Initiation into a Living Planet
By Charles Eisenstein
Monday, September 10th, 2018
Most people have passed through some kind of initiation in life. By that, I mean a crisis that defies what you knew and what you were. From the rubble of the ensuing collapse, a new self is born into a new world.
Societies can also pass through an initiation. That is what climate change poses to the present global civilization. It is not a mere “problem” that we can solve from the currently dominant worldview and its solution-set but asks us to inhabit a new Story of the People and a new (and ancient) relationship to the rest of life.
A key element of this transformation is from a geomechanical worldview to a Living Planet worldview. In my last essay, I argued that the climate crisis will not be solved by adjusting levels of atmospheric gases, as if we were tinkering with the air-fuel mixture of a diesel engine. Rather, a living Earth can only be healthy – can only stay living in fact – if its organs and tissues are vital. These comprise the forests, the soil, the wetlands, the coral reefs, the fish, the whales, the elephants, the seagrass meadows, the mangrove swamps, and all the rest of Earth’s systems and species. If we continue degrading and destroying them, then even if we cut emissions to zero overnight, Earth would still die a death of a million cuts.
That is because it is life that maintains the conditions for life, through dimly understood processes as complex as any living physiology. Vegetation produces volatile compounds that promote the formation of clouds that reflect sunlight. Megafauna transport nitrogen and phosphorus across continents and oceans to maintain the carbon cycle. Forests generate a “biotic pump” of persistent low pressure that brings rain to continental interiors and maintains atmospheric flow patterns. Whales bring nutrients up from the deep ocean to nourish plankton. Wolves control deer populations so that forest understory remains viable, allowing rainfall absorption and preventing droughts and fires. Beavers slow the progress of water from land to sea, buffering floods and modulating silt discharge into coastal waters so that life there can thrive. Mycelial mats tie vast areas together in a neural network exceeding the human brain in its complexity. And all of these processes interlock with each other.
In my book Climate – A New Story I make the case that much of the climate derangement that we blame on greenhouse gases actually comes from direct disruption of ecosystems. It has been happening for millennia: drought and desertification has followed wherever humans have cut down forests and exposed soil to erosion.
The phrase “disruption of ecosystems” sounds scientific compared to “harming and killing living beings.” But from the Living Planet view, it is the latter that is more accurate. A forest is not just a collection of living trees – it is itself alive. The soil is not just a medium in which life grows; the soil is alive. So is a river, a reef, and a sea. Just as it is a lot easier to degrade, to exploit, and to kill a person when one sees the victim as less than human, so too it is easier to kill Earth’s beings when we see them as unliving and unconscious already. The clearcuts, the strip mines, the drained swamps, the oil spills, and so on are inevitable when we see Earth as a dead thing, insensate, an instrumental pile of resources.
Our stories are powerful. If we see the world as dead, we will kill it. And if we see the world as alive, we will learn how to serve its healing.
Table of Contents
The Living Planet View
And in fact, the world is alive. It is not just the host of life. The forests and reefs and wetlands are its organs. The waters are its blood. The soil is its skin. The animals are its cells. This is not an exact analogy, but the conclusion it invites is valid: that if these beings lose their integrity, the whole planet will wither.
I will not try to make an intellectual case for the livingness of planet Earth, which would depend on what definition of life I use. Besides, I’d like to go further and say Earth is sentient, conscious, and intelligent as well – a scientifically insupportable claim. So instead of trying to argue the point, I’ll ask the skeptic to stand barefoot on the earth and feel the truth of it. I believe that however skeptical you are, however fervently you opine that life is just a fortuitous chemical accident driven by blind physical forces, a tiny flame of knowledge burns in every person that Earth, water, soil, air, the sun, the clouds, and the wind are alive and aware, feeling us at the same time as we feel them.
I know the skeptic well because I am he. A creeping doubt takes hold of me when I spend a lot of time indoors, in front of a screen, surrounded by standardized inorganic objects that mirror the deadness of the modernist conception of the world.
Surely the exhortation to connect barefoot with the living Earth would be out of place at an academic climate conference or meeting of the IPCC. Occasionally such events indulge a moment of touchy-feely ceremony or trot out an indigenous person to invoke the four directions before everyone enters the conference room to get down to business, the business of data and graphs, models and projections, costs and benefits. What is real, in that world, is the numbers. Such environments – of quantitative abstractions as well as conditioned air, unvarying artificial light, identical chairs, and ubiquitous right angles – banish any life except the human. Nature exists only in representation, and Earth seems alive only in theory, and probably not at all.
What is considered real in those places are the numbers – how ironic, given that numbers are the quintessence of abstraction, of the reduction of the many to the one. The data-driven mind seeks to solve problems by the numbers too. My inner math geek would love to solve the climate crisis by evaluating every possible policy according to its net carbon footprint. Each ecosystem, each technology, each energy project, I would assign a greenhouse value. Then I would order up more of this one and less of that one, offsetting jet travel with tree planting, compensating for wetlands destruction here with solar panels there, to meet a certain greenhouse gas budget. I would apply the methods and mindsets that have grown up around financial accounting – money being another way of reducing the many to the one.
Unfortunately, as with money, carbon reductionism ignores everything that seems not to affect the balance sheet. Thus it is that traditional environmental issues such as habitat conservation, saving the whales, or cleaning up toxic waste get short shrift in the climate movement. “Green” has come to mean “low-carbon.”
In the Living Planet view, this is a huge mistake, since the ignored whales, wolves, beavers, butterflies, and so on are among the organs and tissues that keep Gaia whole. By offsetting our air travel miles with tree planting, sourcing our electricity from solar panels, and thereby donning the mantle of “eco-friendly,” we assuage the conscience while obscuring the ongoing harm that our present way of life generates. We imply that “sustainability” means the sustaining of society as we know it, but with non-fossil fuel sources.
This is not to say that it is fine to continue burning fossil fuels as always. In reaction to my last essay, some people labeled me a climate denier or a tool of climate deniers. This is a natural reaction in a highly polarized environment in which the first lens applied to any person or position is “Which side are you on?” In a war setting, any information, however true, that is inconsistent with our side’s narrative must be rejected as rendering aid and comfort to the enemy. When both sides do that, the result is a binary choice that shuts out any alternative that may lie outside either pole and even outside the spectrum of opinion that the two poles define. Furthermore, shutting out conflicting data means that each side becomes impervious to growth, change, and truth.
Thus it is that the Living Planet view (as I interpret it) elicits hostility not only from the anti-environmentalist right but also from the global warming alarmist left – even though the left at least is temperamentally aligned with its premise. Their hostility originates in the implication that I will now draw out: that global warming is not the main threat to the biosphere, and that focusing on carbon emissions and clean energy is not the highest priority response.
The real threat to the biosphere is actually worse than most people even on the left understand; it includes and far transcends climate; and, we can meet it only through a multidimensional healing response.
Are greenhouse gas emissions a problem? Yes. They put more stress on global life systems that development, ecocide, and pollution have already dangerously weakened. Here is a loose analogy: Imagine that Earth’s winds and currents, flows of temperature and moisture, and life-sustaining weather patterns are like a gigantic meandering garden hose, perforated with tiny holes to irrigate plants. Imagine that these plants have grown around the hose to hold it more or less in place. Now uproot those plants (destroy ecosystems) at the same time as you increase the water pressure dramatically (greenhouse forcing). Without the plants holding it down, the hose begins to writhe and kick and run completely awry, no longer delivering water to where it needs to go.
On the real Earth, the ecosystems – in particular forests, savannas, and wetlands – that once anchored patterns of flow into place are severely damaged. Meanwhile, greenhouse gases have intensified the system’s thermodynamic flux, further disrupting atmospheric patterns and further damaging weakened ecosystems. However, even without elevated greenhouse gases, the massive killing of life would spell disaster. Fossil fuel emissions intensify an already bad situation.
Reordering of Priorities
With healthy ecosystems, elevated CO2, methane, and temperature might pose little problem. After all, temperatures were arguably (this is extremely controversial) higher than today in the early Holocene as well as during the Minoan Warm Period, Roman Warm Period, and Medieval Warm Period, and there was no runaway methane feedback loop or anything like that. A living being with strong organs and healthy tissues is resilient.
Sadly, Earth’s organs have been damaged and her tissues have been poisoned. She is in a delicate state. That is why cutting greenhouse emissions is important. However, a Living Planet view invites a different ordering of priorities than the one that conventional climate discourse suggests:
First priority is to protect all remaining primary rainforest and other undamaged ecosystems. Particularly important are mangrove swamps, seagrass meadows, and other wetlands, especially on the coasts. These forests and wetlands are precious treasures, reservoirs of biodiversity, regeneration hothouses for life. They hold the deep intelligence of the earth, without which full healing is impossible.
The second priority is to repair and regenerate damaged ecosystems worldwide. Ways to do that include:
- A massive expansion of marine reserves for ocean regeneration
- Bans on bottom trawling, drift nets, and other industrial fishing practices
- Regenerative agricultural practices that rebuild soil, such as cover cropping, perennial agriculture, agroforestry, and holistic grazing
- Afforestation and reforestation
- Water retention landscapes to repair the hydrological cycle
- Protection of apex predators and megafauna
The third priority is to stop poisoning the world with pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, plastics, PCBs, heavy metals, antibiotics, chemical fertilizers, pharmaceutical waste, radioactive waste, and other industrial pollutants. These weaken Earth on the tissue level, pervading the entire biosphere to the point where, for example, orcas are now found with PCB levels high enough to classify the orca’s body as toxic waste. Pesticides and habitat destruction are also causing a massive die-off of insects, amphibians, birds, soil biota, and other life, weakening Gaia’s ability to maintain herself.
The fourth (and still important) priority is to reduce atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. To a large extent, this result will be a by-product of the other three priorities. Both reforestation and regenerative agriculture can sequester massive amounts of carbon. Furthermore, to truly protect and repair ecosystems would necessitate a moratorium on new pipelines, offshore oil wells, fracking, tar sands excavation, mountaintop removal, strip mines, and other extraction of fossil fuels, as all of these entail severe ecological damage and risk. The Living Planet view also supports certain carbon-motivated proposals that have broader ecological and social benefits: rooftop solar, local diets and local economies, bikeable cities, smaller passive-solar houses, demilitarization, repairable rather than disposable goods, and reuse and upcycling. To love and care for each precious part of this planet, we have to transform the fossil fuel infrastructure regardless of the greenhouse gas issue.
Paradoxically, we do not need the greenhouse argument to reduce greenhouse gases. By following the priorities listed above, we will achieve (and perhaps surpass) most of what the mainstream climate movement is calling for, but from a different motivation. There are significant points of departure, however. The Living Planet approach rejects big hydroelectric projects because they destroy wetlands, degrade rivers, and alter the flow of silt to the sea. It abhors the biofuel plantations that are overtaking vast areas of Africa, Asia, and South America since these often replace natural ecosystems and small-scale, sustainable peasant agriculture. It dreads geoengineering schemes such as whitening the sky with sulfur aerosols. It has little use for giant carbon-sucking machines (carbon capture and storage technology). It looks with horror at the consumption of forests around the world to produce wood chips for converted coal-fired power plants. It is doubtful of huge bird-killing wind turbines and vast photovoltaic arrays on denuded landscapes.
Polarization and Denial
In the preceding section, I referred to the controversial claim that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than the present. I would like to revisit that, not because I think it is important to establish one way or another, but because it offers a window onto a deeper problem that freezes our culture into a holding pattern on numerous issues, not just global warming. The deeper problem is polarization.
Hockey stick reconstructions seem to show the contrary to the Medieval Warm Period assertion – that today is warmer than any time in the past ten thousand years. On the other hand, skeptics assail the methodological and statistical underpinnings of these studies and then adduce evidence of early warm temperatures such as higher sea levels in the early and middle Holocene.
After a couple years of book research, I am confident I could argue either side of the issue. I could, with impressive research citations, argue that the Medieval Warm Period (now called the Medieval Temperature Anomaly) was not really that warm after all, and in any event mostly concentrated in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean basin. I could also argue, again citing dozens of peer-reviewed papers, that the anomaly was significant and global. The same goes for pretty much every aspect of the climate debate – I can argue either side well enough to impress its partisans.
Already the reader’s hackles might be up for implying an equivalency between the two sides, one of which consists of unscrupulous corporate-funded right-wing pseudo-scientists who let their greed come before humanity’s survival, and the other of humble scientists of integrity backed by self-correcting institutions of peer review that ensure that the consensus position of science approaches ever closer to the truth. Or is it that one side consists of brave dissidents who risk their careers to question the reigning orthodoxy, and the other of groupthinking, risk-averse careerists beholden to the globalist agenda of rabid left-wing “enviros” and “greenies”?
The polarizing invective coming from both sides suggests a high degree of ego investment in their positions and makes me doubt that either side would countenance evidence that contradicts their view.
In the face of the extreme polarization of American (and to some degree Western) society today, I’ve adopted a rule of thumb, which applies as much to warring couples as it does to politics: the most important issue is to be found outside the fight itself, in what both parties tacitly agree on or refuse to see. To take sides is to validate the terms of the debate, and to participate in the ignoring of hidden issues.
A meta-level tacit agreement in the climate debate is the reduction of the question of planetary health to the question of whether temperatures are hotter now than X years ago. By pinning alarm over ecological deterioration onto global warming, we imply that if the skeptics are right, then there is no cause for alarm. So the climate movement must prove the skeptics wrong at all costs – even to the point of excluding evidence of historical warm temperatures since these do not fit the narrative.
What is the motive to prove them wrong at all costs? With apologies to the right-wing climate blogosphere, it isn’t to further the diabolical plots of George Soros and Al Gore to implement a socialist One World Government. The motive is a well-founded alarm at the state of the planet. The alarmist camp is channeling into warming an authentic alarm at the anthropogenic deterioration of the biosphere. Basically, both sides have agreed to equate catastrophe with runaway global warming and to debate about that as a proxy for the larger issue of planetary health. In so doing, I fear the environmentalists have ceded sacred ground and agreed to stage the fight on difficult terrain. They have substituted a hard sell for an easy sell. They have substituted a fear narrative (the costs of climate change) for a love narrative (save the whales). They have preconditioned care for the earth on the acceptance of a politically charged theory that requires trust in the institution of science along with the systems of authority that embed it. This, at a time when overall trust in authority is on the wane – and for good reason.
As for the skeptics, I am afraid that the “denialist” slur is in many cases accurate. Whether or not there are valid criticisms to be made of establishment climate science, the skeptical position typically is part of a larger political identity that, in order to maintain its coherency, must dismiss every environmental problem along with global warming. Hewing to a position that everything is fine, climate skeptic blogs usually insist that plastic waste, radioactive waste, chemical pollutants, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gases, GMOs, pesticides, etc. are not a problem; therefore, nothing needs to change. Resistance to change is at the core of psychological denial. On some level, the woman knows she has cancer, but to admit that would require that she quit smoking. The man knows that his marriage is falling apart, but to admit that would require he stop working all the time. And to quit requires a further investigation into what drives these addictions.
So also with our civilization: on some level, we know that the way we are living – more, the way we are being – is destroying our health and our marriage (to the rest of life). We sense a growing unhappiness underneath our collective addiction to consumption and growth. And, we know that we stand on the brink of an initiation into an entirely different kind of civilization. A profound change is upon us, and, fearful of that change, we deny that anything is the matter. The climate skeptics are only the most obvious deniers, but perversely, the global warming mainstream perpetuates a kind of denial too, by upholding a vision of sustainability attainable merely by switching energy sources. The common oxymoron of “sustainable growth” exemplifies this delusion, as growth in our time entails the conversion of nature into resource, into product, into money. Instead, we can embrace the full metamorphosis of civilization and enter a world where development no longer means growth, where the abstract no longer precedes the real, and where the measurable no longer subjugates the qualitative.
One aspect of this shift is the recovery of non-quantitative ways of knowing, those beyond what we call scientific, data-driven, or metric-driven. Let me come out of the closet here: I do not trust climate science, nor the institution of science generally. Generally, I trust the sincerity and intelligence of individual scientists, but as an institution science is subject to a kind of collective confirmation bias mediated by its institutions of publication, grants, academic promotion, and so on. My distrust is also partly personal: I’ve had many experiences that science says are impossible nonsense. I have researched and benefited from healing modalities that science says are quackery. I have lived in cultures where scientifically unacceptable phenomena were commonplace. I have seen scientific consensus fail (for example in the lipid hypothesis of arteriosclerosis). And I see how deeply embedded science is in an obsolescent civilizational world-story. This is not to say that I know the standard narrative of global warming is wrong. I don’t know that at all. It is just that I don’t know it is right either. That is why I have turned my attention to what I DO know, starting with the knowledge that comes through my own bare feet.
The Living and the Local
Perversely, the dominant global warming narrative facilitates denialism by shifting alarm onto a defeasible scientific theory whose ultimate proof can only come when it is too late. With effects that are distant in space and time, and causally distant as well, it is much easier to deny climate change than it is to deny, say, that whale hunting kills whales, that deforestation dries up the land, that plastic is killing marine life, and so forth. By the same token, the effects of place-based ecological healing are easier to see than the climate effects of photovoltaic panels or wind turbines. The causal distance is shorter, and the effects more tangible. For example, where farmers practice soil regeneration, the water table begins to rise, springs that were dry for decades come back to life, streams begin flowing year round again, and songbirds and wildlife return to the area. This is visible without needing to trust distant scientific institutions.
The regenerated soil also happens to store a lot of carbon. Carbon is the atomic basis of life – the very word organic means soil-containing. We may come to understand atmospheric CO2 levels as a kind of ecological barometer that tells us how successful we have been in restoring life to Earth.
Soil regeneration typifies the intrinsically local, placed-based application of the Living Planet paradigm. In contrast, because numbers and metrics are generic – a ton of carbon here is the same as a ton of carbon there – conceiving the ecological crisis in the quantitative terms of CO2 levels encourages globalized, standardized solutions, which are evaluated in terms of their measurable carbon impact. One result has been widespread planting of ecologically and culturally inappropriate trees, which sometimes end up creating disastrous knock-on effects. The carbon stored in their biomass is measured, but not the carbon lost when they use up available groundwater and die thirty years later, leaving the soil barren and vulnerable. Nor do we measure the diffuse ecosystem effects that ensue, nor the pest management costs, nor the disruption of traditional livelihoods that drives urbanization. Such are the perils of metrics-based decision-making: we ignore what we choose not to measure, what is hard to measure, and what is immeasurable.
When we see the places and ecologies of this planet as living beings and not ensembles of data, we realized the necessity of intimate place-based knowledge. Quantitative science can be part of developing this knowledge, but it cannot substitute for the close, qualitative observation of farmers and other local people who interact with the land every day and through generations.
The depth and subtlety of the knowledge of hunter-gatherers and traditional peasants are hard for the scientific mind to fathom. This knowledge, coded into cultural stories, rituals, and customs, integrates its practitioners into the organs of land and sea so that they can participate in the resiliency of life on Earth.
Ritual and Relationship
One of the puzzles of climate science is the persistence of the Holocene Optimum – ten thousand years of anomalously stable climate that has allowed civilization to flourish. Science, as far as I can tell, attributes this basically to good luck. I have encountered among indigenous people a completely different explanation: that the rituals performed by cultures who were in a good relationship with the spirits of the earth maintained conditions conducive to human well-being. Indigenous cultures were in constant communication with other-than-human beings, supplicating or negotiating for ample and timely rains, mild winters, and so forth. But they weren’t merely praying for good weather, they also saw themselves as upholding the long-term relationships with natural powers that were necessary to maintain a world fit for human habitation. Some Dogon I once encountered told me that climate change is the result of removing sacred ritual artifacts from Africa and other places and transporting them to museums in Europe and North America. Dislocated and ritually neglected, they can no longer exercise their geospiritual function. The Kogi say something similar: not only must sacred sites on Earth be protected or the planet will die, but also we must maintain the proper ceremonial relationship to those places.
The modern mind tends to reduce such practices to helplessly superstitious prayers for rain. Our theory of causality has little room to recognize the efficacy of ceremony and ritual to maintain local or global climate equilibrium. I for one am prone to accept indigenous beliefs and practices at face value because I believe that the modern understanding of physical, force-based cause and effect has blinded us to other, mysterious layers of causality. But if you prefer to hold on to modern causality, modern ecology, and modern climate science, you might still validate the rituals of place-based cultures as inseparable from an entire way of life, which in mundane, practical ways included care for water, earth, and life. What motivates this care? It is respect for all beings and systems as sacred living beings. In that mindset, of course, one seeks to communicate with them.
The upshot is not that we should imitate indigenous rituals, but to learn the worldview behind them – the worldview that located them within a living, intelligent, sacred world. Then we will be able to translate that understanding into our own systems of ritual (the ones we call technology, money, and law).
To a primal part of my psyche, it seems obvious that human affairs affect the climate through vectors of symbol and metaphor. This intuition is not so far from the medieval view that social iniquity brought down God’s wrath in the form of natural disasters. As I write this the rain pours down on the farm; having filled all the culverts and basins, it is now breaching the swales, wreaking destruction, carrying off topsoil. Fourteen inches already and still it pours. Meanwhile, the American Southwest suffers record heat and extreme drought. The inequitable distribution of rainfall mirrors the unequal distribution of wealth in our society. So much here that one knows not what to do with it; so little there that life itself becomes impossible. Our culture too has its rituals: we manipulate the symbols we call money and data in the magico-religious belief that physical reality will change thereby. And it does – our rituals are powerful. Yet they bear a hidden price. As other cultures understood, to invoke magic for selfish ends inevitably brings disaster. Sooner or later, a deranged Earth climate will follow derangement in the social climate, political climate, and psychic climate. I may be projecting meaning onto noise, but 2018, a year of extreme polarization in human affairs, has also been a year of extreme polarization of temperature: heat in some places and seasons, cold in others.
What is a human being for?
The Living Planet view, by which I mean the conscious ensouled planet view, acknowledges an intimate link between human and ecological affairs. I often hear people say, “Climate change is not a threat to Earth. The planet will be fine. It is only human beings that might go extinct.” If we understand humanity, however, as the beloved creation of Gaia, born for an evolutionary purpose, then we could no more say she will be fine without humans as we could say a mother will be fine if she loses her child. I’m sorry, but she will not be fine.
The aforementioned idea of an evolutionary purpose, while contrary to modern biological science, follows naturally from a view of the world and the cosmos as sentient, intelligent, or conscious. It opens the questions, “What are we for?” “Why are we here?” and “Why am I here?” Gaia has grown a new organ. What is it for? How might humanity cooperate with all the other organs – the forests and the waters and butterflies and the seals – in service to the dream of the world?
I do not know the answers to these questions. I only know that we must start by asking them. We must – not as a matter of survival. Whether as individuals or as a species, we live for something. We are not given life merely to survive it. What do we serve? What vision of beauty beckons us? This is the question we must ask as we pass through the initiatory portal we call climate change. In asking it, we summon a collective vision that forms the nucleus of a common story, a common agreement. I do not know what it will be, but I do not think it is the old future of flying cars, robot servants, and bubble cities overlooking a befouled and barren landscape. It is a world where the beaches are littered with seashells again, where we see whales by the thousands, where flocks of birds cover the sky, where the rivers run clean, and where life has returned to the ruined places of today.
We live for something. We may not have a grand vision of human destiny to guide us, yet still an internal compass points the way. Following it means stepping into our care. Serving it, we feel, yes, this is why I am here. Maybe your care will guide you to conventional climate marches and the like, or maybe it will guide you to heal and protect a tiny part of Earth, or maybe to address the social climate, the spiritual climate, the relational climate – the health of the new organ of Gaia we call humanity. Some of these activities have no discernible effect on carbon footprint, yet intuition tells us that all are part of the same revolution. A society that exploits the most vulnerable people will necessarily exploit the most vulnerable places too. A society devoted to healing on one level inevitably will come to serve healing on every level.
I can now be more precise about the nature of the initiation I referenced at the outset. Its driving question is, Why are we here? – a key landmark of the maturation process into adulthood. We might, therefore, understand the present convergence of crises as an initiation into collective adulthood – the graduation of modern civilization into its purpose. This is not about survival; that is why the fear narrative, the cost-benefit narrative, the existential threat narrative does not serve the cause of ecological healing. Can we replace it with the love narrative? With the beauty narrative? The empathy narrative? Can we connect with our love for this hurting living planet, and look at our hands and minds, our technology and our arts, and ask, How shall we best participate in the healing and the dreaming of Earth?