Not long ago (Jan. 15, 2015) I wrote a blog I called ‘Climate Depression.’ In that piece, I tried to express the truth as I understood it from the writings of Guy McPherson—i.e. that we are already, because of the CO2 our industrial civilization has put in the atmosphere, on a path to the extinction of most life we know and value on this planet. Together with what other scientists have been telling us about the accelerating extinction of species, the expanding poisoning of the soil and the oceans, the destruction of rain forests, and other insults to the web of life—the prospects for the future of life on Earth (the only planet we know of with life at all) seem grim indeed. It is for this reason that Joanna Macy in her recent book World as Lover, World as Self (Parallax Press: 2007), makes this statement:
The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time (p 151).
What Macy is saying is that not just her, not just me, not just scientists who measure it on their instruments, not just a few aware people on this planet, but EVERYONE is feeling the same uncertainty, anger, fear, and grief. We are all assaulted by the grim question—will there even be a future?—at every turn. We see the increasing severity of storms (including winter storms, which are only a more subtle form of the same crisis), the steadily increasing global temperatures (2014 was the warmest year, globally, on record), the steady melting of the Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheets and the snows and glaciers in the Andes, the Sierras, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the alarming evidence of methane seeps that could accelerate the whole warming process beyond even our worst fears. We see it, we see reports of it, and we tremble. We grieve. We mourn the loss of a livable planet for our children, our grandchildren, and all those who are scheduled to follow us but who, if the dire predictions prove true, may not follow at all.
Unlike others, however, Joanna Macy does not stop there. She does not go along with the dominant paradigm which says, ‘just don’t think about it, don’t dwell on it, don’t bring everyone down by giving voice to your fear and your despair and your grief.’ No. What Macy says and promotes in her writings and her workshops is precisely the opposite: do give voice to your grief. Do not be ashamed of feeling what you do, for it is natural, adaptive and even healing to do so. Here is how she puts it:
When we mourn the destruction of our biosphere, it is categorically distinct from grief at the prospect of our own personal death.
Planetary anguish lifts us onto another systemic level where we open to collective experience. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don’t apologize if you cry for the burning of the Amazon or the Appalachian mountains stripped open for coal. The sorrow, grief, and rage you feel is a measure of your humanity and your evolutionary maturity. As your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time. And it is an adaptive response (152).
Macy goes on to say that expressing our grief for the planet and for all the beings that our insane behavior of the past 300 years has put at risk of extinction is precisely what we need to be doing at this time. More of us. All of us. This is because the crisis of mass extinction
derives from a dysfunctional and pathological notion of the self. It derives from a mistake about our place in the order of things. It is the delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries; that it is so small and so needy that we must endlessly acquire and endlessly consume; and that as individuals, corporations, nation-states, or a species, we can be immune to what we do to other beings. (152).
If this—that the notion of the separate self is a delusion; that the self is actually more like some interactive process whose boundaries can hardly be named—sounds like something a Buddhist or a spiritual leader (like Pope Francis) would say, that is because it is. Joanna Macy is indeed a practitioner of Buddhism and her take on the crisis of our time is informed by her practice. But it is not just that. She also uses the systems theory of Gregory Bateson to shore up what might be dismissed as spiritual or religious or New Age mumbo jumbo. And what she uses Bateson to confirm is his idea (and many neuroscientists are now reaching similar conclusions) that the conventional notion of the “self” or “consciousness” cannot be reduced, as it normally is, to the “isolated subjectivity of the individual or located within the confines of the skin.” Rather, Bateson says that
“the total self-corrective unit that processes information is a system whose boundaries do not at all coincide with the boundaries either of the body or what is popularly called ‘self’ or ‘consciousness’”….and… “The self as ordinarily understood is only a small part of a much larger trial-and-error system which does the thinking, acting, and deciding.” (153)
For Macy, of course, this notion of a self-corrective feedback system involving self and other approximately coincides with her main point about the Buddha’s teaching, i.e., that self and world are not separate, are not individual entities where one or the other is primary; but rather, self and world arise together, or co-dependently (the doctrine is called paticca samuppada: dependent co-arising). They are inextricably intertwined and cannot be separated. Self acts on other just as other acts on self. Mind acts on matter just as matter acts on mind. Neither can exist without the other, nor is one the primary cause of the other (recent news about how the Big Bang may not really be the origin of it all, for there may be no origin, period, tends to fit with these ideas). Once this wisdom is felt or absorbed or seen into, one can no longer contemplate or even countenance doing damage to any other being or entity in the “outside” world, for there is no outside world. You grieve when you see a mountaintop being removed as much as you do when you observe birds and bees being poisoned by pesticides or helpless children being worked to death in gold mines or polar bears being starved because they can no longer hunt from the sea ice necessary to their being. You grieve because you know via your senses and every other mode of perception that you and they and all the beings of the past and those to come are ineluctably connected; are one web of life in which every part, no matter how small or humble, is necessary and critical to every other part and ultimately to the whole.
Hence, for Joanna Macy, grieving for what we see and hear is happening to that web of life is not something to avoid, or deny; it is something to embrace, for it is only through facing it, through “being present to and owning our own pain” that we can begin to comprehend how much all our “selves” are intertwined and at risk with all others and, therefore, begin to find ways to change the way the world, in its ‘normal’ operating procedure, does them violence. Whether it will be in time to prevent the global catastrophe that appears to be bearing down upon us is not the point. Or not the only point. The point is to be alive to what is happening, to break open, and from that feeling of being part of that “great net from which one cannot fall,” to derive the courage to stand up to the deadly forces now in charge.
This is the healing message that Joanna Macy voices for us. And it is a courageous and healing message that, in the present state of things—with the ever-more-ignorant Sen. James Inhofe throwing snowballs in the Senate chamber to ‘prove’ that global warming is a hoax—is more necessary than ever. Take a look at her book. Give it to those who are young enough to get aroused. And take heart that there are indeed masses of people all around the globe who feel as you do and will, if we are very lucky, wake up before it’s too late and take the selfless (which is just another word for ‘heroic’) actions that are so necessary.
In this regard, I would also recommend the most recent work of renowned Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo (his Stanford Prison Experiment has become the gold standard for investigating what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”), who has embarked on a new path—not investigating what makes ordinary people evil, but rather what it is that makes ordinary people heroic. Though it is not a simple idea or a simple effort, Zimbardo has stated its basic premise quite simply, and it accords with what has been outlined above:
Simply put, then, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_makes_a_hero/
That’s it precisely, and is precisely what is needed now to counter the dominant delusion of selfishness, of ‘looking out for number one’ regardless of the consequences to others be they animal, vegetable or mineral. One can only hope that Zimbardo and his colleagues are successful in promoting this paradigm shift among the young. For it is the young, after all, who are going to have the bear the real burden of the failure of the rest of us—our failure to realize what we truly are, our collective failure to act swiftly and courageously enough to rescue what’s left of the only home we have.