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.
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.
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.
Less than three months to go before the COP21 climate conference in Paris, and the emissions targets submitted by countries – the basis for a new global climate treaty – are grossly insufficient. This chart says it all. The blue shows current policy projections; the pink shows the aggregate emissions targets submitted so far – a slight improvement. The green shows what we need to stay within a 2°C rise in temperatures – in itself barely enough to avoid catastrophic climate change, but depressingly far from the current targets.
Put A Price On Carbon
What can be done? I’m convinced that the most effective way to avert global disaster is to put a global price on carbon. We live in a global market economy, and a global price on carbon (starting at say $15/ton then rising steadily) would have an immediate and far-reaching effect on everything else: consumer choices, investment in renewable energy, fossil fuel exploration and extraction, and virtually every other aspect of our global economy.
A price on carbon, collected at the earliest point of entry (oil well, mine or port), is different from the cap and trade approach which has had mixed reviews. Under the “fee and dividend” structure proposed by Citizens Climate Lobby for the U.S., the revenues would be rebated to American households equally. Because not everyone uses the same amount of carbon, the majority of American households (about 66 percent) are estimated to earn back as much or more than they pay in increased costs.
Well, it’s crucial to remember that while climate change is probably the most dire threat facing our world right now, it’s not the only one. It’s more like the canary in the coal mine: an early warning sign that something is going drastically wrong with the way humanity relates to the natural world. In addition to climate change, there’s a rapidly accumulating list of equally daunting crises, such as deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, and a massive extinction of species. We’re overshooting our planetary boundaries. This is all the result of the rampant growth obsession of the modern global economy, dominated by mega-corporations that enrich their billionaire owners by turning the earth into a gigantic resource for consumption.
There’s a growing worldwide movement to fight against this devastation of the natural world and the gaping inequalities it’s created. The threat of climate change has massively increased public awareness of the pending global disaster arising from corporate control of the earth’s resources. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein has pointed out the revolutionary power of climate change, when it’s seen as a battle of cultural worldviews:
The culture that triumphed in our corporate age pits us against the natural world. This could easily be a cause only for despair. But if there is a reason for social movements to exist, it is not to accept dominant values as fixed and unchangeable but to offer other ways to live—to wage, and win, a battle of cultural worldviews. That means laying out a vision of the world… that resonates with the majority of people on the planet because it is true: That we are not apart from nature but of it. That acting collectively for a greater good is not suspect, and that such common projects of mutual aid are responsible for our species’ greatest accomplishments. That greed must be disciplined and tempered by both rule and example. That poverty amidst plenty is unconscionable.
By harnessing the public outrage over the damage being done to our world, Klein argues, and focusing on the underlying structural flaws of our global system, we have a unique opportunity to effect structural changes in the world system that has held us in a chokehold for generations.
Putting The Canary On Life Support
And there we have the reason why voices like Schultz, the Economist and Big Oil are supporting a price on carbon. By using the levers of capitalism to avert the worst outcomes of climate change, they hope to keep the whole system running with barely a bump in the road. Offshore wind power? Who is better equipped to deal with the heavy infrastructure and big politics than the oil companies? Before too long, Big Oil becomes Big Wind. Massive grids transporting solar energy across the continent? Who better than big utility and engineering companies to handle them?
That’s why I believe a price on carbon will happen – with surprising speed. I’m hopeful for a better than expected outcome on climate change. And along with that, I’m even more anxious about the rest of the devastation being wrought on Mother Nature. A price on carbon is akin to putting the canary in the coal mine on life support: it might keep the canary alive, but it merely masks the catastrophe that is continuing to take place around us.
Changing Our Worldview
What are the implications of this? The threat of climate change is so dire that we need to get behind whatever works best, even if it enables the global capitalist system to stay on the rails. And at the same time, while the world’s attention is focused on this crisis, we must frame the narrative to highlight what really needs changing – everything, as Klein puts it.
We must make people aware of the underlying causes of the climate change debacle. As long as a country’s success is measured by Gross Domestic Product, as long as corporations have the sole objective of wealth management and financial return for their shareholders, as long as the natural world is seen as nothing more than a resource for human consumption, the devastation of our world will continue, even with renewable energy.
Ultimately, to turn around our civilization’s trajectory, we need nothing less than a Great Transformation in values. In place of the root metaphors that drive our civilization such as Nature as a Machine and Conquering Nature, we need a new worldview that recognizes the intrinsic interconnectedness between all forms of life on earth, and sees humanity as embedded integrally within the natural world.
What values would arise from this worldview? Three core values emerge. The first is an emphasis on quality of life rather than material possessions. In place of the global obsession with defining progress in terms of economic output and material wealth, we must begin to prioritize progress in the quality of our lives, both individually and in society at large. Secondly, we must 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 must 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.
A price on carbon may save us from the worst depredations of climate change. But it won’t get us any closer to the Great Transformation. For that, there are no silver bullets – just the profound realization that the future wellbeing of humanity and nature is at stake, and the revolutionary power that comes with sharing that realization with millions of others.