neglect to carry out our obligations to ourselves and our environment.
In more recent times, this approach to nature is expressed powerfully by ecological philosopher Arne Naess, who developed a platform known as Deep Ecology, which states:
The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth have value in themselves… These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs…
Structural issues of monotheism
My interpretation of the Pope’s approach in Laudato Si is that he is heroically trying to transform the Catholic view of nature to one that is more consistent with these other worldviews, one that would permit humanity to thrive sustainably on a flourishing earth. He was the first Pope to take the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. This symbolism is clearly of far-reaching importance for him.
However, in his attempt, the Pope necessarily avoids dealing with some structural problems in the Christian interpretation of the cosmos. To begin with, God is still the Divine Lawmaker. In contrast, a true systems understanding of life points to the fact that nature self-organizes. There is no blueprint for nature handed down by an external God; rather life arises as an emergent property from the top-down, bottom-up reciprocal processes taking place within each cell.
Similarly, the dominion humans possess over nature was not assigned by a benevolent lawgiver. Rather, it arose from the unique cognitive capabilities that evolved in our human ancestors – our patterning instinct – which has also driven our global civilization to the imbalances we’re feeling so deeply with today’s environmental crisis.
Of course, the Pope can’t point to these structural issues within monotheistic religion. Given the cosmology inherent to his faith, he is performing a herculean task in attempting to redirect Catholic thought towards a sustainable worldview. Ultimately, however, I fear that contradictions may inevitably arise. If we desire humanity to hold a sustainable relationship with nature, not just through this century, but for millennia to come, we need a to forge a new approach, one that begins by understanding that humanity’s place in the universe is not a God-given birthright of dominion, but one that emerged from our evolved cognitive capabilities.
These evolved powers have given us civilization replete with its technological marvels – and have also brought us to the precarious precipice of climate change and environmental collapse we are all facing. We would do best to recognize our intrinsic responsibility to harmonize with nature, to rebalance what we have damaged. To do so, we must seek our source of meaning from that interconnected web of life in which we are all embedded.