Faith in the Time of Climate Chaos

As people break free from the conditioning of a disembodied culture that separates us from the natural world, we feel the depth of the grievous wounding that our un-mindful consumption and unconscionable production is inflicting on Mother Earth. As we drop from the prison of our heads into the broke-open hearts of our soma, we feel a new kind of solidarity with Indigenous people who are quite familiar with this feeling of biospheric trauma. And we also feel, rather than just anxiously think about, the urgency of climate scientists’ warnings that we have less than a decade to bend the exponential curve.

And then we get hit with the collective trauma of a global pandemic. The sudden realization hits us that life as we have always known it really is over. As the fourth and then the fifth wave of pandemic spreads across the globe, we wonder if this is the new normal, or what a new normal might feel like after this prolonged reorientation towards life and death? Meanwhile, millions of us across Western culture, fortified by an expanding zoomiverse, join in the struggle of Indigenous peoples against our own consumer culture, and with people of color against the systemic racism we ourselves perpetuate, working daily to shape-shift society into a more humane, ecologically aware paradigm.

And then our deposed, maniacally self-possessed president attempts to topple our fragile democracy on behalf of fossil fuel interests, and with their families virtually held at gunpoint by Trump’s militias, the Republican Party succumbs to an authoritarian agenda, turning on us from within. And try as we might to continue advancing the Green New Deal as a framework for meeting this existential threat bearing down on us, President Joe is unable to contend with Fossil Fuel Joe, rendering him weak in the public’s eye, opening up the field for his fellow fossil fuel, authoritarian friends to turn America into Gilead ~ Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision of right-wing militias imposing a fanatic white supremacist theocracy on us at the point of an A-15.

And still, we continue working every day for the slim possibility of a livable future world.

And then Vlad the Impaler, Europe’s natural gas pimp, starts spoiling for WWIII, invading the lovely people of Ukraine who have suffered so much for so long already, and were just starting to find their feet economically in the world. Pale Vlad waves his nuclear arms, threatens Finland and Sweden of all countries not to choose sides in this growing conflict. And our hearts break for the people of Ukraine ~ just as they did for the people of Syria and Yemen before them, and for the people of Ethiopia and Sudan, and before them the Iraqis, Afghanis, Kashmiris, Palestinians…

Not to mention we were just subjected to a sham winter olympics from a country that is actively carrying out genocide on two fronts. We were all witnesses to the NBC prime time Hunger Games, where the weight of the world’s nasty social media was placed on the shoulders of a 15-year old girl who happened to skate more beautifully, artistically, and yes, athletically than any woman figure skater ever. And so we broke her, and showed the sad spectacle in prime time with teasers.

How DARE she allow herself to be abused by authoritarian adults???

So… traumas on traumas. The future looks dark. The rich hoard their wealth, while the masses lead lives of quiet desperation, wondering what new calamity we will be forced to suffer next.

How do we process this overwhelm?

The very morning Putin was driving his tanks into Ukraine’s heart, I had the undeserved honor to assist in the launch of the social scientist and IPCC Nobel Laureate Karen O’Brien’s astonishing new book, You Matter More Than You Think: Quantum Social Change For A Thriving World. While Vlad certainly cast an ominous shadow over an online event that had been in the works for months, in a way it felt more necessary than ever. How do we express our sense of compassionate urgency in the midst of an existential, global emergency?

It reminds me of a saying from Nagarjuna which dates from sometime around the dawn of the Christian Era: “In the midst of our afflictions, there is awakening.” The point is that we tend to think our spiritual awakening will happen when we finally have the peace and stability that we crave in our lives. But it doesn’t work like that. We have to be knee deep in our own shit for the lotus flower to emerge from the murky depths of our being.

And boy, are we knee deep in this or what?

Politics and War are obviously the problems, not the solutions. Both are the servants of the fossil fuel industry, and we consumers are its slaves. The reason CO2 emissions keep rising in spite of the wishes of 70% or more who recognize the gravity of our situation is that behavioral change at this scale requires a paradigm shift in collective consciousness, and changing attitudes are only the prequel to that kind of change in consciousness. Before we can radically change the way we live, we have to radically change the way we think.

Authoritarianism is the fossil fuel industry’s answer to radical shifts in societal thinking. They have gone from denying there is a problem to waging a war on truth and on the populace’s growing hunger for reconciliation and reformations. Vlad, Trump, Xi Jinping, the Saud family, Bolsonaro, Manchin and the entire Republican Party are just the generals and foot-soldiers in this War on Truth. And they are waging a full-on assault at this particular time for good reason. Their aim is to break our will.

And so we are having a crisis of faith. In an era when faith has become rather unfashionable, we tend to dance around it with hope, and when the hope wears thin we fall into despair. But it is only faith that will see us through this growing storm of toil and trouble.

What is there to have faith in anymore?

For people like Karen O’Brien and myself, we are placing our faith in paradigm change. We know that we cannot solve this global crisis with the same kind of thinking that got us into it. And in a globally interconnected, interdependent world, it makes sense to place our faith in the potential for systems thinking to shape-shift the dominant paradigm into a bold, new paradigm that is actually up to the task of social transformation and global transmutation. These kinds of shifts only happen slowly, slowly — and then all at once. That is the thinking behind quantum social change, or taking leaps in collective consciousness.

As a social scientist with the IPCC, the paradigm shift Karen and others in her field are advocating for is in accord with the quantum theories that revolutionized the hard sciences beginning in the 1930s. What we learn from quantum theory is that there are really no objects in the universe — only relations. And so if we can displace object-oriented thinking that separates us from the natural world (and each other) with relationally-oriented thinking that is more in accord with the Indigenous worldview, then we can come back into proper relationship with the natural world. In her book, she makes all of this quite explicit in a very engaging, provocative way, creating a kind of social map for us to find our way into this more beautiful world of ecological well-being. It’s a book that should appeal to both scientists and activists, and can be easily appreciated by anyone, really, whose heart is in the right place.

As a pan-psychologist writer and researcher, the paradigm shift that I and a few others in my field are advocating for is in accord with an even more recent, revolutionary scientific theory that has only just begun to surface in the collective consciousness, thanks to documentaries like Fantastic Fungi and books like Susan Simard’s Mother Tree. Gaia theory, in other words — the idea that we humans are active cells and organelles in a living organism we call Earth, and the NASA scientist James Lovelock named Gaia after the Greek Goddess of Earth.

The visionary depth psychologist Carl Jung in collaboration with one of the fathers of quantum theory, Wolfgang Pauli, referred to this phenomena as Anima Mundi, or the animating force of the living world. They were convinced that reality is psycho-physical through-and-through — which is the idea behind panpsychism as well — and they were convinced that the crisis we now find ourselves in, which they viewed as the inevitable trajectory of modern society, will only be resolved when we collectively awaken to this connectivity between our own psyche and the natural world.

I just prefer to call that human nature, which is embedded in Nature. We do not have the luxury of decades to incorporate this new paradigm — with its wood-wide-web, plant intelligence, and mycelium brainpan — into our everyday thinking. Because of the urgency of the existential threats we face, we will be required not only to reprogram our limited, linear thinking with the relational thinking of quantum entanglement and complementarity, but at the same time we must apply that relational thinking in the context of our being embedded in an unfathomably large living being whose intelligence is quite beyond anything we’ve ever encountered.

It’s a big ask.

You can see how it might require a leap of faith in order for us to make this leap of consciousness!

And so it behooves every one of us to ask ourselves what it is that we are willing to place our faith in going forward. The alternative is to simply resign ourselves to fate, accept the inevitability of collapse, and give up on the human species. Sadly, millions of smart people have already made that decision. The only thing they’re willing to place their faith in is their capacity for kindness in the face of cascading tragedy. Which is interesting in itself, given their lack of faith in human nature. How is it possible to have faith in your own humanity if you accept as fact that human nature is fatally flawed? When push comes to shove, won’t you yourself succumb to that flaw, looking out only for yourself and your loved ones? I find little solace in this kind of despairing faith.

Science keeps catching up to ancient wisdom traditions, and the modern proof of Nagarjuna’s adage that awakening only happens in the midst of afflictions is called “Progogine’s theory of dissipative structures.” Don’t worry — it’s not another paradigm! This one is just a simply theorem that the Italian scientist Ilya Prigogine proved, winning him a Nobel Prize. What it holds is simply that any observed system, whether organic or inorganic, undergoes a process of increasing disorder until it reaches a point of maximum chaos — at which point, some kind of catalyst triggers a sudden reordering. From the perspective of the entire system, this new order is always higher than the previous order.

The reason we are not responding to the increasing emissions and warming of the world, in spite of what we know, is that the old order still prevails. The newly emerging order that is responsive to the crisis can be labeled “ecological consciousness,” but it will only coalesce out of the accelerating chaos that we see in the world today, which is simply the disintegration of the old order in real time. Because the system we are dealing with here is on the scale of an entire planet, both processes proceed apace, and it is hard to see how ecological consciousness will prevail in time to avoid ecological catastrophe. And it may not. And that is a hard uncertainty to embrace.

In psychological terms, Gestalt therapist Steffi Bednarek speaks to the ‘necessary derangement’ that precedes re-arrangement:

“Many psychological shifts occur as a result of experiencing adversity. This entails a willingness to ‘stay with the trouble’ and face the derangement that is necessary for any maturation process to occur, including the maturing of a culture…”

Applying this wisdom to the climate crisis, Bednarek posits that “[a] radical step may be to pause for a moment and to admit that we are lost. Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position to hold in a culture that is based upon control. When the known reality is crumbling, the temptation is to grasp for surety, circumventing the necessary descent and the fostering of the ability to bear the unbearable void where the new is not yet in sight. For many, even certainty of catastrophe is easier to bear than uncertainty.

The hard shell of cynicism, or the reification of pessimism, are ways of shortcutting the pain of uncertainty and protecting our wounded self, or cauterizing the open wound of a broken heart. It is not a question of whether or not the doomsayers are right or wrong. These are intelligent people after all. But nobody can really predict the future based on projections from the past simply because there is this great confounding variable involved: Gaia is a living, self-regulating organism we are only beginning to understand. What if Her response to a warming atmosphere is increased volcanic activity? Large eruptions like the one recently observed in the Pacific ocean have a cooling effect on the climate, due to the amount of ash that is discharged. How do we account for that in our projections of current trends?

Have you heard of the Toba event that shows up in our genetic code as a bottleneck? “The massive volcanic eruption that created [Toba] lake some 70,000 years ago nearly wiped out the entire human species — and may have made us who we are today.” Much like the Yellowstone caldera, “At 436 square miles — about the size of Los Angeles — Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world, and maybe the nicest. The water is sparkling and calm. Soft green mountains rise all around it.” Many travel writers consider this place that almost did us in to be the closest thing to heaven on Earth in the world today. It’s something to ponder how Gaia transformed a living hell to heaven on Earth!

One of the resorts on Samosir Island, a popular stop for visitors to Lake Toba. Photo Credit: Stefan Ruiz

So speaking for myself, I have faith in Nature. And I have faith in human nature, or the kind of qualities of humanity that emerge in response to the greatest adversities. I have faith in paradigm shifts, and I know that we as a species are in the midst of shifting from the materialist paradigm that fuels consumerism to a panpsychic paradigm that integrates both quantum theory and Gaia theory — the kind of ecological thinking that will allow us to come back into proper relationship with our Mother, our life source, Earth. And I have a deep and abiding faith in Gaia’s recuperative powers, once we enlist her as our ally in resolving our shared climate trauma.

Finally, I have faith that my self-regulation, whether it be on the cushion or in my forest-bathing walking meditations, is an integral expression of Gaia’s self-regulation. As the visionary ecologist and thought-leader Stephan Harding, Ph.D. puts it:

“Everything in this life is about consciousness. We are conscious beings and our lives have meaning. Our most important role is to honor and enjoy our relationship with this magnificent planet and all her inhabitants. That’s all. We can all do it in our own way. And the evolutionary result will be that Mother Earth herself will gain extra consciousness via her inhabitants.”

May we learn from our Indigenous elders on the path. May we discover our own holistic indigeneity in our relationships with Gaia. And one day soon, may we emerge from this overwhelmingly chaotic profusion as whole, healed beings and an evolved, humane species.

Long life to Gaia!

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