READ BY CHAPTER
Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution
PART I: PREDICAMENT
Chapter 2. Beyond Green
If we feel helpless or overwhelmed,
if we have anger, fear, or despair, then no matter what we do to heal ourselves or the planet,
it will not succeed.
—Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth
Language both reflects and shapes how we see the world. The words we use to talk about our predicament reveal fundamental assumptions in how we perceive and relate to nature. Taking words for granted leads to confusion, and worse.
In this chapter, I discuss a few words and concepts we may be better off abandoning, and suggest some alternatives. In doing so, I hope to provide insights into some limitations of current envi- ronmental thinking, and to develop a new mindset that will better serve us as we revise humanity’s relationship with the biosphere.
Nature and environmentalism
The word environment (as typically used by environmentalists) implies a dualism, a competition between the needs of humans and the needs of a nonhuman environment. It has become inter- changeable with the word nature, which no longer signifies the totality of the physical universe, but instead signifies the domain of nonhumans. This dualism contributes to human exceptionalism, the idea that humans are outside of nature, unbound by natural laws, special among all species.
The reality, though, is that we’re one among millions of species supporting each other (while simultaneously competing with each other) in the diverse web of relationships that is the biosphere. The human species depends on this biosphere just like every other species on Earth. The biosphere gives us food, water, oxygen, and a climate in which we can survive. At this level of understanding, there is no dualism. We are nature, and nature is us.
The dualism in the word environment manifests on the left as the idea that the environment needs to be saved, and on the right as the idea that the environment is humanity’s to extract and ex- ploit. These worldviews are actually two sides of the same coin, stemming as they do from a false sense of separation and human exceptionalism.
When we talk about the environment, we’re usually talking about the biosphere or some part of the biosphere. Why not just say “biosphere”?
Whereas environmentalism seeks to protect the environment from humans, biospherism seeks to transition to a way of life that respects the limits of the biosphere and all life.
Whereas environmentalism implies duality, biospherism implies unity. Whereas environmentalism is reac- tive, chasing after the latest disaster, biospherism is proactive, seeking to transform the way we think and live.
Whereas environmentalism treats the symptoms, biospherism treats the underlying cause.
Humans will always have an impact on the biosphere, and biospherism doesn’t seek to eliminate our impact. Biospherism accepts that the biosphere just is the sum of the impacts of in- dividuals (human and nonhuman, from any of the kingdoms of life) comprising it. It seeks to reduce human impact to sustainable levels by changing our priorities.
Biospherism seeks balance. It’s the word I’ll use in place of envi- ronmentalism. Someday I hope we can drop such terms altogether and simply say that we’re human, and it will mean we live aligned with the biosphere, with each other, and with ourselves.
Beyond fear-and-guilt environmentalism
Environmentalism has had a strong tendency to use shame, guilt, and fear in an attempt to motivate action. But guilt and fear don’t motivate me—they discourage me.
It’s common for mainstream environmental speakers and writers to put a long and fearsome litany of climate change consequences front and center1. These presenters assume their audiences aren’t aware of how scary global warming is (because if they were, the assumption goes, they’d certainly act). They therefore communicate fear with visions of hellfire and brimstone. At the end they tack on a few superficial suggestions, “ten things you can do” such as changing light bulbs or shopping at farmers’ markets. Finally, they add a thin veneer of hope: “there’s still time, but we must act now.”
Hellfire and brimstone don’t inspire us to change; they lead to guilt. Guilt is a coping mechanism that allows us to merely limp along with our anxiety. It’s what we feel when we engage in some action that goes against our deeper principles, but that we don’t actually intend to change. Guilt is an insincere self-apology for a painful internal fracture. It leads us to symbolic actions that allow us to function with this fracture. Why not just heal the fracture?
Interestingly, some of the most prominent leaders in the environmental movement reveal this inconsistency between their actions and their edicts. They tell us to stop burning fossil fuels, and yet they themselves have outsized carbon footprints. This hypocrisy might help to explain why the movement itself swirls with guilt. It may also help to explain why it has been ineffective. I suspect that most people notice hypocrisy at some level, and that it has a paralyzing effect. People think, “If even prominent environ- mental leaders can’t reduce their carbon footprints, then it must be impossible.”
While we do need to change ourselves, we also need to for- give ourselves. Those of us who were born into industrial society entered a powerful system that determines our beliefs and daily actions. Socialization colors how we see the world and makes it difficult, maybe even impossible, to see objectively. For example, until recently I drove cars and flew in airplanes without realizing their harmful consequences. Isn’t it remarkable that as a society we take flying in airplanes for granted? What an incredible thing, a miraculous thing—and now we know, a harmful thing—to fly in an airplane.
It’s time to move on to a more mature advocacy focused on developing a vastly deeper response to the predicament we face, beyond recycling and shopping for “green” cars and carbon offsets. Let’s instead learn how to live in alignment with the biosphere, both as individuals and as a collective. This practice demands that we change our everyday lives, how we think about ourselves and our place on this planet.
Earth is a wondrously beautiful place, and will remain so even as we pass through this ecological crisis and ultimately come out the other side. Let’s not fear our mother when she’s sick. Instead, let’s learn to feel compassion for her, and remind ourselves how precious her gifts are. Let’s cultivate fierce and fearless love. And for goodness sake, let’s stop performing the daily actions that are sickening her! We can stop burning fossil fuels out of a sense of compassionate love. This is the action we must perform. The sec- ond part of this book is about how to do this.
Let’s not go green
The word green has been thoroughly co-opted by corporate mar- keting. Maybe it was useful once, maybe not, but now it zombie- walks through environmental discourse.
The word has no precise meaning in an environmental context, yet it strongly signifies vague environmental virtue. This makes it the perfect word for corporations seeking to profit from environ- mental guilt: “Go green! Buy our product (and feel better about
yourself).” The corporations even get to decide what counts as green; in the US there’s no regulation of green advertising. Corporations that do great damage to the biosphere regularly brand themselves as green, including car makers, airlines, and fossil fuel producers. It sometimes seems as if the more damaging a corporation is, the greener it claims to be.
Buying green stuff promotes the status quo consumer mindset. Green allows us to feel like we’re responding to our predicament without needing to change. Green precludes meaningful action, and in this way does more harm than good. Our predicament is deep, and it demands a deeper response from us than shopping.
I propose low-energy as a replacement for green.
Using less energy at the global scale would reduce greenhouse
gas emissions and serve as a bridge to a future without fossil fuels. Using less energy in our individual lives would equip us with the mindset, the skills, and the systems we’ll each need in this post- fossil-fuel world.
If the adjective low-energy replaced green, its specificity would encourage meaningful collective action, such as using less energy. Furthermore, it could not be co-opted. Low-energy could not be used to sell airplane flights, air conditioners, or other fixtures of a high-energy lifestyle.
Many of the changes I’ve made to my daily life originated from realizing how precious energy really is. I think most people are afraid of a low-energy lifestyle because we equate quality of life with quantity of energy use. My experience has been the opposite: low-energy living is more fun and satisfying.
Sustainable and regenerative
The word sustainable is everywhere, but what does it actually mean? The literal meaning is “able to endure.” Sustainability therefore involves both a time scale and an object: something is sustained, for some length of time. Thinking about sustainability, then, means thinking about change. This makes it clear that nothing sustains forever.
When we talk about sustainability, we’re usually talking about a way of living, a relationship between humans and the biosphere. What time scale should we choose? We need a time scale that reflects the changing biosphere. One hundred years is too short, only a couple of human generations. Fifty thousand years is too long: there’s already evolutionary change on this time scale. Indeed, we evolved to become cognitively human only 50,000 years ago. I suggest we aim for a way of living that we can sustain for 1,000–10,000 years. We can use this working definition to evaluate specific human behaviors.
Exponential population growth at a rate of 1.7% (the long-term historical rate; see Chapter 4) is no longer sustainable. After 1,000 years, at this rate we’d have 176 million billion people—which works out to 1,200 people on every square meter. We humans wouldn’t even fit on the planet. So our growth will necessarily change—and, in fact, it is changing. Roughly speaking, having more than two children is not currently sustainable for our planet.
Our path to long-term sustainability is to stop growing and to find balance: to pull back to a global consumption and population that the biosphere can sustain. This will require a deep cultural shift, especially within affluent societies and minds. And if we don’t make this change, the biosphere will do it for us, for example through global warming-induced disease or famine.
We can go a step further and think in terms of regeneration rather than sustainability. Doing so neatly sidesteps the need for a time scale, and it embraces the concept of change. Regeneration means bringing some part of the Earth, or some part of the human way of life, back into alignment with the biosphere. Regeneration calls us to do more than merely sustain: it calls us to heal, and to make our lives expressions of love for all beings.
What would a regenerative society look like in practice? For starters, it would respect the regeneration rate of every resource. Its food system would not depend on fossil fuels, and regions using groundwater would do so at a rate less than the aquifer’s regeneration rate. Energy use would be essentially limited to what we could glean from the sun and wind. Metals would be entirely recycled. The population size would remain steady at a biospherically appropriate level, and economies wouldn’t depend on growth. Huge swaths of land and ocean would be allowed to rewild. Science and technology would continue to thrive, but their focus would shift: science might be more interested in understanding the relation- ship between fungi and plants and might no longer concentrate capital for ever-larger atom smashers; technology might focus on doing more with less. A regenerative society would necessarily be more just and equitable. Accumulating wealth would no longer be the main goal of life.
Whether humans are capable of this transformation or not remains an open question. But changing yourself is one way to vote for it.
Somewhere within our industrial mindset, there’s a place called Away. When something breaks, or bores us, we throw it in the garbage and trash collectors take it Away. We flush a toilet and invisible pipes take it all Away. However, we are slowly learning that Away was always really just Somewhere Else, because everything is connected. But despite our increasing awareness, most of us still haul our bins to the curb and flush our toilets. It feels like we have no other choice. (There are other choices. See Chapters 12 and 13.)
This explains why industrial society fetishizes recycling. Recycling seems like a good thing on the surface, but it contributes to the broken status quo. Doesn’t recycling help to keep the concept of Away alive in some sense? I know it does for me. I throw a plastic bottle into the recycling and I like knowing it goes Away—but to some better Away. Recycling helps me feel good about Away and allows me to go on consuming as before.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t recycle. I’m saying that we shouldn’t let recycling stunt our awareness of the impacts of our consumption. Recycling is Garbage 2.0. Let’s reduce what goes in the recycling bin, as well as what goes in the garbage bin.
Independence, self-reliance, community-reliance
Independence is an illusion. If you truly depended on nothing, it would mean that you could float out in deep space by yourself, alive and happy. We certainly depend on our biosphere. We also depend on each other. If you depend on some tool for survival, a parka or a knife perhaps, doesn’t this mean you depend on the people who made that tool, and the people who made it possible for those people to make the tool? And would life be meaningful if it were lived in isolation, apart from any other person?
Self-reliance differs from independence. I’m self-reliant when I rely on myself first. Ironically perhaps, self-reliance can make an individual a more valuable member of the community. A self- reliant person can solve problems and find new ways of doing things; has a wide array of skills; is confident and optimistic; is strong and able to help others.
In my experience, community-reliance grows out of self-reliance. Community-reliance means contributing to community, so that the community is strong and there for you when you need it.
I reject selfish survivalism, heading to the hills with guns and a supply of food. While I do think we need to first look to our- selves for our security (self-reliance), we need to do this within the context of community. Selfish survivalism is ultimately a losing strategy2.
Problem, predicament, challenge
I used to think that climate change, overpopulation, and biospheric degradation were problems. In identifying them as problems, I assumed there were solutions, which kept me from seeing that my way of life had to change. I really believed that the future would look like Star Trek, a comforting belief. Perhaps there were solutions a few decades ago. For example, we could have avoided climate change if we’d started seriously addressing it in 1986, the year Ronald Reagan ordered the solar panels on the White House roof be taken down3.
At this point, though, we can’t avoid climate change for the simple reason that it’s already here. Global surface temperatures have already increased by more than one degree Celsius, and ad- ditional warming is guaranteed no matter how quickly we reduce our fossil fuel use. What was a problem with a solution in 1986 has become a predicament. We probably can’t solve it, but we can choose how we respond to it and how bad we let it get.
A predicament is an existential challenge. We cannot make it go away. Death, the archetypal predicament, challenges us to respond by finding meaning in our brief lives. Likewise, I think our collective socio-ecologic predicament challenges us to find out who we really are and what it means to be children of this Earth, in harmony with ourselves, each other, and the rest of the biosphere.
I doubt we’ll come through our predicament without a deep change of mindset, a kind of rebirth of our shared existential world- view. Maybe this change will originate within us, or maybe the change will originate externally, catalyzed by the disasters we are bound to experience as our predicament deepens. Either way, we will be re-minded of what is important.
The energy that changes mindset from within is mindfulness. Mindfulness means every moment awareness—being aware of reality as it is, as manifest in the mind and the body, from moment to moment. When mindful, I’m present for the reality of this moment, not rolling in thoughts of the past or the future, or wishing for something other than what is. I’m aware of the action I’m en- gaged in and its consequences, not acting on autopilot; and this awareness of the present moment and its consequences is what drives self-change.
However, in my experience it’s not possible to simply decide to “be mindful.” Developing mindfulness takes dedicated practice, as I’ll discuss in Chapter 11.
When I experience some success, my mind is excited and full of a pleasant sensation. I feel larger, like there’s more of “me.” I’ve learned that this feeling isn’t happiness. Rather, it’s the ego being inflated.
I think that we often mistake this sort of ego-excitation for happiness. This is a mistake: it causes us to chase after things that ultimately increase our suffering. Real happiness doesn’t depend on external situations. Instead, it’s a sense of peace and wellness, of satisfaction and wholeness, a sense that it’s wonderful to be alive, a joy in the happiness of others. Real happiness has no anxiety or craving. It vibrates with gratitude, and translates into an eager- ness to help others, to spread happiness. Unlike ego-excitation, which is directed toward the self (“I win!”), real happiness is directed toward others, and all of life (“It’s a miracle to walk on this Earth!”).
As I become happier, the roller-coaster ride of my ego becomes less wild. The lows become less severe: when I fail I find myself smiling with kind laughter, as with a child who is learning to walk. The highs become opportunities to serve. I ask myself “how can this success help others?”
Saving the planet, saving the world
“Saving the planet” is a fantasy for society’s collective ego. It allows us to continue in our false belief that we’re separate from the bio- sphere, that what’s happening to “the planet,” while sad for polar bears, somehow won’t affect us.
If you feel discouraged, maybe you’re trying to save the world. It’s discouraging to have an impossible goal. I think there are a lot of people who subconsciously want to save the world. But saving or not saving is a false binary, and arises from the same instant gratification mindset that got us into this predicament in the first place. Saving the world is a fantasy for our egos.
The opposite of wanting to save the world is having sincere patience. With patience comes humility, openness, and a more skillful capacity for positive change.
We each have the power to make the world better, or worse. Each of us can choose to push the world toward a warmer temperature, or pull back. I used to want to save the world. I’ve finally accepted that I can’t, and this has brought me peace. Instead, I try to live a good life so that I can change the world.
- See, for example, the film An Inconvenient Truth directed by Davis Guggenheim and featuring Al Gore, 2006, DVD; or Bill McKibben. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Times Books, 2010.
- Roving marauders would be attracted by hoarded food and ammunition. A better strategy for security might be to help build a strong
community and to develop skills and relationships that make you indispensable.
- Juliet Elperin. “White House solar panels being installed this week.”
Washington Post, August 15, 2013. [online]. washingtonpost.com /news/post-politics/wp/2013/08/15/white-house-solar-panels-finally -being-installed/.